The German Reformation From The Death Of Luther To The Death Of Melanchthon (1546-1560).

The German Reformation From The Death Of Luther To The Death Of Melanchthon (1546-1560).


The use of peaceful measures toward the Protestants did not result altogether according to the wishes of Charles V. He found the heretics less yielding than he had hoped. As they refused submission to the Council of Trent, and also absented themselves from the Diet of Regensburg, which was designed to work toward submission to the council, Charles was determined to delay no longer the resort to force. To divide his opponents, he put the imperial ban upon only two of the princes, -- John Frederic, the Elector of Saxony, and Philip of Hesse. To the Protestants he tried to make it appear that it was by no means a religious war which he was conducting; while, at the same time, he leagued with the Pope for the complete overthrow of Protestantism. The action of the Pope, however, so clearly revealed the plot, that no excuse remained for being deceived.


In the ensuing war, inefficient leadership and divided counsels robbed the Protestants of the success which they might have expected. Moreover, one of their number, Maurice, the young Duke of Saxony, joined with the Emperor. His defection was more political than religious. He was full of ambition, and wished to make use of the Emperor to enlarge his domain. Under these circumstances, Charles gained a complete victory. The Elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse were made prisoners. The electoral dignity, together with a large part of the territory which it represented, was given to Maurice. The Smalcald League was destroyed.


As by this time the Pope and Charles had ceased to act together, -the former, indeed, seeking to thwart the plans of the latter, -- Charles assumed, on his own account, to make a settlement of religious matters. Entertaining a somewhat superficial view of the nature of Protestant convictions, he thought that by a few concessions, and by the abolition of certain abuses, he could bring the whole Protestant population under the dominion of the Romish Church. He employed, therefore, some theologians to prepare it scheme corresponding to this view. A provisional grant of marriage to priests, and of the cup to the laity, and formulas on the subject of justification and the mass, which toned down somewhat the Romish theories, were the most that was conceded to the Protestants. This scheme received the sanction of the Diet of Augsburg, in 1548, and was called the Augsburg Interim. The people and the ministry on the side of the Protestants were strongly averse to the Interim. Force, however, availed to carry it through in Southern Germany. In Northern Germany a stout resistance was offered. Duke Maurice, notwithstanding his alliance with the Emperor, would not undertake to impose it upon his own domains, except in a modified form. The city of Magdeburg was especially determined in its opposition. Not a few of the Roman-Catholic party also disliked the Interim as a half-measure, and destitute of proper authority. Moreover, the bold and aggressive manner in which Charles used his victories for the exaltation of imperial prerogatives was a source of jealousy.


The Emperor, therefore, was not as strong and secure as he imagined; and it only needed a bold stroke to reveal the fact. Meanwhile, Maurice, who had been intrusted with the reduction of Magdeburg, was preparing to give that stroke. While it was desirable to appease the hatred of the Protestants which had been aroused against him by his treacherous conduct, he found a ground of quarrel with the Emperor, in that he refused to release his father-in-law, Philip of Hesse, from rigorous imprisonment. He began also to apprehend that the dignity of the German princes generally would be endangered by the continued success of Charles. Accordingly, he protracted the siege of Magdeburg until his plans were well matured for a change of sides. Then, marching suddenly upon the Emperor, he took him by surprise, and left him in such an unfavorable plight, that he assented to terms of peace, stipulating in the treaty of Passau (1552) for the liberation of the captive princes, and indulgence for the time being to the Protestant religion. The movements of the Turks and the attitude of France prevented Charles from recovering the lost ground; and at the Diet of Augsburg, in 1555, peace was finally concluded in earnest. The fundamental articles of the treaty were, that the rulers were to be allowed to exercise free choice between the Roman Catholic religion and the Lutheran, as expressed in the Augsburg Confession, while the subjects were to be dependent upon the will of the rulers as to their religion. Should the subjects be oppressed in conscience by the prince, they were to be allowed unhindered egress from the realm. The Protestants were to retain the church property which was in their possession at the peace of Passau. From the privileges of Protestantism, however, one important item was withheld. While civil princes might change their religion freely and without any material loss, ecclesiastical dignitaries, should they go over to Protestantism, were to lose all the temporalities formerly pertaining to their positions. This article (Reservatum ecclesiasticum) was stoutly opposed by the Protestants; but Ferdinand, the brother of Charles V., who presided over the Diet, showed himself unyielding. The Protestants at length gave a reluctant consent; obtaining, in return, simply the imperial declaration that the subjects of ecclesiastical princes should be allowed religious liberty.


