by Egbert Schaller
‘The Northwestern Lutheran’ — September 30, 1956
We are entering the month of the Reformation anniversary. You won’t mind a little journey into history?
Almost from the very beginnings of Lutheranism the Church has known what it means to be plagued by a powerful spirit of unionism which in theological circles has come to be called Melanchthonianism, or Philippism, after the man who, in many respects, was the second in command in the ranks of the Lutheran Reformation.
Do you recall that, largely because of the influence of Philip Melanchthon, there was a time after Luther’s death when the Church in Germany, together with that in Holland, France, and England, was almost turned from Luther’s doctrine to that of Calvinism?
Melanchthon is favorably remembered as Luther’s colaborer in the critical days of the Reformation. His special knowledge of languages was a tower of strength for Luther. But it must be remembered that Melanchthon was by training not a theologian. Luther’s need of him brought him to a theological professorship at Wittenberg; but as early as 1525 Melanchthon desired to give up the post to return to his real field of the humanistic sciences. Luther would not give him up. Said the Reformer: “I was born for warring with factious spirits and devils. For this reason my books are stormy and warlike. . . . But Magister Philip proceeds quietly and with a clean hand. . . . ”
His skill was responsible for the precious document of the Lutheran Church known as the Augsburg Confession. As the saying went: “What Martin boldly began, this Philip finely spun and gave it the proper form.”
But Melanchthon’s peaceful disposition and his skill of expression were all too soon employed in tactics which undermined the foundations of the Reformation. Although the error of Zwingli and his followers in their teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper had become clearly evident at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, Melanchthon never fully approved of Luther’s position.
In 1540, Melanchthon took to hand the Augsburg Confession, that glorious fruit of his own pen which by then was the cherished possession of the Lutheran Church, and falsified it. He published it in a new edition in which he removed from Article X the two expressions “truly present” and “reject those who teach otherwise.” In their place he printed the following statement: “Concerning the Supper of the Lord they (the churches of the Reformation) teach that with the bread and wine there are presented to those who eat, the body and blood of Christ in the Supper of the Lord.”
It is noteworthy that this change was not printed in the German, but only in the Latin edition, so that the man in the pew was not aware of any alteration until much later. Moreover, the skillful wording could lead many to think that no change had been made in the sense. But Melanchthon had surrendered Scriptural doctrine by offering in place of the real presence of Christ’s body in the Sacrament a general presence of Christ in the Sacrament such as Calvin was willing to acknowledge. Both the Lutheran and the Reformed view would be read into the new expression. Melanchthon on his part rejected the doctrine that the body and blood of Christ are orally received by all who partake of the Sacrament.
The new form of the Augsburg Confession, which is known as “The Variata,” included other changes also. As early as 1535 Melanchthon had quietly forsaken Luther’s teaching in such things as free will and conversion; and this change was likewise reflected in the Variata of 1540.
Although in time the Variata was discredited and rejected by true Lutherans, who returned to the original Confession as their own, the influence of Melanchthon’s compromise was such that under its cover quiet, effective propaganda was made among Lutherans for Calvin’s doctrine of the Holy Supper. It came to the point where Lutherans generally were no longer even aware of the fact that the Reformed Church of Calvin opposed the doctrine of the Real Presence.
It is at points like this that the lessons of the past ought to begin bearing fruit for our good. I am not trying to offer you unasked a recital of history, however interesting the subject may be. I am trying to make it plain that now, as then, a compromising confessional document is not dead, even after it has been set aside, until the spirit which brought it forth is recognized and repudiated by the Church and those are exposed who foster it.
The man who sounded the alarm in Germany was the prominent Pastor Joachim Westphal of Hamburg. In a widely distributed pamphlet he uncovered the existing difference between Calvin and Luther in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. It is typical that Westphal was at once publicly abused by unionistic theologians, not for his defense of Luther’s doctrine, but for drawing attention to the differences which the unionists had so earnestly kept hidden in a false peace.
Now it became apparent how absolutely necessary it was to insist upon it that all Lutherans subscribe to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and reject the Altered version. Elector Frederick III, for example, had already introduced the Heidelberg (Reformed) Catechism in his realm; and when the controversy arose, he protested that he had never studied Calvin, but as a good Lutheran subscribed to the Augsburg (Variata) Confession.
During this struggle against unionism, Melanchthon’s conduct is worth recording. When his friend, Pastor Hardenberg of Bremen, who opposed Westphal, wrote him for directions, Melanchthon answered: “I beg of you, dissimulate much (conceal the facts)!” When Frederick III asked Melanchthon for his written opinion, the former great teacher replied: “To answer is not difficult, but dangerous.”
Unionism had done its damage. The Church was divided. The Bremen area officially went over to the Reformed camp, led by Frederick III, who had in ignorance adopted Heidelberg but could not, of course, reverse himself without losing face, and who was armed with the approval of Melanchthon. The true Lutherans–those who were left–united under the confession that had been drafted by the Synod of Stuttgart in 1559, and which defined the Tenth Article of the Augsburg Confession.
If our Church cherishes its heritage of the Reformation, it must come to realize that the scenes of 400 years ago are being reenacted in our midst during this generation, under different names, with different personalities and emphases. Confessions and synodical resolutions appear which, in their character if not in their origin, are modern Variatas and spearheads of the present attack of unionism which forces every Lutheran worthy of the name into warfare against new phrases and innovations of church practice that so easily conceal ancient and destructive errors. Either we win this battle by genuine adherence to the Word and allegiance to the tried and true historic confessions of our Church or we melt away into the modern stream of Protestantism.