Melanchthon’s Magnum Opus

By Scott Keith

Luther Under the Ban Melanchthon Hard at Work

In 1521—the same year Melanchthon married his wife—at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther was convicted of heresy and placed under a Papal bull and an imperial ban. The ban meant that he was an outlaw and could be killed or imprisoned on sight. It was only the grace and quick thinking of his elector, Fredrick the Wise, that saved Luther’s bacon. Elector Fredrick whisked Luther off to the Wartburg castle for safe keeping. Yet, while Dr. Luther was contending with the Papal bull against him, confessing the Christian faith at Worms, and writing sermons for preaching in the Castle Church and elsewhere, Melanchthon was at work developing the first Lutheran “system” of theology. This work was destined to exert a powerful influence on the Lutheran Reformation and marks an epoch in the history of Christian theology. The work in question was entitled the Loci Communes Theologici, or Common Topics of Theology.

Early Editions

The work was originally written during the tumultuous early 1520s (the first official edition was published in 1521) in Wittenberg as the enthusiasts were taking advantage of Luther’s exile to the Wartburg Castle to cause utter chaos among the people. Melanchthon’s claim was that his desire in writing this work was to “make all Christians thoroughly conversant with the Holy Scripture alone.” This work on which Melanchthon was laboring utilized an age-old method of arranging categories of thought topically into loci or topics of theology. Melanchthon, as several theologians who predated him had done, arranged theological topics as drawn from the Holy Scriptures, specifically from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, topically.

In 1521, after sending it to Luther for revisions, he published the first version of the Loci Communes Theologici. By the end of the year 1525, he had published eighteen Latin editions in addition to various printings of a German translation done by his colleague Spalatin. This early work was characterized by a blanket rejection of all philosophy, particularly any form of Aristotelian philosophy. Luther claimed that this edition of the Loci should be added to the Christian canon. This edition is uniquely (synthetically) arranged, that is, arranged beginning from matters of salvation, to the means of grace, and God as the author of salvation.

Middle Editions

 In the period encompassing 1533(5)-1541, or middle editions, Melanchthon greatly expands the Loci and changes the style of arrangement from al or soteriological to synthetic or creedal. In 1535 came the great controversy over supposed synergism within the doctrine of justification in the Loci. It is said that within the 1535 Loci Melanchthon states that “good works are necessary to salvation” in seeming opposition to the hard Pauline stance taken in the 1521 edition. Also, it is in this edition of the Loci that the problematic formulation of three “causes” in conversion emerges as consisting of the preaching of the Word, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the human will which then does not refuse the Holy Spirit’s work. Though Luther did not publicly oppose this edition of the Loci, it is viewed as Melanchthon’s first steps towards serious doctrinal error.

Later Editions

The later editions were published from 1543-1559, with the final edition being published just one year before Melanchthon’s death in 1560. This period marks even greater expansion of the Loci; this edition is four times the size of the original 1521 edition. Gone are the statements dealt with in this study, “that good works are necessary to salvation,” but still included is the controversial formulation on three causes of conversion. Also, this period marks greater reliance on classical sources like Cicero, Aristotle, and Homer. During this period, Melanchthon undertakes the first German translation of the Loci that he will complete himself. While Luther is still alive when the 1543 editions are published, he again does not condemn Melanchthon’s formulation on conversion but praises the work. As a side note, this is the edition on which Martin Chemnitz lectures and bases his Loci Theologici.

Why the Loci Method?

 In the dedicatory epistle to the later editions of the Loci, Melanchthon sets out in no uncertain terms his reasons for ordering theology topically and the pedagogical necessity of passing the Christ centered method down into posterity. According to Melanchthon, the ordering of theology in a topical and understandable way serves as a comfort to those who are in doubt. “It is useful to have true and transparent testimony of the separate articles of Christian doctrine, divided in an orderly way, just as if they had been laid out on a table, so that when our intellect is coerced to doubt or given over to threats, that we should see another way of thinking, one which will instruct those in trembling, raise, confirm, and console them.” Furthermore, he quotes the Psalmist, in a sympathetic understanding that only the Scriptures can provide true light and consolation in matters of Christian doctrine. These exercises of faith are necessary and should not to be unknown to the faithful, of which the Prophet has said: “Your Word is a light to my feet.”

Second Order Serving First Order

Additionally, this teaching is to be passed down generationally, from scholars who develop and challenge the propositions, to pastors who are taught by the scholars, to parishioners who hear the words of proclamation from the pastors. This is second-order topical teaching being in service to first-order categorical preaching to the forgiveness of sins.

In the Loci, Melanchthon shows an urgency for those who are tasked, as he was, with teaching those who would be faithful pastors of God’s flock, the Church, to show diligence and love of Scriptural truth. The gifts of second order teaching are to be passed to the people by way of the first-order preaching by the “ministers of the Gospel.” A minister is one who heals. Healing of the sinner comes by forgiveness of sins given in the proclaimed and categorical message of the Gospel. Therefore, Melanchthon is spending the time needed in second-order topics to teach those who will truly forgive sins in a first-order categorical way, by being ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s All About the Gospel of Christ

What is imperative in everything that establishes Melanchthon’s ordering of theological topics is a reliance on the justification of the sinner before God on account of Christ, breathed into men by means of the proclamation of Holy Scriptures, specifically the Gospel of Christ.

See Dr. Keith’s previous installments on Philip Melanchthon:


The Early Years