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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 64. Melanchthon’s Theology.


See Literature in § 38, pp. 182 sq. The 21st vol. of the "Corpus Reformatorum" (1106 fol. pages) is devoted to the various editions of Melanchthon’s Loci Theologici, and gives bibliographical lists (fol. 59 sqq.; 561 sqq.), and also an earlier outline from an unpublished MS. Comp. Carl Schmidt, Phil. Mel., pp. 64–75; and on Melanchthon’s doctrinal changes, Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1. 261 sqq.


While Luther translated the New Testament on the Wartburg, Melanchthon prepared the first system of Protestant theology at Wittenberg. Both drew from the same fountain, and labored for the same end, but in different ways. Luther built up the Reformation among the people in the German tongue; Melanchthon gave it methodical shape for scholars by his Latin writings. The former worked in the quarries, and cut the rough blocks of granite; the latter constructed the blocks into a habitable building. Luther expressed a modest self-estimate, and a high estimate of his friend, when he said that his superiority was more "in the rhetorical way," while Melanchthon was "a better logician and reasoner."

Melanchthon finished his "Theological Common-Places or Ground-Thoughts (Loci Communes or Loci Theologici), in April, 1521, and sent the proof-sheets to Luther on the Wartburg. They appeared for the first time before the Close of that year.466466    Under the title: Loci communes rerum theologicarum seu hypotyposes theologicae, Wittenberg, 1521. Bindseil puts the publication in December. I have a copy of the Leipzig ed. of M.D.LIX., which numbers 858 pages without indices, and bears the title: Loci Praecipui Theologici. Nunc denuo cura et diligentia summa recogniti, multisque in locis copiose illustrati, cum appendice disputationis de conjugio, etc.

This book marks an epoch in the history of theology. It grew out of exegetical lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, the Magna Charta of the evangelical system. It is an exposition of the leading doctrines of sin and grace, repentance and salvation. It is clear, fresh, thoroughly biblical, and practical. Its main object is to show that man cannot be saved by works of the law or by his own merits, but only by the free grace of God in Christ as revealed in the gospel. It presents the living soul of divinity, in striking contrast to the dry bones of degenerate scholasticism with its endless theses, antitheses, definitions, divisions, and subdivisions.

The first edition was written in the interest of practical Christianity rather than scientific theology. It is meagre in the range of topics, and defective in execution. It is confined to anthropology and soteriology, and barely mentions the metaphysical doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation, as transcendent mysteries to be adored rather than curiously discussed. It has a polemical hearing against the Romanists, in view of the recent condemnation of Luther by the Sorbonne. It also contains some crude and extreme opinions which the author afterwards abandoned. Altogether in its first shape it was an unripe production, though most remarkable if we consider the youth of the author, who was then only twenty-four years of age.

Melanchthon shared at first Luther’s antipathy to scholastic theology; but he learned to distinguish between pure and legitimate scholasticism and a barren formalism, as also between the Aristotelian philosophy itself and the skeleton of it which was worshiped as an idol in the universities at that time. He knew especially the value of Aristotle’s ethics, wrote a commentary on the same (1529), and made important original contributions to the science of Christian ethics in his Philosophiae Moralis Epitome (1535).467467    See his ethical writings in vol. XVI. of his Opera, in the "Corp. Reform.," and a discussion of their merits in Wuttke’s Handbuch der christl. Sittenlehre, 3d ed. (1874), I. 148 sqq.

Under his improving hand, the Loci assumed in subsequent editions the proportions of a full, mature, and well-proportioned system, stated in calm, clear, dignified language, freed from polemics against the Sorbonne and contemptuous flings at the schoolmen and Fathers. He embraced in twenty-four chapters all the usual topics from God and the creation to the resurrection of the body, with a concluding chapter on Christian liberty. He approached the scholastic method, and even ventured, in opposition to the Anti-Trinitarians, on a new speculative proof of the Holy Trinity from psychological analogies. He never forsakes the scriptural basis, but occasionally quotes also the Fathers to show their supposed or real agreement with evangelical doctrines.

Melanchthon’s theology, like that of Luther, grew from step to step in the heat of controversy. Calvin’s Institutes came finished from his brain, like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter.