In the treaty of Augsburg, Protestantism at least so far as the Lutherans or adherents of the Augsburg Confession were concerned, obtained legal recognition. During the next few years it spread rapidly, and gained a good foothold even in Bavaria and Austria. But the meridian was soon reached. A Roman Catholic reaction, urged on both by secular and religious powers, set in; and Protestantism lost much territory which at one time it held wholly or in part.


Before passing from the field of the German Reformation, it is fitting to add a few words respecting the distinguished co-laborer of Luther, Melanchthon. If the work of the latter stands out in less august proportions than that of the former, it was still important and of far-reaching consequence.


In their personal relations Melanchthon was no doubt much more influenced by Luther than was Luther by Melanchthon. The evangelical zeal of the older Reformer kindled that of the younger. Without the powerful impulse which was received from Luther, Melanchthon, very likely, would have been only a more serious Erasmus. But, while he was not able to modify Luther as much as he was modified by him, he wrought work as a scholar and theologian the influence of which has been parallel with that of Luther, and has re-acted upon it in no inconsiderable measure.


Melanchthon may be said to have figured conspicuously in three different characters; namely, as humanist, theologian, and reconciler, or agent of attempted mediation, between different parties. The last was naturally the least fruitful of honor; for the office of mediator, in the theological domain, is commonly as thankless as it is difficult. Melanchthon, with his moderation and conciliatory temper, had, indeed, far more than average qualifications for the office. This was understood by his contemporaries, and may help to explain the fact that he was so often summoned to take part in negotiations looking to a re-union of the divided Church. But his aptitudes secured him no success; as, under the conditions, success was impossible, at least as respects healing the schism between Protestants and Romanists. In dealing with a hierarchy boastful of its infallibility, to make an agreement is simply to sacrifice the truth. Melanchthon, in one and another instance, was supposed to have made this sacrifice, and was brought under severe criticism. Doubtless his concessions were not always kept within due limits; but in part, at least, they sprang from conviction, as well as from the desire for peace. Such was the origin of the tolerance which he expressed for a hierarchical constitution. He felt that the Church needed a strong government of its own, and without this means of self-direction would fall into a pernicious dependence upon the State.


Melanchthon had both the natural tastes and the training of the humanist. Before he took the professor's chair at Wittenberg, at the age of twenty-one, he had already won some distinction by his proficiency in the classic literature, and his purity of style. Erasmus early awarded him this flattering estimate: "Of Melanchthon I have already the highest opinion, and cherish the most magnificent hopes; so much so that I am persuaded Christ designs this youth to excel us all: he will totally eclipse Erasmus." 1 Quoted by F. A. Cox, Life of Melanchthon. Through endowments and acquisitions of this order, Melanchthon was able to give to Protestant piety a valuable association with classic culture. As Vilmar remarks, he drew the plan for schools within the evangelical Church, which have continued for more than two centuries to be seats of a profound study of the Greek and the Roman literature, and thus earned for himself the title Prœceptor Germaniœ. 2 A.F.C. Vilmar, sketches of Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli.


As a theologian, Melanchthon had the distinction of writing the first work of systematic theology which appeared on the side of the Reformation, his "Loci Communes Rerum Theologicarum." This was published in 1521, when the author was but twenty-four years of age. Luther was greatly delighted with it, and declared that no book could be found in which the sum of religion was more finely compacted together. Enlarged and modified in later editions, the "Loci" remained the most important memorial of the theological activity of Melanchthon. At the time of the first draught his views were in substantial accord with those of Luther. Later his thinking diverged in three main particulars. Rejecting strict Augustinianism with its predestination and monergism, he gave a place to free will, and taught a moderate synergism. He inclined to Calvin's theory of the efficacious presence of Christ in the eucharist, as opposed to Luther's assertion of the real bodily presence. He was averse to the mystical phase in Christology which Luther, in conformity with his eucharistic theory, had inculcated, -- the doctrine of the communication of divine predicates to the human nature of Christ. That Luther viewed this deviation with grief and annoyance, is not to be questioned; but it is equally certain that the doctrinal differences between the two men did not really sever the bond of rare affection by which they had been united.