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Melanchthon Always In the Light of Luther, Not the Other Way Around

January 22nd, 2011
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In recent years there have been some who have attempted to suggest that Chemnitz was not really so much on the side of Luther, or Melanchthon, but walked a middle road of his own. This is simply not true. And here is just a bit of proof. Oh, yes, in addition, this material nicely demonstrates that the second edition of the Apology, the Octavo, had been rejected for use in corpus doctrinae already in Melanchthon’s lifetime by Chemnitz and other Lutheran theologians. The “new thing” apparently in some circles is to extol Melanchthon’s talk about two kinds of righteousness. It has even been asserted, in a rather hamfisted manner, that this is a “better” way of explaining things than the distinction between Law and Gospel. Chemnitz and his fellow confessional theologians would have been appalled at such an assertion, for they knew who was the “chief teacher of the churches of the Augsburg Confession” and that was not Master Philipp!

One of the predecessor documents that led to the Book of Concord were the various “body of doctrine” or Corpus Doctrinae that were prepared and adopted by various German territories. They were prepared, in several cases, in response to Philip Melanchthon’s own personal collection of confessions, which came to be known as the Corpus Doctrinae Philippicum. The Philippicum was received quite negatively, and this started the ball rolling toward formulating alternative collections. One of those documents was prepared by Moerlin and Chemnitz, in 1563. Writing later about the development of the Braunschweig Corpus Doctrinae, Chemnitz notes, “In 1561, because of the need and opportunity of their churches, the honorable cities of Saxony sent their political delegates and their leading theologians to Lueneburg where they prepared a number of Articles. And in order to preserve Christian tranquility and abiding unity in their churches, the honorable council of the noble city of Braunschweig gave orders to print its Church Order in a Corpus including the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, which was first sent to Charles V in 1530, and again in 1531 after its first printing.” So, already in 1561 the second edition of the Apology had been set aside for use in Corpus Doctrinae being prepared. And why is this? The Braunschweig City Council notes in its preface, which was written for the council by Chemnitz, “In recent years the proper and true sense of the Augsburg Confession was occasionally subjected to unusual and unforeseen disagreements. . . . The copies of that Confession (CA) and its subsequent Apology did not always remain precise in every detail, but were altered somewhat as new editions were published.” Chemnitz is highly critical of Melanchthon’s practice of treating church confession as his own private documents and wrote, “Such a Corpus Doctrinae dare not consist of private documents.” He stresses the fact that, “. . . the first CA edition of 1530 must be considered the most reliable and authentic version.” Chemnitz, who was a student of Melanchthon and respected the professional value of his writings, nonetheless regarded Luther as more important and established this principle: “Luther’s works dare not be understood or interpreted in the light of Philipp’s writings, but Philipp’s writings must be understood and interpreted in the light of Luther’s works.”

Inge Mager, The Doctrinal Confession (Corpus Doctrinae) of the City of Braunschweig in Relationship to Other Collections of Lower Saxon Doctrinal Documents
The Reformation in the City of Braunschweig
450th Anniversary Document

Published by the Braunschweig City-Church Association
Unpublished translation by Everette W. Meier
May 1989

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Categories: Lutheran Confessions
  1. weedon
    August 15th, 2007 at 22:33 | #1

    I think the key to the relationship between the three is that Chemnitz learned from Melanchthon a certain humility and deference of character; he learned from Luther his doctrine – for at every point I can think of where Luther and Melanchthon parted ways, Chemnitz abides with Luther.
    But let’s face it, even his sarcasm (I think of the Examen especially) is mild and reasoned and, well, churchmanly. If I could put it like this: I don’t think Chemnitz would belch at the table the same way Luther or my David would!
    McCain: Based on my reading, *all* of Luther’s friends and companions recognized the dear man had a tendency to overstate things, occasionally, from time to time. And they were all at times embarrassed by his excessively harsh rhetoric when expressing himself and tried to tell him so. Luther himself realized it and regretted it. And given how this was an age of strong words and harsh polemics, that is truly saying something.

