Philip Melanchthon Anchors Reformation Theology

Philip Melanchthon was born February 16, 1497 in Bretten, Western Germany. His birth name was Philip Schwartzerd, meaning ‘black earth’, but he changed his surname to Melanchthon, the Greek equivalent, during his education.

He was a brilliant student who excelled in his humanist studies so well (here humanist means – non-theological) that he entered Heidelberg University at age 13 and was deemed too young to receive the B.A. degree he earned in just 2 years. He went on to earn an M.A. at Tuebingen University by age 17, whereupon he was put to lecturing to the students, much to the displeasure of his peers.

He considered humanistic learning to be a “wonderful gift of God” and went on to lecture at the new university in Wittenberg. This brought him into contact with Martin Luther.

Europe’s Renaissance humanists were offended by Luther’s suggestion that human achievement plays no part in salvation, but Melanchthon embraced both the reality of faith and the value of secular understanding.

In 1524 Melanchthon began establishing public schools, reorganising Universities, organising teacher training and writing multiple textbooks.

Both colleague and companion of the impetuous Martin Luther, the gentle and scholarly spirit of Melanchthon did much to keep the Reformation true to its theological moorings.

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It was he who drew up the “Confession of Augsburg”, a modified version now being the creed of the Lutheran faith, and it was his commentary on Romans that was held in such high regard that it soon found its way onto the Romish index of banned books.

This commentary, with its ‘divisions and arrangements, became the stereo-typed method followed by all Protestant writers on doctrine’ (Cyclopaedia of Modern Religious Biographies, page 336).

One writer describes Melanchthon as being the only Reformer “who had the scraggy look of an intellectual” (Bamber Gascoigne, in The Christians, page 167).

After Luther’s death, Melanchthon became the acknowledged leader of the Lutheran cause.

His workday started at 2am and continued, tirelessly until 9pm. He and his wife, Katharine, adopted the orphaned children of his sister-in-law, then later added five more children when his daughter died. Katharine died when Melanchthon was 60.

14 years after Luther’s death Melanchthon came to his end. He cut short a lecture on April 9, after staggering to the class. He then languished for another ten days and died on 19 April, 1560.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Hans Hut Dies to uphold Baptism of Believers

Hans Hut died in prison on December 6, 1527. He is known as the apostle of the Anabaptists in Upper Austria and in just a few years he had done more to build the Anabaptist movement than all of his peers combined.

The date of Hut’s birth is uncertain. A native of Thuringia (southern Germany), Hans was a bookbinder by trade, owning property in the village of Bibra. From 1513 he was a sexton in the service of two knights in Bibra. He then travelled extensively, selling books. In that process he also distributed literature promoting the new Lutheran faith. Hut’s travels took him as far as Austria and frequently to Wittenberg.

Reformation Europe had two strands of evangelicalism, Lutheran and Reformed. Hut was a major player in the establishment of a third strand, the Anabaptists, of which it was said, “The highest and chief leader of the Anabaptists is Johannes Hut”.

Hut’s involvement with the Anabaptist movement started in 1524, when he argued with two other craftsmen who objected to infant baptism, which was practiced by both the Lutheran and Calvinist churches. Hut sought clarification on his next trip to Wittenberg but was unsatisfied with the explanations given.

His own study of the Bible confirmed that Christ and the disciples never baptised children, only believers. He was also troubled that the theologians in Wittenberg did not manage to prompt reformation in the lives of their adherents.

On his return to Bibra, Hut refused to have his infant child baptised. The lords of the village demanded that he baptise the child or leave the village. He chose to leave, taking with him his wife and five children. Shortly after he met Hans Denck and Wolfgang Vogel, and he later baptised Vogel and two others after preaching in Vogel’s village.

In 1525 he was impressed by the preaching of Thomas Müntzer, in favour of the peasants’ uprising, which was at that time engaged in what is called the Peasants’ War. Hut even marched toward the battle with the peasant army, but fled when the fighting became fierce. He escaped any recourse from his association at that time, while others were executed for taking part.

Hut was baptised at the hands of Hans Denck on 26 May 1526.

At the time of the defeat of the peasants the Turks were continuing their advance through Europe. There was an apocalyptic sense about the hour and Hut came to believe that the end of all things was at hand. He eagerly preached the need for baptism and the imminent return of Christ. He also spoke out against those who held power and used it to oppose the true gospel. Anabaptists also emphasized the separation of Church and State, which the other protestant movements had not done.

