Meeting Melanchthon: A Man of Trouble

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The First Missteps:

Melanchthon was the consummate tinkerer and was never completely satisfied with anything he authored. Directly after the presentation of the Augsburg Confession and the publication of the Apology, Melanchthon began to make changes to the Augsburg Confession. These changes have become known as the Variata, or Altered Augsburg Confession. Up to 1540, these were mostly minor changes in wording. However, in 1540 and 1542, Melanchthon made changes to Article X, which caused considerable controversy. In Article X of the Variata, Melanchthon makes the language concerning the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper less precise to make the article more acceptable to the Reformed. While these changes were not extreme, they should not have been made as men had laid their lives on the line for what they originally signed in 1530. To change a document men had pledged their lives, reputations, and fortunes to defend is certainly a mistake.

To Preach the Law or Not to Preach the Law:

Throughout his life, Melanchthon was embroiled in quite a few internal as well as external controversies. Most of these occurred after Luther’s death, but some during Luther’s life. Most notable among these is the so-called Antinomian Controversy with John Agricola. In 1525, unknown to him, the Saxon Visitation Articles that Melanchthon had written for the instruction of Lutheran pastors were published. In these, Melanchthon said: “The preaching of the Law incites repentance,” and “the Law must be preached to terrify...” John Agricola, who sought to be a professor of theology at Wittenberg, objected, claiming, “The Law has been abolished by the Gospel and repentance must come not from knowledge of the Law, but from the Gospel.” This spawned a rigorous publishing battle which lasted from 1527-1556.

After Luther’s Death:

In 1548, controversies surrounding Melanchthon’s involvement in the Leipzig and Augsburg Interims began to occur. In May of 1548, the emperor and his armies defeated the coalition of evangelical princes called the Schmalkaldic League. The emperor imposed a series of religious practices on the evangelical lands that brought back many Roman Catholic, Papist, practices. This “compromise” was called the Augsburg Interim.

The Augsburg Interim was no compromise at all, and this was unacceptable to Lutheran theologians. Later that year, Melanchthon assisted in the authoring of the Leipzig Interim, which he said would protect justification while compromising on things that are indifferent. Mostly, Melanchthon compromised on worship practice, allowing some of the more objectionable Roman Catholic practices to find their way back into Lutheran worship. Many of these practices have once more found their way into Lutheran worship, but that is fodder for another article.

The worship compromises of the Interims brought forth a slew of trouble to Melanchthon. The Interim Controversy leads to the Adiaphoristic Controversy (1548-1555) with the Gnesio Lutherans (authentic Lutherans). His chief protagonist in this fight was Mathias Flacius. Flacius and others held it to be wrong to observe ceremonies that would normally be considered indifferent if those usually indifferent practices are imposed by force. In such cases, the false impression is created, implying that such practices are necessary even though they are not. The Gnesios confessed: “Nothing is an adiaphoron when confession and offense are involved.”

Portrait of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon

The Majoristic Controversy was brought about by Professor George Major (1502-74) of the University of Wittenberg. Major taught that “good works are necessary to salvation” and that “it is impossible for a man to be saved without good works.” He was attacked by several Gnesio Lutherans, especially Matthias Flacius. Melanchthon was seen to side with George Major in the Interims in the idea that good works are necessary to salvation, because in the 1535 Loci Communes, Melanchthon seems to claim the same.

The Synergistic Controversy (1535-1560) involved Melanchthon changing ideas on the freedom of the will and the responsibility of man in conversion. In the 1535 Loci Communes, following Aristotle, Melanchthon wrote that there are three cooperating causes in conversion: (1) God’s Word, (2) the Holy Spirit, (3) and man’s will, which does not resist God’s Word. In fact, Melanchthon taught that the will was the material cause or thing changed by the Word and the Spirit, but the confusion and charge of synergism persisted.

Who Led Lutherans After Luther’s Death?

The obvious answer was Philip Melanchthon. But the many controversies, his changes to the Loci Communes and Augsburg Confession, as well as his position on the Interims cast doubt on his leadership abilities. So, the question became: “Are you a Gnesio or a Philipist?” A Gnesio Lutheran believed they held the upper hand especially on the issues of the bondage of the will and things adiaphora. The Philipists called themselves followers of Melanchthon and believed they embodied the true spirit of the Wittenberg theology. The truth is that neither side held all the cards, as the compromises of the Formula of Concord would illustrate. The true question wasn’t “Who followed Luther?” but what was Scriptural and in line with the teachings of the churches of the Augsburg Confession. The answer given in the theology of the Formula of Concord is a blend of Luther and Melanchthon, and the many others who shaped the Lutheran Reformation.


Find all the parts in Dr. Keith's "Meeting Melanchthon" series here.