Columns, Faithful and Reforming

The enigmatic reformer

Lutheran Christians familiar with the basic tenets of their faith are sometimes surprised to learn that the person who formulated these truths in their most classical and “official” form was often not Martin Luther, but rather his friend, colleague, and, above all, co-confessor Philipp Melanchthon.

Philipp Melanchthon came to the University of Wittenberg primarily to teach Greek; but his intellectual breadth, rhetorical abilities, and pedagogical skills could never be confined to one area of study. Indeed, Philip was so gifted and influential that history has lauded him as “the teacher of Germany.”

Though he taught at least two generations of students at Wittenberg, today the focus is usually on the substance of his teaching, as this is reflected in his most important writings. As a scholar who came to share — and even influence — Martin Luther’s understanding of the gospel, Philipp Melanchthon was the author of both the Augsburg Confession (1530), the defining confession of the Lutheran movement; and its Apology (1531), or Defense, which offers a thorough evangelical and biblical argument for the most basic proposals for doctrine and practice that had been made by Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues.

David A. Lumpp

Melanchthon’s career was not without its share of controversy.

Especially in these writings, one discovers the classical Lutheran formulation of “justification” — that is, God pronouncing helpless sinners righteous — by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Melanchthon also insisted that it is necessary to distinguish carefully between God’s accusing law and God’s promissory gospel, and that this distinction is key to a proper interpretation and salutary reading of the Bible. Virtually everything else in these Lutheran confessional writings contributes to or derives from these two pervasive and interdependent themes: the centrality of justification and the proper distinction between law and gospel.

In addition to many other academic and theological writings and a massive correspondence with some of the most important theological figures of the age, Melanchthon is best known for several editions of the first systematic textbook of Lutheran teaching, roughly translated as Common Topics of Theology, the first edition of which in 1521 was lavishly extolled by Martin Luther.

Seeker of compromise

But Melanchthon’s career was not without its share of controversy. While Luther could sometimes be defiant, Melanchthon was by personality irenic and conciliatory. As one who stood squarely in the middle of an unprecedented situation in Western Christendom, and lived another 14 years after the death of Luther himself in 1546, Philipp faced a convergence of theological, political, and even military challenges that no one had confronted before.

In an attempt to retain the gains of the Lutheran Reformation — and for Melanchthon nothing less than the restored preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ itself was at stake. He put his considerable talents to work in an ongoing effort to find language that conflicting parties to various theological disputes would find acceptable. In the process, he won few friends, alienated some former students, experienced great personal frustration, and ensured that his own positions on these topics would be debated for the next 450 years.

To some, Melanchthon was a conciliator and almost prototypical ecumenist.

Melanchthon’s struggles to draft passable theological formulae did not involve insignificant topics. In revisions to the Augsburg Confession itself and in later editions of his theology textbook, his language led to renewed intra-Lutheran controversy on such major issues as the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper; the nature of conversion; the sense in which good works are necessary; and, when taken together, the doctrine of justification itself — which had been the centerpiece of both the Augsburg Confession and the Apology.

To some, this Melanchthon was a conciliator and almost prototypical ecumenist. To others, he was a once-great figure who had compromised on the essentials of biblical truth itself.

Looking back

Debates about Melanchthon’s precise views on these and other controversial topics cannot be resolved here. However, scholarship of the past generation or two has been more generous and charitable in its overall assessment. For one thing, Melanchthon was thrust, often unwillingly, into a convergence of historical circumstances that did not permit academic detachment or much abstract theological reflection. The very survival of the movement Martin Luther had initiated was at stake, and Philipp sought to retain and quite literally hold together whatever he could, and to do so with theological integrity. In general, even those who remain critical of the substance of his later work are able to sympathize with the position he was in and to affirm at least the intent of his labors.

Certainly the best way to remember Philipp Melanchthon is to recall him at his finest hour, as the scholar who was willing to stand before princes, an emperor, and theological opponents at Augsburg in 1530 and 1531 and produce some of the finest theological work to appear in two millennia of Christian history. In these writings, he affirmed over and over again that to know Jesus Christ is to know his blessings, “the promises which by the Gospel he has spread throughout the world” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV, 101).

David A. Lumpp is professor of theology at Concordia University, St. Paul. He is a member of Jehovah Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Saint Paul.

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