Philip Melanchthon (3)

The final aspect of Melanchthon’s life with which we will deal has to do with his position as the chief spokesman for the Reformation in its colloquies and consultations with the Romish Church.  In this connection, his detractors hurl the accusation of “compromiser” against him.  Usually, modern critics of Philip muffle criticism as regards Philip’s willingness to compromise with the Zwinglians and Calvinists since his concessions in this sphere were more or less correct.  Melanchthon’s own expressions about the Roman Catholic Church were contradictory.  In 1539, thinking himself to be about to die, Philip wrote in his will, “I also enjoin upon my children to abide in our churches and to flee the churches and society of the Papists.”  In conflict with this avowed wish was his letter to the papal nuncio, Campeggio, at Augsburg in 1530.  “We have no dogma different from the Roman Church…We are prepared to obey the Roman Church, if only she with the clemency which she has always used towards all peoples, would modify or relax some few matters which we, even if we would, could not alter…It is but a slight diversity of rites which seems to stand in the way of concord.  But the canons themselves say that the concord of the church can be retained even with such diversity of rites.”32

Philip’s state of mind at the Colloquies of Frankfurt, Worms, and Regensburg (c.1540) was anything but composed.  He felt very keenly the responsibility of his position.  His high regard for the visible unity of the Church and his awareness of the troubled condition of Protestantism since episcopal supervision was abolished lured him from the firm stand which was necessary.  The want of discipline, the rapacity of the princes, and the furor among Lutheran theologians caused Melanchthon to overestimate that which the Romish Church offered and to underestimate the dearness of the truth of Scripture.  Besides, Melanchthon was always ready to concede a sort of papacy by human right (jure humano).  But the entrenched Catholics would accept nothing but total surrender and the concessions of Philip availed not at all.

The Diet of Augsburg (1530) told the same story.  The same Philip who could write “that the Pope is Antichrist seated and ruling in the ‘temple of God’,” failed critically to defend the faith just won with difficulty.  As the immediate prospect of unity presented itself, Philip conceded some truths and minimized or ignored others.  Generally, he was ready to find some lowest common denominator upon which the radically different Lutheran and Roman Catholic groups might merge.  At Augsburg, Melanchthon insisted that the group he represented was not opposed to Catholic doctrines but only to some abuses of practice.  In response to Melanchthon’s anxious queries from Augsburg, Luther sent hasty reply, “I am wondering what you mean when you say you desire to know what and how much we may yield to the Papists.  According to my opinion, too much is already conceded to them in the Apology.”33*  Time and again, Luther exhorted his colleague to stand fast, to dispense with philosophical anxieties, and to herald boldly the truth of Christ.  At Augsburg as at the previous Colloquies, the Catholics refused Philip’s generous concessions.

*At this same time, Luther sent a letter to Spalatine in which he went to the heart of Melanchthon’s willingness to exchange the birthright of the Reformation for the Catholic mess of pottage (external unity and carnal security): “our friend Philip Melanchthon will contrive and desire that God should work according to and within the compass of his puny notions, that he may have somewhat whereof to glory. ‘Certainly (he would say) thus and thus it ought to be done; and thus and thus would I do it.’  But this is poor stuff: ‘Thus I, Philip, would do it.’  This is mighty flat.  But hear how this reads:  I AM THAT I AM, this is his name, JEHOVAH; He, even He, will do it.—But I have done.  Be strong in the Lord, and exhort Melanchthon from me, that he aim not to sit in God’s throne, but fight against that innate, that devilishly implanted ambition of ours, which would usurp the place of God; for that ambition will never further our cause.”

