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We Remember Philipp Melanchthon

Commemoration of Philipp Melanchthon (birth), Confessor
February 16

The Lord be with you

Philipp Melanchthon was born February 16, 1497 as Philipp Schwarzerd. Following the practice of many scholars of the day, Philipp translated his last name, which means “black earth,” into its Latin equivalent. He died April 19, 1560. Perhaps his birthday is used instead of his death date because April 19 can also be Easter. Perhaps this day was selected because it is so close to the Commemoration of Martin Luther, Doctor and Confessor (February 18). These two men were fast friends and, to this day, major influences within the Visible Church.

Melanchthon was a brilliant student of the classics and a humanist scholar. His influence during the early stages of the Lutheran Reformation is, perhaps, second only to Martin Luther. When I say “brilliant,” I’m not exaggerating. At the age of 12 he was completely fluent in Latin. At 13 he had added the language of Greek to his skill set. After attending Latin school in Pforzheim, he attended the University of Heidelberg and then the University of Tübingen, where he received his master’s degree in 1516 (the year he turned 19). He soon became known as one of the top humanist scholars in the world. In 1518, at the age of 21, he was called to the new University of Wittenberg as its first professor of Greek. At Luther’s urging, Melanchthon undertook the teaching of theology and Scripture in addition to his work on Aristotle and classical studies (even though he was a layman and was never ordained). He was a very popular lecturer with class attendance often well over 100. (To be honest, his classes drew far more students than Luther’s.) The combination of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg made the university one of the leading schools in Europe during much of the sixteenth century. His theology lectures became the foundation for his extremely influential Loci Communes, the first compendium of Lutheran doctrine.

Along with his many other responsibilities, Melanchthon was placed in charge of reforming the schools in Saxony. He was so successful that his model was copied all over Germany. He is, therefore, sometimes called the “teacher of Germany.” His Greek grammar was used for several centuries to teach the language.

In April 1530, Charles V called an official meeting (called a “diet’) between the representatives of Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. The meeting was held in the Imperial City of Augsburg, Germany. Charles wanted to reunite Christendom under the Roman Pope so he could present a united front against the advancing “Turk” (the Ottoman Empire). Luther could not attend because he had been excommunicated by the Roman Church and placed under the imperial ban. In other words, he was an outlaw now and could be killed on sight. Melanchthon was the unanimous choice to be the main theological representative of the Lutheran Christians to assist the princes. The meeting was to be held June 25.

In 1530, there were all sorts of groups breaking away from the Roman Church. Some of them had ideas that were clearly not Christian, like denying the Trinity. The Lutherans discovered that they were going to be accused of subscribing to all of them. So Melanchthon drew up a document, in consultation with Luther via letters, which accented common ground with the Roman Church. It also presented where the Lutherans differed, but the overall tone of the confession of faith was that of an olive branch.

It was said by eye-witnesses that, when the Augsburg Confession was read on June 25, you could hear a pin drop. The Roman representatives were not ready. To utterly condemn the Lutherans as heretics could not be done because that would mean that they condemned much that they believed themselves (like the Trinity). They hastily drew up a document, called the Confutation, and it was read the next day. It was so poorly received that people burst into laughter at various points.

While only a handful had signed the Augsburg Confession before it was presented (7 princes and representatives from 2 “free cities”), it quickly spread and was accepted as a faithful expression of the Christian Faith by most of evangelical Germany within 15 years. It actually became the model of a confession of faith even for those who did not accept the Augsburg Confession, copying it wholesale and changing only the parts they didn’t like.

It is for his work on the Augsburg Confession that Melanchthon is chiefly remembered today. It is still considered the defining document of Lutheranism within Christendom.

The story of Melanchthon can inspire us to know where we stand in our Christian Faith, and why we believe what we believe.

Prayer: Almighty God, we praise You for the service of Philipp Melanchthon to the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church in the renewal of its life in fidelity to Your Word and promise. Raise up in these gray and latter days faithful teachers and pastors, inspired by Your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to Your Church and proclaim the ongoing reality of Your kingdom; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Tidbit: Melanchthon is remembered on the Methodist calendar on April 19 (his death date) and in the ELCA on June 25, along with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession (his greatest achievement).

Melanchthon on Joining a Church

We should know that there must be a public ministry of the Gospel and public assemblies, as we are taught in Ephesians 4:10-12. And this assembly we must join; of this visible assembly we must be citizens and members, as the psalmist commands us: “Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8); and again: “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts!” (Psalm 84:1). These and similar passages do not speak of a Platonic idea, but are talking about the visible church, in which the voice of the Gospel resounds and where there is witnessed the ministry of the Gospel. And thus God reveals Himself and is efficacious. And we should not praise those vagabonds who roam about and join no congregation because they cannot find an ideal [church] in which there is not something lacking in morals and discipline. We should rather seek the church in which the articles of faith are taught purely and no idolatry is defended. That church we should join, hear, and love its doctrine as we unite our intercession and confession with their prayers and confession. We should also learn to support it in order that it may not be devastated. For where there are no assemblies, there the voice of the Gospel becomes silent. So the Muslim tyrants in many places destroy all churches and did not permit even their own people to assemble. We should recognize that such satanic devastations and dispersions are a dreadful and very great evil. Therefore, we should ask God that He may preserve His congregations, and we ourselves should support them with all our resources.
(Treasury of Daily Prayer, Concordia Publishing House)

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Rickert

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