A Humanist in Reformation Politics: Philipp Melanchthon on Political Philosophy and Natural Law
By Mads Langballe Jensen.
Brill, 2019.
Hardcover, 222 pages, $130.00.

Reviewed by E.J. Hutchinson.

It was not very long ago that answering the question of what Protestants have historically thought about natural law in an informed and responsible way was not tried and found wanting. It was found difficult and left untried.

To a great extent, that has changed in the last few decades, which have seen a renaissance of natural law among both magisterial Protestants (that is, Lutherans, Anglicans, and the Reformed) and evangelical Protestants (that is, Baptists), and among both historians and theologians. Much work remains to be done, and much of what has already been done still needs to filter into the broader scholarly consciousness—one still finds egregious misstatements among both Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers—but we know a lot more now than we did in, say, 1980.

Mads Langballe Jensen’s recent book A Humanist in Reformation Politics: Philipp Melanchthon on Political Philosophy and Natural Law makes an important contribution to the aforementioned Aufklärung of Protestant natural law, particularly for the way in which it situates the Wittenberg reformer’s various statements about natural law in historical and polemical context rather than painting a picture of the seamless development, with absolute internal coherence, of an idea, abstracted from the chaotic dogmatic and political fights in whose shadow Melanchthon (1497-1560) constantly worked. 

What emerges is a picture of a thinker in flux, as Melanchthon became more and more comfortable, over the span of decades, with the theoretical and practical utilization of natural law for a philosophy (rather than a theology) of political order; with the magistrate’s moral duty to establish the true religion and root out false contenders; and with the right of the oppressed to resist—with armed force—abuses of power by the state.

But was Melanchthon a chameleon? Was he a John Kerry avant la lettre, who “actually did vote for the $87 billion before [he] voted against it”? At Hillsdale College, where I teach, there was for many years a beloved English professor, who has since passed on to glory, who used to say, “I’ve got principles. And if you don’t like them, then I’ve got other principles.” Could this serve as a description of Melanchthon? I think that the answer is “no,” but a potential danger of Jensen’s approach is that one might walk away thinking “yes.” 

For example, Jensen says that “it is a mistake to see Melanchthon’s thought on [moral philosophy and natural law] as broadly consistent over the years.” In order to investigate that claim, consider the following:

In earlier works, including the 1532 Epitome ethices, [Melanchthon] had accepted Aristotle’s philosophical determination of the end of man as virtue. In the Philosophiae moralis epitome Melanchthon now argued that the end of man ‘according to a true and learned philosophy’ on the basis of the law of nature was the same as the end commanded by divine law, since moral philosophy was part of divine law. This end was ‘to know God, obey him, to show and further his glory, and to maintain human society for the sake of God.’ To Melanchthon this was no longer an end that lay beyond the bounds of reason and moral philosophy.”

The Philosophiae moralis epitome (A Summary of Moral Philosophy), referred to in this quotation, went through several editions, beginning in 1538. Jensen here quotes from the edition of 1540. In the final edition of the work (1546), as in that of 1540, Melanchthon would account for Aristotle’s mistake about man’s end by noting that “in man’s corrupted nature the knowledge of God does not sufficiently shine forth.” But already in the edition of 1538, Melanchthon called an explicitly theistic end for man in accordance with the law of God “more philosophical” (magis philosophicum) than Aristotle’s view that man’s end was the “activity of virtue” (actionem virtutis), though the corruption of nature had prevented Aristotle from realizing this; and Melanchthon then proceeds to harmonize the two rather than to force a contradiction between them. Even earlier, in the 1532 Epitome ethices, Melanchthon had acknowledged that moral philosophy was a part of the law of God; had argued that the Decalogue and the law of nature taught the same virtues; and had argued, in a section about analyzing the virtues in accordance with their ends, that religion was one of those natural ends, based upon the “knowledge of God” that “has been implanted in man by God” (est…divinitus homini insita notitia de deo). Even in 1532, then, the relation of God to man’s end was not “beyond the bounds of reason and moral philosophy.” 

We might take the point back even further: in the first edition of his justly famous Loci communes (Theological Commonplaces, 1521), Melanchthon had made the first dictate of the natural law that “God must be worshiped” (Deus colendus est) and had said that “there is no doubt” (non dubium est) that the Apostle Paul includes this precept “among natural laws” (inter naturales leges). There he also criticized earlier theorists of natural law for not using “the method of human reason” (a rationis humanae methodo) to gather together the “formulas” (formulae) of natural law “through natural syllogism” (per naturalem syllogismum). At the same time, Melanchthon, it is true, was uncertain as to whether such a thing was possible, given the “captivity and blindness of human reason” (usque adeo capta, occaecataque ratione humana). On that particular issue, he would change his mind.

