by Rev. Christopher Maronde
“God has always preserved a proportion of His servants upon the earth, and now, through Martin Luther, a more splendid period of light and truth has appeared.” (On the death of Luther, 1)
“If it please Christ, Melanchthon will make many Martins and a most powerful enemy of scholastic theology; for he knows their folly and the Rock of Christ as well. As a man of might, he will prove his ability.” (What Luther Says, 919)
With these words, Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther described one another. Though there were many important figures in the history of the Lutheran reformation and Luther’s list of colleagues and friends was long, the friendship and partnership of these two men towered above any other relationship in Wittenberg or beyond. Of the seven documents contained in the Book of Concord, three were written by Melanchthon and three by Luther. Not just for their day but for the centuries to come, they defined what Lutherans believe, teach, and confess on the basis of the Sacred Scriptures. But theirs was not just a professional relationship, as great men living in great times; they had a deep love for one another, a friendship that survived great differences in temperament and the stresses of the Reformation.
They were a strange pair: the bombastic, passionate Luther, and the more reserved, more scholarly Melanchthon. It would be a mistake to think of Melanchthon as the “brains” and Luther as the “brawn” of the Reformation, though. Luther was himself a talented scholar and one of the greatest theological minds in the history of Christendom. There was, however, a difference of approach. Melanchthon was the boy wonder, a child prodigy who came to Wittenberg to teach Greek; he was very comfortable in the halls of academia. He wrote the first dogmatic textbook examining the topics of theology in an organized fashion according to the theology of Luther. Luther was a pastor in addition to being a professor, and thus more grounded and down-to-earth, even as he spent his entire career in the classroom. He was comfortable in the rough and tumble of conflict and used to taking a firm stand. Luther, above all, wanted the truth; Melanchthon, often peace.
“I, Philip Melanchthon, regard the above articles as right and Christian. However, concerning the pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, we, too, may concede to him that superiority over the bishops which he possesses by human right, making this concession for the sake of peace and general unity among the Christians who are under him and may be so in the future.” (Smalcald Articles)
Of all those who subscribed to what became known as the Smalcald Articles, only Melanchthon did so with reservations. This is significant, as it illustrates perfectly the different approaches of the two men. The Smalcald Articles were Luther’s “last will and testament”; he thought he was about to die, and he wanted to declare what could be conceded at the expected general council. In this work, he was vintage Luther: forthright, intense, uncompromising. Melanchthon’s signature shows none of that, but instead caution and conciliation.
Luther was often frustrated by Melanchthon’s caution, just as Melanchthon was frustrated by Luther’s temper, but Luther gave the highest praise to Melanchthon for the seminal confession of the Lutheran Church, penned by his friend:
“I am tremendously pleased to have lived to this moment when Christ, by his staunch confessors, has publicly been proclaimed in such a great assembly by means of this really most beautiful confession.” (Letter to Conrad Cordatus, July 7, 1530)
The Augsburg Confession was the greatest triumph of this friendship, as Melanchthon was able to take the theology espoused by Luther and put it into a format that, while compromising nothing, struck a more moderate tone, emphasizing that the Lutherans had not left the Church catholic, but held to the faith once delivered to all the saints.
As so often happens with two men who complement each other so well, when one dies, the balance is lost, and things begin to go sideways. Without Luther’s drive, without his passion, without his steadfast refusal to compromise the truth in any way, Melanchthon began to drift, and the words of his oration unfortunately became all to true: “The removal, I say, of such a man demands and justifies our tears. We resemble orphans bereft of an excellent and faithful father.” (On the death of Luther, 7)
Melanchthon had lost his anchor, and subsequent events proved that losing Luther before Melanchthon was certainly more damaging to the Wittenberg reformation than losing Melanchthon before Luther would have been. Melanchthon’s desire for peace led to compromise on all sides, politically and theologically, leaving the churches of the Augsburg Confession a mess, divided into various factions.
But in one of the ironies of history (an irony in which Lutherans cannot but detect the hand of God), Melanchthon would himself lay the foundation for the renewal and restoration of Luther’s doctrine amongst those who confessed his theology. It would be the students of Melanchthon would correct many of Melanchthon’s errors, eventually composing and adopting the Formula of Concord, which was the capstone of the Book of Concord, providing a definitive answer to the controversies that devastated the Lutheran Church after Luther’s death. In the end, the Lutheran Church followed the encouragement that Luther so often gave to Melanchthon:
“In my personal affairs I am less resolute in battle, while you are more stouthearted. In matters of the common weal you are the way I am in my personal affairs. You esteem yourself but lightly, yet in the common cause you are afraid. I, on the other hand, am of good and quiet courage in the common cause because I know with certainty that this cause is just and right, yes, that it is Christ’s and God’s cause, which need not blanch because of its sin.” (Letter to Melanchthon, June 30, 1530)
The Rev. Christopher Maronde is associate pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Neb.