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Philip Melanchthon 1497-1560


  1 Timothy 4:11-16 


Part One

Actually, his name wasn’t “Melanchthon”; it was “Schwartzerd”, “black earth”, literally, in German. But like all humanist scholars of the Renaissance, who treasured the Latin and Greek languages, Philip felt he had to give himself a classical name: “Melanchthon”, Greek for “black earth”. He was known by his Greek name for the rest of his life.

Born in a small village near Frankfurt in western Germany, and recognized as brilliant from the day he began school, Philip entered Heidelberg University at age 13. He finished his B.A. degree in two years, and began studying for his M.A. When he had completed the requirements for the degree and had awed professors yet again, university officials told him he was too young to be an M.A.! Whereupon he moved over to Tuebingen university and found this institution eager to confer its degree upon him. Tuebingen also launched him on his teaching career, making him professor of classics. Saturated with the Renaissance’s love of learning, Melanchthon exclaimed, “On earth there is nothing next to the gospel more glorious than humanistic learning, that wonderful gift of God.” While Ingolstadt, one of Germany’s oldest universities, wooed him as professor repeatedly, Melanchthon was drawn to the new university at Wittenberg in eastern Germany, and attracted as well to its notorious firebrand, Martin Luther. At Wittenberg Melanchthon developed his reputation as a superb humanist scholar. He was especially gifted as a linguist and philologist, but equally at home in philosophy. The “little grammarian”, as he was known among students, forbade any student to use slang. Slang, he insisted, is always imprecise use of language; and imprecise use of language necessarily issues in blurring the truth. (This is a point you and I should ponder for the rest of our lives: slang, or imprecise language of any sort, weakens our perception of truth and undermines our articulation of truth.)

Throughout his life Melanchthon vigorously defended humanist education. Candidates for the ministry had to know much besides theology; they had to master the classical languages, as well as philosophy, logic, history and physics. (Physics, said Melanchthon, illustrated the harmony of the creation.) Church-folk who were never going to be clergy should none the less be humanist scholars too, he maintained, for apart from humanist learning, zeal for reform in the church would turn shrill and even violent. And those citizens who weren’t church folk should none the less be schooled in humanist learning, for without this they would never be able to govern themselves adequately.

Yet we mustn’t become so mesmerized by Melanchthon’s humanist learning that we lose sight of his gifts in theology. In fact, he was the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation. Systematic theology expounds the truth of God seen whole, and the truth of God seen in its intraconnectedness. His friend Luther (Luther always thought Melanchthon to be his intellectual superior) geysered theological riches, like a spewing oilwell that pours forth invaluable substance. And just as oil that gushes out of the well has to be gathered, refined and distributed if it is going to warm and illuminate millions elsewhere, so Melanchthon dealt with the riches that Luther poured forth every day. Melanchthon’s Loci Communes (“Common Places”) was the first theological textbook of the Reformation. In only a few years it went through 18 Latin editions (plus several German ones); it was required reading at Cambridge University; Queen Elizabeth memorized virtually all of it (in Latin, of course) in order to grasp the theological foundation of English Christendom (she also found herself enthralled by the elegance of its language). It remained the chief textbook in theology throughout Germany for the next 100 years.

Melanchthon also wrote Protestantism’s basic doctrinal statement, the Augsburg Confession. (The Confession, together with its accompanying Apology, also written by Philip, have remained the benchmark of worldwide Lutheranism to this day.) His commentary on Romans was the foundation of every one of the 80-plus Romans commentaries written in the Reformation era. He was Protestantism’s chief spokesperson in virtually every colloquy for 30 years. And he was Luther’s right-hand man and steadfast friend for virtually all of Luther’s adult life.

Yet Melanchthon’s most enduring accomplishment may not be his theology writings or his language studies; his most enduring accomplishment, I think, is his educational reforms. Melanchthon established the first public school system in Germany. As early as 1524 (he was then only 27 years old) he began developing public schools throughout Germany; he reorganized the universities; he fashioned the pedagogical methods in which hundreds of teachers were trained; and he wrote school textbooks, subsequently used by pupils without number.

Melanchthon’s influence in Canadian education is inestimable. Egerton Ryerson, the architect of Ontario’s public school system, travelled to Europe to acquaint himself with what Melanchthon had accomplished 300 hundred years earlier. In fact, Ryerson visited the Wittenberg/Berlin area of Germany twice. George Brown, the owner and editor of The Globe, a Toronto newspaper, ranted in the 1850s as he relentlessly accused Ryerson of introducing “the Prussian system of education into Canada.” Ryerson wore the accusation like a badge, proudly. Prussian [German] public education was the model of high quality public education, owned and funded by the citizenry as a whole. Where public education was concerned, Ryerson was never ashamed of his debt to Melanchthon.

On April 9th, 1560, Philip, now 63, stumbled to his classroom in Wittenberg for the last time. Sick unto death, he was able to lecture his students for 15 minutes only. He expounded the atonement, the reconciliation with God wrought on the cross for us all. Ten days later he slipped away quietly, freed at last from yearning for his departed wife, Barbara, who had died three years earlier.

