Reason Diabolical, Reason Divine: Melanchthon on Philosophy, Humanism and Scripture


This article appeared in Volume II, Issue 4 of Ad Fontes.


I begin with a quotation. I have used it in print before, but it provides such a high value of entertainment that I cannot forego reusing it here. The quotation is from a 19th c. American polemicist whose bed seems to have had no right side from which to get up. I speak, of course, of Orestes Brownson. Brownson says:

Here is the grand fact that Protestant theologians always overlook. They, in reality, always present nature and grace as two antagonistic powers, and suppose the presence of the one must be the physical destruction of the other. Luther and Calvin, weary of the good works, and shrinking from the efforts to acquire the personal virtues enjoined by Catholicity, began their so-called reform by asserting the total depravity of human nature, and maintaining, that original sin involved the loss of reason and free-will, reducing man physically to the condition of irrational animals, and superadding the penalty of guilt. Here, in the very outset, they denied natural reason, all natural religion, and all natural morality, and consequently asserted for man in the natural order, left to his natural powers and faculties, universal skepticism and moral indifference; for without reason there can be no belief, and without free-will no moral obligation, no moral difference of actions.[1]

Now, Brownson manages to be wrong in so many different ways here that it would be hard to catalogue them all. And yet his view is nevertheless a prevalent one. (GK Chesterton, on the other hand, accused the disciples of John Calvin of being rationalists–in other words, the opposite of what Brownson suggests; one can only shrug.[2]) There are a number of reasons, I would suggest, for which general and apparently learned opinion came to this conclusion–these have to do with everything from culpably irresponsible polemics to Protestants’ own widespread amnesia about their own heritage. But the conclusion, for all its popularity, is, if I may use a technical term, “false.” Or, in the parlance of our times, it is an “alternative fact.”

Yet this criticism, or something like it, is found also in sources that purport to be scholarly–particularly in treatments of natural law–and it was voiced already by prominent individuals in the sixteenth century as well, including the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who often accused the Lutherans of destroying bonae literae,[3] the humane arts or liberal learning. For instance, in a letter to Martin Luther from April 1526, he writes:

But what does terribly pain me, and all good men, is that your arrogant, insolent, rebellious nature has cast the world into deadly strife, that you have opposed good men and lovers of letters with a set of malignant Pharisees, and that you have armed the wicked and turbulent to rebel….[4]

In a 1528 letter to Melanchthon, he writes:

Would that Luther had avoided opportunities for sedition and had called for good morals with a manner equally vehement as what he had for the defense of his dogmas! Because I see no remedy for these tumults, I come to the aid of bonis literis as much as is permitted; nevertheless I seem to foresee their destruction.[5]

When he was writing to a non-Lutheran, he could be even more direct. So, in a 1528 letter to Nicholas Varius, he could say:

                  I hate those Evangelicals for many reasons, but especially for the following one: because by their agency bonae literae are feeble, they grow cold, they lie on the ground, they perish; and what is human life without them? They love money and a wife; they consider everything else not worth a hair.[6]

Portrait of Philip Melanchthon, 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

It is true that Luther’s manner of speaking could lend itself itself to glosses like those of Erasmus. For example, Luther once referred to reason as “the devil’s bride” and “the lovely whore” and addressed it as “you mangy, leprous whore, you holy reason.” Again, it is “the foremost whore the devil has.” “You cursed whore,” he thunders, “shut up!” Yet again, “reason is the devil’s prostitute and can do nothing else but slander and dishonor what God does and says.”[7]

On the other hand, as Pekka Kärkkäinen has noted, “In the Disputation on the Human Being (1536), Luther praises reason as the most excellent gift of God, even as something divine in humans.”[8] Luther goes on to call it “the discoverer and governor of all the arts, medicine, and the laws, and whatever wisdom, power, virtue, and glory is possessed by men in this life….Nor did God take away this majesty from reason after the Fall, but rather confirmed it.”[9] Luther also was capable of saying the following in a letter to the Wittenberg poet Eobanus Hessus in 1523:

                  I am persuaded that without the knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. There is, indeed, nothing that I have less wish to see done against our young people than that they should omit to study poetry and rhetoric. Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily….As Christ lives, I am often angry with myself that my age and my manner of life do not leave me any time to busy myself with the poets and orators. I had bought me a Homer that I might become a Greek.[10]

What is going on here?

