Philip Melanchthon Essay - Critical Essays

Melanchthon, Philip


Philip Melanchthon 1497-1560

(Born Philip Schwarzerd) German theologian, philosopher, historian, and nonfiction writer.

Melanchthon was among the most important figures in the German Reformation movement as well as a scholar of considerable influence throughout sixteenth-century Europe. He was largely responsible for composing the Augsburg Confession (1531), the main Lutheran statement of belief. His best-known work is the Loci Communes rerum theologicarum seu Hypotyposes theologicae (The Common Places of Theology; 1521), which sets forth the major teachings of the Bible in a systematic manner. This treatise became the chief theological textbook of the Reformation movement, and its many editions were embraced by the major Protestant scholars, including John Calvin. A prolific writer, Melanchthon published more than seven hundred treatises, essays, and books on grammar and science.

Biographical Information

Melanchthon was born on February 14, 1497. His father was a master armorer in the town of Bretten in southern Germany. From an early age, Melanchthon was educated at home by a private tutor. In 1507 he went to Pforzheim to live with his grandmother Elizabeth, whose brother was the humanist thinker Johann Reuchlin. Melanchthon was much influenced by his grand-uncle, who persuaded him to translate his name Schwarzerd into the Greek Melancthon, both meaning “black earth.” In 1509 Melancthon entered the University of Heidelberg and began to study rhetoric and astronomy, but he continued his reading of the ancient poets, historians, and the neo-Latins. After receiving his baccalaureate degree in 1511, Melanchthon went to Tübingen and became a pupil of the celebrated Latinist Heinrich Bebel as well as of the famous humanist Georg Simler. He also studied astronomy, astrology, jurisprudence, mathematics, and medicine. In 1514, at the age of seventeen, Melanchthon earned a master's degree and received a position as an instructor at the University of Tübingen, where he lectured on ancient literature. He also worked in the printing office of Thomas Anshelm, pursued his private studies, translated works of philosophy, and, eventually, turned to theology.

Upon his arrival at Wittenberg University in 1518 to teach Greek language and literature, Melanchthon met Martin Luther, and the two soon became friends. Melanchthon's cool, organized, and disciplined manner contrasted with and complemented Luther's brilliant, fiery temperament. In 1519, when Luther debated Johann Eck, the pope's representative, Melanchthon publicly supported Luther, establishing himself as an important spokesman for the Reformation movement; he would later take part in important theological disputations in Marburg (1529), Worms (1540), and Regensburg (1541). While at Wittenburg, Melanchthon also taught, studied, and earned a Bachelor of Theology degree. In 1520, at the urging of Luther, he married the daughter of the mayor of Wittenberg. The following year, he produced the first edition of his Loci Communes, and in the decade that followed he developed the educational program that was used to implement the Reformation in Germany. In 1527, Melanchthon played a key role in drawing up a manual, Instructions for the Church Visitors, to be used by the government to survey, and then supervise, religious and moral education in the Saxony parishes. He later helped to found universities at Marburg, Königsberg, and Jena, and to reorganize existing universities at Greifswald, Wittenberg, Cologne, Tübingen, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Rostock, and Frankfurt an der Oder. These and his other activities in education earned him the title of Praeceptor Germaniae (“Germany's teacher”). At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, Melanchthon drew up the Augsburg Confession, recognized as one of the most significant documents of the Lutheran Church.

Melanchthon's later years were marked by misunderstanding and strife. When Luther died in 1546, Melanchthon assumed the role of leader of the Reformation, but the movement was already fragmented and he was unable to prevent it from splintering. The publication of his 1548 letter criticizing Luther caused many to view him with distrust and his attempts to arrange compromises with the Catholic Church were viewed with skepticism. Melanchthon was involved in a number of theological debates during his later years, with his last major effort to reconcile differences between Protestant and Catholic theologians occurring at the colloquy at Worms in 1557. He died on April 19, 1560, and is buried at Wittenberg in the Castle Church, next to Luther.

