Truth Remains

"There is God’s Word. This is my rock and anchor. On it I rely, and it remains." - Martin Luther

Philip Melanchthon

Written by Kevin Kimball (The Master's Seminary)

“What is truth?” Pilate dismissed Christ's claims by questioning the meaning of a word. Undermine the word, and you successfully dismantle the truth. When teenagers say, “Whatever,” they manage to avoid an uncomfortable truth. Only slightly more sophisticated, today's academics claim, “Meaning is seen to reside not in the text but in what the text becomes for the reader.” [1] When the reader can reinvent the meaning of words, he no longer has to grapple with what the words actually mean. On the other hand, affirming the true meaning of a single word can be enough to rescue the church and change the world. This is what Philip Melanchthon did in the 16th century, and this is what we must do today.

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Melanchthon Learns Words

From birth, Philip was shaped by a classical, humanist education. He was born in 1497 (thirteen years after Martin Luther) to George and Barabara Schwartzerd in the city of Bretten in the Holy Roman Empire. His father died of the plague when Philip was a child, so Johannes Reuchlin, Philip's great-uncle, guided his education. Reuchlin was the greatest Hebrew scholar in Europe, a man equal to Erasmus, and like Erasmus, a product of the Renaissance urge to go ad fontes, back to the sources. Reuchlin therefore sent Philip to John Unger, a teacher who knew the ancient languages, which was rare in that day. From him Philip learned Latin: “He drove me to the grammar."[2] Then Philip moved to Pforzheim, Reuchlin's native town, to attend an excellent Latin school led by George Simler, who also knew Greek and Hebrew. Here the twelve year-old Philip got to know Reuchlin personally. As a reward for writing original Latin poetry, Reuchlin gave Philip a Greek grammar and a Graeco-Latin Lexicon that was the first of its kind in Germany. Reuchlin also persuaded Philip to change his name from Schwartzerd to its Greek equivalent, Melanchthon.

Melanchthon then entered Heidelberg University. Unfortunately, universities still clung to the old scholastic models that preferred “hair-splitting disputations” instead of “finding out truth."[3] Greek and Hebrew were nearly unknown, Latin was corrupted, and few read any of the ancient classics. So Melanchthon became an autodidact, a self-teacher. He read poetry, history, drama, and the ancient classics, and he studied Greek. Others fueled his passion: the humanist Oecolampadius gave him Dialectics by Rudolph Agricola (another famous humanist), which abandoned useless scholastic squabbling and instead submitted logic to rhetoric as a means of discovering truth. This book, along with sermons recommended by Reuchlin, shaped Melanchthon to pursue knowledge as something to be used for God's glory, not for self-glory like the scholastics. Melanchthon graduated when only fourteen.

Moving to Tubingen for his Master's degree, Melanchthon continued to teach himself with help from renowned humanists. Oecolampadius helped him master Greek. Reuchlin often came to visit, and he urged Melanchthon to begin Hebrew, giving him his own recently published Hebrew grammar, the first one in Germany. He also gave him a Latin Bible which Melanchthon “carried with him withersoever he went, and read… carefully day and night."[4] As one devoted to the word, Melanchthon devoured the ancient classics (in the original languages) and studied “philosophy, history, eloquence, logic, mathematics… law and medicine."[5] After graduating while still sixteen, Melanchthon began teaching ancient Latin classics, gathered select students to restore purer Latin, and successfully edited several major works.

Because of his success, at twenty-one Melanchthon became the first professor of Greek at Wittenburg University. Although the faculty (including Martin Luther) were disappointed with Melanchthon's small, unimpressive, boyish appearance, they were pleased by his bold inaugural speech:

Law, Medicine, and Theology alike suffered from the decline of classical study…. The Philosophers, Orators, Poets, Theologians, and Historians of antiquity must be studied…. Theology must be studied by the aid of the Greek and Hebrew. When we go to the sources, then are we led to Christ..[6]

Thus Melanchthon became the chief attraction at Wittenburg.[7] In 1518 the entire university had just 120 students. In 1520, there were 600 in just one of Melanchthon's lectures. In the midst of such success, he continued to emphasize the goal of education: “To improve both the understanding and the manners” and to impart “the true wisdom come down from Heaven to regulate the affections of men....”[8]

Martin Luther (1483-1546) nails his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg University.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) nails his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg University.

Melanchthon Defends Words

In defense of true wisdom, the gentle Melanchthon joined the aggressive Luther. He supplied arguments to Luther in the debate against Johannes Eck at Leipzig. Luther “relied on Melanchthon and used his great learning.”[9] Specifically, Melanchthon's linguistic expertise recovered the meaning of key terms: justification, faith, grace, and repentance. In Latin, iustificare meant “to make righteous” as a process, being empowered by God with the “ability to acquire merit” necessary for entering heaven.[10] Melanchthon showed that the Greek term, dikaioō, actually means “to declare righteous” in a legal sense:[11] “Christ… covers our sins with his righteousness,” so we are counted righteous and without sin “for Christ's sake.”[12] “Faith” likewise had been confused, but Melanchthon confirmed that pisteuō means “heartfelt… trust that God for his Son's sake” justifies us.[13] Similarly, “grace in medieval theology was a created substance in the soul, a gift of God which enabled someone to perform righteous works” meriting salvation. In contrast, Melanchthon showed that grace, charis, is “God's attitude of favor.”[14] One cannot achieve more grace through good deeds nor less grace through wicked deeds, but by faith one stands always in Christ, always in God's favor. Finally, “repentance” in Latin was paenitentia, or penance—doing good to make up for bad. But the Greek metanoia signifies a mind transformed by God to loathe the sin it loved and love the Master it loathed. Through four words, Melanchthon drastically furthered the recovery of the gospel.

