Open main menu

MELANCHTHON, Hellenized name of Philipp Schwarzerd (Eng. “black earth”), German reformer: b. Bretten, in the Palatinate, 16 Feb. 1497; d. Wittenberg, 19 April 1560. He was left an orphan in his l0th year and taken into the house of his grandmother, a sister of Reuchlin (see Reuchlin, Johann), the great German humanist, by whom he was affectionately treated and encouraged in his studies. In his 12th year he entered the University of Heidelberg and two years later was graduated bachelor. While he was occupied as tutor to the son of Count von Löwenstein, he continued to give attention to his own progress in Greek; in 1514 was made master of arts at Tübingen and thenceforth devoted himself to humanism, lecturing on Cicero, Terence and Greek grammar. He also gave much time to the study of theology, jurisprudence and medicine. Here he first became acquainted with Erasmus' edition of the New Testament, and was through the influence of Reuchlin elected professor of Greek in the newly founded University of Wittenberg. He delivered an inaugural address (29 Aug. 1518), ‘De Corrigendis Adolescentiæ Studiis,’ which produced a revolution in German educational methods and above all met with the approbation of Luther, professor of philosophy at Wittenberg. From this time Melanchtnon became ‘Preceptor Germaniæ’ (The Schoolmaster of Germany), and the ‘Ally of Luther.’ These two champions of the Reformation were brought still closer together by their union at the ‘Leipzig Disputation’ (1519), in which they were confronted by Dr. Eck (see Eck, Johann von) the great opponent of Luther and the movement he was inspiring. In his handling of this adversary, both orally and by his writings, Melanchthon showed himself to be the leader of Protestant controversialists and the most learned, judicious and ready of Protestant disputants.

In 1520 he married Katharina Krapp, daughter of the burgomaster of Wittenberg, and “Master Philip,” as he was familiarly called, as he settled down to domestic life, was placed on the theological faculty of the university, and the first fruit of his increased application to the theological study and teaching was his ‘Loci Communes Rerum Theologicarum,’ which was the first declaration of the Protestant position delivered in formal terms of dogmatic theology. The volume ran through 60 editions in his lifetime, and established its author's position as Luther's complement — in some respects the lesser spirit of the Reformation movctnent, but the scientific talent which supported on the intellectual side the genius and the faith of Luther. Melanchthon, by his historic learning, by his power over the classic languages, was enabled to communicate to the learned world the real principles of the new movement and the facts of the past on which it was founded. He brought to bear his deep knowledge of theological philosophy, his acquaintance with the precise terms in Greek and Latin of scriptural, patristic and scholastic statement on the main question of the dispute, and he had the calmness of the well-balanced humanist which enabled him to direct with cool and even mind the movements of his party and to keep it as free as possible from the fury and blindness of intolerance. His knowledge of Greek made him as useful to Luther in translating the Bible as Parnell was to Pope in the production of his ‘Iliad.’ His pen had an immense influence in securing the after success of the initiative taken by bolder but less cautious and reasonable spirits, and left a mark on the German Reformation deeper, more permanent and characteristic than that of any among his most enthusiastic contemporaries. His ‘Epitome Doctrinæ Christianæ’ became from the first an influence which establishes its claim to be called the pandect and code of European Protestantism.

The spirit of Melanchthon was distinctly irenic. The Reformation had resulted not only in a German revolt from the papacy, but in the creation of a host of jarring Protestant sects. Melanchthon's broad aad far-seeing spirit was averse to division of any kind. The Augsburg Confession which was presented to the diet in 1530 surprised even the Roman Catholics by its moderate tone. It was drawn up by Melanchthon in accordance with memoranda supplied by Luther and it has all the breadth, calmness and judicial cautiousness of Luther's friend and good genius. But this spirit of compromise, hopefulness and patience was out of harmony with the passion for controversy which made Wittenberg a centre of storm and strife. Melanchthon, however, stuck to his post at Wittenberg long after the great power and influence he once wielded had passed from him into the hands of more positive, violent and aggressive leaders. There occurred a breach between the Philippists, the followers of Melanchthon and the Lutherans, who adhered to the extreme views of his friend on the subject of free will and irresistible grace, on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, and on the “adiaphora” indifferent matters, as the former was inclined to term the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church. He and his followers were assailed as “rogues” and “worshippers of Baal.” Luther stated his own views on the sacrament with such violence that the recollection of his ‘Short Confession respecting the Lord's Supper’ filled him with remorse on his death bed, where he acknowledged to his friend “Dear Philip, I confess to have gone too far in the affair of the Sacrament.” The death of Luther left Melanchthon to the mercy of such zealous and fiery sectaries as had been engendered in that teeming period of intellectual and theological movement, which the monk of Wittenberg had inaugurated. He survived Luther four years, waiting for death, he said “as a refuge from the phrenzy of theologians,” and praying that the Protestant world might find its way at last to reunion, a prayer which as yet remains unfulfilled.

Melanchthon's important part in the Reformation movement has often been lost sight of in the blaze of Luther's more striking and popular personality. Yet he may with some reason be called the brains of the Reformation. More than that, he was a man who, while he stood for progress, was averse to revolutionary change. In one sense he was the Mirabeau of a religious revolution, a constructive rather than a destructive reformer, a man born in a generation, which he could only affect by presenting an example of intellectual refinement, moderation, tolerance and conservation, which the warring giants of the Reformation refused to follow. In 1865 a statue was raised to him at Wittenberg and in 1883 a group comprising Melanchthon and Luther at Leipzig. His works are found complete in ‘Corpus Reformatorum,’ 28 vols. (1834-60). Consult Schmidt, ‘Philipp Melanchthons Leben und ausgewählte Schriften’ (1861); Richards, ‘Philipp Melanchthon’ (1898); Neander, ‘Vita Quattuor Reformatorum’ (1846); Hartfelder, Karl, ‘Philipp Melanchthon als Præceptor Germaniæ’ (Berlin 1899).