Who is Phillip Melanchthon?
Philipp Melanchthon, born Philipp Schwartzerdt, was a colleague and friend of Martin Luther. Born in 1497, in Bretten, Germany, Melanchthon took the academic route on his way to become the first professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. It was at Wittenberg that Melanchthon met Luther and the two became fast friends. Within two years of the start of the Reformation, Melanchthon applied his academic prowess to defend scriptural authority against the authority of the Catholic Church, rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation—the doctrine that the substance of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper is physically changed into the body and blood of Christ, and made justification by faith the keystone of his theology. In other words, he was well steeped in the Reformed Tradition.
During these early years of the Reformation, Melanchthon was a prolific writer, having written 13 books in various disciplines. He began his day at 2:00 am and by 6:00 am was lecturing to as many as 600 students. By 1521, Melanchthon wrote the first systematic theology based on Reformed teaching, titled, Loci communes rerum theologicarum (Theological Commonplaces). This systematic theology went through 18 editions in 4 years and would later become required reading at the University of Cambridge. It is said that Elizabeth I virtually memorized Loci communes so that she could converse about theology.
Though his efforts at defending the Reformed Tradition kept him busy, Melanchthon never lost his passion for academics. This passion spilled over into the larger community. In 1528, Melanchthon published an outline of education for the elementary grades. This outline would be enacted in law in Saxony as a means to establish the first public school system. 56 other cities throughout Germany adopted Melanchthon’s educational plan. In addition, Melanchthon established 3 universities and reformed 8 other schools of higher education.
Among his many accomplishments, Melanchthon’s biggest contribution to the church is the Augsburg Confession. Melanchthon wrote this confession in 1530 when he attended the Diet (Council) of Augsburg as the leading representative of the Reformation. The Augsburg Confession contained 21 Chief Articles of Faith. These articles addressed such topics as the nature of God, original sin, justification by faith, the role of good works, free will, and an understanding of the sacraments. The Augsburg Confession also addressed questions concerning the marriage of priests, offering both bread and wine during communion, the role of monastic vows, and a proper understanding of the saints.
Melanchthon died in 1560, but a few days before he died, he wrote down his reasons for why he did not fear death. On the one hand, he wrote, “Thou shalt be delivered from sins, and be freed from the acrimony and fury of theologians.” On the other hand he wrote, “Thou shalt go to the light, see God, look upon his Son, learn those wonderful mysteries which thou hast not be able to understand in this life.” He was buried beside his friend Martin Luther at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.