Philipp Melanchton: Personality and Theology
In this essay I am not going to focus my attention upon the person or personality of Philipp Melanchton. This does not mean that I am uninterested in his religious biography, or that his life and person are irrelvant to his theology. Quite the contrary. Theology is never created in a vacuum by intellectual robots. If we take creation and incarnation seriously, we also have to take the person into account. God Himself is a person and has created us as persons with whom he wants to communicate and with whom he wants to establish a communion. God talks and works through persons with a biography. 1
Nor am I going to focus on Melanchton’s theology writing about his Loci communes from 1521 as compared with later editions 2, or The difference between Luther’s and Melanchton’s theologies. I am not going to explore the theme of Usus tertius legis, the third use of the Law, in the life of a christian, or delve into The interpretation of article IV in the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, i.e Melanchton’s understanding of the justification by faith. I am certain that an essay of this kind would be most interesting and rewarding. I am also certain that many would be far more able than I in writing it.
What I would like to bring out is Melanchton’s ecumenical importance as it comes to the fore in the Augsburg Confession. I shall not primarily dwell on the circumstances under which it was delivered in 1530, nor the way it was received or rather rejected. I am going to make “the great leap forward”, as my interest lies primarily in what the Confession had for relevance at its 450th anniversary and which ecumenical significance it may have today. Defining the subject in this way means, that the field of ecumenical vision of this essay will be limited to the relation between the Roman Catholic church and the Evangelic Lutheran churches or the Churches of the Augsburg Confession.
Some general reflections about the Augsburg Confession
There are good reasons for concentrating the interest on Confessio Augustana 3 at a jublilee commemorating Philipp Melanchton as a theologian. Even if the confession draws on earlier Lutheran statements of faith (Torgau, Marburg, Schwabach), Melanchton stands as its principal author. He always regarded it as his private work, and later on revised parts of it, e.g. article number ten On the Lord’s Supper. 4
At the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchton was the spokesman of the Lutherans. His name will forever be linked with this confession of faith as he also is the one who wrote its Apology, being an answer to the refutation of the Augsburg confession, which the emperor Charles V had ordered (Responsio Augustanae Confessionis 5) instead of the one that the Catholic theologians originally had presented (Catholica responsio).
The Augsburg confession is a theological document in a critical political situation. 6 Religious concord was necessary in the Church so that the emperor of the State would have a united people behind him, when he was to meet the political enemy: the Turks. In the Preface of the Confession, this ambition of religious and political unity is clearly recognized and endorsed: “As we should all be and fight under one Christ and confess one Christ…so everything should be brought into accordance with God’s truth”. Yet, the oneness of the Church and the unity within the State are both subordinated to God’s truth.
The political context of the Augsburg Confession is now, of course, totally different. The Lutherans of today find themselves in the awkward position that their confessional identity is associated with a particular historical situation long since gone. That which remains, however, is the religious substance of the document, intended for the talks with the representatives of the opposing religious party. This substance can be identified with the commitment to the unity of the Church, the claim of catholicity of the Lutheran teaching and the uncompromising obligation to God’s truth in His Word.
The Lutherans today also find themselves in the awkward position of having become a church, which they never intended to be. “The Lutherans” never dreamt of establishing a new Church. As a Lutheran one may ask: is there, after all, a Lutheran Church or Lutheran Churches? Are they not all provisonal and temporal arrangements, nothing but makeshifts, because of the collapse once of the religious dialogue within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, to whom they claim to belong?
In this perspective it is at least questionable the way these churches or communions identify themselves: “evangelic-lutheran” (as the Church of Sweden) or simply Lutheran. Should they not rather refer to themselves as churches or, perhaps even better, communions of the Augsburg Confession within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? 7
Since the Augsburg Confession is common to all “Lutheran” churches as all Churches which call themselves “Lutheran” have the Augsburg Confession, “a confession for our time”, together with the ancient Creeds as their norma normata, i.e. normative confessional documents as a constituitive part of their confessional identity, Confessio Augustana provides an appropriate and effective means to take up the once broken dialogoue in order to promote a unity in truth between the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran churches or communions.
