In honor of the anniversary of Philip Melanchthon’s Birthday, the following is an excerpt from Meeting Melanchthon written by Scott Keith (1517 Publishing, 2017).
Most scholars consider Melanchthon to be a Reformation enigma. He, the developer of the Reformation doctrine of forensic justification, is contrarily condemned as a synergist. Known well as the Protestant preceptor of Germany, he was Martin Luther’s lifelong friend, colleague, teacher of Greek, and fellow reformer. Upon arriving at Wittenberg, Melanchthon was a theologian neither by trade nor by training. He was a classically trained expert in classical languages, neo-Latin poet, textbook author, Greek scholar, humanist, and above all, an educator.
Melanchthon’s lectures at the University of Wittenberg would commonly draw upward of four hundred students. Along with his work in the development of the German public education system and the reform of the German universities, this earned him the title of the Protestant preceptor of Germany. In both form and function, he was a theologian and a reformer.
Melanchthon was a chief formative influence on the development of historical Protestantism as the author of the first Protestant systematic theology and author of the principal Protestant confession of faith. His Loci Communes Theologici (Common Topics of Theology) was used as a textbook for pastors and teachers of the Lutheran faith for more than a hundred years, and through the Augsburg Confession, nearly all Protestant denominations have been influenced.
Philip Melanchthon was a humanist, an expert in classical languages and literature, and from an early age, he excelled in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy. He received his bachelor of liberal arts from the University of Heidelberg on June 11, 1511, and his master of arts degree from the University of Tübingen on January 25, 1514. With the degrees came the right to teach and lecture on the classics.
Melanchthon was called as professor of the Greek language to Wittenberg University on August 26, 1518, while still only twenty-one years of age. Greek and the study of languages were Melanchthon’s first loves and true passions, followed closely by rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy. His passion for these disciplines led to early recognition. Melanchthon was already a well-known humanist leader and teacher of rhetoric and dialectic when he arrived at Wittenberg. By 1517, Melanchthon had grabbed the attention of the famous humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote in a letter to one of his friends, “I think highly of Melanchthon and place great hope in him. May Christ preserve this youth among us with long life!”
It was in Wittenberg that Melanchthon met Dr. Martin Luther. Together, the two began their lifelong journey of reform together. Not long after his arrival in Wittenberg, Melanchthon began to teach Luther Greek. This instruction was to have far-reaching results, for it brought Luther clarity concerning the faith. He wrote in 1519, “But more recently I have followed Philip Melanchthon as my teacher in Greek. He is a young man in respect to his body, but a hoary-headed old sage regarding his intellectual powers.”
Philip (also spelled Philipp) was born to George and Barbara Schwarzerdt in Bretten on February 16, 1497. Philip had four siblings: Anna (1499), Georg (1500 or 1501), Margarete (1506), and Barbara (1508). All were born in his grandparents’ house in the electoral Saxon residential town of Bretten. Melanchthon’s father, Georg Schwarzerdt, born in Heidelberg, was a master of gunnery founding and was skilled in forging lightweight, durable armor. Because of his skills, Georg was elevated to the office of electoral master armorer and thus needed to remain in Heidelberg. Melanchthon’s mother, Barbara, came from the wealthy merchant family of Reuter.
Melanchthon’s grandfather was the one who ensured a thorough early education in Latin for Philip and his brother, Georg, as well as for two grandsons of the Reuter family, by hiring well- known Johannes Unger from Pforzheim as the boys’ tutor. The death of Melanchthon’s father and grandfather in 1508 ended the childhood of eleven-year-old Philip. From this point on, his education and contribution to the burgeoning humanist movement of his day would be his vocation.
Johannes Reuchlin, a famous humanist and Hebrew scholar, was Philip’s great-uncle and took some responsibility for Philip’s university education. Upon learning of Philip’s ability in Greek, and following the humanist tradition of his day, Reuchlin gave him the Greek name “Melanchthon.” In March of 1509, Reuchlin exclaimed, “Your name is Schwarzerdt (German for ‘black earth’) you are a Greek, and so your new name shall be Greek. Thus, I will call you Melanchthon which means black earth.”
Early Days at Wittenberg
Contrary to popular opinion, Melanchthon never served as a parish pastor. Unlike Luther, he was not known as a preacher. But as John Schofield points out in his work Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation, his 1519 bachelor of divinity degree earned at Wittenberg and his appointment to the faculty at the University of Wittenberg made him the first ordained professor of Greek in Germany.
In 1525, he and Luther received special permission to read and teach whatever they desired at the university, though Melanchthon continued to teach Greek. For Melanchthon, Greek was more than a subject to learn and teach; it was the root of learning, and he believed that a poor knowledge of Greek led to poor theology. In place of Luther, who remained under the imperial ban, Melanchthon became the spokesman of the Reformation at imperial diets, princely halls, and theological colloquies.
Beginning in 1519, Melanchthon began to develop his theology. In his baccalaureate theses, Melanchthon used the term “imputation” to describe how Christ’s righteousness is imparted to the believer. Imputation is a transfer of benefit or harm from one person to another. In theology, imputation is used negatively to refer to the transfer of the sin and guilt of one man, Adam, to the rest of humankind. Positively, imputation refers to the righteousness of one man, Christ, being transferred to those who believe in him for salvation. Melanchthon says, “All righteousness is a gracious imputation of Christ.”
This development shows an amazing advancement in the fight against the late medieval scholastic Roman Catholic view of infused righteousness, and in many ways, it was the heart of the Reformation. It is in the development of the doctrine of forensic justification by faith that Melanchthon made his chief contribution to the theological development of the Reformation.
The proclamation of God’s free grace declared to the sinner on account of the person and work of Christ Jesus was the mainstay of Melanchthon’s doctrinal development. As this singular focus permeated his intellectual world, it led him to develop the Reformation message systematically. The loci, or topical method, that Melanchthon used for “doing theology” necessitated that he identify one central topic or doctrine and then build all other doctrines off of that central teaching. For Melanchthon, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and on account of Christ alone was the center. This is clearly seen in his Loci Communes, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Apology).