That which heaped the greatest obloquy upon Melanchthon, both at the time and long afterwards, was Philip’s acceptance of the Leipzig Interim.  The ill-fated Smalkaldian League (Protestant) had just been defeated by the Roman Catholic powers.  The sturdy Luther had already died.  To Melanchthon, now titular head of the Reformation, it seemed as if all Protestantism was about to perish.  Imperial troops menaced the entire country.  In the light of this, Melanchthon accepted the stipulations handed down by the Catholic powers.  He was guarded in his view of the Augsburg Interim (May 15, 1548) but surreptitiously defended it.  Much better it was, said Philip, to acquiesce in this “adiaphoristic” matter and wait for more advantageous times.  Rather than risk the annihilation of the Lutheran movement, he would “mitigate a bad set of circumstances.”  The “adiaphora” which the Augsburg Interim demanded to be acknowledged were episcopal rule, seven sacraments, recognition of the pope as the interpreter of Scripture, transubstantiation, works of supererogation, invocation of saints, festivals, and various rites.  Of this Interim, Schaff, an ardent supporter of Philip, has this to say, “It is very evident that the adoption of such a confession was a virtual surrender of the cause of the Reformation, and would have ended in a triumph of the papacy.”34  The following Interim of Leipzig was fully as demanding and more openly supported by Melanchthon.  Calvin’s high estimation of and deep friendship with Philip did not deter the Genevan from sternly rebuking him, “You extend the distinction of non-essentials too far…you ought not to have made such large concessions to the Papists.”35  And the Gnesiolutherans under Flacius raged against Philip.  From this point, two parties struggled within the Lutheran Church.  The official decision of the Lutherans went against Melanchthon, as stated in the Formula of Concord (1580):  “in time of persecution, when a bold confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in regard to adiaphora.”36

The pernicious ingredients inculcated through Melanchthon into the Reformation have devastated a large part of the movement.  Yet, to cast the blanket judgment of “evil” upon the Reformer is to do him an injustice.  One may very well suspect that Luther and Calvin were too moderate with him but one must still reckon with the fact that both of those perceptive and fearless theologians were moderate with him, although they knew his opposition to several of their chiefest doctrines.  His talents and zeal played a large positive role in advancing the cause of the Reformation and everyone knew this well.

As far as concerns Melanchthon’s incessant compromising, the heart of the trouble is revealed in this reproof of Philip by Luther.  Melanchthon was inextricably enmeshed in the aberglaube of dreams and astrology.  Before he would engage in important work, he must investigate the favorability of the stars.  At first, Luther let the superstition pass as a mere foible.  Finally, however, the impatient Luther roared that it did not matter if the stars were favorable, what counted was that Christ was favorable.37  The assurance, the confidence, the faith that moves mountains was not Melanchthon’s.  He wavered, he vacillated, he conceded, he comprised, to the detriment of the gospel and the defaming of the name of God.

At the very core of all Philip’s spiritual ailments lay the heresy of synergism with its host of concomitants.  Essentially, there is no difference between synergism and Pelagianism, as there is none between Palagianism and Arminianism.  Man is naturally good.  Man is able to assist God, no, God must wait for and depend upon man’s acquiescence.  Synergism dethrones God and replaces Him with the creature.  With this comes the denial of God’s absolute sovereignty.  He does not elect and reprobate according to His own good pleasure.  Melanchthon carried the Lutheran Church with him on this score.  The central position of Luther, who stated that the only truths he ever wrote were to be found in his Bondage of the Human Will and his Commentary on Galatians, finds little expression in modern Lutheranism.  At the very outset of the mighty liberation of God’s people from papal bondage, the false doctrines were present which were to harass the forces of truth continually, up to the present moment.  There need be no repetition here of the occasions when the serpent of co-operation-in-salvation reared its ugly head against the truth of sovereign grace.

Philip Melanchthon was a hard-pressed figure in harsh times.  He was ambivalent, paradoxical, and contradictory.  As a person, he does not lend himself to judgment.  Nor is that the calling of theological critics.  But his teachings, his doctrines, his beliefs must be weighed and found wanting, both as they appeared in the 16th century and as they reveal themselves today.  Nor will they be found in the church alone.  For Melanchthon was highly influential in the establishment of the school movement.  Wherever it be found, however it be clothed, by whomever it be sounded, the doctrine that denies “by grace are ye saved” is the doctrine that does not lead to the glory of God the Father.

  1. Hildebrandt, op. cit., p. 67
  2. Manschreck, op. cit., p. 195 quoting Luther
  3. Schaff, op. cit., Vol III, p. 603
  4. Schaff, ibid., p. 39, quoting a letter of Calvin (1550)
  5. Quoted by Manschreck, op. cit., p. 292
  6. Hilderandt, op. cit., p. 70