In general, I am admittedly a lumper rather than a splitter on issues like this; but it seems to me that all of the major concerns of the 1530s and 1540s are already present in some of Melanchthon’s earliest works. From these first sketches of theology and moral philosophy, Melanchthon was thinking about the law of God philosophically—or, perhaps, was thinking about the law of nature theologically. Both statements are true. Did he hone and flesh out his position over the years? Certainly, but he did so in a way that, I would argue, was “broadly consistent.” 

My own position is that what occurs over the course of the 1520s and 1530s is a specification and elaboration of the basic distinction between the law and the gospel. To put it crudely, though not inaccurately, the gospel is the promise of free forgiveness for Christ’s sake, which our reason would never have discovered, while the law is more or less everything else that has to do with the divine ordering of man and the world. In 1532, Melanchthon argued that philosophy could discover virtues toward God that had to do with “external discipline” (externam disciplinam; Jensen discusses this passage on 106), but not those that had to do with “spiritual morals” (de spiritualibus moribus), while in 1521 he had denied that “we should explain the Decalogue as having to do only with external works” (ne decalogum exponamus de solis externis operibus). It is the “only” that is the key: a variegated approach to the law is already evident.

Over time, his expanding appropriation of Aristotelian moral philosophy and his reflection on the “three uses” of the law under the overarching dichotomy of law and gospel would help Melanchthon to link his teachings together more coherently and rigorously. One corollary of this process was that he would teach in the end that the magistrate, as guardian of the natural law, must enforce both tables of the Decalogue in their external, civil aspects. But what is this, other than a coherent inner unfolding of the theological and philosophical position that the Decalogue and the law of nature teach the same thing, irrespective of polemical circumstances? Jensen may well be right that Melanchthon’s theological works have been given a distorting priority in the interpretation of his thought, that we should be wary of a teleological reading of his intellectual evolution, and that practical considerations mitigated against the use of the concept of (divine) natural law in his political writings. But if we do not try to harmonize the theological and the philosophical Melanchthon, we run the risk of creating Melanchthons (plural), or one Melanchthon with an oddly split personality. As an alternative, there are good grounds for speaking instead in terms of a logical growth of his thought from a consistent set of first principles. 

That is not to say that circumstances did not impinge upon and almost certainly give impetus to Melanchthon’s theorizing, however. It seems to me that that is very likely Jensen’s point which, if heeded, goes a long way toward restoring balance to our picture of Melanchthon. Indeed, the fact that Jensen is frequently alive to and self-conscious about pointing out strong continuities in Melanchthon’s works seems to confirm such a reading. 

Jensen does this even in the case of the right of resistance, on which Melanchthon really does seem at first glance to have gone, to coin a phrase, “Full John Kerry.” In the 1520s, in the context of the German Peasants’ War, Melanchthon strongly opposed resistance to established authority, whereas he later sang a palinode, as it were, and allowed it, and later still went so far as to say that even a private person could kill a tyrant. As Jensen puts it, “Melanchthon’s trajectory went from a denial of the right to resist, through an acceptance of it, to an outright propagation of such a right on grounds of both divine, natural and positive law.” 

Did Melanchthon, then, eventually abandon his initial position? Some of his contemporaries thought so, and pointed it out. We have a fascinating 1531 letter from Melanchthon to his good friend Joachim Camerarius (Jensen refers to it), where he says, suggestively, that his side has not “changed its view” (sentenciam mutaret), but rather has “interpreted” it (interpretaretur). It would be possible to read that cynically, along the lines of Darth Vader’s “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further,” but Jensen does not do so. Even when he opposed it in practice, “Melanchthon did not reject the legitimacy of resistance in principle.” Jensen’s charity is commendable, and he maintains this position while arguing for real development. In the end, Melanchthon formulates “a legitimisation of resistance independent of controversial confession-specific claims that the Catholic opponents and neutral parties would be able to accept,” in opposition to the apocalyptic politics of some of his compatriots—including Martin Luther. Rational and principled modification influenced by real and pressing circumstances and considerations of rhetorical context: that is the best way of reading this intellectual giant. 

Despite my quibbles, A Humanist in Reformation Politics is an extraordinarily good book that makes an indispensable contribution to its field. I hesitate to say that, because such puffery has become ubiquitous in book reviews, and it has thereby become meaningless. I nevertheless persist, because in this case it is true. I know of nothing else of its kind—certainly of nothing else in English. Readers of The University Bookman will be especially interested in Jensen’s (accurate) picture of Melanchthon as an exponent of ordered-liberty constitutionalism, rooted in a divinely given nature that is interpretable by reason and confirmed by revelation, long before Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, many major features of whose philosophies Melanchthon anticipates. 

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of classics and chairman of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated