Philip Melanchthon and the Idea of Christian Civility
William V. Frame

In 1518, at the age of 21 – and on the heels of Luther posting his theses at the Wittenberg Schlosskirche – Philip Melanchthon joined the University there as its professor of Greek.  It was a prized appointment. The university had been founded only in 1502 and was already a leading light of the new learning facilitated by the Renaissance. It was the apple of the Elector’s eye and a harbinger of a new Germany just beginning to rise from the remnants of the medieval Christian empire.

Melanchthon’s facility with the classical languages, including Hebrew, had won him the Wittenberg job.  But his seminal role in the Reformation grew from competencies that depended on and yet went far beyond grammar and linguistics – history, medicine, rhetoric, and, the ultimate gathering point of them all, philosophy.  Indeed, his linguistic acumen was but the critical investigative competence of his study; it grew to fluency in the act of retrieving the teachings of the ancients from the vulgar and “epicurean” scholarship of the Schoolmen.

Even so, the reconciliation that Melanchthon eventually effected between classical thinking and reformed Christianity could not have been achieved by the professor of Greek as he first arrived at the university.  Some of the credentials still needed were acquired at Wittenberg itself, amending his earlier training at Heidelberg and Tubingen.  Nor did Melanchthon immediately inspire the confidence of his eventual colleagues, including Luther, upon arrival at Wittenberg.  In fact, he made a poor first impression, in part, perhaps, by his physical self-presentation. He entirely reversed this impression with an inaugural address delivered four days after he set foot in the city.  Entitled “On Correcting the Studies of Youth,” it took the place by storm, and elicited from Luther the observation that he thereafter “desired no other Greek teacher” than Melanchthon for whose appointment he thanked both the rector and the elector.

From beginning to end, Melanchthon’s  speech “commended” to the university a curriculum and pedagogy intended to “recover” the learning of the ancients and put it in the place of Medieval Sophistry.  This “original” learning had declined precipitously in the collapse of empire, and had since been corrupted by such “moderns” as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and St. Bonaventure.  In both this speech and in many statements issued over the length of his career at Wittenberg, Melanchthon blamed the political and moral collapse of Europe – and even waywardness in the Church – on this loss of the ancient learning. He often noted that the iconoclasm of periods in which “the Greeks were held in contempt” prevented pilosophy from influence in human affairs, on the one hand, and corrupted the Church by the “slow death of sacred things,” on the other.  This mixture of decay and iconoclasm had developed and done its damage in the 800 years preceding – and, he hoped, ending with – the Reformation.

The only way to retrieve the learning of the ancients was to enter into conversation with them – in their language and on their terms. This required reading them in the original, as Luther had done the Scriptures. In addition to the high competence in grammar required for this ad fontes approach (to the Greeks in particular), understanding the material required a pedagogy of dialectics that issued in regular classroom disputation. For Melanchthon, dialectics both prompts and accomplishes human intellectual ascent from opinion about to knowledge of the Creation. His critical assumption here was that nature – the essence of the Creation – was a work of mind and therefore accessible to reason. The rules governing disputation, aided by the collateral rhetorical skills practiced in the dialectic, would keep reason, according to Melanchthon, attentive to ordered Nature and prevent it from drifting off, as it was otherwise prone to do, toward self-absorption or the puffery of fine expression. Disputation, in short, prompted the discussion toward the “public,” in the ancient sense, and prevented it from resembling the empty and self-indulgent exchanges of the Schoolmen.

