A review of two recent books on the Protestant Reformer, Philip Melanchthon
One particular great thinker from the Reformation period has been blessed recently by two new monographs. Timothy Wengert’s Philip Melanchthon, Speaker of the Reformation: Wittenberg’s Other Reformer is a collection of 13 articles and chapters published in various places over the last twenty years or so. Professor Wengert is a Lutheran scholar in very high standing, and the contributions here are first rate, covering aspects of Melanchthon’s theology — such as his annotations on Romans, his patristic exegesis, his use of Augustine, and his contribution to Luther’s argument with Erasmus over free will — as well as his relationships with his contemporaries, such as Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus.
Melanchthon is often portrayed as the betrayer of Luther’s Reformation, the quiet reformer who ended up siding with Erasmian humanism against the stronger brew of evangelical theology. Wengert paints a more subtle picture, of a Reformer who got mad (“the notion that Melanchthon was friendly and peace-loving is a myth”); of a “friend” to Calvin and Luther who nevertheless experienced profound tensions in his relationships with them, and their theology; and of a sophisticated Renaissance man, with a towering intellect who needs to be studied in his own right.
Gregory Graybill, Evangelical Free Will: Philipp Melanchthon’s Doctrinal Journey on the Origins of Faith is a more focused study of a particular question. If one is saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ, then what is the origin of that faith? Is it a gift of God to elect individuals, or is some measure of human free choice involved?
Although Melanchthon is sometimes seen as the intellectual founder of “Lutheranism”, he was certainly not at one with Martin Luther himself on this issue. He was concerned by the eternal implications of Luther’s view for those whom God has not chosen, and as he developed his own thinking on the subject, moved away from the notion of “the bondage of the will” which Luther (and the Reformed tradition) taught.
Graybill shows how the shift that came with Melanchthon’s 1532 commentary on Romans, in which he sought “to temper predestination,” was in fact just the next logical step in the gradual evolution of his thought. The cause of damnation could therefore be said to be the human will, with God in no way responsible for the reprobation of those who choose not to believe.
Unusually for a scholarly monograph from a prestigious academic press, this detailed study of historical theology begins by addressing itself to “Bible-believing Christians”, encouraging them to enter into Melanchthon’s struggle over this issue because of the apologetic, evangelistic, and pastoral implications.
Even if we may not want, in the end, to agree with Melanchthon on this issue, and assign everything in our salvation entirely to the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9), the author has done us a service here, in giving us a pious and useful context in which to ponder the work of a brilliant if flawed theologian.
This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).