Philipp Melanchthon on Reformed Education - Dr. R. Faber

Taken With permission from Clarion Vol. 47, No. 18 (1998)

Dr. Riemer Faber is professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


MelanchtonPhilipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was called the "Teacher of Germany" for a good reason. Active in the establishment and reform of schools for more than forty years, Melanchthon guided the development of the educational system in Germany. He wrote the constitutions of many reformed schools, composed the ordinances of several newly founded or restructured universities, and advised academic administrators throughout Europe. He also wrote many textbooks, grammars, and handbooks of education. As professor in the Arts faculty at Wittenberg University, Melanchthon taught hundreds of students who as teachers later implemented educational changes throughout Germany. And as the reformer most inclined to intellectual culture, Melanchthon sought to define a theory of education that was based on scriptural principles. It is no wonder, then, that Melanchthon's contemporaries called him "Praeceptor Germaniae".

There were many influences upon Melanchthon's views of education, but two should be noted especially: Humanism and the Reformation. Melanchthon developed into a scholar of the foremost rank from the time that he came under the tutelage of Johann Reuchlin, one of northern Europe's leading humanists. But while the rebirth of learning associated with the Renaissance would help all reformers in the sixteenth century to redirect the Christian faith to its Scriptural origins, it would also cause friction and inevitable conflict with the doctrines of justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture, and other Reformed tenets. For one principle of secular Humanism is that, by means of learning, one may be able to advance the fortunes of humanity. The "liberal arts" that were rediscovered during the Renaissance were so called because, it was believed, they liberated one's mind from the mastery of others. Humanist education makes the individual capable of thinking critically and deciding what is right moral action. By studying the societies of the past one would learn to appreciate the moral qualities of balance, simplicity, harmony, beauty and truth - qualities whereby the human soul could be improved. By means of eloquence, logical reasoning, and fine writing, the humanist would convince others of this way to improvement. Melanchthon, it should be stated, was not merely trained in the liberal arts, he excelled in them.

Already at the earliest beginnings of the Wittenberg Reformation, however, Melanchthon promoted theological reform. He embraced the doctrine of justification by faith, and together with Luther formulated the expressions of the other principles. Contrary to the humanists and their positive view of mankind, he steadfastly professed the depravity of fallen humanity. Melanchthon always believed that salvation comes only by the cross of Christ, and that no creature can earn righteousness. Also the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers affected Melanchthon's views of education: learning was not for future clergy and church leaders alone, but for all people, girls as well as boys, poor as well as rich, simple as well as gifted. Education was to serve all believers in developing their callings in God's kingdom. The newly rediscovered biblical truths, therefore, required not merely a change in the curriculum of schools, but a completely new expression of the principles supporting Christian education. Throughout his life, but with varying success, Melanchthon sought to define and develop just such a system of reformed education.

According to one modern view, Melanchthon attempted to form the principles of Humanism and Reformed faith into a theory of education. Certainly in his own career, Melanchthon integrated the rebirth of learning with the reform of the church. Seeing the difficulty, or rather impossibility, in Luther's scheme of placing humanist education in the service of the church, Melanchthon examined the compatibility of Renaissance values with the Christian faith. Modern critics wonder how successful Melanchthon was in doing so, but it is clear that he constantly subjected learning to faith. Luther himself attests to this, for, able to smell a humanist rat at a great distance, he never accused Melanchthon of betraying the Reformation.

Melanchthon integrated the rebirth of learning with the reform of the church

The reasons why Luther continued to collaborate with "Master Philipp" reveal why Melanchthon advanced both learning and the Reformed faith. Both men despised the anti-educational and anti-intellectual strains within Protestantism. In the famous 95 theses, Luther stated that "Christians must be taught," meaning that faith is a sure knowledge as well as a firm confidence. And Melanchthon made it one of his life's goals to dispel the foolish notion that a Christian's ignorance is bliss. The two reformers also desired to provide reformed doctrine and life an academically credible basis, for they had observed that false teaching and false customs arose from an ignorance of Scripture's teaching. Melanchthon wished to fight Romanist heresy with cogent arguments, and also to raise the level of discussion within the Protestant camp. The rebirth of the Christian faith had to be accompanied by the rebirth of learning.

Melanchthon wrote numerous treatises dealing with education and learning. In this article we shall consider only two of them, namely the lecture On Improving the Studies of the Youth and the speech In Praise of the New School. They present some of Melanchthon's key thoughts on learning, including his views on the basis, method, and goal of reformed education. However, we shall also consider briefly the influential tract Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony, composed by Luther and Melanchthon, as this work reveals their ideas about the practical aspects of education. We shall observe the way in which Melanchthon seeks to develop the concept of reformed education, and shall conclude by noting a few of the differences between Luther and him.