The order which this pedagogy discovered in the Creation was admittedly assumed from the beginning, but this assumption did not in the least relieve the unarmed mind of the responsibility for confirming or “proving” the truth and detail of it by what we might call the Rules of Reason.  Hence, understanding for Melanchthon’s Christian students was produced by disciplined human inquiry; it was not the result of God’s revelation, either as faith or as a recompense for it.  The radical distinction between faith and reason embraced by the Reformers, and especially by Melanchthon, degrades neither faith nor reason. Rather, it consigns each to a particular jurisdiction – nature to reason, grace to faith, for example. In the terms of epistemology, this is close to a divorce; in ontological terms, the two jurisdictions stand on a continuum made of God’s providential intent.  That reason, operating dialectically through disputation, can approach the truth about nature is a Kingdom on the Left implication of divine providence; the simultaneity of faith with our recognition of grace is an almost tautological example of a Kingdom of the Right connection between understanding and Providence. 

Melanchthon’s assumption of the intelligibility of divine providential purpose in respect to nature made him a devotee of classical, particularly Aristotelian, teleology.  Armed with the conviction that all things have purposes or ends and are defined by them, and possessing an impressive arsenal of linguistic, grammatical and rhetorical skills, Melanchthon could lead his students over the dark valley of Scholasticism to a new life of service and civic engagement. Full participation in what Luther came to call the Kingdom on the Left required an embrace of Law as well as of Gospel.  Indeed, it required a Christian civility if not a Christian political science.

In his Funeral Oration, Melanchthon says Luther “adorned and defended civic life as it has never been adorned and defended by anyone else’s writings” (Kusukawa, 1999, 258).  The kind of writing he has in mind here is marked by “eloquence,” and for Melanchthon, eloquence is the highest form of forensic rhetoric. It belongs largely to “statesmen” – non-tyrannical leaders who both represented and formed the kinds of communities warranting the name “polity.”  Luther, said Melanchthon, did not allow his piety to blind him to human reality.  In the face of “weighty decisions on public dangers,” he usually “saw best of all what would be useful” because he “both knew the state and accurately perceived the frame of mind and wishes of all those with whom he lived. 

There can be no question that Luther recognized and embraced the distinction between the Christian, on the one hand, and the Christian Citizen, on the other.  In a 1519 piece called “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” Luther describes two “private” Christians and, then, the “public” Christian or Christian Citizen. The first private Christian seeks “vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God.”  The second does not, and gives his cloak to those who would take his coat.  “These,” says Luther, “are sons of God, brothers of Christ, heirs of future blessings.”  The Christian Citizen, however, is “in persuasion . . . like the second type just mentioned, but . . . unlike in practice.”  Such Christian Citizens “. . . demand back their own property or seek punishment . . . not because they seek their own advantage, but through this punishment and restoration of their own things they seek the betterment of the one who has stolen or offended. They discern that the offender cannot be improved without punishment. These are called ‘zealots’ and the Scriptures praise them.  But no one ought to attempt this unless he is mature and highly experienced in the second class just mentioned . . .” Otherwise, he would be prone to mistaking “ . . . wrath for zeal and be convicted of doing from anger and impatience that which he believes he is doing from love of justice . . . ” 

Melanchthon’s constant admonition that his students’ civic engagement was to be founded upon the virtue of moderation as propounded by the ancients was intended to supply the “maturity” that Luther identifies here as the critical condition of what we can only call “Christian Vocational Life.” This “maturity” is marked by the discipline of self-denial, which take the form of a notable openness in public as well as academic forums.  “Nothing is better in all things,” he once said, “than moderation, readiness to be appeased and forbearance.” Referring to the Iliad, he asks, “What is more just and human than…to decree, as the first laws in the assembly, freedom for those who speak and patience for those who listen? Do we not see how our century is afflicted more than anything else by the fact that the mighty cannot bear free speech, and not even any thought of freedom?”  And of Aristotle, he says, “How beautiful it is that he alone saw that the nature of virtue is the moderation of emotions!”

The idea of vocation was intended from the beginning to make the Cross real in the earthly life of the Christian (Wingren, c 1957, p.  53). Civic engagement was the communal setting and orientation in which calling was heard and answered.  The university, in which theology and philosophy met and mingled, was the training ground of vocational life and, ipso facto, of citizenship and civility. 