The Loci prepared the way for the Augsburg Confession (1530), in which Melanchthon gave to the leading doctrines official shape and symbolical authority for the Lutheran Church. But he did not stop there, and passed through several changes, which we must anticipate in order to form a proper estimate of that work.

The editions of his theological manual are divided into three classes: 1, those from 1521 to 1535; 2, those from 1535 to 1544; 3, those from 1544 to 1559. The edition of 1535 (dedicated to King Henry VIII. of England, and translated into German by Justus Jonas) was a thorough revision. This and the editions which followed embody, besides additions in matter and improvements in style, important modifications of his views on predestination and free will, on the real presence, and on justification by faith. He gave up necessitarianism for synergism, the corporeal presence in the eucharist for a spiritual real presence, and solifidianism for the necessity of good works. In the first and third article he made an approach to the Roman-Catholic system, in the second to Calvinism.

The changes were the result of his continued study of the Bible and the Fathers, and his personal conferences with Roman and Reformed divines at Augsburg and in the colloquies of Frankfort, Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisbon. He calls them elucidations of obscurities, moderations of extreme views, and sober second thoughts.468468    See his letters to his friend Camerarius, 2 Sept. 1535 ("Corp. Ref." II. 936), and Dec. 24, 1535 (ib. II. 1027): "Ego nunc in meis Locis multa mitigavi." ... "In Locis meis videor habere δευτέρας φροντίδας." His letters are interspersed with Greek words and classical reminiscences.

1. He denied at first, with Luther and Augustin, all freedom of the human will in spiritual things.469469    Loc. Theol., 1521 A.7: "Quandoquidem omnia quae eveniunt, necessario juxta divinam praedestinationem eveniunt, nulla est voluntatis nostrae libertas." He refers to Rom. 9 and 11 and Matt. 10:29. He even held the Stoic doctrine of the necessary occurrence of all actions, bad as well as good, including the adultery of David and the treason of Judas as well as the conversion of Paul.470470    In his Com. in Ep. ad Roman., 1524, cap. 8: "Itaque sit haec certa sententia, a Deo fieri omnia tam bona quam mala ... Constat Deum omnia facere non permissive sed potenter,—ita ut sit ejus proprium opus Judae proditio, sicut Pauli vocatio." Luther published this commentary without Melanchthon’s knowledge, and humorously dedicated it to him.

But on closer examination, and partly under the influence of Erasmus, he abandoned this stoic fatalism as a dangerous error, inconsistent with Christianity and morality. He taught instead a co-operation of the divine and human will in the work of conversion; thus anticipating Arminianism, and approaching the older semi-Pelagianism, but giving the initiative to divine grace. "God," he said in 1535, "is not the cause of sin, and does not will sin; but the will of the Devil and the will of man are the causes of sin." Human nature is radically, but not absolutely and hopelessly, corrupt; it can not without the aid of the Holy Spirit produce spiritual affections such as the fear and love of God, and true obedience; but it can accept or reject divine grace. God precedes, calls, moves, supports us; but we must follow, and not resist. Three causes concur in the conversion,—the word of God, the Holy Spirit, and the will of man. Melanchthon quotes from the Greek Fathers who lay great stress on human freedom, and he accepts Chrysostom’s sentence: "God draws the willing."

He intimated this synergistic view in the eighteenth article of the altered Augsburg Confession, and in the German edition of the Apology of the Confession. But he continued to deny the meritoriousness of good works; and in the colloquy of Worms, 1557, he declined to condemn the doctrine of the slavery of the human will, because Luther had adhered to it to the end. He was willing to tolerate it as a theological opinion, although he himself had rejected it.

2. As to the Lord’s Supper, he first accepted Luther’s view under the impression that it was supported by the ancient Church. But in this he was shaken by Oecolampadius, who proved (1530) that the Fathers held different opinions, and that Augustin did not teach an oral manducation. After 1534 he virtually gave up for himself, though he would not condemn and exclude, the conception of a corporeal presence and oral manducation of the body and blood of Christ; and laid the main stress on the spiritual, yet real presence and communion with Christ.

