by Armand J. Boehme
All farmers would heartily thank God if he had given them fields with twenty-four inches of rich productive black earth for their farms. Rich black earth is the most productive soil in existence. To paraphrase the Scriptures, rich black earth produces an abundant crop yielding thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold (Mk 4:8).
Lutheran Christianity was born from the yield that came in part from another kind of black earth, a “black earth” that came from Germany. This “black earth” came into existence on 16 February 1497, when Philipp Schwarzert, the son of Georg Schwarzert, was born at Bretten, near Karlsruhe, in Germany. The name Schwarzert means “black earth.”
Young Philipp Schwarzert was trained at the German universities of Heidelberg and Tübingen in the humanist tradition so that he might teach the classical languages (Latin and Greek). His name was changed to Philipp Melanchthon by his uncle, Johann Reuchlin, a famed Hebrew scholar of that day. Melanchthon is the Greek form of his German name.1
In 1518 Melanchthon was appointed to be professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. There he joined such illustrious faculty members as Martin Luther, Justus Jonas, and Andreas Karlstadt. In 1519 Melanchthon became a Bachelor of the Bible and a lecturer in Christian theology even though he was not ordained. Melanchthon, a layman, taught theology and Greek at the most famous theological university in Germany. His popularity as a teacher is seen in the large number of students in his classes.
Part of what makes Philipp Melanchthon’s place in the history of Christianity and Lutheranism unique is the fact that his fame and notoriety came as he served God faithfully as a layman in the church. In Melanchthon we see part of the unique balance of Lutheran Christianity: the blessed working relationship between those who serve in the office of the holy ministry and those who serve God in the royal priesthood of all believers.
Luther (the ordained clergyman) and Melanchthon (the layman) became close allies and fast friends. Together they served the Lord faithfully and joyfully under some very blessed as well as some very difficult and trying circumstances.
Melanchthon wrote three documents that comprise a major part of the Lutheran Book of Concord: the Augsburg Confession, the Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. These writings focus on the center of the Christian faith, justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ apart from the works and deeds of the law. The justifying work of Jesus Christ was at the heart of Melanchthon’s faith and life. In all of his work, Melanchthon wished to point sinners to the justifying grace of the Savior of the world. The theological fruit produced by Philipp “Black Earth” continues to bless us today. Lutheran Christianity is firmly rooted and grounded in the “black earth” of the confessional writings that God brought into existence through Philipp Melanchthon. The above-mentioned confessional writings are part of the theological foundation of Lutheranism.
Melanchthon was the author of theological books, works on education, poems, and hymns. His work as a theologian, author, and educator had a profound and lasting effect on Western culture and society. Many scholars credit Melanchthon with being the founder of the German educational system. This rich black earth indeed produced an abundant crop thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold.
However, as any farmer knows, rich black earth can produce an abundant crop of weeds as well as wheat. The black earth that was Philipp Melanchthon also produced some “weeds” in addition to the abundant crop of “wheat,” for he, like all of us, was a sinful human being. Melanchthon, like Luther, eagerly worked for the unification of evangelical Christians. However, some see Melanchthon’s eagerness to achieve outward unity among evangelical Christians as a spirit that led to theological compromises.
Part of that perspective arose from Melanchthon’s view of the Augsburg Confession. Many Lutherans saw it as the confession of the Lutherans. Melanchthon saw it more as one of his writings. So he continued to make improvements in its language, primarily to sharpen what the Augsburg Confession said about justification.2 These minor changes went mostly unnoticed until in 1540 Melanchthon made some changes to the Augsburg Confession that altered its bold confession of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. This change, had it been accepted by the Lutheran Church, would have altered the doctrinal stance of Lutheranism. Melanchthon’s changes, known as the Variata, were later rejected by the Lutheran Church.3
After the Lutherans of the Smalcald League were defeated by Emperor Charles V in 1547, the Roman Catholic Church forced the Augsburg Interim on Lutherans.4 This Interim required the return of Roman Catholic theology and practices in Lutheran churches, for example, the use of the Roman canon of the mass.5 Melanchthon refused to accept the theology and practices of the Augsburg Interim.6 However, when the political situation became graver, Melanchthon and others wrote the provisions of the Leipzig Interim, a watered-down substitute for the Augsburg Interim, and agreed to abide by them.7 Some feel that in doing so, Melanchthon was giving in to the Romanist demands. Melanchthon saw his participation in the Leipzig Interim as a way to keep the emperor from invading Lutheran lands and forcibly removing Lutheran clergy from Lutheran pulpits.