Melanchthon seems to be re-establishing – on perhaps higher (or at least firmer) ground than did Aristotle – the view that “man is by nature a political animal” (The Politics, I, i, 9). The Christian definition of sin as self reliance makes the business of building community very challenging, indeed! The idea of vocation, supported by civility and amplified by an educational regimen relying upon dialectics and protected by a close alliance with Electors and Christian magistrates might very well succeed – but only by constant cultivation. 

Melanchthon’s preference for the ancients as partner for Luther’s accurately-recovered theology was premised in large part on their systematic and teleological philosophy.  He also favored the ancients, however, for an additional and still faintly teleological reason:  He thought their discussion of human nature superior to later efforts precisely because it was the earliest.  This earliness permitted the ancients direct access to the subject, unencumbered by any obscuring curtain of existing bibliographic opinion. Not only were the parts of nature available to direct view at the dawn of the academy, but man himself appeared before the ancients in something close to his original and Godly form. 

The ancients gave Melanchthon and Luther a better peep than they could otherwise get of the original, pre-Fall human being. Through them, they and all Christians could see “how great a wound the enemy inflicted on [the human soul]… and show also the traces of the divine image on it, and the remains of the heavenly gifts.”

Fortunately, the ancients supplied Melanchthon with an “original” portrait of Man without blinding him or his students to the implications of the Fall. His regard for the ancients did not weaken his rejection of their supposition that human perfection was approachable by the discovery and practice of virtue through reason. (Neither did Melanchthon adopt the Epicurean view that our “natural” inclination is to pleasure. He thought this an accurate diagnosis but of a “depravity” occurring in the Fall rather than of “nature.”) What the portrait revealed to Christianity was that the classical “teaching on morals and description of virtues” were crucial for “showing the way to live properly and as a citizen.” Without these disciplines, the communal life of fallen man would have been even worse than Aristotle alleged for the natural man living outside of or before the polis.

The question remains: Did Melanchthon, in his profound regard for history, grammar, dialectics, and – eventually – the whole array of the “arts” that constituted for him the critically important subject of “philosophy,” corrupt Luther’s theology?  I don’t think so.  It is clear to me that his every effort was to identify and cultivate the political conditions in which the Church could flourish (as can be seen in his preface to the Augsburg Confession). He was fully aware that civility is a leading virtue only in the Kingdom on the Left, and that the vocational life which it makes possible is the highest life for us only on this side of the grave. 

He does not allow his Philosophy to trench upon the Gospel, which must itself be regularly proclaimed and confessed. He does, of course, flatly reject the pietistic proposition “that the writings of the pagans are unworthy of being read by Christian people, and that Christians should give a wide berth to philosophy.”  He never wavers from the conviction that that philosophy neither knows nor interprets “the will of God, nor does it instruct on the fear of God and the trust in Him; that pertains properly to the Gospel.” What philosophy does, however, is to “teach” the “precepts for civic life [that] are necessary” so that “men may live peacefully with each other.”  Philosophy propounds these and their “causes” and “put[s] them in relation to each other” for perception and cultivation by “excellent men.”

Neither Christ nor the Gospel does so. “[O]ne must not think,” says Melanchthon, “that Christ came into this world to teach these [ethical] precepts; He expounded something else, about the will of God and trust in God, which human reason could not understand. However, God also favours civic duties and requires them from all ages, and by that discipline He wants men to be restrained in no other way than by the laws and institutions of the magistrates, which have great affinity with those precepts, for all laws and all justice has sprung from them as if from springs. For this reason this teaching is very useful, because, by demonstrating the causes of the laws and of public justice, it helps much with the understanding of all discussion of civic matters.” This marriage of law and civility explains, I think, why Melanchthon’s clear preference among Plato’s dialogues is for The Laws rather than The Republic.

