Born in Bretten, Baden, the son of George Scharzerd, Philip was given the Greek name “Melanchthon” (meaning “black earth”) by his great–uncle John Reuchlin, the famous Hebraist, when he showed signs of academic ability. He graduated at the age of fourteen (1511) and received an M.A. from Tübingen the following year. On Reuchlin’s recommendation he came to Wittenberg University as professor of Greek in 1518, took his B.D. in 1519, and published his Rhetoric and Dialectics the same year. He married Katherine Krapp in 1520, and the pair had four children.
Melanchthon quickly identified himself with his older colleague Luther in the struggle that began in 1517. He attended the Leipzig disputation in 1519 and in his own B.D. disputation championed the supreme authority of Scripture against that of popes and councils. In his lectures on Romans he expounded the doctrine of justification by faith through the nonimputation of our sin and the imputed righteousness of Christ. By 1521 he had given the Reformation its first dogmatics, the Loci communes theologici (Theological Common Places), which he was to reissue in various editions during the next decades. This work dealt especially with the themes of law and gospel, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith. At a more directly practical level Melanchthon helped to spread the Reformation with the injunctions he drew up for the Saxon visitation of 1528. On a broader front he formulated, with Luther’s help, the basic Lutheran statement, the Augsburg Confession, for presentation to the imperial diet in 1530. To explain the confession to its papal opponents he also wrote a longer Apology in 1531. As a third contribution to confessional Lutheranism he added to Luther’s Schmalcald Articles of 1537 a discussion on The Power and the Primacy of the Papacy. For use in Saxony itself he later compiled the Saxon Confession (1551).
Melanchthon is remembered for the leadership he gave the German Reformation in educational reform. In his inaugural address as a professor in 1518, he contended strongly for the reform of learning along classical lines. His own work led him to emphasize the need for Greek in theological training, and he combined humanist and reforming insights in his plans for university reconstruction. At this level he had a hand in the reorganization of existing universities, such as Heidelberg and Tübingen, and also in the forming of new ones at Marburg and Königsberg. Along with Luther he had a concern for the schools as well, initiating curricular reforms and in his Visitation Articles (1528) drawing up pioneering plans for free public education.
Of a mild and peaceful disposition, displayed in his horrified reaction to the Peasants’ War (1525), Melanchthon worked hard for reconciliation both with the papists and also with other reformers. With Luther he took part as a principal in the unsuccessful Marburg Colloquy (1529) with the Swiss (Zwingli and Oecolampadius) on the eucharistic question. He helped to achieve agreement with Bucer and the South Germans on the same issue in the Wittenberg Concord of 1536. Along the same lines he contributed to the Thirteen Articles that the Lutherans and the Anglicans agreed on unofficially in 1538. With Bucer he also participated in the discussions with Romanists at Hagenau and Worms that led to the famous Colloquy of Regensburg of 1541. (There Cardinal Contarini made a serious bid for agreement, but the differences finally proved to be insoluble.) A decade later Melanchthon did not prove to be so enthusiastic about Cranmer’s plan for a pan–reformation conference in London, but by this time he was under serious attack from within for alleged weakening of Lutheran teaching.
In spite of his own desire for harmony, Melanchthon could not avoid controversy. Already in 1522, when Luther was in the Wartburg, he had difficulties with Carlstadt over the Zwickau Prophets. In 1540 he brought out an edition of the Augsburg Confession with alterations that offended many Lutherans and brought him under considerable criticism after Luther’s death in 1546. The defeat of the Lutheran forces in 1547 and the imposing of the interim agreements of Augsburg and Leipzig (1548) caused further problems when Melanchthon recommended the acceptance of many papal practices on the ground they were indifferent or nonessential matters (adiaphora). Matthias Flacius accused him of betraying the Reformation. His mediating views on predestination and the eucharistic concessions he was thought to have made to the Swiss increased the opposition, and his followers at Wittenberg and Leipzig were scornfully referred to as Philippists and even as Crypto–Calvinists. Although Melanchthon’s essential Lutheranism was later vindicated, and he was honorably buried beside Luther when he died in 1560. The attacks caused him a good deal of mental stress in his closing years.
Melanchthon was more the scholar and the reflective theologian than the man of action. In this regard he proved to be complementary to Luther, and their close friendship probably owed much to this fact. His worth came out when it was a matter defending Reformation teaching and carrying through educational reconstruction. His weakness was quickly revealed when decisive leadership was demanded. In 1522, fortunately, Luther was at hand to restore the situation, but after Luther’s death, although he was the natural successor, Melanchthon lacked the moral force to deal adequately with the practical and theological problems that arose. His sincerity and piety, of course, were beyond question. Indeed, it was his overscrupulous conscience about trifles that once caused Luther to give him the startling advice to “sin boldly”—which was naturally misunderstood when taken out of context. Less vital and dramatic than Luther, yet no less able and dedicated in his own way, Melanchthon must be regarded as a pivotal figure in the early days of the Reformation. He not only left his mark on Lutheranism but also had a more extended educational and theological influence.*
*Melanchthon, Philip. In J. Douglas & P. W. Comfort (Eds.), Who’s Who in Christian history (J. Douglas & P. W. Comfort, Ed.) (466–468). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.