Just got done writing a 20 page paper on the theology of Philipp Melanchthon. I love this guy. He complemented Luther in every way. Luther was loud and obnoxious, Melanchthon was gentle and irenic. Luther was anti-philosophy (consubstantiation eh?), Melanchthon brought the philosophy of Aristotle under the Lordship of Christ. At any rate, what struck me most about Melanchthon was that he didn’t set out to be a theologian. He wanted to reform the educational system, not the Catholic Church. Perhaps, though, it was this spirit of reform which caught Luther’s attention. Once Melanchthon sat under the theological training of Luther, the man who Melanchthon claims “taught him the gospel,” he began to show signs of being quite the capable theologian. But what stokes me out the most about Melanchthon was his pristine eloquence and love of the Scriptures- something that his Humanist education had instilled in him. Melanchthon’s rhetorical eloquence was unmatched in Reformation Europe, and it allowed him to successfully defend several doctrines that are vital to evangelical theology.
Melanchthon’s greatest contribution by far to the Reformation was the idea of forensic justification. In the thought of Melanchthon, justification was not an internal change, as the Augustianian view upholds, but rather external. For him, righteousness in imputed, not imparted. The Augustinian view necessitates an ontological change in the sinner- the sinner must be made righteous, lest God be a liar in calling just that which is unjust. In this view, merit is an inescapable consequent, and thus takes away from the glory of Christ displayed on the cross. In Melanchthon’s view, the paradigm of justification takes place in the heavenly court, righteousness being imputed not on the basis of the sinner’s merit but the merit of Christ, and this to those who would merely trust in the promises of God. Thus, the change in the believer’s right standing before God is not based upon an ontological shift- we are still just as sinful as we were before, albeit with the new man co-existing with the “brother ass”- but rather a shift in their reality. Before faith the sinner’s reality is guilt and judgment, after faith the believer’s reality is grace and peace. In this view of justification, all glory goes to Christ.
Melanchthon’s Humanism, with its focus on the original sources (ad fontes) and eloquence of argumentation, allowed him to defend this view of justification. It is because of his efforts that forensic justification are impacting evangelical theology even today (Counted Righteous in Christ by Piper). As aspiring theologians, we can learn a few things from this cat. He was gentle, peaceful, eloquent, and friggin’ smart. More than this, though, his love for Christ was the driving force behind every word he wrote. It was the heart behind the eloquence and the passion behind the rhetoric.