In this connexion, however, the question also needs to be asked whether this confessional document still is a living doctrinal reality within the Lutheran churches and communions of today. Could it be, that the Augsburg Confession today in a wider ecumenical perspective is addressed mainly to the Lutheran churches themselves and not only, or even primarily, towards the Roman Catholic church? Do the Lutheran churches of today in their doctrine and practice identify with the Augsburg Confession? Are there intentions, affirmations, prompting and even limitations in this confession, which, more than ever before, have to be taken more seriously by those who profess a fidelity towards it? Does Confessio Augustana still have the same vital and provocative importance today as as it had four hundred fifty years ago, vindicating the truth of the faith, the unity of the church and the catholicity of its professed content? I think it has, or at least, should have.
All under one Christ
When the church history of this century once will be written, the sixties may well be described as revolutionary as the period of the Reformation. A lot of conspicious changes took place in society and in the churches.
Through the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic church opened up to the modern world and other churches and Christian communions. Through bilateral ecumenical dialogues the Roman Catholic church also begun a long-term work aiming at the visible unity of the Church.
During the sixties the World Council of Churches undertook a wholly new orientation, which could be clearly seen at the conference of Uppsala 1968: “The world writes the agenda of the Church”.
In the sixties there was also a revolution taking place in most churches and Christian communions with far-reaching consequences: a wave of a liberal interpretation of the Christian dogma and the Christian ethos swept the churches leaving very few unaffected. The liberal agenda stemming from the modern project 8 becomes the agenda in many parts of the church.
It is in this turbulent time that the bilateral talks between the Catholics and Lutherans start, continue and also yield tangible results. At the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession the Joint Comission och the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran Churches published a statement with the title All under one Christ (1980). 9
The talks between “the religious parties” which had been broken off in Augsburg, now had been resumed and resulted in a document, which appeals to the Augsburg Confession, when it confesses the faith in the Triune God and the Person and Work of Christ in the Holy Spirit.
In this document a broad consesus emerges in the doctrine of faith by grace. There is also a common understanding of the saving work of God through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments through the Holy Spirit.
A basic, if still incomplete, accord is reached in the understanding of the Church. A basic consensus also comes out and is confirmed in other documents of the official bilateral dialogue which are mentioned: a joint statement on the relation between gospel and Church, 10 a broad common understanding of the eucharist, 11 an agreement that a special ministerial office conferred by ordination is constituitive and not optional for the church. 12
It is agreed that the seven critical articles in the second part of the Augsburgs confession today largely lack addressee because of the changes which have taken place within the Roman Catholic Church over the years and specially after the Second Vatican Council. Although some problems which touch on doctrine still require to be clarified, a broad consensus also emerges in this second part.
There also remain open questions and unresolved problems between the two churches. The document enumerates some of them: the Augusburg confession says nothing about the number of the sacraments, the papacy, certain aspects of the episcopal order and the church’s teaching office.
Naturally, it does not, as it cannot, say anything about the three new Roman Catholic dogmas promulgated since 1530: the primacy of jurisdiction and the infallibility of the Pope (1870), the dogma of Maria immaculata (1854) and the dogma of Assumptio Mariae (1950).
According to the document, these questions must be considered in future dialogues in order reach the goal for these ecumenical endeavours: from the present state of division to that of sister churches. 13
The document All under One Christ concludes with the affirmation of a common faith discovered together in the Augsburg Confession, which may help the churches to confess this faith together in their own times. It is, however, not enough simply to repeat and referring back to the confession of 1530. The commission states:
What we have rediscovered as an expression of our common faith, cries out for fresh articulation. It points the way to a confession of our faith here and now, with Catholics and Lutherans no longer divided in an opposition to each other but bearing witness together to the message of the world’s salvation in Jesus Christ and proclaiming this message a a renewed offer of the divine grace today. 14
Is the visble unity in truth of the Church possible, not only as a outer federation under some smart formulations, but with lasting inner discord? From a Lutheran point of view it is enough–satis est–to agree upon the right (recte) preaching of the gospel and the right (recte) administration of the sacraments, i.e. baptism and eucharist (CA article VII On the Church). What “the right aministration of the Gospel” means, is spelled out in article IV about the justification by faith, and in article V about the preacher´s office. The right adminstration of the sacraments implies that certain abuses must be abandoned, e.g, withholding the cup from the laymen at the eucharist. But concerning the justification of faith, is there a consensus between Roman Catholics and Lutherans about the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article with which the Church stands and falls?
