Timothy Wengert’s article in the Lutherjahrbuch 66 (1999) offers an analysis of the controverted relationship between Luther and Melanchthon. Wengert puts aside psychological assessments of the relationship, and does not focus on theological similarities and differences, which might have the effect of reducing the two men to their ideas. Instead, he examines their daily interaction in Wittenberg, and how they responded to various crises and confontations. Several points are particularly noteworthy:

1) Wengert stresses more than once that neither Luther nor Melanchthon considered their theological pronouncements or exegesis to be canonical. He illustrates with the divergent interpretations of Luther and Melanchthon on Gal 3:19, 24, concluding that “Not only Melanchthon but also later Lutheran theologians refused to turn Luther’s exegesis into a measuring stick for evangelical orthodoxy. In no case did Luther speak ex cathedra in such matters. The fluidity of interpretive options for Wittenberg’s theologians warns against too quickly invoking later standards of conformity upon the age of the Reformation” (pp. 64-65). Further, “In the midst of the shrill battles that marked the Reformation, they both engaged in what might be called theology through conversation. Although both were convinced that the gospel rested upon clear assertions of God’s unshakeable promise in Christ, they both tried in their own way to avoid theology by fiat. Because of later disagreements in Lutheranism over some of these same doctrines, this delicate web of conversation is often overlooked in the ruch to discover differences” (p. 85).

2) Wengert notes that the two differed subtly in their formulations on justification, even though both insisted on that justification was forensic. Their agreement and differences are dramatically revealed in their comments on a letter of May 12, 1531, written to Johannes Brenz and copied by Conrad Cordatus. Melanchthon took Brenz to task for making the Spirit’s work of renewal internal to justification: “cast your eyes back to the promise and Christ and away from this renewal and from the law completely . . . Thus we are righteous by faith alone, not because (as you write) it is the root [of human righteousness] but because it apprehends Christ, on account of whom we are accepted whatever kind of renewal is there. Although [this renewal] ought necessarily to follow, it does not give the conscience peace.”

Luther’s postcript to the letter inludes this: “I am accustomed, my Brenz, for the sake of understanding it better, to think of it in these terms: as if there is no quality in my heart that might be called ‘faith’ or ‘love,’ but in that place I put Jesus Christ and say, ‘This is my righteousness; he is the quality and (as they say) formal righteousness,’ so that I may in this way set myself free and disentangle myself from considering the law and works ?Eeven from considering that objective Christ, who is understood as teacher or giver. But I want him to be gift and teaching in himself, so that I may have all things in him.” Further, “Thus Christ says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’; he does not say I give you the way, truth, and life, as if Christ stood outside of me and worked such things in me” (pp. 68-69).

Melanchthon, Wengert points out, emphasizes the promise, and particularly the promise of forgiveness of sins, which is given on account of Christ. Luther concentrates on Christ Himself not only as giver but as gift.

3) The main differences between the two men, Wengert concludes, was cosmological. He cites a striking passage from Melanchthon that displays Melanchthon’s belief in astrology: “Melanchthon’s conviction that the created order, especially the stars and planets, contributed to human evil led him to choose ?Eor at least to pray for ?Ea course of moderation as his way of resisting those very natural tendencies in a fallen world. Luther’s conviction that the devil had a hand in theological contentions led to precisely the opposite response. Whatever his personality may have contributed, Luther’s anger was a controlled, theological response to the devil’s attacks on the gospel” (p. 86). For Luther, “the Reformation unfolded as a series of attacks and counterattacks on, or true testimonies to, the gospel.” Melanchthon saw history “unfolding in the progression of teachers and learners ?Ea process interrupted not only by the devil but also by the natural forces causing dissension and yet fostered by the practice of moderation” (p. 87). According to Wengert, Melanchthon’s “moderation” was not a weakness of character, but a studied and deliberate response to life that was theologically and cosmologically motivated.

This cosmological difference affected the two men’s views on justification: “Even when the two agreed on the forensic nature of justification, their approach betrayed disparate intentions. For Luther God’s decree destroyed evil and comforted the weak. For Melanchthon God educated, made certain, and comforted the simple” (p. 87).

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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