by Michael Wilson
While Martin Luther is by any measure the most studied and known reformer, his shadow has obscured the life of a very influential person who assisted him. That individual was Philip Melanchthon, known as the quiet reformer.
On February 16, 1497, Philip was born in Bretten, Germany where his father was the master of armory for the elector of Saxony. In 1507, Melanchthon’s father died, causing Philip to live with his grandmother. While living with his grandmother, Dr. Johann Reuchlin became involved in his life.
An Incredible Mind
Through Dr. Reuchlin, Philip’s learning was greatly enhanced. At the age of twelve, Philip entered the University of Heidelberg; two years later he completed his bachelor’s degree.
In January 1514 when Philip was seventeen, he received his master’s degree from the university at Tübingen and began teaching philosophy as a faculty member immediately.
Then in 1517, the Elector of Saxony decided that he did not want to see the University of Wittenberg fall behind the times and so Philip was brought to the university to teach Greek. Melanchthon was selected because he was one of the most educated men in Germany. At this point in time, he had already written a Greek textbook.
When Philip Melanchthon came to the university, he impressed many people with his ability to lecture. Among them was a theology professor named Martin Luther.
The Mind of Melanchthon, The Fire of Luther
Very shortly thereafter Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon became friends and worked together in a number of ways. When Luther was in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, Melanchthon took over Luther’s lectureship at the university. After Luther came back from hiding, Melanchthon helped him refine his translation of the Bible.
While Martin Luther was busy writing on various theological topics, Philip Melanchthon wrote the first general summary of theology from an evangelical perspective: Loci Communes (Basic Concepts). Luther stated that the book was almost good enough to be considered part of the canon of Scripture. Melanchthon would become the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation.
Melanchthon wrote the first general summary of theology from an evangelical perspective. He was the first systematic theologian of the Reformation.
In 1530 an imperial diet took place in Augsburg to craft a statement in an attempt to bring religious unity. Through the work of Melanchthon and the consultation of Luther the Augsburg Confession was written. This is considered to be one of the most important documents in the Lutheran Reformation.
When Martin Luther died in February 1546, Philip Melanchthon delivered the oration at the funeral. The relationship between Luther and Melanchthon is a beautiful example of how great things are not solely accomplished by one individual at the forefront like Martin Luther; almost without exception, there are supporting people who assist from the less visible angle like Philip Melanchthon. Simply because someone is less visible does not mean that they are less important to the cause of Kingdom-building.
Criticized, Quiet, Forgotten
Not long after Luther’s death, Charles V, of the Holy Roman Empire, invaded Germany attacking the portions of the country that had accepted the Reformation. Charles then forced a decree, called the Augsburg Interim, on Germany which was supposed to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. However, the document was very hard on the Lutherans.
It soon became clear that a revision of the interim was necessary. Philip Melanchthon would be heavily involved in the revision that would become known as the Leipzig Interim. The problem was that this interim caused as many problems as the first one for the Lutherans. Melanchthon would never live down his involvement in the interim process.
Throughout Philip's life he was known as a quiet, pious man who was moderate and committed to finding unity.
In the last few years of his life, Philip Melanchthon became rather ill. When he was near death, he was asked by a doctor if he wanted anything. Philip’s reply was, “Nothing expect heaven; ask me no more.” Philip Melanchthon died on April 19, 1560 and was buried, in the floor of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, beside Martin Luther.
Throughout Philip's life he was known as a quiet, pious man who was moderate and committed to finding unity. Philip Melanchthon's impact is difficult to assess because of how closely his life is tied to Matin Luther's legacy. We know this: his influence was history-shaping and, like many, has been largely relegated to the dust bin of history. While his popularity waned, Melanchthon made amazing contributions to the larger movement of the Reformation.
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Wilson, George. Philip Melanchthon, 1497-1560. London: Religious Tracts Society, 1897.
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