Melanchthon uses a reference to Homer’s Odyssey – his favorite poet (and poets were, for him, the chief architects of the formative art of History) – to drive home his point:  “Since Christians should cherish and support this civil society, this teaching of civic morals and duties has to be known by them. It is not piety to live like the Cyclopes, without justice, without laws, without teaching, or without any of the other things helpful for life that are contained in literature. Therefore those who disparage philosophy not only wage war against human nature, but they also severely injure the glory of the Gospel, which commands that men be restrained by civic discipline . . .”

Melanchthon’s philosophy amounts to “moral philosophy,” or what Leo Strauss called with careful distinction “political theory.”  His reconciliation of the ancients to Luther’s theology makes of his particular version of philosophy a pure adjunct to that theology.  It therefore differs profoundly from, for example, Alfarabi’s effort, five centuries earlier, to recover in the ancients the “one, true philosophy” of the human condition.

Nor does Melanchthon’s politics ever find itself in profound tension with civil society, as the original from which he recovered it quite regularly did.  The saga of Socrates’ indictment, conviction and execution makes it quite clear that Plato, at least, grasped quite fully the seditious nature of philosophy, particularly from the point of view of civil society properly so called.  Perhaps it was in view of this tension that Melanchthon stood to declare Plato’s dialogues inferior to Aristotle’s “ordered” delineation of the “arts,” saying of Plato’s Socrates that the scintillating heights to which his “irony” rises in eloquence makes it “more appropriate for mocking than for teaching.” In fact, even though Plato’s eloquence is the highest and best of all – and contains many wonderful ideas – “he [Plato] did not hand on any art completely or in order.”

Those who fault Melanchthon for this preoccupation [(Caemmerer, 1947) is the leading example], are denigrating the great service he rendered for the Reform and to Martin Luther, his friend and workmate.  For Melanchthon – and for us – neither the Scriptures nor the Church have any chance of survival except in civil society.  “What, I beseech you, is the future shape of kingdoms or states without erudition or teaching of the Scriptures?... [L]et us just cast a look at those places in which learning once had a home, where the schools even now retain these scholarly titles, but abuse them for promotions in rank and the achievement of honours.  We can see how much turpitude is apparently there all the time….Their bad example should move and admonish us to grant safety to schools both in the state and in the Church of Christ.”

No passage in what I have seen from Melanchthon’s hand better establishes his view that civility, coached by classical learning, is critical to the educative undertaking of both the State and the Church.

William V. Frame is President of Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This essay is based on remarks presented to The Lutheran Eduacational Conference of North America, Victoria, British Columbia, 2 February 2005.



Alfarabi. Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Trans. by Mushin Mahdi.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2002.

Caemmerer, Richard R. “The Melanchthonian Blight,” Concordia Theological Monthly (XVIII:  5, May, 1947).

Grane, Leif, ed. The Augsburg Confession: A Commentary.  Trans. John H. Rasmussen Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1987.

Keene, Ralph, translator.   A Melanchthon Reader.  New York:  Peter Lang, 1988.

Kraye, Jill. “Moral Philosophy.” In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, Charles B. Scyhmitt, editor. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University, 1988), pp.  need complete pages of essay).

Kusukawa, Sachiko, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Luther, Martin. “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” In Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm.

Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957.

Melanchthon, Philip, “At Luther’s Funeral.”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 256 - 264.

–––, “Dedicatory Letter to the Epitome of Moral Philosophy.”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 139 - 143.

–––, “On Aristotle”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 204 - 211.

–––, “On the Life of Avicenna.”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 220 - 226.

–––, “On the Role of the Schools.” In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 9 - 22.

–––, “Preface to Cicero’s On Duties.”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 79 - 83.

–––, “Preface to Homer.”  In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 38 - 53.

–––, “Preface to the Commentary on the Soul.” In Kusukawa, ed.  Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education, 144 - 151.

Wingren, Gustaf.  Luther on Vocation, Translated by C.C. Rasmussen. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, c 1957).

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