Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions

XI. Controversies Following the Interim and Settled by the Formula of Concord.

130. Three Theological Parties.

In the theological conflicts after Luther’s death three parties may be distinguished. The first party embraced chiefly the Interimists, the Synergists, and the Crypto-Calvinists. They were adherents of Philip Melanchthon, hence called Melanchthonians or, more commonly, Philippists, and were led by the theologians of Electoral Saxony. Their object was to supplant the authority and theology of Luther by the unionistic and liberal views of Melanchthon. Their headquarters were the universities of Wittenberg and Leipzig. Some of their chief representatives were: Joachim Camerarius (born 1500, professor of Greek in Leipzig, a close friend ofMelanchthon, died 1574); Paul Eber (born 1511, professor in Wittenberg, died 1568); Caspar Cruciger, Jr. (born 1525, professor in Wittenberg, died at Cassel 1597); Christopher Pezel (born 1539, professor in Wittenberg, died 1600 or 1604); George Major (Meier; born 1502, professor in Wittenberg, died 1574); Caspar Peucer (doctor of medicine, son-in-law of Melanchthon; born 1525, imprisoned from 1574 till 1586 died 1602); Paul Crell (born 1531, professor in Wittenberg, died 1579); John Pfefflnger (born 1493, professor in Leipzig, died 1573); Victorin Strigel (born 1524, 1548 professor in Jena, died in Heidelberg 1569); John Stoessel (born 1524, died in prison 1576); George Cracow (born 1525, professor of jurisprudence in Wittenberg, privy counselor in Dresden, died in prison 1575).

The second party, the so-called Gnesio-Lutherans (genuine Lutherans), was represented chiefly by the theologians of Ducal Saxony and embraced such staunch and loyal men as Amsdorf, Flacius, Wigand, Gallus, Matthias Judex,Moerlin, Tileman Hesshusius, Timann, Westphal, and Simon Musaeus. Though some of these leaders were later discredited by falling into extreme positions themselves, they all proved to be valiant champions of Luther and most determined opponents of the Philippists. The strongholds of this party were Magdeburg and the University of Jena, founded by the sons of John Frederick in 1547. Led by Flacius, this university unflinchingly opposed the modified and unionistic Lutheranism advocated by the Philippists at Wittenberg and Leipzig. Seeberg says, in substance: The Gnesio-Lutherans were opposed to the philosophy of the Philippists and stood for “the simple Biblical truth as Luther had understood it.” Even when opposed by the government, they defended the truth, and were willing to suffer the consequences. Strict doctrinal discipline was exercised by them. They opposed with equal determination the errors also of their fellow-combatants: Amsdorf, Flacius, Poach, and others. Intellectually they were superior to the Philippists. Seeberg concludes: “In the forms of their time (which were not outgrown by any one of the Philippists either) they preserved to the Church genuine Luther-treasures-echtes Luthergut.” (Dogmengeschichte 4, 2, 482.)

The third, or center-party, was composed of the loyal Lutherans who took no conspicuous part in the controversies, but came to the front when the work of pacification began. They were of special service in settling the controversies, framing the Formula of Concord, and restoring a true and godly peace to our Church. Prominent among them were Brenz, Andreae, Chemnitz, Selneccer, Chytraeus, Cornerus, Moerlin, and others. These theologians were, on the one hand, opposed to all unnecessary logomachies i.e., controversies involving no doctrinal differences, and, at the same time, were most careful not to fall into any extreme position themselves. On the other hand, however, they approved of all controversies really necessary in the interest of truth, rejected and condemned all forms of indifferentism and unionism, and strenuously opposed every effort at sacrificing, veiling, or compromising any doctrine by ambiguous formulas for the sake of external peace or any other policy whatsoever. (CONC.TRIGL., 855f.)

131.Various Theological Controversies.

Following is a synopsis and summary of the main controversies within the Lutheran Church after the death of Luther, which were settled in the first eleven articles of the Formula of Concord. The sequence of these articles, however, is not strictly historical and chronological, but dogmatic. In the main, the arrangement of the Augsburg Confession is observed.

