A ‘humanist and Reformer’

PHILIP MELANCHTHON was an influential theologian who worked closely with Martin Luther and whose books were more popular in Europe than even those of Luther and Calvin.

Born on February 16, 1497, in Bretten in the Electoral Palatinate, Melanchthon is often described as a “humanist and Reformer” by many scholars. Of course all the Reformers of the sixteenth century, including Luther and Calvin, were acquainted with and in some sense shaped by the humanist tradition. But Melanchthon, more than any of them, taught humanist-philosophical subjects throughout his career and authored textbooks that have influenced later theologians and pastors.

When he arrived at Wittenberg as a student, he was already erudite in theology, philosophy and humanism. At Wittenberg, Melanchthon encountered Luther, devoured his works, and enthusiastically embraced the views of the senior Reformer.

Perhaps Melanchthon’s most important contribution to Reformation theology, which merits more attention than it has hitherto received, is the Loci Communes(“The Common Places in Theology”) published in 1521. Apart from John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was published about a decade later (in 1536), Melanchthon’s Locican be seen as a brilliant systematisation of the distinct themes of the sixteenth century theological movement.

Among the many important themes that he discussed in this work is of course the Gospel, which the Reformer defined in terms of Promise. The Gospel is, at its very core, the wonderful divine promise of the forgiveness of sin and salvation.

Refusing to drive a wedge between God the Creator and God the Redeemer, Melanchthon insisted that both temporal (material) and spiritual promises have the same goal. The temporal promises in fact point to the spiritual promises, serving as “symbols” of the eternal joy that God has intended for those who put their faith in Him. For Melanchthon, all these promises are fulfilled in Christ.

In the Loci he also depicted justification as the remission of sins. “To sum it all up,” he wrote, “grace is nothing but the forgiveness of sins”.

Here he presented grace not as a “substance” that can be imputed in the person of the sinner, as some versions of medieval theology seemed to have taught. Rather, divine grace is understood as the relationship between God and the sinner, characterised by forgiveness and reconciliation made possible because of the divine initiative.

Grace, according to the Reformer, cannot be understood in isolation from mercy. For grace refers to the creation of the possibility for the sinner to have a renewed relationship with God – and therefore a new future with his Creator – because of the divine mercy.

As he has simply but arrestingly put it: Grace is “God’s goodwill to us, or the will of God which has mercy on us”. God’s grace justifies the sinner when it is received by faith.

Thus Melanchthon echoed Luther and the other Reformerswhen he asserted that “the righteousness of the entire life is nothing else than faith”.

This brings us to his view of the role of the divine Law, a theme of paramount importance to the theologians of the Reformation.

Like Luther, Melanchthon discussed what might be described as the negative side of the Law. The Law was given by God to spur repentance because, according to Melanchthon, it resulted in the “knowledge of sin”. The Law also presents to us the stark reality of our impotence in fulfilling the requirements of God, our inability as sinners to live in a way that would please our holy Creator.

But unlike the other Reformers, Melanchthon placed emphasis on the positive side of the Law. The Law discloses to us the holy character of God, the sovereign Lawgiver. It also shows us very clearly the kind of communal being God wants us to be, both in terms of our relationship with Him and also with one another.

The Law, then, becomes the disclosure of the express will of God for those creatures He has created in His own image: it is in obeying the Law that we truly reflect the image of our holy God, and so become truly human. Seen in this way, the Law is more than just a set of regulations. It is rather the revelation of the very purpose and destiny of the human being.

AT THE HEART OF Melanchthon’s theological concerns is ecclesiology: the nature, being and mission of the Church. Like his mentor Luther, Melanchthon defined the church as an assembly of people (“the flock” is the idiom he was fond of using) who have received the Gospel and who rightly observe the sacraments. Thus, where God’s Word is preached and His sacraments properly administered, there we find the Church.

Employing the metaphor of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), Melanchthon maintained that among the flock there are the elect and those who merely manifest the superficial and outward features of religion. The former are living and sanctified members of the Church, while the latter are spiritually dead members.

But amidst the visible church there is a third group, which he described as “a curse”. These are people who follow the papal teachings: the adoration of the bread in the Corpus Christi procession, prayer to the dead and the selling of masses. According to Melanchthon, they are not true believers but defenders of idolatry and blasphemers.

Despite the polemical tone of his writings, Melanchthon recognised – as every good theologian must – that he was unable to fully grasp the inexhaustible mystery of God. He therefore longed for heaven, which he regarded as the ideal university, where he could engage in conversation with the prophets and apostles, and even with Christ himself.

In April 1560, Melanchthon took ill while on a journey to Leipzig. He died soon after, at the age of 63, and was buried in the Wittenberg Castle Church, next to his mentor Martin Luther.