  2. Fast
    August 16th, 2007 at 12:32 | #2

    You wrote: “The “new thing” apparently in some circles is to extol Melanchthon’s talk about two kinds of righteousness. It has even been asserted, in a rather hamfisted manner, that this is a “better” way of explaining things than the distinction between Law and Gospel.”
    I have reservations about this shift, too. My negative reaction is primarily visceral, as I haven’t had the time to study either the rationale or the implications of this change of focus. I know it’s your blog and you write what you want to write, but I’d like to be bold to make this request: would you consider using this forum to comment further on your concern? I, for one, would appreciate it.

  3. Karl
    August 17th, 2007 at 10:02 | #3

    Since you are talking about Luther and Melanchthon, I wonder what your thoughts are on the Romans commentary of each. I’ve heard one pastor say that Melanchthon’s was better, but I’m not
    sure why he said it. Thanks!

  4. wcwirla
    August 18th, 2007 at 11:10 | #4

    “Luther’s works dare not be understood or interpreted in the light of Philipp’s writings, but Philipp’s writings must be understood and interpreted in the light of Luther’s works.”
    This may be true in broad principle, but is not always true in the specifics. Specifically, Lutheran doctrine sides with Melanchthon over Luther in the understanding of 1 Tim 2:4. In his German translation of the Bible, Luther translated “saved” as “helped,” indicating that God wills to “help” all people in this life, but not necessarily save all. Melanchthon, on the other hand, saw this passage as an expression of God’s universal grace in Christ. On this point, Melanchthon turns out to be more “Lutheran” than Luther.
    McCain: Chemnitz was referring to interpreting the Lutheran Confessions in light of Luther’s theology and other doctrinal works, which is precisely what we Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord. I’m sure we could find specific places where a Bible verse may be better interpreted by Melanchthon than Luther, but that doesn’t really prove anything. The interesting thing about the entire quote is how early on Chemnitz and his colleagues had embraced this principle. Some today attempt to claim that it was only in the immediate context of the creation of the Formula of Concord that there was suspicion of and concern about Philipp’s writings, but this quote decisively shows that much earlier, within Melanchthon’s own lifetime, there was already clear recognition that Melanchthon can not be regarded as the “chief teacher of the churches of the Augsburg Confession” but that alone would be Luther. And also, interestingly, how early on the second edition of the Apology was set aside in favor of the first and earliest edition, thus, also providing an important rebuttal of the claim made by the editors of the Kolb/Wengert edition that the second edition of the Ap. was perfectly acceptable at the time and also today.

  5. wcwirla
    August 18th, 2007 at 15:54 | #5

    Yes, the struggle behind the Formula was, in great measure, a struggle for who was representing and interpreting Luther correctly. This involves also a critical reading over which Luther one is citing.
    I suspect that Melanchthon’s Romans commentary might actually be “better” than Luther’s, since Luther’s 1516 work is quite early in the Reformation. Pity that we don’t have a corresponding 1535 Romans commentary as we do for the later Galatians commentary.
    It is also noteworthy that Chemnitz uses Melancththon’s Loci as the foundation for his own Loci. Of course, Luther never wrote a Loci; that would seem to be a terribly “un-Lutheran” thing for him to do.
    McCain: Yes, it is unfortunate we do not have a commentary from Luther on Romans from his “Lutheran” years. Fortunately we do have his later Galatians, but…perhaps it is because Luther was an OT professor?

  6. Steven Goodrich
    August 21st, 2007 at 02:56 | #6

    I guess this reveals my ignorance, but didn’t Luther talk about two (three?) kinds of righteousness before Melancthon? Don’t the two kinds of righteousness (passive – faith; active – love) not play a primary role for Luther in the structure of his sermons? Are not the two kinds of righteousness the other side of coin (Law-Gospel being the other side) of the Lutheran coin so to speak? I too like Fast would like a fuller explanation of why talking about two kinds of righteousness is bad.
    McCain: I didn’t say it is “bad” but that it is not proper to claim, as a few are, that the “two kinds of righteousness” paradigm is “better” than Law/Gospel. Refer to the Formula of Concord for more on the centrality of Law/Gospel for Lutheranism.

