and the historical Luther
by Ralph Keen
'Isaiah… John the Baptist… Paul… Augustine… Luther': with these five names Philip Melanchthon identified the points of descent in the transmission of the true faith of the church.1 The occasion was Luther's funeral, at which Melanchthon, the eulogist, would describe the Wittenberg community as being like orphans bereft of an excellent and faithful father.2 The combination of reverence and affection for the great Reformer reflected in these comments has cast all of Luther's Protestant contemporaries in his shadow. If Luther remains a figure of heroic proportions, it is due as much to the work of his admirers as to his own efforts. And Philip Melanchthon, Luther's closest colleague, was so successful in creating a legendary Luther that his own role in Reformation history has been regarded as less substantial and influential than it actually was.
Born in 1497 in Bretten, a town north of Pforzheim, and educated at Heidelberg (BA 1511) and Tübingen (MA 1513), Melanchthon was very much a product of the southwestern German regions. His grandfather was mayor of Bretten; a great-uncle by marriage was the humanist Johann Reuchlin; and his father, who died when Philip was eleven, was an armorer for the Heidelberg court. Placed under Reuchlin's care after his father's death, Melanchthon attended the Latin School at Pforzheim, where he excelled at Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and went on to the arts program at Heidelberg. Here he received as thorough a grounding in the classics as was possible in Germany at the time, and acquired some familiarity with theology and natural science as well.3
In 1518 Melanchthon was called to Wittenberg to take up a newly instituted professorship of Greek. It was the second such position in Germany (Leipzig had the first) and Melanchthon was the second choice (Leipzig's incumbent was the preferred candidate). Melanchthon, although only twenty-one, was well trained and showed potential for making Wittenberg a center of humanism like Heidelberg, Tübingen – or Leipzig. Saxony had been divided in the preceding century, and the electoral, or Ernestine, branch wished to build a center of culture comparable to Leipzig, in the rival Albertine branch. The political division between the two branches would become a bitter religious conflict by the 1520s.
Humanism would not, however, be the movement that brought Wittenberg