Major Works

Almost all of Melanchthon's works were written in Latin for an educated, scholarly audience. As a young academic, he delivered two well-known addresses on education, De artibus liberalis (On the Liberal Arts; 1517) and De corrigendis adulesecentiae studiis (On Correcting the Studies of Youth; 1518), in which he extolled the new humanistic and scientific spirit. Another early work, Loci Communes deals principally with such practical religious issues as sin, grace, law, and regeneration. In the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon aimed to show that Protestants, despite their call for reform, still belonged to the Catholic Church and had a right to remain in her fold. The innovations of Protestantism, he claimed, were merely a reformation of abuses that had crept into the Church. While this document is generally associated with Luther, the tenor and wording were the work of Melancthon. The Augsburg Confession subsequently underwent numerous changes, and its final form was determined by common agreement of Protestant theologians. In addition to his religious writings, Melanchthon published manuals and guides to Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, ethics, physics, politics, and history, as well as editions of and commentaries on classical authors. Many of these works were still popular more than a century after Melanchthon's death—a fact scholars attribute to the author's lucid prose style.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Melanchthon was an important figure not only for his contributions to the Reformation movement but for his extensive non-religious writings as well. It is estimated that by 1600 over two and a half million copies of Melanchthon's writings circulated in Europe—a staggering figure considering that only a small percentage of the population was literate at all, and that few people could read Latin. Many of Melanchthon's works were frequently reprinted: his Greek grammar went through thirty-six editions and his Grammatica latina (1532) went through ninety-four editions by 1600. His Loci Communes became an instant success, going through eighteen Latin editions and numerous translations within four years; it was required reading at Cambridge University and Queen Elizabeth I is said to have virtually memorized it. However, although Melanchthon continued to be honored as a scholar and humanist, his popularity waned after the eighteenth century, most likely because the use of Latin in academic circles was declining. His collected works were edited in the 1800s, and supplementary volumes appeared in the early twentieth century, with further items coming to light in the 1970s. Nevertheless, his works have remained primarily of interest to theologians and specialists in theological history. Those who have studied Melanchthon's work have explored his friendship with Luther, his influence on Lutheranism, the controversies surrounding some of his scriptural interpretations, his expositions on rhetoric and grammar, his work as a humanist and reformer, and his scientific views. While Melanchthon's works are not familiar to most lay readers, his stature as a key figure in the Reformation inspires commentary to this day.

Principal Works

De artibus liberalis [On the Liberal Arts] (nonfiction) 1517

De corrigendis adulesecentiae studiis [On Correcting the Studies of Youth] (nonfiction) 1518

Integra graeca grammatica institutiones (nonfiction) 1518

De rhetorica libri tres [Three Books on Rhetoric] (nonfiction) 1519

Institutiones rhetoricae [The Art and Craft of Rhetoric] (essay) 1521

Loci Communes rerum theologicarum seu Hypotyposes theologicae [The Common Places of Theology] (treatise) 1521

Epitome Renovatae ecclesiasticae doctrinae ad illustrissimum Principium Hessorum (treatise) 1524

Unterricht der Visitatoren [Instructions for the Church Visitors] (nonfiction) 1527

Adversus anabaptistas iudicium (treatise) 1528

Apologia Confessionis [The Apology that is to say the Defense of the Confession] (treatise) 1531

Confessio fidei exhibita invictissimo Imperatori Carolo V. [The Confession of the Faith Exhibited to Emperor Charles V; also known as Augsburg Confession] (nonfiction) 1531

Elementorum rhetorices libri duo (essays) 1531

Commentarii in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos [Commentaries on the Pauline Epistles and Romans] (theology) 1532

Grammatica latina (nonfiction) 1532

Philosophiae moralis epitome [Summary of Moral Philosophy] (treatise) 1538

De ecclesia et de autoritate verbi Dei [On the True Authority of the Church] (treatise) 1539

Defensio coniguii sacerdotum pia [The epistle of the famous and great clerk Philip Melanchthon made unto our late sovereign lord King Henry the eight, for the revoking and abolishing of the six articles set forth and enacted by the crafty means and procurement of certain of our prelates of the clergy] (treatise) 1540

Erotemata Dialectices (nonfiction) 1547

Historia de vita et actis reverendiss. viri d. Martini Lutheri [The History of the Life and Acts of Martin Luther] (biography) 1548

Initia doctrinae physicae [Introduction to Physics] (nonfiction) 1549

Liber de anima [On the Soul] (treatise) 1553


Franz Hildebrandt (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Hildebrandt, Franz. “Prelude: The Friendship Between Luther and Melanchthon.” In Melanchthon: Alien or Ally, pp. xv-xxvii. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1946.