The first of these controversies was the so-called Adiaphoristic Controversy, from 1548 to 1555, in which the Wittenberg and Leipzig theologians (Melanchthon, Eber, Pfeffinger, etc.) defended the Leipzig Interim and the reintroduction of Romish ceremonies into the Lutheran Church. They were opposed by the champions of a consistent and determined Lutheranism, led by Flacius, who declared:“Nihil est adiaphoron in statu confessionis et scandali.Nothing is an adiaphoron in case of confession and offense.” The controversy was decided by Article X.

The second is the Majoristic Controversy, from 1551 to 1562, in which George Major and Justus Menius defended the phrase ofMelanchthon that good works are necessary to salvation. They were opposed by the loyal Lutherans, of whom Amsdorf, however, lapsed into the opposite error: Good works are detrimental to salvation. This controversy was settled by Article IV.

The third is the Synergistic Controversy, from 1555 to 1560, in which Pfeffinger, Eber, Major, Crell, Pezel, Strigel, and Stoessel held with Melanchthon that man by his own natural powers cooperates in his conversion. Their opponents (Amsdorf, Flacius, Hesshusius, Wigand, Gallus,Musaeus, and Judex) taught, as formu- lated by Flacius: “Solus Deus convertit hominem … Non excludit voluntatem, sed omnem efficaciam et operationem eius…. God alone converts man … He does not exclude the will, but all efficaciousness and operation of the same.” This controversy was decided and settled by Article II.

The fourth is the Flacian Controversy, from 1560 to 1575, in which Flacius, supported by Cyriacus Spangenberg, Christian Irenaeus, Matthias Wolf, I. F. Coelestinus, Schneider, and others, maintained that original sin is not an accident, but the very substance of fallen man. The Lutherans, including the Philippists, were practically unanimous in opposing this error. It was decided by Article I.

The fifth was the Osiandristic and the Stancarian Controversy, from 1549 to 1566, in which Andrew Osiander denied the forensic character of justification, and taught that Christ is our righteousness only according to His divine nature, while Stancarus contended that Christ is our righteousness according to His human nature only. Both, Osiander as well as Stancarus, were opposed by Melanchthon, Flacius, and practically all other Lutherans, the Philippists included. This controversy was settled by Article III.

The sixth was the Antinomistic Controversy, from 1527 to 1556, in which various false views concerning the Law and the Gospel were defended, especially by John Agricola who maintained that repentance (contrition) is not wrought by the Law, but by the Gospel (a view which, in a modified form was later on defended also by Wittenberg Philippists), and, after Luther’s death, by Poach and Otto, who rejected the so-called Third Use of the Law. The questions involved in these Antinomian controversies were decided by Articles V and VI.

The seventh was the Crypto-Calvinistic Controversy, from 1560 to 1574, in which the Philippists in Wittenberg,Leipzig, and Dresden (Peucer, Cracow, Stoessel, etc.) endeavored gradually to supplant Luther’s doctrines concerning the Lord’s Supper and the majesty of the human nature of Christ by the Calvinistic teachings on these points. These secret and dishonest enemies of Lutheranism were opposed by true Lutherans everywhere, notably by the theologians of Ducal Saxony. In 1574 they were publicly unmasked as deceivers and Calvinistic schemers. The controversy was settled by Articles VII and VIII.

The two last controversies were of a local nature. The first was chiefly confined to Hamburg, the second to Strassburg. In the former city John Aepinus taught that Christ’s descent into hell was a part of His suffering and humiliation. He was opposed by his colleagues in Hamburg. In Strassburg John Marbach publicly denounced Zanchi, a Crypto-Calvinist, for teaching that faith, once engendered in a man, cannot be lost. The questions involved in these two articles are dealt with in Articles IX and XI, respectively.

132.Conflicts Unavoidable.

