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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 41. Luther and Melanchthon.


P. Schaff: Luther und Melanchthon, In his "Der Deutsche Kirchenfreund," Mercersburg, Pa., vol. III. (1850), pp. 58–64. E. L. Henke: Das Verhältniss Luthers und Melanchthons zu einander. Festrede am 19 April, 1860. Marburg (28 pages). Compare also Döllinger: Die Reformation, vol. i. 349 sqq.


"Wo sich das strenge mit dem Zarten,

Wo Starkes sich und Mildes paarten,

Da giebt es einen guten Klang." (Schiller.)


In great creative epochs of the Church, God associates congenial leaders for mutual help and comfort. In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, we find Luther and Melanchthon in Germany, Zwingli and Oecolampadius, Farel and Viret, Calvin and Beza in Switzerland, Craniner, Latimer, and Ridley in England, Knox and Melville in Scotland, working together with different gifts, but in the same spirit and for the same end. The Methodist revival of the eighteenth century was carried on by the co-operation of the two Wesleys and Whitefield; and the Anglo-Catholic movement of the nineteenth, by the association of Pusey, Newman, and Keble.

Immediately after his arrival at the Saxon University, on the Elbe, Melanchthon entered into an intimate relation with Luther, and became his most useful and influential co-laborer. He looked up to his elder colleague with the veneration of a son, and was carried away and controlled (sometimes against his better judgment) by the fiery genius of the Protestant Elijah; while Luther regarded him as his superior in learning, and was not ashamed to sit humbly at his feet. He attended his exegetical lectures, and published them, without the author’s wish and knowledge, for the benefit of the Church. Melanchthon declared in April, 1520, that "he would rather die than be separated from Luther;" and in November of the same year, "Martin’s welfare is dearer to me than my own life." Luther was captivated by Melanchthon’s first lecture; he admired his scholarship, loved his character, and wrote most enthusiastically about him in confidential letters to Spalatin, Reuchlin, Lange, Scheurl, and others, lauding him as a prodigy of learning and piety.222222    Lutherus ad Reuchlinum, Dec. 14, 1518: "Philippus noster Melanchthon, homo admirabilis, imo pene nihil habens, quod non supra hominem sit, familiarissimus tamen et amicissimus mihi." To Billikan he wrote in 1523 (De Wette, II. 407): "Den Philippus achte ich nicht anders als mich selbst, ausgenomnen in Hinsicht auf seine Gelehrsamkeit und die Unbescholtenheit seines Lebens, wodurch er mich, dass ich nicht blos sage, übertrifft." In his humorous way he once invited him (Oct. 18, 1518) to supper under the address: "Philippo Melanchthoni, Schwarzerd, Graeco, Latino, Hebraeo, Germano, nunquam Barbaro." The testimonies of Luther on Mel. are collected in the first and last vols. of the "Corp. Reform." (especially XXViiib. 9 and 10).

The friendship of these two great and good men is one of the most delightful chapters in the religious drama of the sixteenth century. It rested on mutual personal esteem and hearty German affection, but especially on the consciousness of a providential mission intrusted to their united labors. Although somewhat disturbed, at a later period, by slight doctrinal differences and occasional ill-humor,223223    Melanchthon hints also, in one of his confidential letters, at female influence, the γυναικοτυράννις, as an incidental element in the disturbance. Corp. Ref.," III. 398. it lasted to the end; and as they worked together for the same cause, so they now rest under the same roof in the castle church at Wittenberg, at whose doors Luther had nailed the war-cry of the Reformation.

Melanchthon descended from South Germany, Luther from North Germany; the one from the well-to-do middle classes of citizens and artisans, the other from the rough but sturdy peasantry. Melanchthon had a quiet, literary preparation for his work: Luther experienced much hardship and severe moral conflicts. The former passed to his Protestant conviction through the door of classical studies, the latter through the door of monastic asceticism; the one was fore-ordained to a professor’s chair, the other to the leadership of an army of conquest.

Luther best understood and expressed the difference of temper and character; and it is one of his noble traits, that he did not allow it to interfere with the esteem and admiration for his younger friend and colleague. "I prefer the books of Master Philippus to my own," he wrote in 1529.224224    In his preface to Melanchthon’s Commentary on Colossians. "I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. 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."

