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Political Authority and Ecclesiology in Melanchthon's “De Ecclesiae Autoritate”

  • Ralph Keen (a1)


Philip Melanchthon's 1539 treatise On the Authority of the Church and the Writings of the Ancient Fathers (hereafter De ecclesiae autoritate) occupies a prominent place in the canon of his theological writings. Few texts of the Reformation period state so clearly the principles according to which the Fathers and the councils of the church may be considered authentic sources for Christian doctrine. To set the work within the canon of Melanchthon's theological work is not necessarily to say that other genres are not present in it, however. The compartmentalization of a thinker's work, while perhaps heuristically necessary, always risks distortion. The danger is all the more present with regard to an author like Melanchthon, whose intellectual interests were broad and whose historical importance is many-sided. The scope of Melanchthon's activities is broad, and so are the contexts and ramifications of his important writings. In 1960 Peter Fraenkel called De ecclesiae autoritate Melanchthon's “patrology”—not an inaccurate label, but an overly restrictive one.



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1. De ecclesiae autoritate et de velerum scriptis libellus (Wittenberg, 1539); a German translation by Jonas, Justus followed the next year: Von der Kirchen, vnd alten Kirchenlereren (Wittenberg, 1540); for other editions see Keen, Ralph, A Checklist of Melanchthon Imprints through 1560, Sixteenth Century Bibliography 27 (St. Louis, Mo., 1988), pp. 3334. Beginning with the 1540 edition, the De ecclesiae autoritate was often added as an excursus after chapter 14 of Melanchthon's commentary on Romans; see Commentary on Romans, tr. Fred Kramer (St. Louis, Mo., 1992), pp. 239284. The standard edition is in Corpus Reformatorum [CR], 28 vols. (Halle and Braunschweig, 18301860), 23: 595642, and the prefatory letter to Duke Albrecht was published in 3:722–724; these were reprinted together in Melanchthons Werke in Auswahl [SA], ed. Robert, Stupperich (Gütersloh, Germany, 1951), 1:324386.

2. A concise summary is found in van den Brink, Jan Nicolaas Bakhuizen, “Melanchthon: De ecclesia et de autoritate Verbi Dei (1539) und dessen Gegner,” in Reformation und Humanismus: Robert Stupperich zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Martin, Greschat and Goeters, J. F. G. (Witten, Germany, 1969), pp. 9199.

3. Fraenkel, Peter, “Fünfzehn Jahre Melanchthonforschung: Versuch eines Literaturberichtes,” in Philipp Melanchthon, ed. Walter, Elliger (Göttingen, Germany, 1961), p. 13; compare p. 32, where Fraenkel includes Stupperich's discussion of the treatise in the section on Melanchthon and the controversies of his time.

4. Scheible, Heinz, “Melanchthons Auseinandersetzung mit dem Reformkatholizismus,” in Melanchthonpreis: Beiträge zur ersten Verleihung, ed. Stefan, Rhein, Melanchthon-Schriften der Stadt Bretten 76 (Sigmaringen, Germany, 1988); see also Fraenkel, Pierre, Testimonia Patrum: The Function of the Patristic Argument in the Theology of Philip Melanchthon, Travaux d'humanisme et renaissance 46 (Geneva, 1961), p. 58, and Kawerau, Gustav, Die Versuche, Melanchthon zur katholischen Kirche zurückzuführen, Schriften des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte [SVRG] 73 (Halle, Germany, 1902), pp. 4850.

5. CR 25:46, 685; 12:130, 608, and 648; Busch, Hugo, “Melanchthons Kirchenbegriff,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Bonn, 1918), p. 41; Wengert, Timothy J., “Caspar Cruciger Sr.'s 1546 ‘Enarratio’ on John's Gospel: An Experiment in Ecclesiological Exegesis,” Church History 61 (1992): 6074, esp. 62–63.