When describing the conflicts after Luther’s death, historians frequently deplore “the dreadful controversies of these dark days of doctrinal extremists and the polemical spirit of rigid Lutheranism.” G. J. Planck, in particular, characterized them all as useless quarrels and personal wranglings of narrow-minded, bigoted adherents of Luther, who vitiated original Lutheranism by making it essentially a matter of “pure doctrine.“To the present day indifferentistically inclined historians are wont to mar their pages with similar views.

True,“pure doctrine,““unity in the pure doctrine of the Gospel,” such was the shibboleth of the faithful Lutherans over against the Melanchthonians and other errorists. But this was neither reprehensible doctrinalism nor a corruption of original Lutheranism, but the very principle from which it was born and for which Luther contended throughout his life-a principle of life or death for the Lutheran Church. It was the false doctrine of justification which made Luther a most miserable man. It was the pure doctrine as taught by St.Paul which freed his conscience, transported him into Paradise, as he himself puts it, and made him the Reformer of the Church. Ever since, purity of doctrine was held, by Luther and all true Lutheran theologians, to be of paramount import to Christianity and the Church. Fully realizing that adulteration of any part of the Christian doctrine was bound to infect also the doctrine of faith and justification and thus endanger salvation, they earnestly warned against, and opposed, every deviation from the clear Word of God, no matter how insignificant it might appear.They loved the truth more than external peace, more even than their own lives. Hence they found it impossible to be silent, apathetic, and complacent spectators while the Philippists and others denied, attacked, and corrupted the truth taught by Luther from the Word of God.

Accordingly, since the Leipzig Interim involved and maintained doctrines and principles subversive of genuine Lutheranism and was prepared, introduced, and defended by the very men who were regarded as pillars of the Lutheran Church, it was evident from the outset that this document must of necessity precipitate most serious internal troubles. From the moment the Wittenbergers cast the Interim as a firebrand into the Church, a domestic warfare was unavoidable,-if indeed any true disciples of Luther still remained in the Church of which he, and not Melanchthon, was the founder. While the Augsburg Interim resulted in an external theological warfare of the Lutherans against the Romanists, the Leipzig Interim added a most serious domestic conflict, which conscientious Lutherans could not evade, though it well-nigh brought our Church to the brink of destruction. For now the issue was not merely how to resist the Pope and the Romanists, but, how to purge our own Church from the Interimists and their pernicious principles.And as long as the advocates of the Interim or of other aberrations from the old Lutheran moorings refused to abandon their errors, and nevertheless insisted on remaining in the Church, there was no real unity in the truth. Hence there could also be no true peace and brotherly harmony among the Lutherans. And the way to settle these differences was not indifferently to ignore them, nor unionistically to compromise them by adopting ambiguous formulas, but patiently to discuss the doctrines at issue until an agreement in the truth was reached, which finally was done by means of the Formula of Concord.

True, these controversies endangered the very existence of our Church. But the real cause of this was not the resistance which the loyal Lutherans offered to the errorists, nor even the unseemly severity by which the prosecution of these controversies was frequently marred, but the un-Lutheran spirit and the false principles and doctrines manifested and defended by the opponents. In so far as divine truth was defended and error opposed, these controversies were truly wars to end war, and to establish real peace and true unity within our Church. A cowardly surrender to the indifferentistic spirit, the unionistic policy, the false principles, and the erroneous doctrines of the Interimists would have been tantamount to a complete transformation of our Church and a total annihilation of genuine Lutheranism.

The manner in which these controversies were conducted, it is true, was frequently such as to obstruct, rather than further, mutual understanding and peace. As a rule, it is assumed that only the genuine Lutherans indulged in unseemly polemical invective, and spoke and wrote in a bitter and spiteful tone. But the Melanchthonians were to say the least, equally guilty. And when censuring this spirit of combativeness, one must not overlook that the ultimate cause of the most violent of these controversies was the betrayal of the Lutheran Church by the Interimists; and that the severity of the polemics of the loyal Lutherans did not, at least not as a rule, emanate from any personal malice toward Melanchthon, but rather from a burning zeal to maintain sound Lutheranism, and from the fear that by the scheming and the indifference of the Philippists the fruits of Luther’s blessed work might be altogether lost to the coming generations. The “peace-loving” Melanchthon started a conflagration within his own church in order to obtain a temporal and temporary peace with the Romanists; while the loyal Lutherans, inasmuch as they fought for the preservation of genuine Lutheranism, stood for, and promoted, a truly honorable, godly, and lasting peace on the basis of eternal truth. And while the latter fought honestly and in the open, the Philippists have never fully cleared themselves from the charges of duplicity, dishonesty, and dissimulation.

