Meeting Melanchthon: The Early Years

By Scott Keith

Early Life and Education:

Philip(p) was born to George and Barbara Schwarzerdt in Bretten in 1497. Philip had four siblings: Anna (1499), Georg (1500 or 1501), Margarete (1506), and Barbara (1508). All were born in his grandparents’ house in the Electoral Saxon Residential town of Bretten. Melanchthon’s father, Georg Schwarzerdt, born in Heidelberg, was a master of gunnery founding and was skilled in forging lightweight, durable armor. Because of his skills, Georg was elevated to the office of electoral master of armorer and thus needed to remain in Heidelberg. Melanchthon’s mother, Barbara, came from the wealthy merchant family of Reuter.

Melanchthon’s grandfather was the one who ensured a thorough early education in Latin for Philip and his brother Georg, as well as two grandsons of the Reuter family, by hiring well-known Johannes Unger from Pforzheim as the boys’ tutor. The death of Melanchthon’s father and grandfather in 1508 ended the childhood of 11-year-old Philip. From this point on, his education and contribution to the burgeoning Humanist movement of his day would be his vocation.

Johannes Reuchlin, a famous Humanist and Hebrew scholar, was Philip’s great uncle and took some responsibility for Philip’s university education. Upon learning of Philip’s ability in Greek, following the Humanist tradition of his day, Reuchlin gave him the Greek name “Melanchthon.” In March of 1509, Reuchlin exclaimed, “Your name is Schwarzerdt (German for ‘black earth’) you are a Greek, and so your new name shall be Greek. Thus, I will call you Melanchthon which means black earth.”

University Education:

In 1509, Philip entered the University of Heidelberg with the intention of earning his Bachelor of Arts degree. At Heidelberg, he studied philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy/astrology, Latin, and Greek. He earned his B.A. in 1512 at the age of 15. He had wanted to enter the Master of Arts (M.A.) degree at Heidelberg, but his entrance into that program was barred by the faculty who claimed he was too young to take the degree. It is more likely that his high intelligence and ability at such a young age was intimidating to well-ensconced faculty.

Upon Reuchlin’s advice, Philip instead entered the M.A. program at the University of Tübingen. At Tübingen, he studied philosophy, Latin, Greek, classical literature, law, medicine, and mathematics. He graduated with his M.A. degree in 1516 at the age of 19. He almost immediately published a Greek Grammar which was widely used in the initial instruction of Greek for many years.

At Wittenberg:

During the 1518–1519 academic year, Philip joined the faculty at the University of Wittenberg. He was called to Wittenberg to be a professor of Greek. He had wanted to teach theology as well, but he was not qualified. It is worthy to note that Philip was essentially a philologist and classicist by training, not a theologian. As a workaround, Philip was pleased to teach his students Greek by teaching them to read John’s gospel.

He continued his studies at Wittenberg with Luther as well as on his own. At Wittenberg, he mastered Hebrew by studying with Luther and theology by means of more intense study with Luther and in-depth exegesis of the Gospel of John and Paul’s Epistle to the Church at Rome. Philip still desired to teach theology but needed a qualification to do so. Thus, in 1519, he completed his Theological Treatise (thesis) granting him a degree in theology and affording him a second appointment (Professor of Greek and Theology). Within his Baccalaureate Theses, the term “imputation” is first used to describe how Christ’s righteousness is imparted to the believer.  “All righteousness is a gracious imputation of Christ.”

Family Life and Friendship with Luther:

Initially, Luther was not drawn to Philip as a friend, as he looked sickly and weak to Luther. Soon, they became good friends and partners. Luther encouraged him to get married because he feared for his health and well-being. In 1521, Philip married Katherine Krapp, daughter of the Mayor of Wittenberg. Together, they had four children: Anna (1522), Philipp (1525), Georg (1527), and Magdalena (1533). Even though Luther and Philip learned to be good friends, their wives never did. It was reported by several of their Wittenberg colleagues that the two ladies would often refuse to be in the same room with one another.

Luther’s influence on the young Philip was great, and the reverse is true as well. Philip influenced Luther with Humanist principles of ad fontes (a return to the sources), his knowledge of Greek, and his diverse classical learning. In 1519, Luther said, “But more recently I have followed Philip Melanchthon as my teacher in Greek. He is a young man in respect to his body, but a hoary-headed old sage in regard to his intellectual powers.” Luther’s influenced Philip in the areas of theology—especially Law and gospel and the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory—and finding real comfort in the proclamation of the Gospel.

The two men, early colleagues and reluctant friends, would become a nearly unstoppable theological and Reformation team.

You can read Dr. Keith’s introduction to Melanchthon here.