Philippism-Melanchthon and the Consequences
An Observation in the "Year of Melanchthon"
JÜRGEN DIESTELMANN is pastor emeritus of St. Ulrici-Brüdern, Braunschweig, Germany, and editor of Brüdern-Rundbrief. This essay appeared first in Brüdern-Rundbrief Number z/1997, and was translated by Gerald Krispin.
WHO WAS PHILIPP MELANCHTHON?
PHILIPP MELANCHTHON WAS BORN On February 16, 149), In Bretten/Palatine, the son of the weaponsmith Georg Schwarzerd. This family name was hellenized into "Melanchthon" upon the suggestion of the humanistic scholar Reuchlin. Reuchlin, who exercised great influence over the young Melanchthon, was a distant relative of his. After the study of philosophy at Heidelberg and Tübingen, where he came to earn his Master's Degree in 1514 (that is at age 17!), Melanchthon turned to the study of theology. In 1518 he was granted a position to teach Greek at Wittenberg and entered into a friendship with Luther, whose reformational ideas he came to defend emphatically. He additionally took over a professorship in theology in 15z6 and organized the church and school visitations of l527 in Saxony. In 1521 he published the Loci communes rerum theologicarum, which he continually released in newly revised editions. It was later to be designated as the "first protestant dogmatics". One is hard pressed to find any other exceptional publications that came from his pen.
The first decade of Melanchthon's activity in Wittenberg is closely tied to that of Luther. Having thus grown into the role of Luther's closest coworker, Melanchthon came to participate at the Diet of Speyer and the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, as he also later was repeatedly to be the representative of the Wittenberg reformation at religious colloquies and other pan-regional meetings. He was, in a manner of speaking, the mouthpiece of the Wittenberg reformation, especially when he came to publicly represent Luther's theological thought at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. He was the author of the Augsburg Confession and its Apology. A definitive separation from the Roman church was in no way in sight during this time, and certainly not intended. That is why the Augsburg Confession, which, as everyone knows, has come to count as the foundational confession of the Lutheran church, has the renewal of the entire church as its goal.
Because of his humanistic formation, Melanchthon had above all a great interest in the furthering of scholarship. That is why he, among others, comes to the fore especially in the reform and establishment of universities. One therefore has come to like referring to him as the Praeceptor Germaniae (the Master Teacher of Germany) .
AN OMINOUS DISSENT
Melanchthon's strength consisted of his special mastery in the formulating of doctrinal truths. The honors that he thereby earned for himself have remained of lasting significance for our Lutheran church. But his strength was simultaneously his weak-ness, because as a scholar he continually strove to redefine his thoughts in ever more precise and better terms. Yet often new or even different thoughts flowed into the formulations that arose in this way, echoing his own development. Consequently, he even undertook changes in the text of new editions of the Augsburg Confession, even though it had taken on the character of an official church document with legal significance in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation in the meantime. This was to have grave consequences.
Gradually, substantially different emphases were placed by Melanchthon precisely with respect to the teaching on the Lord's Supper, which he had originally represented in uncritical agreement with Luther, and thereby increasingly distanced himself from Luther's position. But this was initially not readily apparent because his formulations were ambiguous. Later, however, this became a source of insatiable contention.
While Melanchthon in no way embraced the purely symbolic understanding of Zwingli's conception of the Lord's Supper, he did let himself be thoroughly impressed by the argumentation of the Swiss and upper-German reformers. Consequently, while collaborating on the (later to have failed) introduction of the Reformation into the Archbishopric of Cologne along with Bucer in1543 he came to deliver a theological opinion in the dispute involving Pastor Simon Wolferinus of Eisleben, and took a position in direct opposition to the one which Luther presented at the same time.
Neither did Melanchthon therefore think anything of it to pre-sent, that is, to subscribe to a teaching concerning the Lord's Sup-per that practically denied the true presence of Christ's body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine, specifically in the con-text of a reformational order for Cologne, for which he bore partial responsibility. This was a well-known, highly sensitive point for Luther, since he had all his life passionately defended the sacramental presence of Christ in the bread and wine against the most diverse detractors. That is why Luther was extremely enraged when he came to see the text of this Cologne reformational order.
The inner distancing and discord of the two men, which otherwise was bound by a deep friendship, threatened to become an open quarrel during these years. Luther, as well as Melanchthon, thought about leaving Wittenberg at times. But such a separation would not have only threatened the existence of the University of Wittenberg, but might have destroyed the entire work of the Reformation. That would not have been helpful to anyone. But in numerous letters, and especially in his Brief Confession concerning the Lords Supper of 1544, Luther sought to preclude any suspicion that he had deviated from his original position on his teaching of the Lord's Supper with a clarity that left nothing open to question. Those people who were therefore designated as "Zwinglian" by him were clearly not direct students of Zwingli. Rather, Luther designated that position which Melanchthon and his followers embraced inclusively as "Zwinglianism". Their doctrinal position leaned toward that of Zwingli tangentially without being identical to it.