To answer that question, let us,as an exercise in constructive intellectual history, focus on some particular aspects of the problem that one often encounters in critical accounts of the Protestant Reformers, overtly polemical or otherwise: How can Protestants philosophize? How can they support the liberal arts? How can they promote a natural law doctrine? These are all endeavors in which Protestants were in fact engaged in the sixteenth century: they philosophized; they vigorously supported the liberal arts, particularly through the development of new and more humanistic educational institutions and curricular reform; they rigorously defended the validity of the law of nature.

But at the outset we seem to meet with contradictions even on Protestants’ own principles. Let us use as a synecdoche what are usually referred to as the formal and material principles of the Reformation, sola scriptura and sola fide. Doesn’t sola scriptura–the principle that Scripture is the Christian’s ultimate authority in matters of faith and life–outlaw philosophy and the arts by obliterating all non-biblical authority, including the authority of reason or of an intellectual tradition? And doesn’t sola fide–the principle that man is accepted of God only because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, received by faith–render moral action superfluous? In the quotations above, Luther seems–seems–to say both “yes” and “no.” But is he? Is he (and others like him) caught on the horns of a self-contradictory and thus irreconcilable dilemma?

What I shall argue is that, paradoxical as it may seem at the outset, it is precisely sola Scriptura and justification sola fide, both understood via the Lutheran and Melanchthonian dialectic of Law and Gospel, that provide the warrant for moral philosophy and the liberal arts in magisterial Protestant understanding, while at the same time rendering Luther’s and Melanchthon’s criticisms of “reason” and philosophy intelligible. Some works of Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon, who is well known but not as well known as he should be, can clarify how the pieces of this puzzle fit together.[11] 

Melanchthon, Reason, and Philosophy

Like Luther, Melanchthon did not always speak highly of philosophy, or at least of particular kinds of philosophy. Thus at the outset it should be acknowledged that it is true that early in his career in Wittenberg, where he arrived in 1518, Melanchthon, together with Luther, voiced strong opposition to contemporary Aristotelianism, which, in its various permutations, was still the main philosophical force in the academy. But it is important to note what this meant, and what this did not mean. Nicole Kuropka has noted two grounds on which philosophy, and Aristotle in particular, were criticized: theological and philological.[12] For the first, to be associated more with Luther (though not exclusively), it was claimed that Aristotle corrupted the faith by perverting Scripture’s teaching of righteousness and justification with a false doctrine of works righteousness. (It is not my purpose here to adjudicate this controversy; my concern at present is historical archaeology.) For the second, to be associated more with Melanchthon, the accurate understanding of Aristotle was impaired by the use of corrupt Latin translations, and so the primary desideratum was for an accurate Greek text of the Stagirite. This was a task Melanchthon himself wished to undertake. We ought not to pass too quickly over the significance of this fact: already upon his arrival in Wittenberg, and indeed even before, during his time in Tübingen, Melanchthon did not wish to discard the study of Aristotle, but to rejuvenate it.

It is nevertheless true that Aristotle became something of a bête noire for Melanchthon between 1519 (shortly after coming to Wittenberg) and 1525, as Kuropka has also pointed out, and Aristotle disappeared for a time from the curriculum at Wittenberg, even while Melanchthon continued to vigorously encourage the study of the liberal arts (thus we should mark in this period a distinction and separability between the two, which did not obtain later).[13] Why? He had been convinced of the theological criticism of Aristotle, and particularly of the use of Aristotle in understanding the doctrine of salvation. He sums up his objections in a letter to Nicholas von Amsdorf in 1520:

Already a long time ago the divine Paul foresaw that what concerns Christianity would be shaken by philosophical traditions. For that reason he sharply rails against other human teachings and, writing to the Colossians, with mouth wide open he openly instructs that wariness is necessary “lest anyone take us captive by philosophy.” And would that the oracle of the Apostle had availed, since the votes of the ancients were scorned, by which philosophy, with stunning agreement, was condemned.[14]