He changed the tenth article of the Augsburg Confession in 1540, and made it acceptable to Reformed divines by omitting the anti-Zwinglian clause. But he never accepted the Zwinglian theory of a mere commemoration. His later eucharistic theory closely approached that of Calvin; while on the subject of predestination and free will he differed from him. Calvin, who had written a preface to the French translation of the Loci Theologici, expressed, in private letters, his surprise that so great a theologian could reject the Scripture doctrine of eternal predestination; yet they maintained an intimate friendship to the end, and proved that theological differences need not prevent religious harmony and fraternal fellowship.

3. Melanchthon never surrendered the doctrine of justification by faith; but he laid in his later years, in opposition to antinomian excesses, greater stress on the necessity of good works of faith, not indeed as a condition of salvation and in a sense of acquiring merit, but as an indispensable proof of the duty of obedience to the divine will.

These doctrinal changes gave rise to bitter controversies after Luther’s death, and were ultimately rejected in the Formula of Concord (1577), but revived again at a later period. Luther himself never adopted and never openly opposed them.

The Loci of Melanchthon met from the start with extraordinary favor. Edition after edition appeared in Wittenberg during the author’s lifetime, the last from his own hand in the year 1559, besides a number of contemporaneous reprints at Basel, Hagenau, Strassburg, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Halle, and many editions after his death.

Luther had an extravagant opinion of them, and even declared them worthy of a place in the Canon.471471    Invictus libellus non solum immortalitate, sed quoque canone ecclesiastico dignus."In the beginning of De Servo Arbitrio (1525), against Erasmus. He thought that his translation of the Bible, and Melanchthon’s Loci, were the best outfit of a theologian, and almost superseded all other books.472472    He says in his Tischreden (Erl. ed., LIX. 278 sq.): "Wer itzt ein Theologus will werden, der hat grosse Vortheil. Denn erstlich hat er die Bibel, die ist nu so klar, dam er sie kann lesen ohne alle Hinderung. Darnach lese er darzu die locos communes Philippi; die lese er fleissig und wohl, also dass er sie gar im Kopfe habe. Wenn er die zwei Stücke hat, so ist er ein Theologus, dem weder der Teufel noch kein Ketzer etwas abbrechen kann, und ihm stehet die ganze Theologia offen, dass er Alles, was er will, darnach lesen kann ad aedificationem. Und wenn er will, so mag er auch dazu lesen Philippi Melanchthonis Commentarium in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos. Lieset er alsdenn darzu meinen commentarium in Epistolam ad Galatas und in Deuteronomium, so gebe ich ihm denn eloquentiam et copiam verborum. Ihr findet kein Buch unter allen seinen Büchern, da die summa religionis oder die ganze Theologia so fein bei einander ist, als in den locis communibus. Leset alle Patres und Sententiarios, so ist es doch Alles nichts dagegen. Non est melior liber post scripturam sanctam, quam ipsius loci communes. Philippus ist enger gespannet denn ich; ille pugnat et docet; ich bin mehr ein Rhetoricus oder ein Wäscher [Deutscher?]"

The Loci became the text-book of Lutheran theology in the universities, and took the place of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Strigel and Chemnitz wrote commentaries on them. Leonhard Hutter likewise followed them, till he published a more orthodox compend (1610) which threw them into the shade and even out of use during the seventeenth century.

The theological manual of Melanchthon proved a great help to the Reformation. The Romanists felt its power. Emser called it a new Koran and a pest. In opposition to them, he and Eck wrote Loci Catholici.473473    Eck’s Loci Communes adversus Lutheranos, Landshut, 1525, passed through many editions.

Melanchthon’s Loci are the ablest theological work of the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century. Calvin’s Institutes (1536) equal them in freshness and fervor, and surpass them in completeness, logical order, philosophical grasp, and classical finish.

It is remarkable that the first and greatest dogmatic systems of the Reformation proceeded from these two lay-theologians who were never ordained by human hands, but received the unction from on high.474474    Melanchthon was simply professor, first of Greek, then of theology. Calvin was destined by his father for the clerical profession, and he received the tonsure; but there is no record of his ordination for the priesthood. So the twelve apostles were not baptized by Christ with water, but with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.



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