Part Two

Melanchthon’s vision for public education was glorious. Ryerson knew it was. Millions of Ontario young people owe it more than they will ever be able to say. A few of us (like me) have the opportunity to say “thank you” publicly.

What was the situation in Ontario (and elsewhere) before Ryerson developed public education? Prior to the system we have today, the children of the wealthy were accorded educational opportunity; so were the children of the socially prominent; so were the children whose parents belonged to the established church (Anglican.) These children had educational opportunity. Actually, these children were not drawn from three groups; they were drawn from one; this one group happened to be privileged three times over.

Egerton Ryerson (everyone in Streetsville is aware that Ryerson preached at the opening service of Streetsville Methodist Church in 1876; at the conclusion of the service, when pledges were received to defray the cost of constructing the brand new building, the church was entirely debt-free); Ryerson wanted Ontario to have high-quality education. He wasn’t interested in babysitting 15-year olds. He wasn’t interested in a two-tier system whereby children from privileged families received a superior education and everyone else a decidedly inferior. He knew that to be financially underprivileged or socially underprivileged or religiously underprivileged (everyone who wasn’t Anglican was deemed religiously underprivileged); he knew that none of this implied intellectual inferiority. And since it didn’t imply intellectual inferiority, it shouldn’t imply educational inferiority.

Ryerson always knew that the life of the mind is a good in itself. Intellectual activity and intellectual achievement don’t posses mere utilitarian significance; they aren’t good just because they will one day prove useful; they aren’t good as a means to some end. They are good as an end in themselves. The life of the mind is its own justification. What’s more, we are commanded to love God with our minds. While it isn’t a sin to be ignorant (nobody can know everything), it is a sin to be more ignorant than we have to be. And it is an evil when a society relegates the relatively disadvantaged to lifelong ignorance. While Ryerson knew that the life of the mind is an end in itself, he also knew that the life of the mind is useful; it does have utilitarian significance. People with greater education in fact can do more of wider usefulness than those who have been unable to gain adequate education. Ryerson knew, then, that the public good is always served by better quality public education.

There is another point to be made here. Education doesn’t merely equip us to know more; it doesn’t merely equip us to do more; education equips us to live in a bigger world. Education equips us to live in a different world, a richer world, a world of greater complexity and more profound linkages and greater wonder. Maureen and I noticed this when we moved, in 1970, to a fishing/lumberjacking village in northeastern New Brunswick. We noticed immediately what our educational opportunity had given us. Had it merely enabled us to do algebra when others around us couldn’t, or to read Latin when others around us couldn’t? To be sure, we could do algebra and read Latin; but what really mattered was that our education (algebra and Latin plus so much more) equipped us with a larger world; a larger world outside us, but also a larger world inside us (i.e.,inner resources as well). Maureen noticed this especially in the women her age who were as dear to her as she was to them, women whose under-education had restricted them to a much smaller world outside and a much smaller world inside.

Before Ryerson’s work on our behalf there was one world for the socially privileged and a different world, a shrivelled world, a horribly shrivelled world, for everyone else. When I was a boy my father delighted in telling me story after story about Benjamin Disraeli, one-time prime minister of Great Britain during the 1800s. One story had to do with Disraeli’s address to the news media wherein he lamented, “There are two Englands, and neither one knows anything about the other.” When Ryerson came on the scene there were two Ontarios. One was grand to live in because ever-so-deep; the other was scarcely fit to live in, and Ryerson saw too many children who were forced to live in the latter.

Prior to Ryerson, education was a pay-as-you-go matter. Again, this meant that the rich could afford quality education while others could not. Ryerson maintained that since the public good (that “good” enjoyed by the socially advantaged too, since they were undeniably part of the public) was better served by quality education, the public should underwrite education. In other words, public education was to be supported out of tax revenues. There was to be no financial means test for admitting children to school.

In the same way, there was to be no religious means test. Bishop John Strachan, the Anglican authority in the diocese, saw to it that the children of Anglicans had access to good education; he was indifferent concerning the education of anyone else. (I cannot forbear reminding you that Bishop Strachan had become an Anglican only after he was turned down as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry.)

One thing more needs to be mentioned in this connection: in Ryerson’s day, the schoolteachers who presided over classrooms of poorer children did just that: they presided, but they scarcely taught, for many of these “teachers” were ignorant; more than a few were out-and-out illiterate. Many teachers could do little more than beat children. Ryerson was determined to make a major change here as well.

I assume that the Streetsville congregation deems Maureen and me to be educated. We are now living amidst a congregation whose formal schooling and informal intellectual capacity are greater than those in any congregation I have known. How did Maureen and I get here? We were able to get off Gerrard Street. How did we do that? We both attended a first class highschool, Riverdale Collegiate. We were told, on our first day in grade nine, that we could work hard in school or we could leave. And we were told as well that if we worked and therefore learned what there was to be learned, we’d be admitted to worlds inside and worlds outside that we had scarcely dreamt of.