Two items should be observed in connection with this passage. First of all, it serves as a preface to Aristophanes’ Clouds. Anyone who has read the play knows that its humor turns on the mockery of philosophy, including natural philosophy, and particularly of Socrates himself. Second, Melanchthon’s apparent rejection of philosophy seems to have good scriptural support. He invokes Colossians 2.8: “See that no one takes you captive by philosophy.” This is a verse to which we shall return. In the meantime, one might note that it has a long pedigree of anti-philosophical use. Augustine, for instance, so employs it in Confessions 3.4.8. Interestingly, however, Augustine’s quotation of the passage comes in the midst of his praise for Cicero’s protreptic to philosophy, the (now lost) Hortensius. This tips us off that already in the traditional use of Col. 2.8 there is something more complex going on than may at first meet the eye, and that is no less true in Melanchthon’s case, as we shall see.

Even if that is the case, however, his voiced opposition to what he calls “philosophy” here is nevertheless forceful, and would not seem to leave a lot of wiggle-room. But things changed for Melanchthon over the course of the 1520s, though the developments that occurred did not make him any friendlier to late medieval scholasticism. And what changed had to do both with external circumstances and with Melanchthon’s own understanding of the nascent Lutheran faith–two causes that were related to each other and developed in tandem.

Law and Grace, 1529, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

First, with respect to external circumstances: Wittenberg in the early 1520s was roiled by civil unrest. Near the end of 1521 occurred what is referred to as the “Wittenberg Movement,” in which Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling claimed the mantle of Luther and called for the immediate implementation of what they believed were Luther’s intended reforms such as communion in both kinds and the removal of images. They also called on students to quit the university. Their preaching led to riots by excitable students–at least, the students that were left–and townsmen. Around the same time Wittenberg saw the arrival of the so-called Zwickau prophets who claimed immediate revelation from God and attempted to hasten further reforms. All this was followed by the anarchy of the Peasants’ War (which ended in May 1525) and Melanchthon’s unease at radical Anabaptist practices that he discovered while on a visitation in Thuringia (in the summer of 1527). These events brought home the necessity for civil peace and order, and for the rule of law.[15] This was not something that Melanchthon had ever questioned, but the activities of radicals made renewed emphasis on peace and order as divine goods a necessity.

With respect to the internal cause for Melanchthon’s change: this can, I think, be attributed to his developing understanding and more forceful utilization of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Melanchthon had early on embraced Protestant teaching and vigorously supported Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, that is, of God’s free forgiveness of sins to those who trust in Christ. Because “philosophy” had become so embroiled in questions of theology and of righteousness before God and had been given, in Melanchthon’s mind, an adjudicatory role to play in resolving those questions, the philosophers–by which we here mean Aristotle and especially his scholastic interpreters–[16]had to be opposed, as obscuring the gospel. In the 1520s, he seems to have come to a deeper and more clarified recognition of the fact that the Lutheran gospel did not necessitate an opposition to philosophical study after all; such study simply had to be put in its proper place. The gospel, to repeat, is the announcement of God’s free forgiveness in Christ. Everything else is law. The gospel cannot be discovered by human reason or ingenuity–and in that sense philosophy has nothing to do with it. But that fact does not negate a positive role for philosophy and reason in every other aspect of human life. Provided that philosophy is kept to its proper sphere–that is, outside of the doctrine of salvation–it is a good and helpful thing.[17] The basic distinction between law and gospel is already present in the 1521 edition of the Loci communes, but Melanchthon deploys it to much greater effect and with greater profundity in the years that follow, giving the study of philosophy and the arts their place under this general rubric. Thus Melanchthon’s re-envisioning of philosophy as part of the realm of law allows it to be rescued for Christian re-purposing.