  7. January 22nd, 2011 at 07:59 | #7

    Fast- I don’t think that there is a shift from “law-gospel” to “two kinds of righteousness” going on, rather the claim made by Arand and Kolb is that “law-gospel” has to be understood within the framework of “two kinds of righteousness.” As I see it, this is Luther’s own way of understanding things. Read the intro to the Galatians commentay (1531). He says “two kinds of righteousness” is what it’s about.

    I realize I might alienate many people by saying this, but I think understanding things this way solves a number of problems that have occurred in contemporary Lutheran theology due to false interpretations of the law-gospel dialectic. Many Lutheran theologian in the 20th century have made a big mess of things.

    Here’s the problem: How can the gospel be the “end of the law” while the law guides the Christian life? Since law-gospel was interpreted as an absolute dialectic, the idea was the law was something that was always left behind. Back in the ELCA, one of my Seminary profs. (a Seminex grad, btw) argued in this way. He said that because Christians aren’t under the law, they’re under the gospel, we can just make up whatever we want to do regarding ethics as long as its practical. He said he wasn’t going to take a stance on the homosexual issue (we could all figure out where he stood), but that how it should be resolved was to do whatever was “practical” (i.e., what he really meant was that since a homosexual can preach just as well as a straight person, we should ordain gay clergy).

    On the other hand, if we say that the structure of Christian existence is law-gospel-more law, you also run into another problem. The law in this scenario becomes something harmless and non-threatening life-instruction once the Christian life begins (which the Confessions say it is not). Althaus tried to do something like this with the distinction between “law” and “commandment.” Similarly, it is also possible that the gospel becomes subordinate to the law, as in the Reformed tradition (as Sasse says, for Calvin the gospel is good because it makes the law work!).

    Two kinds of righteousness merely clarifies the law-gospel dialectic, it doesn’t do away with it. It does so by describing our relationship to law and gospel within the spheres of coram relationships. So, as far as coram deo goes, for the Christian life the gospel is the end of the law. God doesn’t make any more demands on us, because coram deo we are absolutely righteous in Christ. If though, we look at the person coram mundo, then, yes, the law does have a place of instruction and even coercion in the Christian life. The law tells us that we are to do certain things and within the world we are to do them. This is of course shaped by the Christian freedom we have coram deo (and therefore not disconnected from it)- it is nevertheless a separate kind of righteousness. It is not one passively received, but one gained from activity.

    In short, two kinds of righteousness simply talks about how law-gospel applies to people from two different perspectives. It does not do away with law-gospel. Furthermore, it is a paradigm that is capable of solving many of the messy and false interpretations of law-gospel that have come about in the past 100-200 years.

    • January 22nd, 2011 at 10:53 | #8

      Hi Jack, I’m not saying it is not a helpful distinction, but the problem has been when Professor Joel Biermann advertises it as a “better” distinction, etc. I really do not see any problems with Law/Gospel, and reading Walter’s magnum opus really clears things up. Also, by far, the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the predominant theme in Luther’s theology, throughout most of his life, much more so than, for instance, the “theology of the cross” which is hard to find in post 1530 Luther, not that the ideas are not there, but the phrase is just not used that much.

      I’ve just not yet been convinced of the utility of the distinction that some of the STL profs are claiming for it, and frankly, from what I can tell, misleading students and confusing them, though not intentionally, of course.

      Nobody should dabble with this 2KR talk until they have been completely grounded in the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

  8. Thomas Fast
    January 22nd, 2011 at 17:05 | #9

    @Dr. Jack Kilcrease

    Thanks, Dr. Kilcrease. It only took four years to get a response from someone. But better late than never. LOL.

