Philipp Schwartzerdt, later known as Philipp Melanchthon, was a scholar of the Reformation. He played a large role in the religious and educational life of the sixteenth century. According to James Richard, “before Melanchthon had passed the meridian of his life, he had witnessed, and had acted a large part in effecting, one of the mightiest revolutions in culture, and one of the most beneficial reformations of religion, that the Christian world has ever known.”i
Eager to learn, he applied to study for a master’s degree. The University denied his application because he looked too young. He then applied to the University of Tuebingen. Here he received a master’s degree at the age of 17. He also received a bachelor of theology from the University of Wittenberg. He received this degree in 1519, a year after he began there as a professor of Greek.
When he arrived at the university, there was a fear that Melanchthon would not perform well. He had been described as little, insignificant, frail, and awkward. However, his opening address as a professor of Greek eased all worries. Luther wrote to his friend Spalatin. He said this of Melanchthon: “We quickly retracted the opinion which we had formed when we first saw him.”
Melanchthon’s fame spread. People from all over came to hear him lecture. He was known as kind, generous, thoughtful, and calm. The rise in university enrolment reflected his rise in fame. When he arrived, the university had only around 120 students. Two years later, 600 students were attending his classes. Some say up to 2,000 people would attend some lectures. Melanchthon has been called Europe’s greatest linguist, as well as Germany’s greatest scholar and teacher. He wanted to know everything. He desired to be a master in every science. Still, he called theology “the crown of sciences.”
Melanchthon worked with Luther at Wittenberg. They developed a father-son relationship. His strong convictions and character often had impact on Luther’s opinions. Melanchthon never wavered in his believe that the Bible, not the Papacy, is man’s spiritual guide. He opposed many teachings of the Catholic Church; he believed that the bread and wine should be given to the whole church. He also opposed priestly celibacy, mass, and justification by works.
In the early days of the Reformation, Melanchthon worked tirelessly to prepare literature. Sometimes he would begin his day at two o’clock in the morning. He worked on the first edition of Luther’s New Testament. One of Melanchthon’s greatest contributions to the Reformation was the Augsburg Confession. It was read before Emperor Charles V as the creed of German Protestants. At least five German princes, and the officials of the cities of Nuremberg and Reutlingen signed its acceptance. The emperor is said to have exclaimed “Would that such doctrine were preached throughout the whole world.”
Duke William of Bavaria said, “I understand that the Lutherans stand on the Scriptures, and we Catholics outside of them.”ii
In the original draft of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon mentioned the power claimed by the church to introduce ceremonies, fast days, and holy days. He pointed out the authority the Catholic Church gave itself to change Sabbath to Sunday.
By 1541, the Catholic Church considered Germany outside of its power. However, enmity between the German Protestants and the Papacy resulted in conflict. Melanchthon stood loyally at Luther’s side during conflicts that could have torn apart the German Protestants. After Luther’s death, Melanchthon carried on as leader.
Melanchthon was influential in the educational development of Germany. He helped develop schools, and wrote volumes of textbooks. He was called “The Creator of the Protestant Educational System in Germany” and “The Preceptor of Germany.”
Melanchthon’s body gradually grew weaker. He caught a cold in the spring of 1560. This resulted in his death on April 19 of the same year. An attendant asked him as death drew near whether there was anything he wished. He replied, “Nothing—but heaven!” Melanchthon’s remains lie beside Luther in the Castle Church at Wittenberg.
This article is adapted from Gideon and Hilda Hagstoz’ Heroes of the Reformation.
i. James William Richard, Philipp Melanchthon: 17.
ii. Ibid: 202-203.