6. Ernst Rietschel noticed that the 1535 edition of the Loci marks the shift to a conception of the church as visible, imperfect but in a dialectical relation to the perfect and invisible church; Das Problem der unsichtbar-sichtbaren Kirche bei Luther (Leipzig, Germany, 1932), pp. 104105. In the 1543 Loci the church is to be understood as visible for believers but not for unbelievers: see CR 21:826–833 and Busch, , “Melanchthons Kirchenbegriff,” p. 37.

7. Confessio Augustana 7.1, in Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Göttingen, Germany, 1986), p. 61; De ecclesiae autoritate, CR 23:599–600 (SA 1:330–332), esp. 600 (332): “Fundamentum intelligit [Paulus] articulos fidei, hoc est, summam doctrinae Christianae ac doctrinam de beneficiis Christi, sed ad hanc, inquit, addent alii utilem doctrinam et explicationem et veros cultos spirituales.” (“Paul understands the foundation to be the articles of faith, that is, the sum of Christian doctrine and the doctrine of the benefits of Christ, but to this, he says, others add doctrine and explanation that are useful, and truly spiritual forms of worship.”)

8. Fuchtel, Paul, “Der Frankfurter Anstand vom Jahre 1539,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte [ARG] 28 (1931): 206. Like Melanchthon, more conservative Catholic theologians saw political motivations behind the emperor's desire for unity, and resisted the moderates' initiatives: see Acta Reformationis Catholicae, ed. Georg, Pfeilschifter, vol. 3 (Regensburg, Germany, 1968) for a selection of documents.

9. Melanchthon mentions some of these mediating theologians at CR 23:637; SA 1:380. De ecclesiae autoritate, CR 23:595; SA 1:326.

10. The Romanist view of the church as intrinsically authoritative is sharply rejected at De ecclesiae autoritate, CR 23:597, 603 (SA 4:328, 336); see also Stupperich, Robert, “Kirche und Synode bei Melanchthon,” in Gedenkschrift für D. Werner Elert, ed. Friedrich, Hübner, Wilhelm, Maurer, and Ernst, Kinder (Berlin, 1955), pp. 201210; repr. in Wirkungen der deutschen Reformation bis 1555, ed. Walther, Hubatsch, Wege der Forschung 203 (Darmstadt, Germany, 1967), pp. 114133.

11. CR 23:595 (SA 4:236. 24–30).

12. For discussion of the problem see Bäumer, Remigius, “Lehramt und Theologie in der Sicht katholischer Theologen des 16. Jahrhunderts,” in Lehramt und Theologie im 16. Jahrhundert, ed. Remigius, Bäumer, Katholisches Leben und Kirchenreform 36 (Münster, Germany, 1976), pp. 3461.

13. For a contrast between Melanchthon's view of the clarity and authority of scripture and the Catholic view of the role of the church, see Fraenkel, , Testimonia Palrum, pp. 208252.

14. The classic study of the political side is Rosenberg, Walter, Der Kaiser und die Protestanten in den Jahren 1537–1539, SVRG 77 (Halle, Germany, 1903); on Erasmian influence, see Stupperich, Robert, Der Humanismus und die Wiedervereinigung der Konfessionen, SVRG 160 (Leipzig, 1936); for theological developments, see Jedin, Hubert, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, vol. 1 (Freiburg, Germany, 1951), pp. 287328; Fleischer, Manfred P., Katholische und lutherische Ireniker unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des 19. Jahrhunderts, Veröffentlichungen der Gesellschaft für Geistesgeschichte 4 (Göttingen, Germany, 1968), pp. 2234.

