National Lutheran News

Don’t forget about Martin Luther’s reformation partner, theologian advises

Timothy Wengert celebrated Philip Melanchthon’s influence at Augsburg College events

Timothy Wengert came to Minneapolis with a passion for Martin Luther’s theological sidekick. Wittenberg theologian Philip Melanchthon constructed Lutheranism’s primary confessional statement, the Augsburg Confession. Of him and his document, Wengert told his Augsburg College audience, “If it hadn’t been for him, this college would have to get a different name.”

Wengert spoke twice about Melanchthon at Augsburg College on November 13-14. Saluting the never-ordained Lutheran scholar as deserving the nickname “teacher of Germany,” the Reformation professor from the ELCA’s Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia said, “Melanchthon reminded the church how faith and good works really function, something modern Christians seem to have forgotten.”

Wengert said, “It’s clear that Melanchthon thought the good works question — Do our actions make us acceptable to God? — was critical for him. Unlike other articles of the Augsburg Confession, which begin calmly, this one begins with an explosion: ‘Our people have been falsely accused [by the Roman Catholics] of forbidding good works!’”

Stressing that good works do nothing to fix our broken relationship with God, Melanchthon taught they flow naturally out of people who know they are loved and saved by God. “He believed there are no super-Christians [as medieval ‘saints’ were often thought of]. Good works can be done in all sorts of ordinary daily circumstances. All of us do them by the bushelbasket every day. We often don’t even realize things we do are God-pleasing.”

Wengert said Melanchthon’s reasoned arguments could disarm his opponents in unexpected ways. “Melancthon was the original stealth bomber. Martin Luther said his attacks were so subtle that enemies wouldn’t even know when they had been destroyed.”

Melanchthon, Wengert said, “takes the fun out of good works. He credits them all to the Holy Spirit.”

The Philadelphia theologian focused his second presentation on Melanchthon’s understanding of Scripture. He said the Wittenberg scholar made a solid contribution to the art of interpreting Scripture by reminding students of the Bible that there is always a context, and individual Bible verses are not properly understood without remembering what any given book of Scripture is saying.

Melanchthon, Wengert said, called Christians to remember, when reading books of the Bible, that each writer has a particular style; that the author of any given book has a point to his document; that the whole Bible has a point (and the Letter to the Romans is its best summary); and that “the Bible makes its point on us — it offers us comfort when our consciences are terrified.”

Said Wengert, “I would pit one old crusty Lutheran from North Dakota against all the TV Bible preachers — because the Lutheran understands God’s saving action.”