I said above that the external and internal causes of the changes in Melanchthon’s rhetoric about philosophy were related; let me now suggest how that is so. The radicalism of the Anabaptists and other troublemakers in the 1520s was caused by what was, for Melanchthon, a misunderstanding of justification by faith alone. That is, the radicals absolutized and externalized the freedom of the gospel in such a way that they claimed to be no longer subject to any human restraint or law. In Melanchthon’s opinion, of course, this was to misunderstand both law and gospel. The gospel had to do with man’s standing before God. By acceptance of it, the inner man was free from the penalty due for sin and the terror of God’s judgment. But man still had to live in the world, that is, in civil, temporal society. And civil, temporal society is not ruled by the gospel; it is ruled by law. When we remember that everything “not gospel” is “law,” we can more easily see the new place he discovered for philosophy. For what does philosophy, for Melanchthon, do? It teaches us moral precepts; it teaches us about all of the arts; it teaches us about God’s providence in the external world through nature and the motion of the heavenly bodies. Thus, as Sachiko Kusukawa has demonstrated in The Transformation of Natural Philosophy, philosophy is useful precisely for countering Anabaptist anarchy and an externalized understanding of the freedom of the gospel, for philosophy inculcates civil obedience and order in man’s temporal life.[18] For Melanchthon, this is a great blessing: the law is the gift of God as well as the gospel.

As Melanchthon came to this more developed understanding, it is, interestingly, in the same verse of Colossians (2.8) referred to above in the preface to Aristophanes’ Clouds that he found support–which is to say, support for his now more public advocacy for the teaching of philosophy, including Aristotle, who became a regular focus of his from this point forward; philosophical study, as it turned out, was actually underwritten by the Bible. Melanchthon’s intense reflection on this verse is apparent from key sources from the mid to late 1520s, in which his sharpened reading of the passage is evident.

Melanchthon on Col. 2.8 and the Ethics of Aristotle

In 1526-7, “Melanchthon’s duties in the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg included lecturing on Paul’s letter to the Colossians.”[19] From this period we have a disputation on Col. 2.8 (“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”) in which he makes his new understanding of the import of the verse clear. The theses of this disputation, called “On the Distinction between the Gospel and Philosophy,”[20] begin as follows:

When Paul says: ‘See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy’, he does not reject philosophy but its abuse–just as, when someone says: ‘Take care not to be ensnared by wine’, he does not disparage wine but its abuse.[21]

So it is not philosophy itself that is problematic, but a perversion of philosophy. This occurs when the Gospel is transformed “into philosophy, that is, the teaching of human reason.”[22] But philosophy is not about the gospel. Rather, it “contains the art of rhetoric, physiology and precepts on civic morals.”[23] Indeed, it is “a good creation of God, and the principal among all natural gifts,”[24] one that is necessary as long as we live in what Melanchthon calls “this corporal and civil life.”[25] And as far as that life and civic morals are concerned, “moral philosophy,” says Melanchthon, “is the very law of God.”[26] So too in the world of nature: “That philosophy is the law of God can also be understood from the fact that it is the knowledge of natural causes and effects, and since these are things arranged by God, it follows that philosophy is the law of God, which is the teaching of the divine order.”[27] It is even the case that Aristotle is the best representative of such philosophizing, because he makes most use of demonstrations.[28] “And,” he goes on, “[Aristotelian philosophy] judges correctly about the purpose of moral goods and the nature of virtue, at least if it is understood as being about civic life and civic virtues”–[29]a proviso he believed was not observed by late medieval or contemporary scholastics. (One might note in passing that this renders Brad Gregory’s recent claim that Aristotelian virtue ethics was was “repudiat[ed] by early modern Lutherans [and] Reformed Protestants”[30] rather strange.) Because, moreover, philosophy is part of “law,” it forms a seamless whole with the revelation of the moral law in Scripture: “[Divine law and philosophy] agree with each other just as the Decalogue and the law of nature agree, because philosophy–to the extent that it has demonstrations–is the law of nature itself.”[31]

With the civil life here in view, the gospel does not conflict at all: “[I]f anyone takes away from the Gospel any law on civic life that conflicts with philosophy or the laws of the emperors, he should immediately be despised.”[32] The gospel, on the other hand, is not a new law (pace Aquinas),[33] or a law at all. As Melanchthon says, “The Gospel is not a philosophy or a law, but it is the forgiveness of sins and the promise of reconciliation and eternal life for the sake of Christ, and human reason by itself cannot apprehend any of these things.”[34] That is a crucial point: “human reason by itself cannot apprehend any of these things”; it is that point that Melanchthon above all desires to protect. There is a distinction between divine righteousness and civil righteousness that must ever be observed.[35] Civil righteousness is for Melancthon a great good; it is also one that has nothing whatsoever to do with justification before God. As long as this is kept clear, philosophy can and must be employed.