[In the following essay, Hildebrandt examines the relationship between Melanchthon and Luther and discusses their opinions of each other.]

The puzzle is not so much the mutual attraction of two very different tempers, but the entry by, and reception of, Melanchthon into the headquarters of the Reformation; we are not concerned with the dramatic narrative of ‘how they got on with each other’ during the thirty years of their common residence in Wittenberg, but with the riddle of how their...

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Theodore G. Tappert (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Tappert, Theodore G. “Melanchthon in America.” In Luther und Melanchthon, edited by Vilmos Vajta, pp. 189-98. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961.

[In the essay below, Tappert explores the influence of Melanchthon in the United States in the twentieth century.]

Any attempt to trace the interpretations and the influence of Philip Melanchthon in America must take into account the fact that he did not become an object of independent scholarly investigation until the very close of the nineteenth century. It was in 1898 that the first substantial life of the reformer was published.1 This is not to suggest that Melanchthon was wholly unknown...

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Hans Engelland (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Engelland, Hans. Introduction toMelanchthon on Christian Doctrine: Loci Communes 1555, translated and edited by Clyde L. Manschreck, pp. xxv-xlii. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

[In this essay, Engelland compares Melanchthon's approaches to theology in his earlier and later works and considers some controversial questions of scriptural interpretation in Melanchthon's writings.]

On the twenty-ninth of August, 1518, Philip Melanchthon, a small, slender, unpretentious, almost timid figure, entered the Wittenberg Castle Church, which served as the great hall of Wittenberg University, and walked to the rostrum to give his inaugural speech on the reform of...

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Wilhelm Pauck (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Pauck, Wilhelm. “Loci Communes Theologici: Editor's Introduction.” In Melanchthon and Bucer, The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XIX, edited by Wilhelm Pauck, pp. 3-17. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

[In the essay which follows, Pauck surveys Melanchthon's career before examining in detail the purpose and method, theological content, and significance of the Loci Communes.]

Philip Melanchthon's work Loci communes rerum theologicarum (Fundamental Theological Themes) was first published in December, 1521, in Wittenberg (a little later another edition appeared in Basel). Melanchthon had begun to work on it in 1520, at a...

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Bruce T. Moran (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Moran, Bruce T. “The Universe of Philip Melanchthon: Criticism and Use of the Copernican Theory.” Comitatus 4 (1973): 1-23.

[In the following essay, Moran studies Melanchthon's intellectual background, particularly his ideas about physics and astronomy, and goes on to examine his attitude toward and understanding of Copernican astronomy.]

In the statutes of 1582 for the University of Altdorf, founded 1578, it is left to the individual judgment of the mathematici to expound planetary theory according either to Ptolemy or Copernicus (vel Ptolemaei vel Copernici).1 This concession, that the Copernican hypothesis, as a mathematical...

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Stefano Caroti (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Caroti, Stefano. “Melanchthon's Astrology.” In “‘Astrologi hallucinati’: Stars and the End of the World in Luther's Time, edited by Paola Zambelli, pp. 109-121. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986.

[In this essay, Caroti examines Melanchthon's fascination with astrology and the exposition of these ideas in his introductory text on physics and in other works.]

The central role of divination in Melanchthon's thought has been emphasized by many scholars, notably by Johann Friedrich, Karl Hartfelder, Aby Warburg and Lynn Thorndike.1 Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his letters, which, like a barometer, register precisely how his hopes and...

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Luther D. Peterson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Peterson, Luther D. “Melanchthon on Resisting the Emperor: The Von der Notwehr Unterricht of 1547.” In Regnum, Religio et Ratio: Essays Presented to Robert M. Kingdon, edited by Jerome Friedman, pp. 133-144. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, Peterson shows how in his treatise Instruction Concerning Self-Defense Melanchthon finds justifications for resistance by lower magistrates and subjects against the tyranny of higher political authority.]

From his earliest publications, Professor Robert M. Kingdon has drawn the attention of Reformation scholars to the problem of political resistance:...

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Åke Bergvall (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bergvall, Åke. “Melanchthon and Tudor England.” In Cultural Exchange between European Nations during the Renaissance, edited by Gunnar Sorelius and Michael Srigley, pp. 85-93. Stockholm: Uppsala University, 1994.