15. Scheible, , “Melanchthons Auseinandersetzung,” p. 75, attributes this proposal to Georg Witzel; in the eighteenth century Seckendorf had seen Georg von Carlowitz as the leader of a group of reform-minded Catholic theologians who took the initiative at the ill-starred New Year's Colloquy in Leipzig in 1539. See Veit Ludwig von, Seckendorf, Ausführliche Historie des Luthertums und der heilsamen Reformation (Leipzig, 1714), pp. 17361740; Günther, Wartenberg, “Die Leipziger Religionsgespräche von 1534 und 1539,” in Die Religionsgespräche der Reformationszeit, ed. Gerhard, Müller, SVRG 191 (Gütersloh, Germany, 1980), pp. 3540; for Carlowitz's motives see Pollet, J. V.. Julius Pflug (1499–1564) et la crise religieuse dans l'Allemagne du XVIe siècle, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought 45 (Leiden, Germany, 1990), p. 83.

16. Johann Gropper, a moderate Catholic whom Melanchthon mentions by name in De ecclesia, provides an example, for in his 1550 Institutio he begins from scriptural grounds and proceeds to a defense of ceremonies and ecclesiastical discipline, which, “tametsi non scriptos, ex autoritate Apostolica observari oportere” (“even if they are not written, ought to be observed on Apostolic authority”); Institutio Catholica, Elementa Christianae pietatis succincta brevitate complectens (Cologne, 1550), signature 5.

17. See Headley, John M., Luther's View of Church History, Yale Studies in Religion 6 (New Haven, Conn., 1963), pp. 7884; also Headley's, The Reformation as a Crisis in the Understanding of Tradition,” ARG 78 (1987): 522; Fraenkel, , Testimonia Patrum, pp. 338362.

18. CR 3:722 (SA 4:324. 20–23).

19. See the dedicatory letter to Duke Albrecht, CR 3:724 (SA 1:325); the same intention is expressed in Melanchthon's letter to Veit Dietrich of 2 September 1539, CR 3:771 no. 1845; no. 2268 in Melanchthons Briefwechsel [MBW], ed. Heinz, Scheible (Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt, Germany, 1977–), 2:460.

20. Fraenkel, , Testimonia Patrum, pp. 128133.

21. Ibid., pp. 52–100. Although Fraenkel is the most thorough analyst of the historical argumentation of De ecclesiae autoritate, he does not fully recognize the polemical force of this aspect of the treatise.

22. Melanchthon considers the period in which the apostles preached to be the point at which purity and clarity of doctrine were fully achieved (CR 23:599, SA 1:331). Earlier in the decade Melanchthon had affirmed that agreement on doctrine and administration of the sacraments were alone sufficient for the unity of the church (CR 12:484, 487); he explicitly rejects the retention of human traditions, “hae enim nihil pertinent ad vitam spiritualem, quare sine eis existere potest fides et vita aeterna” (CR 23:587; compare CA 7, in Die Bekenntnissschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, p. 61).

23. Reformation texts were dedicated to carefully chosen recipients: for a sampling see Karl, Schottenloher, Die Widmungsvorrede im Buck des 16. Jahrhunderts, Reformationsgeschichtliche Studien und Texte (RGST) 76–77 (Münster, Germany, 1953), pp. 212224 (for an example of Melanchthon's care in choosing a recipient, see p. 37).

24. See Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric 1.3.2 and 3.12.5–6; Melanchthon, , Elementorum rhetorices libri duo (Wittenberg, 1536), signatures D6–D8.

25. Melanchthon to Duke Albert of Prussia, 24 June 1539 (CR 3: 721–722; MBW 2228, 2:445), and to Friedrich Myconius, 9 September 1939, (CR 3:772–773 no. 1848; MBW 2270, 2:461); on the De officio principum see Keen, , “Defending the Pious: Melanchthon and the Reformation in Albertine Saxony, 1539,” Church History 60 (1991): 180195.

26. CR 23:634 (SA 1:377); see Fraenkel, , Testimonia Patrum, p. 58.

27. CR 23:604–605; SA 1:338–339.

28. See, for example, CR 23:600–601 (SA 1:332–334).

29. CR 3:922; see also De ecclesiae autoritate, CR 23:629, 633 (SA 1:369, 375).

30. See Johannes, Cochlaeus, De authoritate ecclesiae et scriplurae, libri duo (n.p., 1524), signatures B3–4; Cochlaeus, , De Canonicae scripturae & Catholicae Ecclesiae Autoritate (Ingolstadt, 1543), signatures K2–L4.