During his last years, these events, besides others, were to embitter the at this time already gravely ill Luther to the extreme.
THE CONSEQUENCES IN THE TIME AFTER LUTHER'S DEATH
But it was not only Luther himself who suffered because of these events. After his death the entire Lutheran church came to suffer, because the thus prevailing dissension now came to be ever-more generally known. This also came to damage strongly the endeavors for an understanding with Rome. One gradually came to see through the ambiguous formulations of Melanchthon and discovered that more than differing formulations for the same articles were hidden within those changes that Melanchthon had undertaken at the time of the new editions of the Augsburg Confession.
Luther's well-known verdict concerning Melanchthon's position at the Diet of Augsburg and the Augsburg Confession stated that he could "not tread so softly or gently." At that time this statement referred only to the manner of expression and signified no difference in substance. After Luther's death it became ever-more evident that Melanchthon-in the face of entrenched confessional and political fronts-was now prepared to accept com-promises to which Luther would never have subjected himself, compromises of which Melanchthon was accused by Luther's disciples. This comes to be seen especially at, among others, the Colloquy at Worms in 1557 (see below).
Two parties thus emerged from within the Reformation which had been characterized by Wittenberg: on the one side stood the Lutherans. Within the polemics of the time these disciples of Martin Luther were called "Gnesio-Lutherans"; on the other side were those who had been molded by Philipp Melanchthon, thus called "Philippists " The latter group was especially large, not in the least due to the fact that Melanchthon, in his capacity as a professor at Wittenberg, was able to strongly influence the upcoming generation of theologians. He was able to do this her-haps more so than Luther, whose teaching activities were sharply curtailed by his severely compromised health. The most severe disputes flared up specifically with respect to the question of the Lord's Supper. Melanchthon nevertheless insisted that he represented Luther's doctrine, even though it must have long become clear to him, as a critical thinker, that his own conception diverged from that Luther at this specific point. Luther, by contrast, expressed himself decisively and unequivocally right up to his death-even in his last sermons held at Eisleben. Disregarding this, the rumor was later circulated (presumably by Melanchthon himself) that Luther had changed his mind shortly before his death.
Yet the Philippists also sought to give assurance that they held to the sacramental presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, even though they related these to the celebration of the Lord's Supper in general, not to the elements of the bread and wine consecrated by the words of Christ within it.
The severity of the antipathy between the Lutherans and Philippists, which kindled numerous and interminable disputes, can be delineated on the basis of the example of the Colloquy at Worms of 1557.
Notable historians have described this colloquy as the last (unfortunately fruitless) attempt at arriving at an understanding between the party still faithful to the papacy and the reformational side among whom were those in the process of separating or already separated from it.
The "Religious Peace of Augsburg," which had passed into law some two years earlier, had been granted only to those of the so-called Augsburg Confessional Family [Augsburger Confessionsverwandten], that is, those who confessed themselves faithful to the Augsburg Confession. The so-called Baptists and sacramentarians, but also the Zwinglians and the at that time not altogether plentiful adherents of Calvin, thereby remained outside of the religious peace. Yet despite this clear demarcation, others who in this or that respect revealed digressions from the teachings of the Augsburg Confession attempted to identify themselves as belonging to the "Augsburg Confessional Family," and thereby gain legal and constitutional recognition within the empire. The alternatives were either to interpret the term "Augsburg Confessional Family" in a very broad manner, in the interest of the politically strongest possible alliance against the emperor and the pope, or to aspire to a doctrinally and confessionally united church fellow-ship in the way of the Augsburg Confession.
Prior to the beginning of the Colloquy at Worms in i557, the Lutherans, not the least among them the superintendent of Brunswick, Joachim Mörlin, attempted to secure the rejection of those who did not find themselves in doctrinal agreement with the Augsburg Confession. There were not only the Zwinglians among these, but also the Anabaptists, as well as the followers of Osiander, Major, and Schwenckfeld.
But in the meantime Melanchthon had in some respects drawn closer to the upper German theologians such as Bucer and even Calvin. He therefore objected to a condemnation of these doctrinal positions during a preliminary deliberation, on the grounds, among others, that so many cities, states, and lofty personages were inclined towards them. After some back-and-forth, the Lutheran theologians finally saw themselves compelled to condemn unilaterally the doctrinal positions that deviated from the Augsburg Confession as held by those mentioned above. In response Melanchthon and the remaining Protestant delegation summarily decided to exclude themselves from the sessions on the grounds that such a condemnation strengthens the papists, against whom all Protestant theologians should be unified. The Lutherans were characterized as "contentious and disturbers of the peace" to whom one should give no quarter. In a similar manner Melanchthon had disparaged Johanna Hachenburg, pastor at Erfurt, who had brought attention to the Zwinglian heresy, as "the ass from Erfurt" After these events the Lutherans had no other option than to leave Worms, albeit not without first leaving behind a solemn protestation.
