Earlier this month I taught a class on Philip Melanchthon at St. John's Lutheran Church in Frasier, Michigan. At the end of class, I was asked if I would recommend a short biography on Melanchthon suitable for a layperson. Sadly, I said no. Most of the short biographies are out of print and very expensive, and most the modern works are written for academic audiences. So, I decided to do a short series as a brief introduction to the life and times of Philip Melanchthon. As we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, I think that this series of blogs will be helpful and pair nicely with the two forthcoming Thinking Fellows podcasts on Melanchthon. Now 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 neither a theologian by trade nor 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 upwards of four hundred students. Along with his work developing the German public education system and 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, the author of the first Protestant systematic theology and author of the chief 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 was the eldest son of George, a respected and somewhat famous metal smith and maker of suits of armor, and Barbara, daughter of a prosperous merchant. Born Philip Schwartzerd, his name was changed to Melanchthon by his great uncle Reuchlin, the famous humanist, lawyer, and Hebrew scholar. This was done after the death of Melanchthon’s father and was meant as a compliment to the promising young pupil. He received his Bachelor of Liberal Arts from the University of Heidelberg on June 11, 1511 and his Master of Arts degree from Tübingen University, on January 25, 1514. With the degree 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 love, and true passion followed closely by rhetoric, dialectic, and philosophy. His passion for these disciplines leads 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 already 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.”
Though he was offered a doctorate on several occasions, he was not a doctor of theology. His learning and intelligence were such that Luther once remarked after the Leipzig debate of 1519: “This one man’s opinion and authority mean more to me than many thousand miserable Ecks. I would not hesitate to yield my authority to this ingenious grammarian if he should disagree with me, even though I am Master of Arts, philosophy, and theology and adorned with nearly all Eck’s titles.”