Review: Melanchthon at the dawn

Gregory B. Graybill, The Honeycomb Scroll: Philipp Melanchthon at the Dawn of the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015)

Melanchthon” is a name which has lived in infamy. In a traditional rendering, he was simultaneously weak-willed and given to overestimating the strength of human free will. In the tradition of the Missouri Synod, he is Compromiser-in-Chief and a source of blight like unto devouring locusts. A man who authored three of the Reformation-era confessions in the Book of Concord and the 1521 Loci Communes that Luther recommended next to Scripture is surely someone who deserves biographers’ attention, whether complimentary or ill-disposed, and Gregory Graybill has given us a fresh telling of Melanchthon’s early years.

Graybill wonderfully connects Melanchthon’s biography to his times so that one always sees the man within scenes much bigger than himself, as his own life would have appeared to him. The ongoing strife within the Holy Roman Empire and the threats from France and from the Ottomans outside the Empire framed Melanchthon’s life. It was war that made Melanchthon’s father, Georg Schwarzerd, successful. Without war in the Rhineland, Georg’s craftsmanship and diligence as an armorer and gunsmith would have been useless. As war outside the Empire would protect the early evangelicals in Saxony from the full weight of Charles V’s attention, it was war inside the Empire that gave Melanchthon’s family the access to money and social connections that allowed Melanchthon to receive the wonderful education he did after the death of his father.

It was Melanchthon’s singular good fortune throughout his early life to have good connections. His connection to the eminent humanist and Hebraist John Reuchlin got him into the Latin school at Pforzheim and later the Greek professorship at Wittenberg over the preference of most of the Wittenberg faculty (Luther included) for Petrus Mosellanus. Like his father’s good fortune in business, Melanchthon’s connections were not mere nepotism, for Melanchthon’s prodigious abilities as a linguist, rhetorician, and humanist were apparent to all from his earliest education. Yet it was the combination of tremendous talent with great good fortune that brought a young man from a comfortable bourgeois obscurity to the epicenter of a theological revolution in Saxony.

Graybill maintains that Melanchthon’s theology was biblically and evangelically focused before his move to Wittenberg in 1518. He believes that Melanchthon’s grasp of biblical theology deepened greatly in an exchange with Luther beneficial to both of them: the younger man learning the Bible in much greater depth, the older man realizing the benefits of classical learning to a much greater extent. Graybill’s Melanchthon is not an appendage to Luther, and the biographer is eager to quote Luther whenever he praised Melanchthon as learned than himself. Graybill’s Melanchthon is the representative of his own stream of Rhenish humanism that produced Reuchlin, Bucer, and many others, and Graybill reminds the reader several times of the foreignness of the parts of modern-day Germany to one another in the sixteenth century. When Melanchthon took a Saxon bride (on the advice of friends and against his own inclination), his mother was upset that he had married a foreigner!

This book is very strong in its narration of Melanchthon’s early life with precisely the right amount of historical detail and a strong sense of the historical Melanchthon apart from the Melanchthon of hagiography or black legend. It is weaker in its often colloquial tone and poor print quality. At times Graybill’s phrasing is more supermarket paperback and less historical biography, and throughout the volume Fortress has printed blurry photos and placed images with little concern for an awkwardly blank third of a page beneath the caption. There are also elementary spelling errors and the supplying of the wrong homonym a couple times. The biographer’s efforts and the subject’s importance deserved much better. Nonetheless, the volume is worthwhile for the story it tells about a figure whose importance to the Lutheran Reformation can scarcely be overstated. The dearth of Melanchthoniana in English makes this volume well worth the reader’s time, and should you doubt its importance, pick up Preus’ The Second Martin in the same book order. When Martin Chemnitz first moved to Wittenberg and a year later took up teaching responsibilities at the university in the 1550s, it was Melanchthon’s house at which he stayed and under Melanchthon’s benevolent sponsorship that his theological professorship flourished. The power of good connections and the favors of elderly patrons to promising scholars endured from Melanchthon’s promising youth to Chemnitz’s.