Melanchthon expands on his thoughts in a dissertatio on Col. 2.8 that was published in 1527,[36] which itself was extended in a commentary on Colossians first published also in 1527 (the Scholia),[37] and was then extended yet further in a second edition in 1528[38] (there were more additions and editions that followed).[39] Though there are expansions, the substance of the argument on Col. 2.8 is stable in both the dissertatio and the 1527 and 1528 commentaries, and it is on that that I shall focus here.[40]

Melanchthon’s discussion of the usefulness of philosophy in this dissertatio and in the commentary’s entry for 2.8 is predicated on the law/gospel distinction discussed above. Paul’s purpose in this verse, Melanchthon says, is to “compar[e] human with Christian righteousness”[41] and to see both how God requires human righteousness and how, in another sense, he condemns it. When he says “human righteousness” (humana iustitia) here, he means the same thing referred to with the phrase “civil righteousness” above. As we saw there, this means that it is part of law, not gospel; it is part of man’s “external” life in the world, not his “internal” life before God, and thus needs to be distinguished from Christian righteousness.

Insofar as philosophy speaks to man’s natural or social life, it is a good–in fact, for Melanchthon it is a creature and gift of God (vera et bona creatura Dei).[42] Thus he believes that texts such as Romans 2.15,[43] Romans 1.25,[44] and 1 Timothy 4.1-5[45] give the warrant for and, moreover, a commandment for the use of philosophy. What is included in “philosophy,” in this sense of the word? It should be noted that Melanchthon here does not mean metaphysics. Rather, he means things such as the following: medicine (the study of bodies), which includes astrology (!); astronomy; moral philosophy; and eloquence, which includes grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.[46] In other words, he essentially means the “liberal arts.” As long as philosophy is kept within proper bounds–the regulation of man’s bodily and civil life–it should be praised.

Is the division between philosophy and sacred studies really so airtight as it seems? Yes and no, or rather no and yes. “No,” in the following way: the study of nature (and particularly the study of eloquence) is absolutely necessary for understanding Sacred Scripture–the very Scripture that permits and commands the use of philosophy for Melanchthon–for without some knowledge of languages, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, one can neither accurately understand nor expound the teaching of Scripture. In fact, this is what Melanchthon says Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 when he instructed the Corinthians to “exercise the gift of tongues.”[47] And so philosophy is useful for understanding the content of Scripture that is already “there” in the text: Melanchthon takes it to be obvious that with the right tools a text can be understood, but also that those tools are requisite for such understanding.[48]

Where philosophy goes wrong is when it ceases to be a handmaid and instead attempts to generate its own content in divine matters, that is, when it is not governed by the Word in the sphere of theology. Reason and philosophy may not invent their own ideas about God but must derive and explicate their conceptions of God from his own Word; reason and philosophy must rather be servants to theology. Melanchthon then identifies three areas in particular in which philosophy goes astray, that is, does not follow his advice.

Philosophy or reason errs, first, when speaking about how the world is governed or about God’s counsels. “The nature of man,” he says, “can affirm nothing about God’s will. We can only learn about that from the Word of God.”[49] Second–and this is crucial, if you will forgive the pun–“philosophy errs with regard to justification.”[50] Melanchthon believes that philosophers such as Aristotle teach that civil righteousness is sufficient for God–that natural virtue is a cause of God’s favor. But the Word says that “righteousness before God consists in faith in Christ.”[51] Finally, philosophy errs in teaching that “the reason has enough strength of its own to resist vices”[52] and therefore dispenses with the need of the Holy Spirit for Christian virtue. As Timothy Wengert has shown, then, Melanchthon is opposed to the muddying of the Christian doctrines of the divine will, of justification, and of sanctification: that is, the primary errors have a Trinitarian shape (divine will/Father, justification/Son, sanctification/Spirit),[53] though Melanchthon does not make that pattern explicit. It is these specific areas in which someone might be taken captive by philosophy against Paul’s command.

