Commemoration of Philipp Melanchthon (birth), Confessor
February 16, 2012
The Lord be with you
Philipp Melanchthon was born February 16, 1497 as Philipp Schwarzerd. Following the practice of many scholars of the day, Philipp translated his last name, which means “black earth,” into its Latin equivalent. He died April 19, 1560. I don’t know why the framers of our liturgical calendar chose his birthday into this world, instead of his birthday into heaven, to commemorate him. Perhaps it is because April 19 can also be Easter.
Melanchthon was a brilliant student of the classics and a humanist scholar. His influence in the Lutheran Reformation is, perhaps, second only to Martin Luther. When I say “brilliant,” I’m not exaggerating. At the age of 12 he was completely fluent in Latin. At 13 he had added the language of Greek to his skill set. After attending Latin school in Pforzheim, he attended the University of Heidelberg and then the University of Tübingen, where he received his master’s degree in 1516. He soon became known as one of the top humanist scholars in the world. In 1518, at the age of 21, he was called to the new University of Wittenberg as its first professor of Greek. At Luther’s urging, Melanchthon undertook the teaching of theology and Scripture in addition to his work on Aristotle and classical studies (even though he was a layman and was never ordained). He was a very popular lecturer with class attendance often well over 100. (To be honest, his classes drew far more students than Luther’s.) The combination of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg made the university one of the leading schools in Europe during much of the sixteenth century. His theology lectures became the foundation for his extremely influential Loci Communes, the first compendium of Lutheran doctrine.
Along with his many other responsibilities, Melanchthon was placed in charge of reforming the schools in Saxony. He was so successful that his model was copied all over Germany. He is, therefore, sometimes called the “teacher of Germany.” His Greek grammar was used for several centuries to teach the language.
In April 1530, Charles V called an official meeting (called a “diet’) between the representatives of Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. The meeting was held in the Imperial City of Augsburg, Germany. Charles wanted to reunite Christendom under the Roman Pope so he could present a united front against the advancing “Turk” (the Ottoman Empire). Luther could not attend because he had been excommunicated by the Roman Church and placed under the imperial ban. In other words, he was an outlaw now and could be killed on sight. Melanchthon was the unanimous choice to be the main representative of the Lutheran Christians. The meeting was to be held June 25.
In 1530, there were all sorts of groups breaking away from the Roman Church. Some of them had ideas that were clearly not Christian, like denying the Trinity. The Lutherans discovered that they were going to be accused of subscribing to all of them. So Melanchthon drew up a document, in consultation with Luther via letters, which accented common ground with the Roman Church. It also presented where the Lutherans differed, but the overall tone of the confession of faith was that of an olive branch.
It was said by eye-witnesses that, when the Augsburg Confession was read on June 25, you could hear a pin drop. The Roman representatives were not ready. To utterly condemn the Lutherans as heretics could not be done because that would mean that they condemned much that they believed themselves (like the Trinity). They hastily drew up a document, called the Confutation, and it was read the next day. It was so poorly received that people burst into laughter at various points.
While only a handful had signed the Augsburg Confession before it was presented (7 princes and representatives from 2 “free cities”), it quickly spread and was accepted as a faithful expression of the Christian Faith by most of evangelical Germany within 15 years. It actually became the model of a confession of faith even for those who did not accept the Augsburg Confession, copying it wholesale and changing only the parts they didn’t like.
It is for his work on the Augsburg Confession that Melanchthon is chiefly remembered today. It is still considered the defining document of Lutheranism within Christendom.
The story of Melanchthon can inspire us to know where we stand in our Christian Faith, and why we believe what we believe.
Prayer: Almighty God, we praise You for the service of Philipp Melanchthon to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in the renewal of its life in fidelity to Your Word and promise. Raise up in these gray and latter days faithful teachers and pastors, inspired by Your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to Your Church and proclaim the ongoing reality of Your kingdom; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert
Tidbit: Melanchthon is remembered on the Methodist calendar on April 19 (his death date) and in the ELCA on June 25, along with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession (his greatest achievement).