THE VICTORY OF CHURCH POLITICS OVER THEOLOGY
Both the Roman Catholic ("papist") and the Philippist side were able to look back upon the Colloquy at Worms as a victory: the Roman Catholic side could be satisfied that the rights that had been granted in the Religious Peace to the Augsburg Confessional Family" could not be implemented. The Philippist side had secured a victory against the intent of the Lutherans insofar as it was now possible for the different Protestant directions to form a unanimous anti-Roman block. But both victories were Pyrrhic victories, since the confessional division of western Christianity was thereby definitively sealed.
CONSEQUENCES FOR THE PRESENT
On the occasion of the Melanchthon year one should draw lessons from such historical experiences for the present and the future of the church. In the present state of the Christian church, calls for the unity of the churches are raised in new ways. But the
question remains as to the means by which the desired unity truly will be served: whether through church-political measures, by which uncomfortable theologians are marginalized (something which one can indeed observe again in the present!), which in the final analysis must lead to the entrenchment of the positions, not to their surmounting; or through tenacious, patient wrestling for the truth of the word of God, for apostolic truth, upon which Christ establishes his church-the entire ecclesia catholica!
Philip Melanchthon had to contend with the fact that he was reproached for his deviation from Luther until his death. In the writings of church history it is often emphasized that Melanchthon, who died April i9, t56o, was thus saved from the rabies theologorum (the wrath of the theologians). Most often it is the Lutherans who appear as those who one-sidedly and dogmatically plagued the Praeceptor Germaniae, as though they had not been dealing with fundamental conclusions reached in the wrestling for the truth of God's word.
The Lutherans, however, actually did not show the often alleged narrow-mindedness with respect to their steadfast perseverance in their belief in the real presence, but a tremendous ecumenical openness, one they perceived would be severed with the loss of the real presence. They indeed feared that with the loss of the real presence they would also lose the connection to the "entire Christian church on earth" [the ecclesia catholica], or, expressed in contemporary terms, "the catholic dimension" It was, after all, especially Luther's tenaciously-held belief in the realpresence that was the common bond that united the Wittenberg Reformation with the whole of Christianity in opposition to the deviating Protestant doctrinal opinions.
For despite all dissociation from Rome, the Lutherans confessed the common bond to the whole catholic church in that they felt themselves closer to the papal church in the confession of the realpresence than to Calvinism, for example. In this they followed Martin Luther himself, who had confessed: "before I would have nothing other than wine with the enthusiasts, I would rather keep nothing but the blood of Christ with the pope". In the same way the notable theologian and superintendent of Brunswick, Martin Chemnitz, later distanced himself passionately from those who denied the real presence in that he confessed the agreement of Lutheran doctrine with those churches that recognized and taught the true and substantial presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper.
By contrast Melanchthon repeatedly rejected Luther's teaching of the Lord's Supper, which was carried forth by the Gnesio-Lutherans, as papist. Even though he, too, suffered under the final separation from Rome, he himself contributed de facto to the breakdown of the consensus of the whole of the catholic tradition, which exists with respect to the belief in the true presence of Christ's body and blood in the sacramental bread and wine, and which now as then binds together the Oriental, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches with Lutheranism.
The condemnations that the Council of Trent pronounced under the banner of the Counter Reformation therefore are more properly addressed to the Philippist position than to that of the Lutherans. Martin Chemnitz made this clear in his magnum opus, the Examen Concilii Tridenti. It was also his authoritative contribution that later ensured that Luther's doctrine of the Lord's Supper remained preserved in the Formula of Concord, the last great Lutheran confessional writing to find official recognition in 1580.
Thus Philippism has remained a disastrous heritage for the Lutheran church to the present day, as the current views of the Lord's Supper in Protestantism show. Among them, as a rule, the church political aspiration of a formal pan-Protestant union carries more weight and stands in opposition to a wrestling for unity in doctrine on the basis of scripturally based teachings.
MELANCHTHON COMMEMORATION 1997
It is for this reason that, as a Lutheran, one comes to a commemoration of Melanchthon with ambivalent feelings. One certainly should not forget the honor due him as the Praeceptor Germaniae that he earned in his collaboration with Luther. But the consequences of Melanchthon's later stance can be no less overlooked.
In 1562 Joachim Mörlin, the predecessor of Martin Chemnitz in the office of superintendent of Brunswick, who himself had once studied at Wittenberg under Luther and Melanchthon, composed this verdict about the experiences that he had with Melanchthon after Luther's death with the following words:
"Master Philipp has been my preceptor for such a long time ; because I think so highly of him on account of his glorious and lofty gifts and the superlative use that God has made of this man for many thousands in his church up to the time of Luther. Yet it would be an unwarranted expectation of me or of any good person by these good gentlemen that I should also praise and accept all that which he has done and written against God's word and his own teaching after the time of Luther simply because of his gifts or use, for this would be too crass and openly contrary to God's word. Galatians 1, "If an apostle or an angel from heaven would ..."
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