Late in 1538, Martin Luther wrote to his Wittenberg colleague Philip Melanchthon. He had just finished reading Melanchthon’s latest manuscript, On the Authority of the Church and the Writings of the Ancient Fathers, which would be published in 1539. As he thumbed through it, he told Melanchthon that his head swirled with thoughts of Aristotle and his chest, in turn, with indigestion. What made him dyspeptic was the manuscript’s material cause. In Aristotle’s philosophy, the stuff out of which a thing is made is the material cause. For example, timber is the material cause of a house, or marble is the material cause of a sculpture. “The material cause! So much paper has been consumed by you!” he complained. “Several times you filled one sheet with only three words, crossing out all the letters in between.”
Luther’s comment about the length of the document and the logic of Aristotle is a bad joke—the kind that appeals only to seminarians. (Though, it also helps bust the pernicious myth that Luther rejected Aristotle wholesale.) In truth, he came up smiling from each inky page. Few texts of the period stated so clearly whether and in what sense the fathers and councils of the church could be considered sources for Christian doctrine. In fact, the answer to that question represented one of Luther and Melanchthon’s greatest collaborations: soon Luther finished his own work on the nature of the church, and both men intended their tracts to be read together. But Luther’s feeble punchline is also striking. For almost no one wrote more than Melanchthon; certainly no one did with such careful deliberation.
Melanchthon’s name calls to mind a lost world of Renaissance and Reformation learning. He was both a great humanist and a great reformer. He first appeared in print in 1510 when barely a teenager and enrolled at the University of Heidelberg. He never stopped writing. He authored some of the most important books in the early modern period on Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and history; influential studies in physics, psychology, and astronomy; the first summary of Protestant theology in his Loci communes and the first Protestant commentaries on Romans (five on the book alone), 1 and 2 Corinthians, and the Gospel of John; the Augsburg Confession and its defense in the Apology—and so much more. When he died in 1560, he left behind some ten thousand letters, reflecting an extensive network of correspondents and a remarkable degree of influence. Even his critics relied on his methods and results. It is little wonder he is called praeceptor Germaniae, the “teacher of Germany.”
Melanchthon believed that his exacting scholarship had utility and value in practical life, using it to find footholds when neck-deep in university affairs, church reform, and political conflict. He wrote with the conditions of his own time firmly in mind. When he produced the Latin translation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, for example, he told his close friend Joachim Camerarius, “Not only am I translating Antigone; I am also living it.” Like the protagonist in the play, he felt himself pulled by every political leader—at the time, the German princes and the French and English kings—who expected him to find solutions to intractable problems; yet he was bound ultimately to God. Similar scenarios played out in his turbulent life time and time again.
In the manuscript On the Authority of the Church and in other discussions of the topic, Melanchthon demonstrated how to read the church fathers: not to construct a theology or slavishly follow the ancients’ conclusions but to understand them as Testimonia Patrum, testimonies or witnesses of the fathers to the truth. This did not diminish the importance of the early church. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Learning from the church’s past strengthens one’s own witness to the truth of Scripture and its effects. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and many others had freely admitted—even emphasized—that the writings of the fathers could be obscure and contradictory. To read them well required skill, sensitivity, and nuance; it was hardly a dispassionate pursuit. To claim their support on a great many issues, moreover, involved every rhetorical tool. Yet Melanchthon ensured that the theology of the Reformation always insisted on its foundation in the Bible and its continuity with the church catholic.
When Luther feigned anger over the reams of paper that Melanchthon devoured, seemingly without restraint, perhaps he also remembered how in 1519 during the important Leipzig debates that pitted him against the skilled Roman Catholic Johann Eck, a rather young Melanchthon had passed him paper notes crammed with citations from theologians in the early church that helped bolster the Wittenberg position. We do not know. But we do have ample material evidence, richly marked with edits and ink blots, that show in fine detail exactly how Melanchthon labored over each word he wrote: for clarity, precision, and practical benefit. He was as scrupulous as he was prodigious—and for good cause.
Zachary Purvis (DPhil, University of Oxford) is lecturer of Church History at Edinburgh Theological Seminary. He is the author of Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), and his articles have appeared in such venues as Journal of the History of Ideas,Church History, and Journal of Ecclesiastical History.
Errata: In the Mar/Apr 2022 issue, “Luther’s Marginal Notes on Melanchthon” by Zach Purvis should have read “Melancthon and the Material Cause,” and Melanchthon’s On the Authority of the Church was published in 1539 not 1538. We apologize for these errors.
2. Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church, 1539,” trans. Charles M. Jacobs and Eric W. Gritsch, in Luther’s Works, vol. 41, ed. Eric W. Gritsch and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 3–178.
3. Melanchthon to Joachim Camerarius, Oct. 1534, in Melanchthons Briefwechsel . . . Texte, 6, no. 1505.
4. Augsburg Confession, Art. 20.
5. See, e.g., Erasmus, Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterdami, ed. P. S. Allen et al., vol. 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), 377–82.
6. Mickey Mattox, Richard J. Serina Jr., and Jonathan Mumme, Luther at Leipzig: Martin Luther, the Leipzig Debate, and the Sixteenth-Century Reformations (Leiden: Brill, 2019).