Luther's Life: Melanchthon, a Dear Friend
The name “Martin Luther” tends to conjure up solitary images. Whether he was pinning his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, making speeches before an Imperial court at Worms, or hiding out in Wartburg Castle translating the Bible, we often picture Luther alone. But then there are the domestic scenes of Luther with his Katherine and children, or spouting his famous “Table Talk” over supper with companions. And we cannot remember Luther rightly unless we recall his calmer, quieter friend Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).
Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg to be professor of Greek at age 21. He came to be regarded in his field as second only to Erasmus. Unlike Erasmus, however, Melanchthon found that he agreed with the German monk’s analysis of St. Paul’s epistles.[i] In turn, Luther, 14 years his senior, gladly sat under his lectures and even published them without his permission. A friendship was sparked that would be marked throughout (even in the midst of intense personal conflict) by mutual admiration. Two years after they met, Melanchthon said, “he would rather die than be separated from Luther,” and later that same year he stated, “Martin’s welfare is dearer to me than my own life.”[ii]
The year they met was crucial for Luther, who was summoned to Rome in 1518 for “trial on suspicion of heresy”. Philip intervened, sending word to Elector Fredrick the Wise urging him not to cave in to the demands of the Papal delegate who insisted Luther be handed over in chains to Rome. During Luther’s debate at Leipzig, his opponent John Eck became perturbed by the involvement of the young upstart Greek scholar feeding Luther information and ideas, and wrote a violent denunciation. Ignoring Eck’s personal attacks, he responded with a defense of Luther’s doctrines and the Scriptural authority on which they stood.[iii] Mild mannered Melanchthon was being drawn into the life and death struggle of the thundering reformer.
Linked in battle against the powers of the day, their friendship was forever sealed. Yet the contrast between them is as important for appreciating the significance of their friendship to the Protestant Reformation as the unity of their cause. Luther described it well when he wrote his preface to Melanchthon’s Commentary on Colossians in 1529:
I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. … I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philippus comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.[iv]
While Luther never wrote a complete systematic theology, Melanchthon composed the Loci Communes, which influenced later Protestant doctrinal manuals including Calvin’s Institutes. He also penned the Augsburg Confession (1530), which lies behind the reformation Church of England’s Thirty-nine articles, and impacted Westminster, Dort, and Heidelberg.[v] He moderated debates and discussions between the Lutherans and both Rome and other Protestants. He even forged a second, seemingly unlikely friendship with John Calvin.[vi] His orderly mind and irenic tone made him a necessary complement to Luther’s fire, allowing him to persevere in conversations where Luther was known to literally overturn tables!
The work of reformation certainly requires Martins, but we sometimes dismiss its Philips out of hand as cowards. We celebrate brash combatants, and forget conciliatory thinkers. But we should recall how Luther and Melanchthon strengthened each other. Melanchthon was agonizing over the Augsburg Confession, and wrote to Luther, who wrote back, bolstering his friend. The day after Philip’s confession was presented, Cardinal Campeggio stood up and attacked the Protestants. Melanchthon replied that they could not “desert the truth” and prayed that the Catholics would concede to them what they could not relinquish. Campeggio responded that he would never concede, asserting, “The keys do not err.” Melanchthon then declared, “To God we will commit our cause and ourselves. If God be for us, who can be against us?”[vii] May we all prove such friends of peace and truth in our
Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.
[i] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950), 92.
[ii] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: Modern Christianity: The German Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 192.
[iii] Clyde Leonard Manschreck, Melancthhon: The Quiet Reformer (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), 44-50.
[iv] Quoted in Schaff, 193.
[v] Manschreck, 13-14.
[vi] See James T. Hickman, “The Friendship of Melanchthon and Calvin,” in Westminster Theological Journal 38.2 (1976), 152-165, for analysis of their correspondence.
[vii] Manschreck, 196.