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Philip Melanchthon (1497 – 1560)


Philip Melanchthon

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Although his body was slightly misshapen (a congenital defect) and his tongue stammered, there was nothing wrong with Melanchthon’s head. Luther assessed him as the greatest theologian ever, a man whose writings were superseded only by Holy Scripture. He was the first systematic theologian of the Reformation. (Like a spewing oilwell, Luther geysered theological riches; Melanchthon gathered, refined and distributed a finished product that lent millions untold light and warmth.) He established the first public school system in Germany. He wrote Protestantism’s basic doctrinal statement, the Augsburg Confession. (The Confession, together with his accompanying Apology, remain the theological benchmark of worldwide Lutheranism.) His commentary on Romans was the foundation of all 80-plus Romans commentaries written in the Reformation era. He was Protestantism’s chief spokesperson in virtually every colloquy for 30 years. Never ordained, he preached learnedly and winsomely Sunday-by-Sunday.

Philip Schwartzerd (the surname means “black earth”) was born in Bretten, near Frankfurt in western Germany. Having distinguished himself in highschool in Pforzheim, Philip entered Heidelberg University at 13. Following the custom of humanist scholars of his day, he was known thereafter by the Greek version of his name, Melanchthon. (When his major work was translated into Italian, the author’s name was printed as Terra Negra!) Finishing his B.A. degree in only two years, he pursued the M.A., only to be told that he was too young and too young-looking to be awarded the degree. Tuebingen University was glad to receive the brilliant scholar, and shortly conferred the M.A. on 17-year old. Immediately he began lecturing in classics. The university came alive, as did the envy of his colleagues. Ingolstadt University wooed him, but he preferred to teach at the new university in Wittenberg. Thoroughly trained in the humanities and utterly convinced of their importance — “On earth there is nothing next to the gospel more glorious than humanistic learning, that wonderful gift of God” — he insisted that all candidates for the ministry master the classical languages, as well as philosophy, logic, history and physics (the lattermost illustrating the harmony of the creation!) In no time student enrolment was expanding and Luther himself exclaiming, “God himself will despise anyone who despises this man.”

When most of Europe’s Renaissance humanists forsook Reformation theologians in 1525 following Luther’s insistence that the righteousness in which believers stand before God is a gift and not our achievement, Melanchthon remained adamant in his conviction concerning the place of a humanist education. Because we are commanded to love God with our mind, the study of the humanities was a divinely-appointed good; yet it was not without its usefulness, said Melanchthon, since apart from humanist learning, zeal for church Reform would turn shrill and even violent, while citizens’ self-government could never be maintained. In humanism Melanchthon always found educational tools that furthered the articulation of the gospel.

Four years earlier Melanchthon had published his Loci Communes (“commonplaces”), the book that ordered the theological discussions arising from and oriented to the Word of God. Within a few years 18 Latin editions had appeared, as well as several printings of a German translation. The role of the book in forming and informing the mind and heart of the newly-awakened cannot be measured. Suffice it to say, however, that it was required reading at Cambridge University; Queen Elizabeth I memorized virtually all of it in order to grasp the theological foundation of English Christendom (she also found herself enthralled with the elegance of its language); it remained the chief textbook in theology throughout Germany for the next 100 years. And yet Melanchthon wanted to be relieved of all teaching in the faculty of theology at Wittenberg in order to concentrate on languages and the classics; for without these latter disciplines, he insisted, the clergy would remain irremediably underequipped.

Melanchthon’s educational reforms may be his most enduring accomplishment. In 1524 he began establishing public schools, reorganizing universities, developing the pedagogical methods in which hundreds of teachers were instructed, and writing textbooks to be used by pupils without number. Humanist detractors taunted him, “Where Lutheranism reigns, knowledge shrivels.” He contradicted them relentlessly. More learned than even his humanist opponents, he adopted the best of the Renaissance and forged a new era in German education. Recognizing that the universities were the fountainhead of public education inasmuch as teachers were trained in them, he was instrumental in founding new universities in Koenigsberg, Jena, and Marburg; he wholly revised the curricula at Cologne, Tuebingen, Leipzig and Heidelberg; he indirectly reformed Rostock and Frankfurt-on-the-Oder. His influence in Canadian education is inestimable: when Egerton Ryerson, the architect of public education in Ontario, was looking for help in creating a tax-supported system that delivered quality education regardless of the student’s financial situation or denominational affiliation, he looked to Melanchthon’s Germany.

While Melanchthon’s work-day began at 2:00 a.m., ended at 9:00 p.m., and was crammed with research, writing, lecturing and travel, his domestic difficulties were always wearing. His son George died at age two. When his sister-in-law and her husband died suddenly, the Melanchthons adopted the bereft children. Years later his daughter Anna died at 25, leaving four children and a poet-husband who seemed unable even to fend for himself. Once again Philip and Katherine expanded their family to include five more. Ten years later Katherine died. Now Philip, 60 years old, reflected, “Passionate and sorrowful yearning for a deceased wife is not effaced in the old man as it may be in the younger.” Shortly he fell ill himself. On April 9, 1560, he staggered to the classroom for the last time, able to lecture for fifteen minutes only. Still, he spoke to the students about the atonement, the reconciliation with God wrought on the cross for us all. Ten days later he slipped away quietly. It was a fitting parting for the godly, humanist scholar and theologian who had remarked years earlier, “I ask not to live happily but righteously and Christ-like.”

Victor Shepherd
October 1997