31. Melanchthon, , De potestate et primatu papae tractalus (1537), pp. 2238, in Bekenntnissschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, pp. 477–489.

32. See Loci communes (1521), SA 2/1:160; (1559), SA 2/2:762; Confessio Augustana 16, Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, p. 71.

33. While Melanchthon denounces pontifical abuses of power and the notion of authority transmitted by episcopal succession, rule in the church is not in itself evil (CR 23:598; SA 1:330); and nothing in his discussion of the marks of the church precludes organization of authority, so long as it is bound to the Word (CR 23:597; SA 1:330–331). God calls true teachers (veri doctores, CR 23:597; SA 1:328.22) in order to renew the church, and the voice of the clergy (nostri pastores, CR 23:603; SA 1:336.31) must be heard in order to restrain the opinions of the multitude and to correct erroneous readings of scripture, such as that of Servetus (CR 23:603; SA 1:335–336). Here and in the dedicatory letter Melanchthon declares that true religion needs teachers and guardians just as a legitimate state needs counsellors (CR 3:724; SA 325:20–28). See also Klaus, Haendler, Wort und Glaube bei Melanchthon: Eine Untersuchung über die Voraussetzungen und Grundlagen des melanchthonischen Kirchenbegriffes, Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte 37 (Gütersloh, Germany, 1968), p. 388.

34. Rosenberg, , Der Kaiser und die Protestanten, pp. 4144; August, Korte, Die Konzilspolitik Karls V. in den Jahren 1538–1543, SVRG 85 (Halle, Germany, 1905), pp. 3137.

35. Paul, Tschackert, Herzog Albrecht von Preussen als Reformatonsche Persönlichkeit, SVRG 45 (Halle, Germany, 1894), pp. 9496. For a vicious assessment of Albrecht's motives see Sebastian, Haffner, The Rise and Fall of Prussia (London, 1980), pp. 1415.

36. The secularization of the Teutonic Order is a case in point: see Carsten, F. L., The Origins of Prussia (Oxford, 1954), pp. 165178, and Carsten's, A History of the Prussian Junkers (Aldershot, U.K., 1989), pp. 819. On Albert's theology see Erich, Roth, “Herzog Albrecht von Preussen als Osiandrist,” Theologische Literatur-Zeitung 1 (1953): 5564, repr. in Wirkungen der deutschen Reformation bis 1555, ed. Walther, Hubatsch (n. 10, above), pp. 286304; also Jörg, Fligge, “Zur Interpretation der osiandrischen Theologie Herzog Albrechts von Preussen,” ARG 64 (1973): 245279.

37. See Behenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, pp. 459–460; for background, Russell, William R., “The Theological ‘Magna Charta’ of Confessional Lutheranism,” Church History 64 (1995): 389398.

38. There are only three years between Luther's Dass weltliche Oberkeit den Widertäufern mil leiblicher Strafe zu wehren schuldig sei, WA 50:6–15, and Melanchthon's, De officio principum, CR 3:240258 no. 1520, translated the next year as Dass die Fürsten aus Gottes beuelh und Gebot schuldig sind … vnrecht Gottes Dienst vnd falsche Lehr abzutun, vnd dagegen rechte Gottes dinst vnd rechte Christliche lehr vff zu richten (Wittenberg, 1540).

39. CR 23:642; SA 1:386/2–4.

40. CR 23:642; SA 1:386/4–10.

41. The development of Protestant thought concerning the prince's ecclesiastical duties is traced by Johannes, Heckel, Cura religionis—ius in sacra—ins circa sacra (Darmstadt, Germany, 1962), pp. 2443.

42. Pollet, J. V., Julius Pflug: Correspondance, Julius Pflug et l'Allemagne du XVIe stècle (Leiden, The Netherlands, 1982), 5/2:124.