133.Melanchthon Prime Mover of Conflicts.

The Leipzig Interim was the signal for a general and prolonged warfare within the Lutheran Church. It contained the germs of various doctrinal errors, and produced a spirit of general distrust and suspicion, which tended to exaggerate and multiply the real differences. Schmauk says: “The seeds of the subsequent controversies are all to be found in the Leipzig Interim.” (595.) At any rate, most of the controversies after Luther’s death flowed from, or were in some way or other connected with, this unfortunate document. Such is the view also of the Formula of Concord,which declares that the thirty years' controversies which it settled originated especially in the Interim. (857, 19; 947, 29.)

Yet the Interim was rather the occasion than the ultimate cause of these conflicts. Long before the flames of open discord burst forth, the embers of secret doctrinal dissension had been glowing under the surface. Even during the life of Luther much powder had been secretly stored up for which the Interim furnished the spark. This is proved, among other things, by Luther’s predictions (referred to in the preceding chapter) concerning his own colleagues. And above all it was the “peace-loving” Philip who first and most successfully sowed the dragon’s teeth of discord. Melanchthon’s doctrinal deviations from the teachings of Luther and from his own former position must be regarded as the last cause of both the Leipzig Interim and the lamentable controversies that followed in its wake. Indeed, a tragic sight to behold: The co-laborer of Luther, the servant of the Reformation second only to Luther, the Praeceptor Germaniae, the ardent and anxious lover of peace, etc.-untrue to his confiding friend, disloyal to the cause of the Reformation, and the chief cause of strife and dissension in the Lutheran Church! And withal, Melanchthon, mistaking external union for real unity and temporal peace with men for true peace with God, felt satisfied that he had spent the efforts of his entire life in the interest of the true welfare of the Church! Shortly before his death (April 19, 1560) he expressed his joy that now he would be delivered from the “fury of the theologians.” On a sheet of paper found on his table were written a number of reasons why he feared death less. One of them was: “Liberaberis ab aerumnis et a rabie teologorum. You will be delivered from toils and from the fury of the theologians.” (C. R. 9, 1098.) Thus even in the face of death he did not realize that he himself was the chief cause of the conflicts that had embittered his declining years!

134. Melanchthon’s Humanistic and Unionistic Tendencies.

Till about 1530 Melanchthon seems to have been in complete harmony with Luther, and to have followed him enthusiastically. To propagate, coin, and bring into scholastic form the Christian truths once more brought to light by the Reformer he considered to be his peculiar mission. But his secret letters and, with gradually increasing clearness and boldness, also his publications show that later on he began to strike out on paths of his own, and to cultivate and disseminate doctrines incompatible with the Lutheranism of Luther. In a measure, these deviations were known also to the Wittenberg students and theologians, to Cordatus, Stifel,Amsdorf, the Elector John Frederick, Brueck, and Luther, who also called him to account whenever sufficient evidence warranted his doing so. (Lehre und Wehre 1908, 61ff.)