Luther was incomparably the stronger man of the two, and differed from Melanchthon as the wild mountain torrent differs from the quiet stream of the meadow, or as the rushing tempest from the gentle breeze, or, to use a scriptural illustration, as the fiery Paul from the contemplative John. Luther was a man of war, Melanchthon a man of peace. Luther’s writings smell of powder; his words are battles; he overwhelms his opponents with a roaring cannonade of argument, eloquence, passion, and abuse. Melanchthon excels in moderation and amiability, and often exercised a happy restraint upon the unmeasured violence of his colleague. Once when Luther in his wrath burst out like a thunderstorm, Melanchthon quieted him by the line, —


"Vince animos iramque tuam qui caetera vincis."

Luther was a creative genius, and pioneer of new paths; Melanchthon, a profound scholar of untiring industry. The one was emphatically the man for the people, abounding in strong and clear sense, popular eloquence, natural wit, genial humor, intrepid courage, and straightforward honesty. The other was a quiet, considerate, systematic thinker; a man of order, method, and taste, and gained the literary circles for the cause of the Reformation. He is the principal founder of a Protestant theology, and the author of the Augsburg Confession, the chief symbol of the Lutheran Church. He very properly represented the evangelical cause in all the theological conferences with the Roman-Catholic party at Augsburg, Speier, Worms, Frankfort, Ratisbon, where Luther’s presence would only have increased the heat of controversy, and widened the breach. Luther was unyielding and uncompromising against Romanism and Zwinglianism: Melanchthon was always ready for compromise and peace, as far as his honest convictions would allow, and sincerely labored to restore the broken unity of the Church. He was even willing, as his qualified subscription to the Articles of Smalcald shows, to admit a certain supremacy of the Pope (jure humano), provided he would tolerate the free preaching of the gospel. But Popery and evangelical freedom will never agree.

Luther was the boldest, the most heroic and commanding; Melanchthon, the most gentle, pious, and conscientious, of the Reformers. Melanchthon had a sensitive and irritable temperament, though under good control, and lacked courage; he felt, more keenly and painfully than any other, the tremendous responsibility of the great religious movement in which he was engaged. He would have made any personal sacrifice if he could have removed the confusion and divisions attendant upon it.225225    Der Schmerz der Kirchenspaltung ist tief durch seine schuldlose Seele gegangen."Hase, Kirchengesch., 11th ed. (1886), p. 372. On several occasions he showed, no doubt, too much timidity and weakness; but his concessions to the enemy, and his disposition to compromise for the sake of peace and unity, proceeded always from pure and conscientious motives.

The two Wittenberg Reformers were brought together by the hand of Providence, to supply and complete each other, and by their united talents and energies to carry forward the German Reformation, which would have assumed a very different character if it had been exclusively left in the hands of either of them.

Without Luther the Reformation would never have taken hold of the common people: without Melanchthon it would never have succeeded among the scholars of Germany. Without Luther, Melanchthon would have become a second Erasmus, though with a profounder interest in religion; and the Reformation would have resulted in a liberal theological school, instead of giving birth to a Church. However much the humble and unostentatious labors and merits of Melanchthon are overshadowed by the more striking and brilliant deeds of the heroic Luther, they were, in their own way, quite as useful and indispensable. The "still small voice" often made friends to Protestantism where the earthquake and thunder-storm produced only terror and convulsion.

Luther is greatest as a Reformer, Melanchthon as a Christian scholar. He represents in a rare degree the harmony of humanistic culture with biblical theology and piety. In this respect he surpassed all his contemporaries, even Erasmus and Reuchlin. He is, moreover, the connecting link between contending churches, and a forerunner of Christian union and catholicity which will ultimately heal the divisions and strifes of Christendom. To him applies the beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God."

The friendship of Luther and Melanchthon drew into its charming circle also some other worthy and remarkable residents of Wittenberg,—Lucas Cranach the painter, who lent his art to the service of the Reformation; Justus Jonas, who came to Wittenberg in 1521 as professor and provost of the castle church, translated several writings of Luther and Melanchthon into German, and accompanied the former to Worms (1521), and on his last journey to Eisleben (1546); and Johann Bugenhagen, called Doctor Pomeranus, who moved from Pomerania to Wittenberg in 1521 as professor and preacher, and lent the Reformers most effective aid in translating the Bible, and organized the Reformation in several cities of North Germany and in Denmark.



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