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Heretic of the week: Philip Melanchthon

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was born Philip Schwartzerdt at Bretten; his father was armourer to the local lord; his mother was a niece of the great humanist scholar, Johann Reuchlin.

At the age of 10 he was sent to a Latin school where he learned both Latin and Greek, and read a great deal of poetry in both languages as well as Aristotle. His father and grandfather dying a year later, he went to live with his maternal grandmother. Her brother, Reuchlin, became a great influence on the boy, who translated his original surname (meaning “black earth”) into Greek as a result, and under his tutelage the following year he went to the University at Heidelberg. There Melanchthon studied astrology, philosophy and rhetoric; but in 1512 he was refused the master’s degree because of his age. The young prodigy went on to Tübingen to study law, medicine and more astrology. In 1516 he was awarded the degree at last, and began to study theology. Two years later he accepted Martin Luther’s call to teach at Wittenberg.

From then on he became Luther’s chief collaborator – rejecting all of the Catholicism that his master rejected, and retaining all that he kept. This led him not only into conflict with various Catholic theologians, but also with a host of other Protestants – especially Zwingli and Calvin. He was the major author of the Augsburg Confession, which was presented before Emperor Charles V in 1530 to explain the Lutheran position, and remains authoritative today in their community.

After Luther’s death in 1546, he was left attempting to safeguard his friend’s legacy while fending off disputes with many other members of the Protestant movement. Interestingly, despite his many attempts to get his great uncle to convert to the new religion, Reuchlin – like his humanist colleagues Erasmus, Paracelsus and Thomas More – refused and died a faithful Catholic.