Joint Declaration about the Doctrine of Justification
The dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans has continued, and since 1995 there exists a Joint declaration about the doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. On a common understanding of the Biblical foundation the commission puts forward a consentient understanding of Justification. 15 This formulation is followed by an exposition of the common understanding of various themes of the theology of the justification, which are explorerd and discussed in order to remove mutual misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the past. With reference to this document, the general secretary of the LVF, Ishmael Noko, has asked the Lutheran churches two questions:
Can you confirm that the Evangelic Lutheran/Roman Catholic consensus shown in the document Joint declaration about Justification, is in accordance with the Gospel of the Holy Scripture and of which the Creeds and the Lutheran confessional writings bear witness?
Can you accept that the consensus, which the document Joint declaration about Justification shows, makes a sufficient basis for a declaration that the doctrinal condemnations of the Lutheran confessional writings do not apply to the Roman Catholic church of today?
In our congregations we have studied the document and our answer is affirmative. When it comes to the condemnations levelled against the Roman Catholic Church in the Lutheran Confessional writings it is more complicated, becaus these condemnation do not deal with justification. In the present document nothing, however, is said about Mass sacrifice, indulgencies, purgatory. 16 Does that mean that the subjects ta too ecumenically touchy, or that they in practice stand in the periphery of the Roman catholic dogma, or differently stated, that they occupy a low position in the hierchy of truths. 17 We recognize our faith in this document and if the Roman Catholics can do the same a consensus on a grass-root level has been reached, and a major step towards unity in truth has been taken. If one adds to this that the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican council has complied with the demands of the Augsburg Confession and abolished improper practices and abuses, then it would be difficult to defend a continued estrangement and separation. Did not Luther himself say that he would kiss the toes of the Pope if he would consent to the justification of faith?
Ut unum sint
But that which is enough for the unity in truth from a Melanchtonian, and Lutheran–perhaps not Martin Lutherian–view, is not enough for the Roman Catholic church. Even if there in some quarters is a growing disappointment about the slowness of progress in the ecumenical process, a remarkable ecumenical climate has, nevertheless, been created, thanks to pope John Paul II.
The present Bishop of Rome has been criticized for a conservative and rigid attitude in matters of faith and moral. Yet, many Christians also outside the Roman catholic church recognize the voice of the Great Shepherd in what he says (as there are many in that Church who do not). In two recent publications, Tertio millenio adveniente (1994) and Ut unum sint (1995), John Paul II has demonstrated his passion for the unity of the church in truth. This unity of the church already exists spritually as the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit are One. It is also inherent in the communion of martyrs from different churches and ecclesial communities. But in order to become visible, unity has to be appropriated through ardent prayer for unity, conversion of mind and heart and a deeper committment to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
In terms of doctrine, he lists five subjects in need of a fuller study before a true consensus of faith can be achieved: 18
The relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God; 19
The Eucharist, as the Sacrament of the Body and the Blood of Christ, an offering av praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit;
Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate;
The Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safegurading the faith; 20
The Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, 21 the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.
The Pope’s list for attaining true unity of the Church certainly goes further than the satis est of the Augsburgs Confession. But the questions we have to ask ourselves as “Lutherans” are:
whether a consensus in these doctrinal matters would not in fact be the solution to many of the problems in Christianity of today,
and, whether a consensus of this kind would not rightly belong to the plenitudo, the fullness of our Christian faith and communion?