Though Melanchthon made concessions during the Interim, he refused to concede that the canon of the mass could be returned to Lutheran liturgies. Melanchthon believed that the Roman canon was to be resisted because of Christ’s “command that the recognized doctrine of the truth of the gospel must not be denied.”8 Melanchthon and others saw that the doctrine of justification and the sola scriptura principle were at stake. Melanchthon “expressly refused as contrary to the article on justification, prayers to the saints, private masses and masses for the dead, and canon missae.”9
Melanchthon believed that the return of the canon to Lutheran liturgies was “something that could not be received without impiety.”10 When the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics met to discuss the return of the canon to Lutheran liturgies, Melanchthon noted that in Lutheran liturgies without the canon “all essential parts of the mass were retained: consecration, distribution, reception, prayer for forgiveness, and thanksgiving.”11
As a result of the work of Melanchthon and others, the canon was not returned to Lutheran liturgies. Melanchthon was convinced that by preventing the return of the canon to Lutheran liturgies, he had saved the Reformation and had preserved the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ apart from the works of the law. “The controversies about the canon were of the highest importance to me, and I thank God, if I succeed in preventing that these impieties are forced on the pastors.”12
Melanchthon was not entirely pleased with the outcomes of the Leipzig Interim, but he felt that it was the best that could be accomplished given the circumstances. Upon later reflection Melanchthon wrote that he had sinned by participating in the Leipzig Interim, and asked God for forgiveness.13 Some Lutherans today only fault Melanchthon for his lapses and concessions. Rather than focusing on his lapses, however, we should rejoice that Melanchthon confessed his sins and sought God’s justifying grace in Christ our Savior.
Like everyone, Melanchthon had his faults. Philipp Melanchthon was a sinner in need of a Savior. He, like Luther, was moved by the Holy Spirit to live in daily contrition and repentance. In faith he turned from sin and error to live under the blessing of God’s rich grace and mercy in Christ. Melanchthon found the comfort of the rich “black earth” of the gospel in his life. That gospel caused the “black earth” of Melanchthon’s life to spring forth with an abundant harvest of the fruit of faith.
God has called us to live lives of daily contrition and repentance that we too might be cleansed of our sins, and equipped for holy living. The holy gospel has been applied to our lives as Christians and has made us fertile fields of rich black earth producing the fruit of faith. By God’s grace our lives bring forth an abundant harvest of good works as we live as God’s justified people (Eph 2:8–10).
In the “black earth” that was Philipp Melanchthon God has richly blessed the Lutheran Church. God brought a rich theological harvest from this layman whose vocation and calling in life was as a Christian parent, theologian, author, educator, and confessor of the faith. By his grace, God made Philipp Melanchthon a treasured theological father to all Lutherans and many other Christians as well.
Scripture tells us to remember the leaders who taught us God’s word, and encourages us to imitate their faith (Heb 13:7). Thus this year as we observe the 450th anniversary of Melanchthon’s death (19 April 1560), we pause to thank God for the gift he gave his church in the rich black earth that was Philipp Melanchthon.
No better words could conclude this article than Melanchthon’s own words from the Augsburg Confession that speak about the center of his faith and ours, the rich black earth of the justifying grace of Christ our Savior which yields abundant eternal fruit: “It is also taught among us that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith as they believe that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God counts as righteousness in his sight (Romans 3 and 4)” (AC IV).
