Philip Melancthon was born Philip Schwarzerd on February 16, 1547, in Bretten, Germany. A brilliant boy, he was tutored in Greek and Latin and entered the University of Heidelberg just before his 13th birthday in 1509, graduating at age 14.
The university would not allow him to study for his master’s at such a young age, so Philip moved to Tübingen, studying both philosophy and humanistic thought. He completed his master’s degree in 1514 at age 17. He was offered a position as an instructor at Tübingen and taught there until 1518.
During his time at Tübingen as an instructor, Melancthon began to study theology and continued his studies of Greek, producing a Greek grammar in 1518. Offered a position at Wittenberg as a professor of Greek in 1518, Melancthon eagerly accepted. It was there he met another professor, the monk Martin Luther, who had posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, on the church door at Wittenberg.
Melancthon was an early supporter of Luther, attending the debates that preceded Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. By the time of his publishing a defense of Luther against Johann Maier von Eck in 1519, Melancthon was considered a part of the Lutheran camp.
Melancthon was the primary author of the Augsburg Confession, written in 1530. This is a key Reformation document, explaining the Lutheran position on various theological issues. Written in Melancthon’s clear and lucid style, it represented the Lutheran position in a manner that many hoped would bring about reconciliation between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Melancthon would prove always to take the more moderate position in the various Reformation controversies.
Melancthon worked closely with Luther on many of Luther’s writings. He assisted in Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, revised many of Luther’s commentaries on the Bible, and assisted Luther in some of the Luther’s most important polemical works.
Yet Melancthon would not always agree with Luther. In 1537, at a meeting in Smalcald, Luther had previously prepared what are commonly called the Smalcald Articles (a part of the Book of Concord), attacking the pope virulently.
Melancthon, writing his own “Treatise on the Primacy and the Power of the Pope,” persuaded the others present to adopt his more moderate position. Melancthon married Katharina Krapp, daughter of the mayor of Wittenberg, in 1520. They had four children and their marriage lasted 37 years until Katharina’s death in 1557. They lived in Wittenberg throughout their marriage.
Melancthon had many roles at the University of Wittenberg. He gave immensely popular lectures in over 100 courses to thousands of students (some of his most popular lectures had over 2,000 in attendance). His lectures included theology, philosophy, philology, and world history. He served as rector and academic dean at various times, helping to establish the university as a leading educational institution.
Melancthon published many books. His most famous book, a systematic theology called the Loci communes, was first published in 1521 and revised several times by Melancthon.
Melancthon reached out to many church and public figures including Henry VIII, king of England; King Francis I of France; and the patriarch of Constantinople. He also counted as friends many Calvinists, including Oecolampadius, Bucer, and John Calvin himself. This would leave him open to later charges of being a crypto-Calvinist.
The most tragic event in Melancthon’s life was his role in the document called the Leipzig Interim. Soon after Luther’s death in 1546, Emperor Charles V invaded the German area of Saxony and forced the defeated princes to adopt a document that was designed to be an interim document until the theological matters were settled by the Council of Trent, which had begun recently.
The authors of the document were two Roman Catholic bishops and Luther’s old nemesis, John Agricola. The resulting document so favored Roman Catholicism that the defeated princes refused to sign it.
Melancthon was asked to improve the document to make it more palatable. This he did, but just barely. The document compromised on justification by faith, a key Lutheran tenet, and Melancthon’s association with it would unfairly brand him as a traitor to the Lutheran cause for the rest of his life.
Melancthon provided a kind of balance to Luther that Luther himself appreciated. He was not a strong leader, and many rightly accuse him of being too eager to compromise. Yet his key role in many of the Reformation documents and his personal influence and friendship with many of the reformers clearly show how essential Melancthon was in the early years of the Reformation. Melancthon died in 1560 and was buried next to Luther in the castle Church of Wittenberg.