But none of these errors negates the fundamental benefit of philosophy, which, when distinguished from the gospel, “can…form correct judgements about the nature of reality and about social morals.”[54] Thus Melanchthon can say: “This is not to say that Christian doctrine does away with social morals. It requires them, and approves of the philosophy or theory of laying down precepts that concern social morality.”[55] Such activity just must not be confused with the Gospel. This is what Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 2.15 about “rightly dividing the Word of truth” means;[56] the Word itself, properly understood, gives the grounds for the investigation and explication of natural law and social morality. The Protestant Scripture principle provides the foundation for the investigation and explication of natural, ethical, and political philosophy, all of which, for Melanchthon, are part of the domain of “law” (as opposed to “gospel”). “Law” is the realm of nature and general revelation, equally applicable in all times and places. Thus there is no peculiarly “Christian” form of state–the supposition that there is Melanchthon rejects as revolutionary radicalism.  statesmen, then, should make full use of, for example, the traditions of Roman law and Greek and Roman ethics, in addition to the ethical teaching of the Bible, in determining and preserving a legitimate social order, which Christians citizens are bound to obey.

We can observe Melanchthon’s position in other works from the same period. For example, in the preface to his first attempt at a commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, published in 1529, in which Melanchthon again rigorously distinguishes between philosophy and the gospel, he writes that “that knowledge itself, which, inborn in men’s minds, philosophers apprehend, is the gift of God, as Paul teaches in Romans 2.”[58] Later in the preface, he remarks, “From what I have said above, it can easily be understood that philosophy does not conflict with the gospel–nay, rather, just as it is right to obey public laws, so it is right to obey the precepts of philosophy, and the precepts are approved of in the second chapter of Romans, for Paul calls them the truth of God.”[59] Therefore Scripture itself once again demonstrates that the commands of philosophy should be obeyed, and that to refuse to do so is to disobey God. 

To sum up: the Christian faith teaches that no one can reach true blessedness by following the precepts of moral philosophy, nor can one reach saving knowledge of God through philosophical investigation–such are the effects of the Fall. God provides the remedy in the gospel, the divine message of the forgiveness of sins. Human reason can never attain to this truth, and so God graciously reveals it. But such a position does not eliminate philosophy and the arts from human life; it rather relativizes them and sets them in their proper relationship to the gospel. For the divine revelation comes in two forms: law and gospel. By finding a home for philosophy under the rubric of “law” and the regulation of our temporal, civic lives, its value is retained. Indeed, we can then see it for what it is: a good creature of God, albeit not one that redeems us. That is the prerogative of God’s grace in the gospel alone. If the liberal arts cannot save one’s soul, it is no great loss; that is not their design. It is enough to say that God cares for his creation as such and our lives in this world, and gives us his good gifts of reason, philosophy, and the arts and sciences to teach, protect, and preserve us in this life. And they really are pedagogical: not only do they show to us true things about God and the world; they show us–particularly moral philosophy–our own shortcomings and vices, and thus form a seamless whole with the gospel that gives us the remedy for those vices. Therefore the Scripture principle, sola scriptura, a correct understanding of righteousness before God via justification sola fide, and the law/gospel dialectic as a controlling paradigm for discerning God’s ways in the world together provide a way of understanding and appropriating the best of classical wisdom together with a chastened and modest sense of what it can, and cannot, do. Far from being at odds with moral philosophy and the liberal arts, these theological principles, in magisterial Protestant understanding, actually supply the warrant for moral philosophy and the arts–the study and practice of which are required to ensure civil order and social peace for man in his political aspect, and to give glory to God for the goodness of his creation.