43. The work of the secular magistracy on behalf of religion is illustrated in Melanchthon's 1537 discussion of the multiple functions of ministry: “The ministry of the gospel is to be both retained and defended with equal care, in both the schools and the churches. Pious princes ought not only to build schools, but even to choose the type of teaching” (“Declamatio de dignitate studiis theologicis,” CR 11:328). This power is shared by theologians, not transferred by them, as Melanchthon makes clear by insisting that “We [theologians] must consider it our first duty to guard true doctrine” (“Declamatio de puritate doctrinae,” CR 11:273).

44. CR 23:636 (SA 1:378/34–36); 23:642 (1:386/23–29).

45. See Loci (1543), CR 21:844–846, on the distinction between the “potestas interpretationis” and the “donum interpretationis”; also Fraenkel, , Testimonia Patrum, pp. 225228. The gift of interpretation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and interpretation is consistent with the divine intention in scripture. The former is a power that belongs essentially to the person exercising it, as in a magistrate's lawmaking; it is not, however, a legitimate authority in the church. On the various functions of tradition see Haendler, , Wort und Glaube bei Melanchthon, pp. 205207, 218, 229.

46. CR 23:602,636,640 (SA 1:334–335, 378–379, 384).

47. See Declamatio de puritate doctrinae (1537), CR 11:273; Melanchthon to Bernhard von Hagen, 24 March 1539, CR 3:667 no. 1786; MBW 2166,2:421–422.

48. CR 23:636; SA 1:379.

49. See, for example, the 1541 “Quaestio” at CR 10:734, and Robert, Stupperich, “Kirche und Synode bei Melanchthon,” p. 202.

50. Stupperich, pp. 205–210.

51. For the development of the Variata see Wilhelm, Maurer, “Confessio Augustana Variata,” in Maurer, Kirche und Geseltschaft (Göttingen, Germany, 1970), 1:213266.

52. Compare CR 23:596–597; SA 1:327–328.

53. An intensification of the condemnation is discernible as the treatise progresses: see CR 23:597 (SA 1:328), 602 (334–335), 623 (362), 633 (375), 634 (377), 637 (380), 640 (384).

54. CR 3:472; Stupperich, , “Kirche und Synode,” pp. 202, 205 (Wirkungen, pp. 116, 120).

55. CR 23:606; see also the Enarratio Symboli Niceni (1550), CR 23:193–346.

56. CR 12:976.

57. Notice Melanchthon's approval of the ecclesiastical government decided upon at Nicaea, CR 23:606: useful but not an article of faith. See also Enarratio Symboli Niceni, CR 23:197; Chronicon Carionis, CR 12:976.

58. For example, by Johannes Cochlaeus, see Philippicae I–VII, ed. Ralph, Keen (Neiuwkoop, The Netherlands, 1995), 1:2931, 3840.

59. Commentarii in aliquot politicos libros Arislotelis (1530), CR 16:420.

60. David Lotz in writing of Luther makes the important point that the Word of God, while revealed in scripture, is not identical to scripture: in fact scripture is the “servant” to the “king,” the Word; “Sola Scriptura: Luther on Biblical Authority,” Interpretation 35 (1981): 258273. This necessary distinction binds all persons to the Word but gives the interpreters of scripture the power to articulate definitively the meaning of the text and thus of the Word.

61. Franz, Lau, “Melanchthon und die Ordnung der Kirche,” in Philipp Melanchthon: Forschungsbeiträge zur vierhundertsten Wiederkehr seines Todestages, ed. Walter, Elliger (Göttingen, Germany, 1961), pp. 114115.

62. See Melanchthon to Bernhard von Hagen, 24 March 1539, CR 3:669; MBW 2166; to Johann Brenz, 13 March 1539, CR 3:647; MBW 2159; to King Sigismund of Poland (in the name of Joachim II of Brandenburg), about 20 October 1539, CR 3:794; MBW 2291; and the Querela Lazari (1539), CR 11:429.

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