As a result, “No group of early Protestants suffered greater persecution than the Anabaptists … Throughout Europe they were strangled, beheaded, or burned alive, by Lutherans(!), Calvinists(!), and Catholics alike” (The Progress of the Protestants”, by J. Haverstick, page 50).

It is said of Hans Hut, “Perhaps no-one among them was more successful in preaching and baptizing than Hans Hut” (The Anabaptist Story, by W. Estep, page 80).

Another writer tells us that he was responsible for more converts than all the other Anabaptist leaders combined (Christian History magazine, Volume IV, No 1, page 14).

It is only fair to say that his theology was somewhat offbeat. Convinced that the Second Coming was about to take place in two years’ time (in 1528), “he embarked on a feverish missionary journey to recruit 144,000 saints needed for the millennial kingdom”.

Hut’s daughter was among the many Anabaptist martyrs. She was drowned in Bamberg on 25 January 1527, a martyr to her faith.

Hut’s first arrest and trial (16 September 1527) followed his visit to Augsburg, where he participated in the “Martyrs’ Synod” of 1527.

He was imprisoned and tortured for four months, including the rack. The inquisitors were determined to exact a complete confession of his doctrine and the scope of his activities. They learned that he had indeed taken his message to a vast area. On the eve of his sentencing he “died of asphyxiation from a fire of unknown origin”. His son attests that he was dumped in his cell, virtually dead, from the rack. A candle left near his body ignited the straw and causes suffocating smoke.

His accusers could only pronounce their sentence on his corpse. The officials took the dead body to court on a chair, tied the chair to the executioner’s cart, sentenced it to die, and burned it at the stake on 7 December.

Ironically, some of his hymns found their way into Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) hymnals (Estep, page 81).

And after his death the Anabaptist movement continued to prosper, with less emphasis on extreme millennial views. The Hutterites trace their origin to Hans Hut.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

John Knox Trumpets Protestantism

John Knox died on November 25 in 1572.

The exact date of his birth, even the year, is unknown. Biographers range from 1505 to 1514, but nobody knows for sure. His birth is generally accepted to be at Giffordgate, 16 miles east of Edinburgh, in 1513 to 1514.

John entered the University of Glasgow in 1522, where he studied under John Major, one of the greatest scholars of the time. In 1540 he was already ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church and that he was a priest before he was 25 years of age.

John’s conversion to the Protestant faith likely came through the influence of George Wishart, the leader among the Scottish reformers, who met him in late 1545 and was burned at the stake shortly afterward. Wishart met Knox in December 1545.

John then spent some months as bodyguard (“drawn sword in hand”) to George Wishart. But on 29 February, 1546, Wishart was martyred.

John Knox was first called to the Protestant ministry at St. Andrews, which was throughout his life intimately associated with the Reformer’s career. The castle of St Andrews was attacked in July 1547 and Knox was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities. Thus it was for 18 months that Knox found himself as a galley-slave on a French ship, the “Notre Dame”. The experience permanently injured his health.

In 1549 we find him preaching up a storm both in the British Isles and on the Continent. He then spent some years in Geneva, where Calvin was exercising a remarkable influence.

Knox returned to his native land “a Calvinist of the Calvinists”, and found himself in head-on collision with the Roman Catholic queen. When Mary, Queen of Scots, had mass celebrated in her palace chapel, the “thundering Scot” made known his feelings on this ‘sin of idolatry’ from the pulpit of St Giles.

His denunciations of the mass and Roman Catholicism in general did much to bring about a law, passed by the Scottish Parliament on 1 August, 1560, establishing Protestantism as the religion of that country. It is probably true to say that Knox was a stern man, but he lived in an age that needed someone of his character to stem the inroads of Romanism.

Among his writings are: “History of the Reformation in Scotland”, “Against the Monstrous Rule of Women” and a long and elaborate treatise on predestination published in 1560.

Shortly before his death he asked his wife to read him John 17 – “for that is where I first cast my anchor”.

At his graveside the Earl of Mortoun, regent of Scotland, in the presence of an immense funeral procession, declared: “Here lyeth a man who in his life never feared the face of man, who hath been often threatened with dagger, but yet hath ended his dayes in peace and honour.”