[In this excerpt, Bergvall highlights Melanchthon's status as a literary presence in England during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.]

Edward Denny in 1580 asked his younger friend Philip Sidney to suggest a recommended program of studies. In his written reply Sidney placed great emphasis on the study of history and proposed that Denny read a broad range of works, from the Greek and Roman classics to European chronicles....

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Kees Meerhoff (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Meerhoff, Kees. “The Significance of Philip Melanchthon's Rhetoric in the Renaissance.” In Renaissance Rhetoric, edited by Peter Mack, pp. 46-62. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

[In the essay below, Meerhoff shows how Melanchthon applies the precepts of rhetoric to the task of reading and interpreting texts.]

Magis affectibus quam argutiis.

Erasmus, Methodus

Since I am going to deal with so wide and complex a topic as ‘the significance of Philip Melanchthon's rhetoric in the renaissance’, I would prefer to begin with an analysis of an example from the huge corpus...

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Charlotte Methuen (essay date July 1996)

SOURCE: Methuen, Charlotte. “The Role of the Heavens in the Thought of Philip Melanchthon.” Journal of the History of Ideas 57, no. 3 (July 1996): 385-403.

[In the following essay, Methuen argues that Melanchthon's interest in natural philosophy is related to his educational interest, which she says depends on his particular theological and cosmological view of the universe.]

Philip Melanchthon has long been recognized as one of the central figures in the German Lutheran Reformation. His theological contribution to the Reformation may be found in his codifying of Lutheran theology in the Confessio Augustana and in the Loci Communes, the first major...

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Euan Cameron (essay date October 1997)

SOURCE: Cameron, Euan. “Philipp Melanchthon: Image and Substance.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 48, no. 4 (October 1997): 705-22.

[In the essay which follows, Cameron finds that Melanchthon's image as “hesitant, temporising, even shifty” is not entirely without basis in historical fact but concludes too that this picture does not do justice to the man or his ideas.]

In conferences, symposia and a modest number of publications, 1997 is being marked as the Melanchthon-year. However excellent in their own kind the results of the year's commemoration may be, neither in quantity nor in diversity will they approach the tributes and analyses which greeted the...

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Timothy Wengert (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Wengert, Timothy. “‘We Will Feast Together in Heaven Forever’: The Epistolary Friendship of John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon.” In Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence beyond Wittenberg, edited by Karin Maag, pp. 19-44. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

[In the following essay, Wengert provides a corrective to earlier analyses of the relations between Melanchthon and Calvin.]

In 1842, as the ninth and final volume of Melanchthon's correspondence in the Corpus Reformatorum rolled off the Schwetschke presses in Halle, researchers had at their disposal only six letters between the leading Reformers in Wittenberg and...

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Deszo Buzogany (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Buzogany, Deszo. “Melanchthon As Humanist and Reformer.” In Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence beyond Wittenberg, edited by Karin Maag, pp. 87-101. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

[In the essay below, Buzogany bridges the gap between the theological and philosophical positions taken by Melanchthon.]

Melanchthon is usually considered as both a humanist and a reformer. Many of the books and studies written about him present him as a theologian. It is also worthwhile studying the humanist intellectual components of his personality, since, after all, a great proportion of his works are ones which present him as a deep thinking, thorough...

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John R. Schneider (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Schneider, John R. “Melanchthon's Rhetoric As a Context for Understanding His Theology.” In Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence beyond Wittenberg, edited by Karin Maag, pp. 141-59. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

[In this essay, Schneider emphasizes the integration of Melanchthon's humanistic background with this theology, particularly through his study of rhetoric.]


It is well enough known that Philip Melanchthon's standing as a teacher of Protestant doctrine was controversial during most of his lifetime, and that it has remained so in the centuries since his death. As Robert Stupperich...

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Further Reading


Manschreck, Clydge Leonard. Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958, 175 p.

Attempts to understand Melanchthon and his ideas in the context of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Richard, James William. Philip Melanchthon: The Protestant Preceptor of Germany, 1497-1560. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965, 175 p.

Study of the life and theology of Melanchthon that is reconstructed largely from the reformer's own writings.

Stupperich, Robert. Melanchthon. Translated by Robert H. Fischer. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965, 175 p.


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