The Augsburg Confession, the Pope and the unity of the Church
In the Augsburg Confession Melanchton wisely enough did not enter into a discussion about the pope and the papacy. 22 Martin Luther certainly made up for that omission in The Schmalcaldic Articles. The role of the pope and of papacy, is a problem not only for Luther and Lutherans. The papacy in its present institutional form is for many churches and denominations the obstacle on the road to visible unity in truth of the Church. This is particularly true with the Orthodox Churches. 23
The remarkable thing with Pope John Paul, however, is that he frankly recognizes this difficulty, and in a spirit of humbleness and generosity he invites other Christians Churches and ecclesial communions to assist in forming a biblical Petrine office for the service of the whole church. That there is a need for some kind of a biblical Petrine office in the turmoil in which so may churches find themselves, seems to be beyond dispute. It also seems beyond dispute that there is a permanent task or commission given to Peter and his successors by the Lord Jesus Christ. 24
How are we as Christians, who want to confess our faith in accordance with the Augsburg Confession in its clearly professed catholic and ecumenical intention, to respond to this papal invitation? Or, putting the question in another way: how should we today be good Melanchtonians (model 1530)?
My suggestion is, that we should accept the invitation of the Pope, not only to discuss a reformed papacy and the theological subjects he has listed, but also to deepen and broaden our own theological horizon according to the ecumenical agenda, as presented in Tertio millenio adveniente and Ut unum sint, and join him on his way to Christian unity. The way to Christan unity in love and truth, however, does not only or even in the first instance, go through ecumenical study projects, ecumenical dialogues and joint declarations. The way to unity is first of all a joint pilgrimage of repentence and faith towards the center of the Christian faith: the Holy Trinity. 25 For those who have left the traditional Christan faith, pursuing the Liberal Agenda of the Modern Project or its successor, the Syncretistic Project, 26 his admonition may seem hopelessly outdated or even outrageous. However, good Melanchtonians (model 1530), who are dedicated to the unity of the Church, and who have also listened to and learned from Professor Melanchton’s thirteen year older collegue in Wittenberg, will no doubt find the agenda of Pope John Paul II in accord with the biblical and traditional, catholic and ecumenical faith of the church, as it comes to the fore in the Augsburg Confession.
The traditional biographical picture of Melanchton as being a timid and timorous, pussyfooting professor, helplessly lost in wordly affairs, often at the verge of tears, is simply wrong. Modern resarch (e.g. Heinz Scheible and others), paints a picture of a prodigiously learned and very demanding Greek professor, respected by the students, a humanist at heart who never gave up his humanism when he made the cause of the Reformation his own. He was a scholar and theology professor, a layman and not a priest. His forum was the teacher’s desk not the preacher’s pulpit. His heaven was that of a classroom in which Christ was the Teacher. Melanchton stands out as sensitive intellectual, clearly seeing the risk of a Civil war at the confrontation in Augsburg (who would not be at the verge of tears at such a prospect). He was a sensible and conciliatory man, dedicated to the unity of the church, trying to find a common theological ground and avoiding unnecessary provocations. To the Roman Catholics he was too Protestant. To the Reformed he was too Lutheran. To the Lutherans he was not Lutheran enough. He was a man who knew both rabies theologorum (the rage of the theologians) and mysteria Dei (the mysteries of God). ↩︎
Loci commumes had alredy in 1525 been printed in 18 editions. The last edition from 1558 was considerably revised and expanded. ↩︎
The Augsburg Confession, in Latin Confessio Augustana, consists of 28 articles; the first 21 articles set forth the Lutheran’s overall doctrine in order to demonstrate that there is “dissent in no article of faith from the Catholic Church”. The remaining seven articles discuss abuses that had crept into the Western Church in the centuries immedeately proceeding the Reformation. Communion under one kind (the people received the bread only), enforced priestly celibacy, the mass as an expiatory sacrifice, compulsory confession, human institutions designed to merit grace, abuses in connection with monasticism, and the expanded authority claimed by the bishops [EB, article on Augsburg Confession]. ↩︎