Speaking of John Knox, Thomas Carlyle said: “And to be sure there is a power in unswerving conviction that inevitably arrests the attention of both men and nations. There is an almost indescribable appeal that attaches itself to uncompromising vision and principled passion. This fact was undoubtedly illustrated quite vividly all throughout the life and work of John Knox.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Martin Luther Nails His Theses to the Door

This is the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg in 1517, and, let it be said, nailed his colours to the mast at the same time!

Every one of those 95 arguments – for that’s what they were – was aimed against the infamous doctrine of “indulgences”, and he even expected Papal support for his crusade against this unholy traffic (Documents of the Christian Church, page 260). Instead the wrath of Rome descended upon him.

Reformation Day – “The most momentous day, as yet, in the history of Europe” is how Basil Atkinson describes it (Valiant in Fight, page 128).

Pope Leo X had sent Johann Tetzel to Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To do that Tetzel marched through the streets with his entourage – a drummer calling the people to come and hear this amazing ditty:
Once the coin in the coffer rings
A soul from purgatory heavenward springs.

Official indulgence certificates were sold – authorised by the Pope himself – declaring that the purchaser could go immediately to Heaven at death, bypassing purgatory on the way. Or an indulgence could be bought for a departed loved one, thus delivering them from purgatorial fires.

Luther’s protest included such sallies as the following:

No. 21: “Those preachers of indulgences are in error who allege that through the indulgence of the Pope, a man is freed from every penalty.”

No. 27: “Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection box are preaching an invention of man.”

No. 37: “Any true Christian living or dead partakes of all the benefits of Christ and the Church, which is the gift of God, even without letters of pardon.”

No. 52: “Confidence in salvation through letters of indulgence is vain … even if the Pope himself should pledge his soul as a guarantee.”

No. 66: “The treasures of indulgences are nets, with which they now fish for the riches of men.”

No. 86: “The Pope’s riches at this day far exceed the wealth of the richest millionaires, cannot he therefore build one single basilica of St Peter out of his own money, rather than out of the money of the faithful poor?”

And so the die was cast. The Church of Rome took action. Luther remained adamant. The Protestant Reformation was under way.

And many a Protestant church (though alas, not as many as should) will give thanks to God this day for the brave stand taken by Martin Luther.

The Roman Church still teaches the value of indulgences to enable one to bypass the torments of purgatory, though not, let it be confessed, as blatantly as Tetzel propagated the doctrine.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Jacob Arminius in Pursuit of Doctrinal Truth

This is the day that … Jacob Arminius was born in 1560.

Born Jacob Harmenszoon in Oudewater, Holland, the death of his father during Jacob’s infancy devastated the middle-class family. Then the Spanish massacre of Oudewater in 1575 claimed the lives of his mother and siblings.

Raised by friends, he eventually Latinized his name, after a 1st Century Germanic leader who resisted the Romans. Thus the Arminius name became a rallying point for those who resist Calvinist teachings, as Jacob did during his life.

During his studies he spent time in Geneva from 1592, under Beza, the 62 year-old who succeeded Calvin. Beza is responsible for introducing into Calvinist thought the particular emphases of predestination, the sovereignty of God and various ritualistic practices.

He later returned to Amsterdam and pastored the Old Church congregation. In 1590 he married the aristocratic Lijsbet Reael who ensured he kept close contact with the most influential merchants and leaders of the city.

He ministered in Amsterdam for 15 years and in Leiden for 6. He practiced his belief that being a pastor does more for the minister’s holiness than engagement in theological wrangling.

During that time he began to question the distinctive teachings of John Calvin, of which Holland was a stronghold.

Aminius left the pastorate and became Professor of Theology at Leiden, where his attack on Calvin’s view of predestination led to violent controversy.  The student body and Reformed pastors became polarised over the issue.

After his death in 1609 his followers issued a “Remonstrance” – so called because it remonstrated with Calvin’s teaching.  And the Reformed churches countered with their “Synod of Dort” condemning Arminians as heretics.

They were stormy days indeed, and in some circles today the battle still rages.

Note that Arminius had great regard for Calvin’s teachings in general. It seems that the points emphasised by Beza distorted something of the spirit of Calvin’s own insights. In affirmation of Calvin note this quote from Arminius. “I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read…. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed to us in the writings of the Fathers.”

Note too that Arminius, although a highly intellectual and widely studied man, was not distracted with theology for its own sake. His sole ambition was “to inquire in the Holy Scriptures for divine truth…for the purpose of winning some souls for Christ.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.