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Luther’s Friend – Philip Melanchthon

He carried his Bible everywhere, studied it carefully, and was able to discern how completely its truths had been set aside by the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther occupies so great, unrivalled, and apostolical position among the Reformers, that we should not feel surprised to see his life and labours presented to the evangelical community again and again. Although we are far from encouraging an idolatrous worship of the man, we believe we are acting in the spirit of the Word of God, when we encourage men to follow his faith. But we should act very ungratefully, if, on account of this Prince in Israel, we should lose sight of the other distinguished men of God in the days of the Reformation. And among these, Philip Melanchthon occupies the highest place.” So said Charles Frederick Ledderhose, the nineteenth century biographer of Melanchthon, and he was entirely right.

This year, the 500th since Luther’s historic protest, has been greeted by a plethora of new publications, a veritable mountain of material documenting the history and accomplishments of Germany’s greatest son – but what of his colleague and successor? Where are the assessments of him to whom alone we are indebted for knowledge of Luther’s actions on 31st October 1517?

It is difficult to disagree with Krotel’s view that “a very large proportion of Protestant readers know no more of the life of this lovely man of God, than that which is interwoven with the life of Luther.” That is so, even to this day. Perhaps a brief sketch of what was a very notable life in its own right is in order in this anniversary year.

Birth and youth
In South West Germany, in the city of Bretten, on the 16th February 1497, a son was born to George and Barbara Schwartzerd. In baptism, he was given the name Philip, and was the first in a family of five. In company with George, his younger brother, Philip acquired a rudimentary education from the town school, before being brought under the tutelage of an excellent private teacher called John Unger. Philip’s gifts manifested themselves early: he was perceptive, sharp-witted and possessed a retentive memory, but despite his evident abilities he remained modest and well-liked. The death of both his grandfather and father when he was just 10 occasioned Philip’s removal to Pforzheim, where he continued to advance in his studies, benefitting from an acquaintance with celebrated scholar John Reuchlin. Indeed it was the said Reuchlin who changed Philip’s surname from Schwartzerd (German for ‘black earth’) to its Greek equivalent, Melanchthon, according to a custom generally practiced in those times.

Such was his talent for Latin and Greek that Melanchthon was received as a student at the University of Heidelberg before his thirteenth birthday. Again, his progress was marked, achieving his degree on 10th June 1511, and only denied his ‘masters’ because he looked too young! His studies continued at Tubingen, where his interest in the philosophers paled before his engagement with God’s Word. He had been given a Bible by Reuchlin, and it was surely the most significant gift he ever received.

Unlike Luther, whose experience of conversion has been well documented and endlessly analysed, little is known of how precisely Melanchthon came to Christ. He was raised in a good home, with parents whose devotion far exceeded the ordinary. His father was an upright man, a man of piety and prayer, and one can but wonder to what extent the light had begun to dawn on that humble home. But there is no doubt that Philip was most profoundly impacted by his reading of Scripture. He carried his Bible everywhere, studied it carefully, and was able to discern how completely its truths had been set aside by the Roman Catholic Church. Here is testimony to the truth that ‘faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Romans 10:17).

To Wittenberg
Melanchthon’s reputation as a scholar spread rapidly, and he became, in a good sense, ‘a wanted man’. Spurning attractive opportunities in the Universities of Ingolstadt and Leipzig, he accepted the invitation of the Elector of Saxony to come to Wittenberg, arriving in August 1518. His insignificant appearance and timid disposition promised little, but from the first, his lectures impressed. Within the month, Luther spoke of him as “the great Grecian, the thorough scholar, and most amiable man”, and it was soon evident that he had found one whom he called “the friend and confidant of my heart”. And the feeling was mutual.

By the middle of the following year, Melanchthon would prove his value to Luther, standing with him and Carlstadt in the disputation with Dr Johann Eck at Leipzig. Eck did not take kindly to Melanchthon’s interventions and subsequent analysis of the debate, but this early conflict served as a ‘taster’ for what would follow in the lives of those determined to contend for the faith. Meanwhile, his work as lecturer continued, to ever increasing audiences. Luther himself was among many hundreds who profited from his friend’s expertise in Greek and his expositions of Romans and Corinthians, and it was he who prompted his reticent colleague to publish his work. A series of commentaries followed, then the celebrated ‘Loci Communes’, which has been called ‘the first system of religion in the evangelical church’, and which, by popular demand, was enlarged, improved and republished many times.

Melanchthon’s abilities often took him from the classroom. In an age of seemingly endless disputations and conferences, one of the most significant was that convened at Marburg by Protestant ruler Philip of Hesse in October 1529. Its purpose was to attempt reconciliation between the German and Swiss Reformers, whose views diverged on certain important matters, not least on their understanding of the Lord’s Table. While he rejected the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, Luther nevertheless believed in the real, corporal presence of Christ in the bread and wine – ‘consubstantiation’, though the term is not used by Lutherans – a concept rejected by Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Oecolampadius (a friend of Melanchthon) and various others, who believed that the elements were merely symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.

The greater part of the conference was occupied with discussion of the disputed interpretation of Christ’s presence. No resolution was realised, both sides holding to the ground on which they began. Agreement was reached on fourteen of fifteen articles, and on most of the fifteenth, but in the words of the joint statement, “we have reached no agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine.” Melanchthon stood with Luther, and expressed the hope that their opponents might change their opinion, but it was not to be.
Marburg is interesting because it brings into focus an area over which historians have long debated – that Melanchthon did not exactly accord with Luther on the point in question, and indeed on other issues as well. There is evidence that Luther felt his young friend was too ready to compromise in some matters, and it is clear that, after Luther’s death, there were those who believed Melanchthon was not a reliable guardian of the legacy. Among the charges levelled against him was an alleged sympathy with some aspects of ‘the Swiss view’ of the Lord’s Table.

At Home
Melanchthon had married Catharine Crapp, a daughter of the Mayor of Wittenberg, in 1520. Soon he was to write that she deserved a better husband than himself. Their union was marked by happiness and harmony, and by the birth of four children. Melanchthon was greatly affected by the death of his little son, George, just two years old, and by that of his daughter, Anna, at twenty-two. He suffered much ill-health himself, but maintained a rigorous schedule, with long hours of work and little sleep. A solid devotional life underpinned his endeavours, and made him, no doubt, the man that he was.

Death of Luther
Melanchthon had the unenviable task, in 1546, of announcing the death of Luther to the class assembled for a morning lecture. He recounted the circumstances of the great man’s passing, and urged the students to thank God “for the benefits he has conferred upon us through Dr Luther, and let us hold Luther in grateful remembrance.” Melanchthon later spoke at Luther’s funeral: “We are now like poor, wretched, forsaken orphans, who have lost an affectionate and excellent father. However, as we ought to obey God, and resign ourselves to His will, we should forever cherish the memory of this our beloved father, and never suffer it to be effaced from our hearts.” But there is no doubt that Melanchthon felt the loss keenly. Life would never be the same, and he was afflicted by a loneliness that remained with him to the end of his days.

Until the end
Philip Melanchthon outlived Luther by fourteen years, and those years were as busy as ever. Indeed he worked until the end, going to be with Christ on the 19th April 1560 at the age of sixty-three, his body buried next to the one with whom he had laboured for so long – united in death, as in life.

Rev J A Wylie provides a fitting conclusion: “The gentleness, the timidity, the perspicacity of Melanchthon were the companion graces of the strength, the courage, the passionate energy of Luther. It doubled the working powers of each for both to draw in the same yoke. Genius alone would have knit them into friendship, but they found a yet more sacred bond in their love of the Gospel.”

Rev Timothy Nelson.