Eric Hutchinson is Associate Prof. of Classics and Director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the Latin literature of late antiquity and early modernity, and he is a regular contributor at The Calvinist International.



[1] Orestes Brownson, “Protestantism in a Nutshell,” in Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics and Socialism (New York: D. & J. Sadlier, 1852), 251 (emphasis mine).

[2] Cf. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 27-8.The passage shows Chesterton at his most absurd.

[3] The customary spelling in the citations below.

[4] Letter 729 in Preserved Smith and Charles M. Jacobs, editors and translators, Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1918), 369.


[5] Letter 1944 in P.S. Allen and H.M. Allen, editors, Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, vol. 7 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928), 321. The translation is my own.

[6] Letter 1973 in ibid., 360. The translation is my own. On this issue, cf. Erika Rummel, The Confessionalization of Humanism in Reformation Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 31-4.

[7] All except the last are from Luther’s last sermon in Wittenberg (17 January 1546), which was written down by Georg Rörer: see John Doberstein, editor and translator, Luther’s Works, vol. 51 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 374, 376. The last is from Part II of Against the Heavenly Prophets, translated by Conrad Bergendorf, in Conrad Bergendorf, editor, Luther’s Works, vol. 40 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), 174-5. For Luther and the classics, cf. Carl P.E. Springer, Luther’s Aesop (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011), 1-34.

[8] Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Philosophy among and in the Wake of the Reformers: Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin,” in Henrik Lagerlund and Benjamin Hill, editors, The Routledge Companion to Sixteenth Century Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2017), 195.

[9] Martin Luther, Die Disputation de homine, in WA 39, 175 (theses 5 and 9). The translation is my own.

[10] Letter 580 in Smith and Jacobs, Luther’s Correspondence, 176.

[11] It should be observed, however, that many others–such as Girolamo Zanchi, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and John Calvin–could do so as well.

[12] Nicole Kuropka, “Philip Melanchthon and Aristotle,” translated by Timothy J. Wengert, Lutheran Quarterly 25 (2011), 16. For the remainder of this paragraph, see Kuropka, 16-27.

[13] Kuropka, “Melanchthon and Aristotle,” 17.

[14] The letter served as a preface to Aristophanes’ Clouds (Corpus Reformatorum 1, 274-5). Kuropka refers to the letter (“Melanchthon and Aristotle,” 25 n. 5), but does not quote it. The translation is my own. Melanchthon’s point here seems to be that people ought to listen to Paul, since they didn’t listen to the Athenian jury that condemned philosophy in the person of Socrates when they voted him guilty of corrupting the youth (among other charges) and elected to execute him. Though Aristotle is not named in this passage, he is the chief conduit by which “human teachings” corrupt the gospel, on which see below.

[15] For the summary in this paragraph, see Sachiko Kusukawa, The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melanchthon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 51-65.

[16] These two are obviously not the same, and one could argue that when Melanchthon refers to the former in theological contexts he very often (though not always) means the latter.

[17] For an example of what Melanchthon is trying to avoid, cf. the following anecdote: “…[Theobald] Thamer came to Wittenberg in 1553 and presented his teaching before Melanchthon. Thamer had abandoned justification by faith alone in favor of the opinion that God was better recognized in the writings of Aristotle than the writings of Luther, because Aristotle contained all articles of faith in that he described the way to God as a way of virtue so that righteousness in God’s sight was attained through proper behavior” (Kuropka, “Melanchthon and Aristotle,” 22).

[18] Kusukawa, Transformation, 27-74.

[19] Timothy J. Wengert, Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melanchthon’s Exegetical Debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998), 14.

[20] The disputation is available in English in Philip Melancthon, Orations on Philosophy and Education, edited by Sachiko Kusukawa and translated by Christine F. Salazar (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 23-5. I quote Salazar’s translation herein.

[21] Melanchthon, Orations, 23.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 24.