In the 1530 version of Confessio Augustana(invariata, “the unchanged” [version ]) article 10 De coena Domini (About the Lord´s Supper) says “De coena Domini docent, quod corpus et sanguis Christi vere adsint et distribuantur (About the Lord´s Supper they teach, that the Body and Blood of Christ are verily present and are distributed). In the 1540 version (variata, “the changed” [version]) a significant change has taken place in order to accomodate a Reformed understanding af the eucharist. Now its says “vere exhibeantur” ( are really exhibited). ↩︎
The Lutherans named this reply Confutatio. In this reply 9 articles of the Confession were accepted without qualifications, 6 were approved with qualifcations, whereas 13 were altogether condemned. ↩︎
There are two version of CA: one in Latin which was the language of the Church, and one in German, which was the political language. ↩︎
Personally I have always felt uncomfortable, if not outright offended, by the Roman Catholic way of making a distinction between “churches” and “ecclesial communities” (in German “Kirchen” und “kirchliche Gemeinschaften”) in ecumenical documents. Would not my Church, the Church of Sweden, be a real church? What a preposterous arrogance? I am not so sure any more. May it be that the “Lutheran churches” in fact are religious communities (Gemeinschaften, communions) within the Roman Catholic Church but with an impaired och defect communion. The discussions between the two parties at Augsburg were never concluded. Only recently they have been taken up again. ↩︎
“The modern project” may be used as a shorthand term for secularisation, characterised as it is by its lack of transcendence, its anthropocentricity and its attendant rationalistic reductionism, together with the sole transcendence it can accept, that of time: the future in which the perfection is to be found, that is to say, Utopia. The modern project is throughout pervaded by perspectivism. There are no truths and no absolutes. All depends upon which perspective, or in whose perspective, things are seen. ↩︎
Published in German: Wege zur Gemeinschaft. Alle unter einem Christus, Paderborn - Frankfurt am Main, 1980 ↩︎
The so called Malta-report, “The Gospel and the Church” from 1. German text in Grassman, Lienhard, Meyer, Herntrich (Hrsg.), Um Amt und Herrenmal. Dokumente zum evangelisch/römisch-katholischen Gespräch, Frankfurt am Main, 1. ↩︎
Pusblished in German: Das Herrenmahl, Paderborn - Frankfurt am Main, 1978. ↩︎
Published in German: Das geistliche Amt in der Kirche, Paderborn - Frankfurt am Main, 1981. ↩︎
It may be worth noting that in this document the Lutheran Churches clearly are referred to as churches and not ecclesial communities. The document Alle unter einem Christus (All under One Christ) is published together with a larger ecumenical document Wege zur Gemeinschaft, which delineates the way in which this communion between sister churches could be achieved. In 1984 a very radical, almost visionary, ecumenical document was published: Einheit vor uns. Modelle, Formen und Phasen katholisch/lutherischer Kirchengemeinshaft. Unfortunately it has not received the attentions it deserves. ↩︎
All under One Christ, Part III, § 27, 28. ↩︎
The text used in this essay is the German text, which was the bais of the Swedish translation which was sent for consideration by the Central Board of the Church of Sweden (1995-05-29, Dnr CS 1995:24). ↩︎
See Schmalcaldic Articles 2:2. ↩︎
See, however, Kathechismus der Katholischen Kirche, 1993, §§ 1030-32, 1471-79. ↩︎
Quoted in full from Ut unum sint, § 79. It is instructive to compare this list with the one in All under One Christ. ↩︎
Even the staunchest defender of the sola Scriptura principle has to admit that in the interpretation of Scripture Scripture in practice never stands alone. There is always an interpretative community of living and dead and a context of living and dead in which Scripture is read and interpreted. Tradition and Church belong together as Scripture and Church belong together. When it is said “Scripture should be interpreted by means of Scripture” or, “Lucid Scripture passages should enlighten obscure passages of Scripture” this way of treating Holy Scripture is de facto a part of the Tradition. ↩︎
It should be obvious that even if Scripture is the undisputed source of doctrine, the highest authority in matters of faith, and posesses an inner clarity in matters pertaining to salvation (claritas scriturae), there is a need for a teaching office of the Church. Someone has to express with a final authority what the Church does believe and what the Church does not believe. The curse of Protestantism is the secterism which originates from the claim that one group posesses the one and only right interpretation of Scripture (sola interpretatio Scripturae). There always seems to be a fraction emerging to the right of the latest right wing position in a regressio ad infinitum. ↩︎