Do We Love Words?

In Melanchthon's day, Rome neglected truth because it neglected words. Today the danger is greater, because words are not just improperly defined; they are stripped of meaning altogether. For centuries after Melanchthon, wherever Protestants spread their faith, they also spread a commitment to words. In fact, Robert Woodberry has proven that the greatest single factor explaining why some third-world countries are more educated and prosperous than others is that they enjoyed greater influence of Protestant missionaries who were devoted to God's Word, and therefore to literacy and education.[15]  Unfortunately, Protestantism today joins the world in denying that words mean things, increasingly denying the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. As a result, the church neglects education, and education neglects the languages and reinterprets the ancients—if it reads them at all. Even seminaries are abandoning the biblical languages. The few who defend meaning in words are mocked, just as Eck mocked Melanchthon for believing that Scripture has one meaning, labeling him “the Wittenburg Grammarian,” and “the literalist.”[16] History reveals this shift: when the two world wars disproved Modernism's claim that man could discover truth apart from God, Post-Modernism concluded that truth either does not exist or cannot be known. Words become meaningless. As John Piper said, “Instead of saying to God's face, 'Your word is false,' [relativism] says to man, 'There is no such thing as a universally binding divine word.' This is treason against the King of the universe.”[17]

If we, like Melanchthon, love God's Word and the gospel it reveals, then we, like Melanchthon, must fight for the meaning of words. How? First, Melanchthon cultivated God-given talent for God's glory, often rising at two in the morning and working until evening.[18] Few have intellect like his, but how much of what we have do we squander through lack of godly discipline, suppress through anti-intellectualism, or subvert by seeking academic laurels? Second, Melanchthon took initiative, surpassing the universities. The world's standards of education are not our own. Our standard must be purer and higher, for we have a higher goal—to defend, exalt, and live God's Word. Third, Melanchthon benefited from rich generational investment. Without Reuchlin, would there have been Melanchthon? Like Melanchthon, we need profitable intellectual community, and like Reuchlin, we should invest in future generations, for they may be the ones to accomplish what we long for. Fourth, the previous three elements came together to give Melanchthon an excellent classical education rooted in the original languages. If we believe that words mean things, then we as the church have a vested interest in education, especially in that kind of education that spans centuries and goes back to the sources. This applies to all levels of education, but seminaries in particular must not substitute “relevant” electives for core education in the languages, or else expository preaching will disappear. Without the depth of thought cultivated by studying the classics, without detailed and expert knowledge of original languages, Melanchthon never would have recovered the meaning of the words of Scripture. Unless we follow in his steps, we will lose the legacy he left us, the legacy that words mean things.

[1] David J. A. Clines, I, He, We, and They: A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53, Journal for the Study of the Old Tesatament, Supplementary Series, 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield University, 1976) 59-61, quoted in Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981) 111-112.

[2] James William Richard, Philip Melanchthon: The Protestant Preceptor of Germany (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1898) 7.

[3] Richard, 13.

[4] Richard, 21.

[5] Richard, 22.

[6] Richard, 38-39.

[7] Richard, 44.

[8] Richard, 27.

[9] Richard, 60.

[10] N.R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (London: Grace Publications Trust, 2004) 86.

[11] Needham, 85.

[12] Philip Melanchthon, Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine, trans. and ed. by Clyde L. Manschreck (New York: Oxford University Press) 162.

[13] Melanchthon, 158.

[14] Needham, 88.

[15] Andrea Palpant Dilley, “The World the Missionaries Made,” Christianity Today 58, no. 1 (January/February 2014): 34. Accessed February 8, 2014.

[16] Richard, 52-53.

[17] John Piper, Think (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) 106.

[18] Richard, 62.


Allison, Gregg R. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Dilley, Andrea Palpant. “The World the Missionaries Made.” Christianity Today 58, no. 1 (January/February 2014): 34. Accessed February 8, 2014.

Evans, G. R. The Roots of the Reformation. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Kaiser, Walter. Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981.

Melanchthon, Philip. 1555. Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine. Translated and Edited by Clyde L. Manschreck. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Needham, N. R. 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation. London: Grace Publications Trust, 2004.

Piper, John. Think. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Rhein, Stefan. “Melanchthon and Greek Literature.” In Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and the Commentary. Edited by Timothy Wengert and M. Patrick Graham. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Richard, James William. Philip Melanchthon: The Protestant Preceptor of Germany. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1898.

Schneider, John. “Melanchthon's Rhetoric as a Context for Understanding His Theology.” In Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenburg. Edited by Karin Maag. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

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