In a letter to Cordatus, dated April 15, 1537, Melanchthon was bold enough to state that he had made many corrections in his writings and was glad of the fact: “Multa ultro correxi in libellis meis et correxisse me gaudeo.” (C. R. 3, 342.) In discussing the squabble between Cordatus and Melanchthon whether good works are necessary for salvation, Luther is reported by the former to have said, in 1536: “To Philip I leave the sciences and philosophy and nothing else. But I shall be compelled to chop off the head of philosophy, too.” (Kolde, Analecta, 266.) Melanchthon, as Luther put it, was always troubled by his philosophy; that is to say, instead of subjecting his reason to the Word of God, he was inclined to balance the former against the latter.The truth is that Melanchthon never fully succeeded in freeing himself from his original humanistic tendencies, a fact which gave his mind a moralistic rather than a truly religious and Scriptural bent. Even during the early years of the Reformation when he was carried away with admiration for Luther and his work, the humanistic undercurrent did not disappear altogether. January 22, 1525, he wrote to Camerarius: “Ego mihi conscius sum, non ullam ob causam unquam teqeologhkevnai, nisi at mores meos emendarem. I am conscious of the fact that I have never theologized for any other reason than to improve my morals.” (C. R. 1, 722.) Such, then, being his frame of mind, it was no wonder that he should finally desert Luther in most important points, lapse into synergism and other errors, and, in particular value indifferentistically doctrinal convictions, notably on the real presence in the Lord’s Supper and the person of Christ.“Over against Luther,“says Schaff,“Melanchthon represented the unionistic and liberal type of Lutheranism.” (Creeds, l, 259.) This is correct; but the stricture must be added that, since unionism and liberalism are incompatible with the very essence of Lutheranism,Melanchthonianism as such was in reality not a “type,” but a denial of Lutheranism.

Melanchthon lacked the simple faith in, and the firm adherence and implicit submission to, the Word of God which made Luther the undaunted and invincible hero of the Reformation. Standing four-square on the Bible and deriving from this source of divine power alone all his theological thoughts and convictions, Luther was a rock, firm and immovable.With him every theological question was decided and settled conclusively by quoting a clear passage from the Holy Scriptures, while Melanchthon, devoid of Luther’s single- minded and whole-hearted devotion to the Word of God, endeavored to satisfy his reason as well. Consequently he lacked assurance and firm conviction, wavered and vacillated, and was never fully satisfied that the position he occupied was really the only correct one, while, on the other hand, he endeavored to present his views concerning some of the disputed doctrines in ambiguous and indefinite terms.“We have twenty-eight large volumes of Melanchthon’s writings,” says C. P. Krauth, “and, at this hour, impartial and learned men are not agreed as to what were his views on some of the profoundest questions of church doctrine, on which Melanchthon was writing all his life!"(Conservative Ref., 291; Schmauk, 748.) This indefinite and wavering attitude towards divine truth, the natural consequence of the humanistic bent of his mind, produced in Melanchthon a general tendency and proneness to surrender or compromise doctrinal matters in the interest of policy, and to barter away eternal truth for temporal peace. It made him an indifferentist and a unionist, always ready to strike a bargain also in matters pertaining to Christian faith, and to cover doctrinal differences with ambiguous formulas.While Luther’s lifelong attitude on matters of Christian doctrine is characterized by the famous words spoken by him at Worms in 1521: “Ich kann nicht anders, I cannot do otherwise,” Melanchthon, treating even questions of faith as matters of expediency rather than of conscience, was the man who, as a rule, could also do otherwise, and who was great in manufacturing “Polish boots,” as the ambiguous phrases by which he endeavored to unite opposing parties were called by the Lutherans in Reuss.

In order to preserve peace with the Romanists at Augsburg in 1530, he did not hesitate to sacrifice Lutheran truths and to receive into the bargain a number of what he considered minor papal errors. In his subsequent overtures to the Reformed he was more than willing to make similar concessions. The spirit of Melanchthon was the spirit of religious indifference and of unionism, which, though thoroughly eliminated by the Formula of Concord, was from time to time revived within the Lutheran Church by such men as Calixtus, Spener, Zinzendorf,Neander, and, in our own country, by S. S. Schmucker.

The unionistic tendencies and doctrinal corruptions which Melanchthon injected into Lutheranism were all the more dangerous to our Church because they derived special weight and prestige from the fact that Luther had unstintingly praised his gifts, his books, and the services he had rendered the Church (St. L. 18, 1671; 23, 1152), that he was now generally regarded as Luther’s successor with regard to theological leadership of the Church; and that he was gratefully admired as the Praeceptor Germaniae by a host of loyal pupils, who made it a point also to cultivate just those theological peculiarities of Master Philip, as they called him, in which he differed from Luther.