Could not Mary be regarded as the icon of justificatio sola fide sine operibus propter Christum? Could she not also be regarded as the pattern or the model for the encounter between God and man: how the Triune God meets man and how man meets the Triune God. What justification is all about is how Christ is born in a person through the Word and the Spirit of God. Many controversies about the justification by faith and grace could no doubt have been avoided, had the theological combatants seen Mary as the icon, pattern, prototype in this respect. ↩︎
Melanchthon later wrote a document in which he expressed his criticism of the pope and the papacy, Tractatus de potestate et primatu papae (About the Power and the Primacy of the Pope), 1537. He rejects the pope´s claim on universal jurisdiction and primacy over all bishops and priests de jure divino, as well as his his right de jure divino to give or take away regal power, and the necessity for salvation to believe this.From a Lutheran point of view this criticism is still valid. ↩︎
See for instance the essays in The primacy of Peter, ed. John Meyendorff, 1992. The Church does not breath only with one lung . The Church certainly has and breathes with two lungs–one Western and one Eastern! ↩︎
Matth. 16:18-19, Luce 22:31-32, John 21:15-22. ↩︎
If Roman Catholics and Lutherans have come so far on the road towards Christian unity as they de facto have according to the ecumenical documents, which have been published, conversions are anomalous. If the way to visible unity is a joint pilgrimage of faith and repentence, should it not then be initiated and carried through from the place whe one finds himself from the start, trusting that the Lord of the Church in his time will let his people reach the he has set for it. If it happens–as it does- that individuals and groups, who are very conscious about the catholicity of the Church and highly theologically trained, leave their churches in order to join the Roman Catholic Church, should not the the local Roman Catholic bishop encourage them to stay where they are and from this position work and pray for the unity and the healing of the Church? Would it not be possible from the Roman Catholic side as a prophetic, proleptic sign to show these frontier-crossing individuals and groups, who no doubt symphatize with the objects of the pope´s list for further theological studies, a limited, but yet real, eucharistic hospitality? ↩︎
About the “Syncretistic project” see Folke T. Olofsson, “The Rediscovery of Belief” from Quo Vaditis. The State Churches of Northern Europe, ed. John Broadhurst, 1996, p. 129 f. “The programme of the syncretistic project can be described in this way: the unknowable and unfathomable mystery of life may be expressed and manifested in various ways, and this has also happened in the great traditional religions. But now we have reached the stage in the evolution of man at which we can disregard external dividing dogmas and doctrinal opinions and unite in a knowledge, a gnosis, which is the common denominator behind, beneath and beyond all words and concepts in the historical religions with their rites and beliefs, a knowledge that is embedded deep inside every human being, only waiting to be awakened. The syncretistic project involves an attempt to combine elements and fragments of Christian faith with non-Christian ideas, beliefs or manifestations. The gnostic pattern of knowledge behind, beneath and beyond, which is common to all religions, in some cases already function as a unifying and uniting factor. Characteristic of the syncretistic project is the search for and the creation of a universal religion. The Church may let herself be influenced and even dominated by this syncretism, which is in one sense the heir of theological modernism: religion as the creation of the human spirit or as man’s reaction to the eternal mystery of life, the evolutionary, dynamic, inclusive religion. With the mystic experience or the gnostic pattern serving as the ultimate criterion for Christian belief, or for that which is understood to be the genuine Christian faith as it is defined by American and Continental university theologians, this religion will easily mix with all the prevailing contemporary elements. A religion of the new age in cyberspace and virtual reality.” The calling of the Church, however, goes much deeper: realizing the catholic synthesis. ↩︎