It was all true. When I was ordained in 1970 and was transferred to the Maritimes, I was paid the minimum salary of a United Church minister. In addition I was given a car allowance, and I was allowed to live in a manse. (There was no housing allowance; I was simply allowed to occupy the manse.) And in my first year as minister on the minimum salary of The United Church, I made more money than my father was earning when he died three years earlier.

How many times have I spoken of my delight in my university studies in philosophy? I appear to have a reputation in the church at large as an adequate preacher. Ninety per cent of good preaching is clear thinking. Where was I exposed to such thinking? How did I learn it for myself? Who taught me? But of course I could never have gone to university to study philosophy without adequate schooling in my earlier years. Apart from high-quality education, funded by tax resources, I’d have never received an education, for my parents were in no position to pay for it. Where would I be, what would I be doing, who would I be, if I hadn’t had access to good schooling?

I think we should ponder soberly what will happen if high-quality public education is allowed to erode.

(i) For one, social democracy, or at least whatever social democracy we’ve managed to achieve, will disappear. We must distinguish carefully here between political democracy and social democracy. Political democracy is easy to achieve: each citizen is given the right to vote. One vote per citizen and we have instant political democracy. Social democracy, however, is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Social democracy is achieved when all citizens have equal access to opportunities within a society. Social democracy doesn’t mean that all outcomes are equal. (Trying to legislate outcomes spells socialism, and socialism is a sure way to totalitarianism.) Social democracy, however, means equal access and opportunity for all regardless of social position or privilege. This has nothing to do with socialism.

Concerning social democracy I want you to reflect on the situation of one of my dearest friends. He is the senior minister of a large church in southwestern Ontario. He studied first at the University of Western Ontario, then at the University of Toronto, and finally, for this third degree, at the University of British Columbia. My friend tells me that when he was growing up in southern Ontario, his home provided no intellectual encouragement at all. In the 18 or 19 years he lived with his family, there wasn’t so much as a single magazine brought into the house. His family held up no educational goals, provided no encouragement, and quickened no intellectual appetite. Needless to say, the non-intellectual environment was matched by a non-cultural environment; culturally, the household was a wasteland, bleaker than the barren surface of the moon. Only one thing provided my friend with a much-needed educational goal and encouragement and appetite: his school. Only one thing sowed the seed of intellectual fruition in his life: high-quality public education. The same thing, the same thing alone, equipped him to serve church and society in the manner he now does. Where would he be, what would he be doing, who would he be, if his social inferiority had denied him access and opportunity? Such access and opportunity is what is meant by social democracy. If people like him are denied access and opportunity, then social democracy has disappeared, even though political democracy remains. (After all, my friend could still vote, but would likely regard voting as a waste of time.)

(ii) In the second place we must understand that if public education is allowed to evaporate and social democracy allowed to disappear, then something else will appear, or reappear: the English class system, or something like it. Another friend of mine, a United Church minister in Ottawa, grew up in a working-class home in Britain and emigrated to Canada as a young man. His first job in Canada was delivering truckloads of Coca Cola. The job permitted him to save money, and having saved money, he went back to school. He too subsequently attended university and, as I have mentioned, went on to university (twice.) When I was in Ottawa not long ago to preach at the anniversary service of his congregation, he said to me, “Victor, you know how we keep hearing today that the English class system is disappearing? Well, it isn’t.” He had access and opportunity here that he didn’t have elsewhere.

We must always remember what the social historians have brought to light; namely, that while Britain was the first European nation to achieve political democracy, its class system remained the worst in Europe. We must always remember that this class system has been so very iniquitous that as recently as the years between World Wars I and II, 50% of the people in Britain were clinically malnourished.

(iii) We must understand, in the third place, that if public education is allowed to evaporate, and with it all that quality education fosters, then the different socio-economic clusters, now frozen immovably throughout the society, will hunker down in their respective camps and turn hostile. Their hostility will intensify, and intensify some more. People will become increasingly defensive, increasingly non-understanding of others elsewhere in the society, increasingly rancorous, increasingly isolated, and increasingly a major threat to each other. It will become a social arrangement I’d prefer not to have to live with.

All of which brings me to a matter I’ve already stated in several different ways but must state yet again: Egerton Ryerson’s vision was glorious. His legacy has meant riches for millions in Ontario. Philip Melanchthon struggled for its predecessor in 16th century Germany. Ryerson struggled for it in 19th century Ontario. And I, in the 20th century, will struggle for it with my third last breath.

My third last? Yes. What about my second last breath? Many people maintain that public education, however glorious in days past, is now bending and breaking. If it is, then I intend to help fix it — with my second last breath. My last breath, of course, will be spent in the service of the gospel. It is “next to the gospel“, Philip Melanchthon reminded us, that “there is nothing more glorious than humanistic learning, that wonderful gift of God.”

                                                                        Victor Shepherd
November 1997