Happy 500th Birthday, Master Philip!

Michael Aune—February 19, 1997
Chapel of the Cross
On the Occasion of Philip Melanchthon’s 500th Birthday

Imagine this scene: it’s about 50 years from now… the Gnesio or “hyper”-Lutherans are firmly entrenched in power over the entire church including its seminaries… the PLTS community has gathered… let’s say outside on the Chapel Patio… and processes over to Founders’ Hall where the portraits of past PLTS presidents are displayed… the portrait of Tim Lull is taken off the wall, placed on the floor, and is kicked to pieces…

Philip Melanchthon

Far-fetched, you think… Not at all, for in the year 1610, the portrait of the theologian and renewer of the church whose 500th birthday we celebrate today was torn down off the wall in one of the University of Wittenberg buildings and kicked to pieces… Even in death, Philip Melanchthon’s fervent hope had not been fulfilled—that he would be finally set free from the cares and rabies of the theologians. It was not to be… for almost 200 years his books were banned in Wittenberg, his supporters, known by the derisive name, “Philippists,” were denounced and sometimes imprisoned. It seems that Melanchthon has been in Lutheranism’s theological doghouse ever since—caricatured and formalized, vilified and even damned as a traitor, a weakling, a compromiser with the papal anti-Christ on the one hand and Calvinism on the other… a Leisetreter—a “pussyfooter.”

This morning, however, we have gathered to celebrate the 500th birthday of one of the most influential lay theologians in the history of Christianity and of Lutheranism… a theologian who gave particular shape and authoritative power to Luther’s message. His Loci communes, published when he was only 24 and expanded in later editions, remained for a century one of the most important syntheses of Lutheran teaching. Luther himself valued Master Philip’s ability to write “synthetic” theology, the more so since his own writings were mainly exegetical, pastoral, or polemical. It was Master Philip who in 1530 crafted the fundamental confession of the Lutheran movement, the Augsburg Confession. He also earned the proud title praeceptor Germaniae, teacher of Germany, because of his work in curriculum reform, textbook writing, and indefatigable lecturing to packed halls of eager undergraduates. In short, he contributed more than anybody except Luther himself to the foundation and consolidation of the Lutheran movement.

What is there about Master Philip that we should especially remember and celebrate this day? That source for the liturgically correct, The Manual on the Liturgy, tells us that commemorations “provide a more balanced reflection of the richness of Christian history and a fuller sense of the communion of saints.” Melanchthon’s own life and vocation sought to exemplify such a balance, a richness, a fuller sense of what it means to be church and of what it means to be a particular kind of person who belongs to and participates in this communion of saints.

Master Philip was convinced that Word and sacrament alone define the true church. This church comes into being wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments are rightly administered. That is, church [and ministry] are always defined in terms of the action of God through the Word, spoken or visible. The key here is the action and authority of God and God’s Word. Or as Master Philip put it in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, when God’s gracious action in Christ for us is defined, it also defines everything else, especially ministry and church… and what it means to be a particular kind of person—one who is a mysterious unity of knowledge and passion—one who responds to the imperative to engage the Word in dialogue with as much human thought and experience as possible—because faith and learning have nothing to lose and everything to gain when they are practiced together.

And why would Melanchthon do this? Why should this be our imperative as well—because knowledge without passion is barren scholasticism; passion without knowledge, frightening fanaticism. This knowledge for Master Philip was of knowing Christ and Christ’s benefits… a knowledge that was to be intellectually useful and affectively powerful in a believer’s life …

In our time, however, that we have lost the connection between knowledge and passion. If we think about what it means to be a particular kind of person, our tendency is to slice up our view of a human being into discreet [or not so discreet] components or parts—intellect, will, emotion, appetites. In such an anthropology, we are either brains with ears or bodies ruled by disorderly passions and emotions. We have a difficult time viewing or understanding ourselves in a whole manner—so we localize knowledge or our classwork in the intellect [if we are so lucky] instead of understanding what it is we seek to know as a total experience, involving the feelings, penetrating the heart, shaping the will and stimulating the whole person to some active response. For Master Philip, what it means to be a particular kind of person needs to be regarded as a mysterious unity. What becomes of theology or thinking about Christian faith in such a viewpoint—it becomes an affective, practical theology directed at the emotional, heart-felt conviction that God’s promises and Christ’s benefits can be trusted as being for us.

“Really knowing” involves the entire being and what this means is that we cannot simply write off or caricature Melanchthon’s interest in certainty, because certainty itself is an affective category that has to do with trust, with the heart “feeling certain” that the Gospel or promise is life-giving and faith-creating. “Knowing” and “feeling” go together. The whole person is involved so that to be “moved” is an experience of faith as joy, trust, and confidence—an experience of tranquility, delight, love, freedom, and hope. But a “movement of the heart,” for Melanchthon, is more than just a private affair. He spoke of it “as a certain kind of spur” which incites us to do things—to live lives marked by virtue, justice, equality, friendship, and mutual faith.

It is clear that Master Philip did fatefully and deeply understand what Luther meant by the gospel… and such a gospel is not a set of notions or doctrines, but an initiation into the experience of salvation, of a forgiven and regenerated soul, set at peace and liberty by grace, and turned from disobedience to a new life, within the redeemed community, within a forgiven and edifying solidarity, through the action of the Word [cf. E. Gordon Rupp essay].

In a time such as ours—beset with muddled thinking, spiritual tourism, cultural strip-mining, mean-spiritedness—what Melanchthon once regarded as a new barbarism which leads to the destruction of sound learning, to frightening fanaticism, to an empty spirituality—we would do well to behold again Master Philip’s vision of God’s forgiving mercy, of the benefits of Christ as being peace in one’s conscience, a new liberty and a new life into which Christ brings us… We would do well to be as dedicated to truth and wisdom for to have a burning intellectual curiosity is not simply the residue of original sin or being woefully out of touch with the real world. Rather, this is what has been described as the massive Credo ut intelligam of the great Christian tradition—“I believe in order that I might understand.”

As we remember and celebrate Master Philip this day—and as we look forward to meeting the Lord Jesus in his Supper—his comments on “The Table of the Lord” and “The Use of the Sacraments” are most apt:

If God himself were to speak to you face to face or show you some peculiar pledge of his mercy as, for instance a miracle, you would consider it nothing else than a sign of divine favor. As for these signs, then, you ought to believe with as much certainty that God is merciful to you when you… participate in the Lord’s Supper as you would if God himself were to speak with you or to show forth some other miracle that would pertain peculiarly to you. [as certain as though God, by a new miracle, promises his will to forgive…] Here we are talking about personal faith, which accepts the promise as a present reality …

Such a promise is nothing but the will of God toward us, a certain and assured knowledge that excites and arouses and moves our hearts to believe and to take hold of faith. Why? Because as Master Philip wrote in his 1543 edition of the Loci, “The human race has been so created and then so redeemed that we as the image and temple of God might celebrate the praises of God.” Indeed we do on this day. And we also say “thank you” for your contribution… especially for the powerful reminder that knowledge without passion is barren scholasticism… that passion without knowledge is frightening fanaticism. And, by the way, “Happy 500th Birthday, Master Philip!”