1. Unfortunately, there are few modern English biographies of Melanchthon. But see Clyde L. Manschreck, Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer (New York: Abingdon, 1958); Michael Rogness, Philip Melanchthon: Reformer without Honor (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969); and Robert Stupperich, Melanchthon: The Enigma of the Reformation (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2006).
2. “Melanchthon followed John Frederick’s order to update the Augsburg Confession.… Philip revised the princes’ confession most extensively by expanding its rather brief explanation of the doctrine of justification. He did that because John Frederick wanted that doctrine more explicitly set forth in what the Elector regarded as his public statement of faith” (Robert Kolb, “Philip Melanchthon: Confessor of the Faith,” The Lutheran Witness 129, no. 2 [February 2010]: 19.
3. For the texts of the various Variata editions see Henry E. Jacobs, ed., Historical Introduction, Appendixes and Indexes to the Book of Concord, or, the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Decatur, IL: Johann Gerhard Institute 1996), a reprint of the original edition (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1908), 133–88.
4. For excerpts of the Augsburg Interim see Eric Lund, ed., Documents from the History of Lutheranism, 1517–1750 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 162–64. For historical background see Robert Kolb, Confessing the Faith: Reformers Define the Church, 1530–1580 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1991), 65–69; also Theodore E. Schmauk and C. Theodore Benze, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church as Embodying the Evangelical Confession of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1911), 587–640; Eugene F. Klug and Otto F. Stahlke, Getting into the Formula of Concord: A History and Digest of the Formula (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977), 59–64.
5. “His [Bishop Pflug’s] argument struck Flacius as ‘approving heathen sacrifice.’ Crucial to that interpretation was the use of the canon/eucharistic prayer. Its use by the Lutherans was demanded by the emperor himself” (Oliver K. Olson, Matthias Flacius and the Survival of Luther’s Reform [Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002], 102; see also 116–23).
6. Melanchthon wrote that the Augsburg Interim “corrupted the truth in the doctrine of justification, and that he was unable to consent to its sophisms” (F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord [St. Louis: Concordia, 1921; reprint 1965], 97).
7. For a text of the Leipzig Interim see Jacobs, Historical Introduction, 290–302; for excerpts see Lund, History of Lutheranism, 165–66. For historical background see Kolb, Confessing the Faith, 69–82. Melanchthon rewrote sections of the Augsburg Interim “so as to preserve justification by faith, to omit the idea of meritorious sacrifice from the Mass, and to keep Scripture in the Church” (Clyde L. Manschreck, ed., Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine: Loci communes, 1555 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1965], xvii).
8. Olson, Matthias Flacius, 95.
9. Matthew C. Harrison, “Martin Chemnitz and FC X,” in Mysteria Dei: Essays in Honor of Kurt Marquart, ed. Paul T. McCain and John R. Stephenson (Ft. Wayne, IN: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2000), 81. See also David P. Scaer, “Formula of Concord X: A Revised, Enlarged, and Slightly Amended Edition,” LOGIA 6, no. 4 (Reformation 1997): 27; Olson, Matthias Flacius, 85, 101–5, 116–23; and Daniel Preus, “Luther and the Mass: Justification and the Joint Declaration,” LOGIA 10, no. 4 (Reformation 2001): 13–19.
10. Olson, Matthias Flacius, 121.
11. Ibid., 123. Like Luther, Melanchthon recognized the difference between praying eucharistically (praying prayers in the liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Supper), and eucharistic prayers (prayers which enclose, surround, and bury the words of institution). Praying eucharistically is proper. Eucharistic prayers (the canon of the mass) are not. See Timothy Maschke, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009), 168.
12. Olson, Matthias Flacius, 123.
13. “I also acknowledge that I have sinned in this matter and ask for God’s pardon for not having fled far away from these insidious deliberations” (Lund, History of Lutheranism, 188).
Armand J. Boehme is associate pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Northfield, MN.