[28] Ibid., 25. Karkkainen, “Philosophy,”195, notes Aristotle’s increasing importance for Melanchthon in this period while also emphasizing Cicero’s influence: “During this phase, Melanchthon began to consider Aristotle as the methodological ideal for teaching ethics and politics, without dismissing Cicero as the authority in the discussion on virtues.” Melanchthon had substituted Cicero’s On Duties for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the teaching of moral philosophy in 1526 (see Kuropka, “Melanchthon and Philosophy,” 18), but this change was not permanent: Aristotle becomes extremely significant not only for method, but also for content, as his Philosophiae Moralis Epitome and his commentaries on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics make clear. For a recent treatment of Cicero in the Reformation, see Carl P.E. Springer, Cicero in Heaven: The Roman Rhetor and Luther’s Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

[29] Melanchthon, Orations, 25, emphasis mine.

[30] Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 185.

[31] Ibid., though he remarks that the precepts of the Decalogue are “clearer.”

[32] Ibid., 23.

[33] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II, Q. 106.

[34] Melanchthon, Orations, 24.

[35] Cf. Augsburg Confession 18 (“Of Free Will”), and the Defense of the Augsburg Confession on that same article (both by Melanchthon).

[36] Philippi Melanchthonis in locum ad Colossenses: Videte ne quis vos decipiat per philosophiam inanem, dissertatio (Basil: Adamus Petrus, 1527). The text can be found in Corpus Reformatorum 12, 691-6.

[37] Scholia in Epistolam Pauli ad Colossenses (Hagenau: Ioannes Secerius, 1527). This version of the commentary has been translated into English: Philip Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, translated by D.C. Parker (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989).

[38] Scholia in Epistolam Pauli ad Colossenses (Wittenberg: Josef Klug, 1528).

[39] For the publication history, see Wengert, Human Freedom, 14-20, 159-61.

[40] It should be remarked in passing that one of the reasons I chose quotations from Erasmus above, rather than other opponents such as Iohannes Cochlaeus, is that Wengert has convincingly shown that Melanchthon’s commentary on Colossians is a subtle and many-pronged attack on Erasmus, though Erasmus is never named. I will not be focusing on that aspect of the text here, but it is worth noting. See Wengert, Human Freedom, passim.

[41] See CR 12, 692 for the dissertatio; Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 46, for the 1527 commentary; Scholia (Wittenberg), 22, for the 1528 commentary.

[42] CR 12, 692. The language is retained in the 1527 and 1528 commentaries.

[43] “[The Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (I quote the ESV for convenience). Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 46 (for the reader’s convenience, I will give references to the 1527 commentary because it is available in English).

[44] I.e., Paul’s reference to “the truth about God.” Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 48.

[45] “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 48. He also quotes, e.g., Sirach.

[46] Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 48-52. This section is greatly expanded from the 1527 dissertatio.

[47] Ibid., 51.

[48] Melanchthon would later forcefully argue for philosophy’s importance for theology in his 1536 oration “On Philosophy”: see Melanchthon, Orations, 126-32.

[49] Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 53. Though this statement is generalizing, when Melanchthon speaks this way he customarily means that human reason can know nothing of God’s saving will. Compare the following from the preface to his 1529 commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “Philosophy relates nothing about the will of God, nothing about the remission of sins, nothing about fear or about faith toward God. It only teaches the precepts that concern the external and civil mode of life, such as the public laws of political bodies. But the gospel expounds to us the will of God, it remits sins, it promises the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies the hearts of the pious and brings them to eternal life” (In Ethica Aristotelis commentarius [Wittenberg: Josef Klug, 1529], sig. A4r; cf. CR 16, 280. The translations of all passages from this work are my own; for more on this text, see below.

[50] Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 53.

[51] Ibid., 53-4.

[52] Ibid., 54.

[53] Wengert, Human Freedom, 84.

[54] Melanchthon, Paul’s Letter, 55.

[55] Ibid., 54.

[56] Cf. Wengert, Human Freedom, 86.

[57] This does not mean that Melanchthon was not an establishmentarian or theocrat; he was. But that is not my topic here.

[58] Melanchthon, In Ethica Aristotelis, sig. A2v.

[59] Ibid., sigs. A5r-v.


3 responses to “Reason Diabolical, Reason Divine: Melanchthon on Philosophy, Humanism and Scripture”

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