135.Melanchthon’s “Shameful Servitude.”

That Melanchthon failed our Church in the Interim emergency as well as in the subsequent controversies is generally ascribed to the fact that he lacked the bracing influence and assistance of Luther. No doubt, there is a good deal of truth in this assumption. But the true reason why he did not measure up to the demands of the times and the expectations of our Church were not mere moral weaknesses, but rather the errors and false principles to which he was wedded. How could Melanchthon have approved himself a leader of the Lutherans when he was out of sympathy with them, doubted some of their most cherished doctrines, and long ago had struck out on a path deviating from that mapped out by Luther? True, the bracing which he received from Luther in the past had repeatedly kept him from publicly sacrificing the truth, but even in these instances he did not always yield because he was really convinced, but because he feared the uncompromising spirit of Luther.

That fear of an open conflict with Luther which, he felt,would result in a crushing defeat for himself, bulked large among the motives which prompted him to maintain a semblance of true orthodoxy as long as Luther lived, is clearly admitted by Melanchthon himself. In his notorious and most discreditable letter to Carlowitz (counselor of Elector Maurice), written April 28, 1548, eight days after the meeting at Celle, where he had debauched his conscience by promising submission to the religious demands of the Emperor, Melanchthon, pouring forth his feelings and revealing his true inwardness and his spirit of unionism and indifferentism as much as admitted that in the past he had been accustomed to hiding his real views. Here he declared in so many words that it was not he who started, and was responsible for, the religious controversy between the Lutherans and Romanists, but rather Luther whose contentious spirit (he said) also had constantly increased the rupture, and that under Luther he had suffered “a most shameful servitude.”

In the original the letter reads, in part, as follows: “Totum enim me tibi [Carlowitz] aperio…. Ego, cum decreverit princeps etiamsi quid non probabo, tamen nihil seditiose faciam, sed vel tacebo, vel cedam, vel feram, quidquid accidet. cum saepe Lutherus magis suae naturae, in qua filoneikivaerat non exigua, quam vel personae suae vel utilitati communi serviret. Et scio, omnibus aetatibus, ut tempestatum incommoda,ita aliqua in gubernatione vitia modeste et arte ferenda et dissimulanda esse…. Fortassis natura sum ingenio servili.” (C.R. 6, 879f.)

Even before Melanchthon had, in private letters to his friends, displayed a similar vein of ill will toward Luther, whom he evidently feared because of his own secret doctrinal deviations. (Lehre und Wehre 1908, 61. 68.) No doubt, as stated above, fear was also among the motives which induced him to identify himself with the Leipzig Interim. But evidently his own theological attitude, too, differed little from the spirit pervading this document. At any rate, the letter to Carlowitz does not support the assumption that Melanchthon really outraged his own convictions when he wrote and adopted the Interim. As a matter of fact, he also continued to defend the Interim; and it was as late as 1556 before he was ready to make even a qualified admission of one of the errors connected with it.

While, therefore, the Lutheran Church will always gratefully acknowledge the splendid services which Melanchthon rendered in the work of Luther’s Reformation, it must at the same time be admitted and cannot be gainsaid that, in the last analysis, Melanchthon, by reason of his deviations from Luther, which will be set forth more fully in the following, was the ultimate cause and originator of most of the dissensions which began to distract the Lutheran Church soon after the death of Luther. Andrew Musculus, who assisted in drafting the Formula of Concord, brought out this fact (though in terms too strong) when he characterized Melanchthon as a “philosophical theologian and a patriarch of all heretics.” (Meusel,Handl. 4, 710.) In a way, Melanchthon may even be regarded as the indirect cause of the Smalcald War and its unfortunate issue, inasmuch, namely, as his vacillating and compromising attitude and his incompetent leadership created conditions of internal weakness among the Lutherans, which invited the aggression of Pope and Emperor.