The German scholar and humanist Philip Melancthon (1497-1560) was the chief systematic theologian of the early Reformation and principal author of the famous Augsburg Confession of 1530.
Philip Melancthon was born Philip Schwartzerd at Bretten in Swabia, the son of George and Barbara Schwartzerd. His earliest education was supervised by his father and grandfather and, after their deaths in 1508, was directed by his grandmother's brother, the famous jurist and Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin. Schwartzerd means "black earth," and Reuchlin is said to have been so impressed with his grandnephew's scholarly talents that he insisted that Philip use the Greek form of "black earth," hence the name Melancthon. The young Melancthon studied at Pforzheim and Heidelberg, receiving a bachelor of arts degree from the latter in 1511. He took his master's degree at Tübingen in 1514 and began to lecture there on Latin and Greek literature. Like many young humanists, Melancthon had considerable doubts about a number of ecclesiastical practices, and he helped to edit the scathing satire against his granduncle's ecclesiastical enemies, The Letters of Obscure Men, in 1514-1515.
Melancthon's academic reputation began to grow, and in 1518, at the age of 21, he was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg, against the early objections of Martin Luther and Georg Spalatin, court chaplain to the elector Frederick the Wise. Melancthon's inaugural address on the ideal program of education for young people won over Luther completely, thus commencing a friendship which was to last until Luther's death.
In 1518-1519 Melancthon drew closer to Luther's criticisms of scholastic theology and ecclesiastical abuses, supporting Luther at the Leipzig debates with Johann Eck in 1519. In the same year he received his bachelor of theology degree, his thesis supporting many of the critical points of Luther's reform: justification by faith, and opposition to papal authority. Luther characterized their relationship with the following accurate observation: "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 Philip comes along softly and gently sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him."
During Luther's seclusion in the Wartburg in 1521-1522, Melancthon defended his friend against the condemnations of the University of Paris and attempted to preserve Luther's moderate reforms in Wittenberg against the enthusiastic and radical take-over by Karlstadt.
In 1521 Melancthon began a new phase of his career—that of chief systematic theologian of the Reformation. He published in that year (and would spend the rest of his life revising) his Loci communes, a system of Christian doctrine based chiefly upon the writings of St. Paul. The work has remained to this day one of the foundations of Protestant thought. Melancthon was not merely a writer but a teacher and educational theorist as well. Like Luther, he lectured all his life at Wittenberg, for a time overworking himself by teaching theology in addition to his regularly assigned classical teaching.
In 1530 Melancthon took on the task of answering the growing Catholic criticism of the increasingly fragmented Protestant sects. Keeping before him the idea of eventually reconciling all Christians, Melancthon presented a statement of Protestant doctrine to the emperor Charles V at Augsburg in 1530 (hence the title the Augsburg Confession) in which he attempted to unite all Christians in a series of fundamental beliefs. Melancthon was bitterly answered by Eck, and his later efforts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants were rendered futile by Protestant sectarianism and Catholic intransigence. In 1529, however, he mediated between Luther and Huldreich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy and, in 1536, between Luther and Martin Bucer in formulating the Wittenberg Concord. "If I could purchase union by my own death," Melancthon said, "I would gladly sacrifice my life."
The death of Luther in 1546 and of Melancthon's daughter Anna in 1547 weakened the theologian, who now turned to composing prayers, some of them the most moving in all Christian liturgy. Melancthon died on April 19, 1560, his hopes for reconciliation of the Christian Churches not fulfilled to this day.
Further Reading on Philip Melancthon
Melancthon's Loci communes has been translated into English and edited by Clyde Manschreck in his Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine (1965). The best life of Melancthon is also by Manschreck, Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer (1958). A shorter study, particularly useful as an introduction to Melancthon's life and thought, is Robert Stupperich, Melanchthon, translated by R. H. Fischer (1965). For Melancthon and the Reformation in general see The New Cambridge Modern History (12 vols., 1957-1970).