    I have read a little about the issue since posting back in 2007. Primarily I’ve read some essays by David Yeago that were helpful. So I’m more comfortable with this than I was back in 2007. I think Yeago, et. al., are trying to alleviate the very problems that you have listed, and trying to do so in a way that is in accord with Lutheran theology. I’m thankful for the efforts, even when i don’t always fully comprehend it.

    Tom Fast

  9. Martin Diers
    January 22nd, 2011 at 17:36 | #10

    Here is my fear with this talk about “two kinds of righteousness”: not that it cannot be understood correctly, but it more often belies a false belief regarding the 3rd use of the Law, in that it forgets that “the law always accuses.”

    In recent years I have seen far too many Lutherans who should know better, forgetting that the “rule” of the Law is not a “rule book” by which the Christian, as if a-la-carte, sets out on a program of good works, but rather is more akin to the “ruler” or yardstick of the schoolmaster whereby the new man disciplines the old adam with the accusing voice of God, continuing to condemn sin in the flesh, drown the old man, so that the Christian can walk in “the newness of the Spirit”, doing good because that is his nature. The new man is created in Baptism. It owes nothing to the Law. The new man needs no rule book. He does not use the Law, because he does not need the Law. He already does only good. The Law only has something to say to the old man. Thus to speak of the works of righteousness which we do as in any way coming out of the 3rd use of the Law is to completely misunderstand the manner in which the Law works also in the Christian.

    Thus I do not find the “two kinds of righteousness” at all helpful in properly understanding Law and Gospel. In fact, I find it an impediment to the proper understanding. It only confuses the issue and yields the field to the Calvinists.

    If only people would stop trying to “tweak” Luther!

  10. January 23rd, 2011 at 07:00 | #11

    @Martin Diers

    Martin- I think that you are correct that there can be danger of thinking of the third use as harmless. Nevertheless, as long as you emphasize that the law always accuses and curses, I don’t think that this is a problem.

    Pr. McCain- I was actually only familiar with the treatment of “two kinds of righteousness” by the members of the St. Louis faculty Charles Arand and Robert Kolb. In fact they structure their very excellent book “The Genius of Luther’s Theology” around it. I was unfamiliar Joel Biermann’s treatment of it. I’ll have for articles by him on the topic.

  11. Tom Fast
    January 23rd, 2011 at 15:58 | #12

    The law is good. Period. So I don’t know why the new man, the man of faith, would not desire to hear it anew, repeat it, extol it, and pray it. Iow, it does have something to say to the new man. Other than that, I agree with what you write, Pr. Diers.

  12. January 25th, 2011 at 21:48 | #13

    I would suggest that the “problem” with the Law/Gospel dialectic isn’t Law and Gospel at all, but rather the Law/Gospel reductionism brought about by the methodology of the Erlangen school. JCK von Hoffman’s whole “Schriftganze” project, his pitting of Luther against Lutheran Orthodoxy, as well as Erlangen’s reformulations of “natural law” and the denial of law in its third use, spring from this poisoned well.

    We can thank Walther and Pieper and the earliest Missourians for laying it out for us in Baier-Walther, Christliche Dogmatik, and various district and synodical essays. We also can thank Gerhard Forde for courageously admitting the truth of this in his Law/Gospel Debate. See my essay, “Natural Law, Human Sexuality, and Forde’s ‘Acid Test’” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (CPH, 2011).

  13. John Maxfield
    January 26th, 2011 at 10:11 | #14

    Recall that Luther’s (“commentary” or rather) lectures on Romans are from 1515-1516 when he had not yet worked out his theology fully–and in his own 1545 Preface to his Latin Writings Luther warns his readers to read his earliest works critically with an eye toward his still being wrapped up in papalism. So in this sense we can certainly view Mel.’s commentary on Romans as the better one. But of course Luther’s genius of explicating the Bible, even in this text with its various medieval errors in doctrine, cannot be match by our dear Philip.

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