By Simonetta Carr

Philip Melanchthon and His Friendship with Luther

Philip Melanchthon was a brilliant scholar (one of the greatest Greek interpreters of his day), an insightful theologian, and Martin Luther’s right-hand man. Today, his memory is often limited to his mention in some of Luther’s most famous quotations.

            He was, for example, the indecisive companion Luther chided with his often misquoted “Sin boldly!” He was also one of the drinking buddies in Luther’s notorious quote, “While I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it.”

            In reality, he had a major impact on both the history and theology of the Protestant Reformations. His search for fair and middle ground caused him to be appreciated as official representative of Protestantism in several European meetings, and his proven clarity as writer of religious confessions gained him an invitation to England to compose a similar document. Melanchthon declined this invitation, apparently because a horoscope told him he would die during sea travel. In any case, Queen Mary came to the throne the same year.

            The same search for middle ground brought Melanchthon some criticism in both Reformed and Lutheran circles. Interestingly, however, Luther continued to hold his friend in high esteem, even when their views differed.

Melanchthon’s Life

            Melanchthon was born as Philip Schwarzerdt on 16 February 1497 in Bretten (Baden, Germany), home of his mother Barbara. His father Georg, one of the best armor-makers in the country, died nine years later, allegedly poisoned by a rival of the Elector Philip the Upright (one of his clients). To weaken a prince, kill his armorer. 

            Barbara sent Philip and his brother Georg Jr. to school in nearby Pforzheim. Philip’s propensity for academic studies was clear. Since it was common for scholars to translate their last names in Latin or Greek, a distant relative, Johann Reuchlin, gave him the name Melanchthon as Greek equivalent of Schwarzerdt (“black earth”).

            After further studies, Melanchthon’s proficiency in Greek earned him a position of professor of that language at the University of Wittenberg, where he met Luther. Immediately, a strong bond formed between the two Reformers.

            It was Luther who persuaded Melanchthon to marry Catherine Krapp, daughter of Wittenberg’s burgomaster. Catherine was described as pious and devoted, even if not as efficient as Luther’s wife Katharina. Together, Catherine and Philip had four children.

             Melanchthon’s most famous writing was a book on systematic theology, Loci Communes, which was the first of its kind in the Reformation and remained the main summary of the Protestant faith for many years. As Calvin did with his Institutes, Melanchthon kept revising the Loci throughout his life. He also proofread Luther’s translation of the New Testament from Greek to German and wrote several commentaries.

            A test of his leadership came in 1520-1521, when Luther (after the Diet of Worms) was confined in the Castle of Wartburg. Together with Amsdorf, he guided the population of Wittenberg in the transition from Roman Catholicism, dealing with both reluctancy and extremism. 

            Ten years later, when Emperor Charles V summoned the Protestant princes to defend their faith at the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchthon was chosen as their representative. It was in that occasion that he wrote the Augsburg Confession (now in the Lutheran Book of Concord), which is still the main confessional standard of Lutheranism.

Melanchthon and Luther

            Luther and Melanchthon had contrasting personalities but seemed to complement each other. Luther was bold, outspoken, and sociable. He combated depression by mingling with people and looking away from his navel. Melanchthon, instead, was careful and introverted, ready to shy away from controversies.

            Letting God work while he drank beer with Luther was probably a comfort to him. “If I were my own master, I would prefer to hide myself away in some kind of solitude than to be involved in such a throng of affairs,”[1] he once confessed to his friend Joachim Camerarius regarding the religious battles in England and France. 

            Melanchthon’s discouragement over the struggles of the Reformation and the criticism of several detractors reached an all time low in 1540. “I have been like Prometheus on the rock,” he wrote to Camerarius. “I feel as if I must sink and die.”

            Eventually, the depression affected his overall health, weakening his defenses against a tertiary fever and forcing him to stay in bed. According to Luther’s biographer Martin Brecht, Luther found his friend “deathly ill, changed beyond recognition, unable to hear or speak.”[2]

            Quite characteristically, Luther went to the window to let out his complaints to God, claiming God’s promises and telling Him He had to hear him if he “were to trust any of His other promises.”[3] Finally, he turned to Melanchthon and ordered him to eat. When Melanchthon refused, he told him he had to, or he would be excommunicated.

            Luther’s methods might not have been the most pastorally sensitive but showed great concern for his friend. Luther himself had many bouts of depression, “but not all the time.” He thought Melanchthon was “constantly tormenting himself” and “sucking up cares like a leech.”[4] In any case, he offered to hurry to his side any time Melanchthon needed him.

            Melanchton’s cares included the marriage of his first daughter Anna, which he had arranged with one of his favorite students. The student turned out to be an abuser, and Anna died soon after giving birth to her sixth child, leaving Melanchthon plagued by both grief and regret.

            Thankfully, his second daughter Magdalena enjoyed a happy marriage. She and her husband (another of Melanchthon’s students) lived in a home built for them behind Melanchthon’s house, providing the gentle Reformer with a cheerful family atmosphere.

            While we don’t know much about Catherine, she must have been of great comfort to Melanchthon, who wrote moving words of praise at her death in 1557 (while he was at the Colloquy of Worms).

            Melanchthon didn’t survive long after her departure. When he died in 1560, 14 years after Luther’s death, he was buried next to dear his friend in the Castle-church of Wittenberg.

 



[1] Melanchthon’s Briefwechsel, Regesten 2; Melanchthon’s Briefwechsel. Texte 6, 1489, p. 198, quoted in Anja-Leena Laitakari-Pyykkö, “Philip Melanchthon’s Influence on English Theological Thought During the Early English Reformation,” Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2013, 62 https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10138/41764/Pyykko_Dissertati...

[2] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532-1546, Volume 3, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 210

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. and transl. by Theodore Tappert, Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1960, pp. 146-147.

 


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