Meeting Melanchthon: Theological Ambassador—Going to England?
A 1517 / Jagged Word Crosspost
By the 1530s, the Lutheran Reformation was ensconced in most of Germany. This time marks an interesting development in Melanchthon’s life and career. From this point forward, he was called upon to defend the faith in the halls of princes and before political leaders for the rest of his life. He served as a de facto Lutheran ambassador to lands considering adoption of Reformation theologies.
Charged by his princes and electors with finding “peaceful solutions,” the necessity of Melanchthon’s role as a Lutheran ambassador in turn influenced his theological methodology. In this role, he was not able to make a stand on every point of doctrine. Rather, Melanchthon was forced by his unique role to find those things, those loci, that could be negotiated.
The Melanchthon scholar John Schofield notes in his work Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation that in a private letter written by Melanchthon on the 13th of September 1534, he had twice been invited to England to assist in the reform of the Church of England. Henry VIII had written his Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, and Luther wrote one of his typically antagonistic replies. From that point forward, Henry held a bad opinion of Luther, but Henry found Melanchthon to be a more moderate voice and was eager to discuss theological matters with the young, increasingly famous and respected academic. This admiration seems to have been mutual, or at the very least, Melanchthon was politically shrewder than commonly thought.
The Melanchthon biographer James Richard notes that the English Reformer Robert Barnes suggested that Melanchthon dedicated the new edition of the Loci (1535) to Henry and that he included a preface that would appear to be more diplomatic. The object of this effort was not necessarily to secure patronage from Henry VIII but to offer Henry good judgment by a moderate voice, such that he might listen and embrace theological reform. Henry was so pleased that Melanchthon—whom he considered the most educated and erudite of all the reformers—had dedicated his new Loci to him that he sent Philip 200 Crowns (equivalent to about one year of Melanchthon’s normal salary at the University of Wittenberg) and a letter signed Vester amicus Henricus Rex VIII.
During talks with John Foxe and Robert Barnes, John Schofield again discovered that Melanchthon worked to produce a confession that Henry might find acceptable. In April of 1536, the outcome was what came to be known as the Wittenberg Articles, based on the Augsburg Confession and the Loci Communes of 1535. It included a statement that “good works were necessary to salvation” as a consequence of justification, not a cause. This may have been written in response to Henry’s objection to what he saw as Lutheran antinomianism. Melanchthon in turn sought to ease his fears by assuring him that good works were necessary, as he had also done in the Augsburg Confession. This is further evidence of an evolution of this doctrine in Melanchthon as seemingly accepted by Luther and the rest of the faculty of the University of Wittenberg.
Luther seems to have approved of the Wittenberg Articles as he wrote to Elector John Fredrick. That they were “in agreement with our teaching” (WA, Br 7, p. 383).
Melanchthon’s influence, and that of the 1535 edition of the Loci Communes, on these years of the English Reformation can be seen in Thomas Cranmer’s Thirteen Articles of 1536. The point of contention between Henry and the Lutherans had been the Sacraments and the necessity of good works. In the 1535 Loci, by claiming that good works were “necessary to salvation,” Melanchthon had belayed Henry’s objections. Thus, in the Thirteen Articles, Cranmer claims that good works are necessary to salvation: “Not because they make a sinner just, nor because they are a payment for sins, nor because they are a cause of justification; but because it is necessary that he who has now been justified by faith and reconciled to God through Christ strive to do the will of God according to the passage, ‘Not everyone that says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of my Father in heaven.’ Indeed, whosoever does not strive to do these works but lives according to the flesh neither has true faith, neither has he righteousness, nor will he attain eternal life” (Cranmer, Misc. Writings, 473-4).
By all accounts, Melanchthon desired to go to England so that he could be directly involved with overseeing the Reformation in those lands. Thinking that Henry’s motives were not in the best interest of the Lutheran States or the Reformation, Melanchthon’s elector twice refused permission for Melanchthon to travel. As time went by, Melanchthon became increasingly discouraged by the delays and Henry’s ongoing refusal to embrace the pure Gospel. He was also dismayed by Henry’s abuse of his power regarding his wives: his ongoing divorces and the putting to death of Catherine of Aragon. Melanchthon says: “The late Queen seems accused rather than convicted of adultery, and has been executed” (CR: 3, 89). Melanchthon’s sincere desire was that Henry would publicly confess the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. Melanchthon soon relinquished his desire to travel to England (CR 2:1032). Thus, talks with Henry VIII were suspended until “they should learn whether his Royal Highness is disposed to defend pure doctrine of the Christian religion which we profess” (CR 3:144).
CR = Corpus Reformatorum, a collection of the works of several reformers. Melanchthon’s works are included in volumes 1-28.
WA = Weimarer Ausgabe, the comprehensive scholarly edition of Luther’s complete works, considered the best scholarly edition available of Luther in the original languages.
Cranmer, Thomas, and John Edmund Cox. Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer. Works of Thomas Cranmer. Vancouver (B.C.): Regent College, 1999.
Schofield, John. Philip Melanchthon and the English Reformation. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006.