On Improving the Studies of the Youth (1518)

Melanchthon's published interest in education begins with his inaugural lecture at Wittenberg University in 1518, entitled On Improving the Studies of the Youth. (1) The speech traces the history of education from biblical times, noting the steady decline in the knowledge of Scripture and the liberal arts. Over time, Melanchthon says, "bad things began to be taught as if they were good (49)", the authority of the church replaced the authority of Scripture, and the teaching of man replaced the teaching of God. Consequently, the true Christian religion was altered into "ceremonies, human traditions, constitutions, decretals, chapters, extravagances, and the glosses of second-rate scholars (50)". This decline of Scriptural knowledge affected the well-being of Church and society. From Melanchthon's perspective, the Middle Ages were marked by ignorance and impiety.

The University of Wittenberg, by contrast, provides the opportunity to improve learning and spirituality. His new colleagues, Melanchthon notes, are already promoting a new approach to Scripture and education that serves to reverse the decline. Stating the purpose of his speech, at the same time the purpose of his planned career at Wittenberg, Melanchthon announces to his future students that he hopes to help them understand "the rationale behind the revival of studies... so that when the order and path of learning is known, you may decide how the course of studies may be embraced with greater benefit and less danger (48)." Casting aside the teaching methods of previous generations, Melanchthon rejects scholasticism and its apparently obscure and irrelevant ways of argumentation. Especially in studying Scripture, the student should not waste his time on the "many frigid glosses, concordances, discordances, and still many other hindrances..." (55). He should turn directly to the primary sources, as these bear directly upon his earthly and spiritual life.

The newly appointed professor states his intention to follow the approach already chosen by Luther and the other colleagues at Wittenberg. In fact, Melanchthon promotes the same disciplines later advocated in Luther's Letter to the Councilmen that they Establish Christian Schools (1524): languages, literature, history, rhetoric. He also provides reasons for these choices. A proper appreciation for history, for example, is necessary because this discipline teaches "what is beautiful, bad, useful, useless...(54)" Knowledge of God's work in history is relevant for contemporary times, since the past informs and shapes the ideas that are current in the present. About this discipline Melanchthon is so bold as to state: "No aspect of life, either public or private, can do without it. It is to this that the administration of urban and domestic affairs is indebted" (54). To use Luther's classification, history helps one understand the position of God's creatures in both the temporal and spiritual realms.

Melanchthon also proposes to reveal the value of studying literature, for he believes that it imparts a better understanding of the human experience and the way it has been expressed. Literature deals with "things that pertain to knowledge of nature and also to the forming of manners (54)"; furthermore, it teaches one to "speak fittingly and fluently about morals (54)." Reading the writings of other people helps one to understand what humans are like. Melanchthon also advocates the skills of reasoning, eloquence and fine writing, which teach one to express the truth most accurately and convincingly. Accepting for the moment the advantages granted by humanist education, Melanchthon intends to move Wittenberg into the "modern age" of learning. For the reformers this modernization means a return to the sources, and especially to the only true source, Scripture. Of all the works the student should read, the Bible is the central book; it is "the real thing and not the shadow of things (54)."

...he affirms the biblical antithesis between secular and sacred, and warns his students "...that we not improperly contaminate the sacred with alien literature [Titus 2:7-8]."

While it may appear that Melanchthon promotes a kind of "baptized Hellenism" in this speech, it should be noted that he explicitly distinguishes the study of humanity from the study of God. To put it differently, he affirms the biblical antithesis between secular and sacred, and warns his students "...that we not improperly contaminate the sacred with alien literature [Titus 2:7-8]." In fact, it was one of the lapses of the Medieval church that it failed to distinguish between the profane and the holy, between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology. But the works of God cannot be compared with the works of man, Melanchthon argues, for "the odor of the ointments of the Lord is far sweeter than the aroma of human disciplines (55)." While the mouths of men speak lies continually, all truth is from God, and "His truth will be your buckler". Nevertheless, since the "sacred things are the most powerful for the mind, work and care are necessary (55)"; one must be educated in order to understand God's Word and His will in our lives. Therefore, "with the Spirit as leader, and the cults of the arts as ally, we may approach the holy (55)." In keeping with this principle, Melanchthon proposes to his students that he begin lecturing on Homer's epic poetry and Paul's letter to Titus.

In Praise of the New School (1526)

Another important source for Melanchthon's thought on education is the address he delivered upon the opening of a new school in Nuremberg in 1526, In Praise of the New School. (2) The civic leaders and businessmen of this city had responded to Luther's call to establish schools, and Melanchthon begins his speech by complimenting them on their action. He also endorses the argument, made by Luther in the Letter to the Councilmen that they Establish Christian Schools (1524), that education benefits state as well as church.

As might be expected of a speech for municipal leaders and supportive businessmen, In Praise of the New School deals with the role of education in preparing good citizens. "In the well constituted state," says Melanchthon, "the first task for schools is to teach youth, for they are the seedbed of the city (63)." A liberal education is crucial for this task, as without it "there could be no good men, no admiration of virtue, no knowledge of what is honest, no harmonious agreements concerning honest duties, no sense at all of humanity (60)." As in his inaugural lecture at Wittenberg, so too here Melanchthon alerts his audience to the value of studying history, literature and philosophy for the cultivation of good citizens. Countering the prevailing attitude that youths should acquire trades and skills whereby jobs could be acquired, Melanchthon encourages parents to look beyond the obvious but simple goal of getting a job. Virtuous and noble citizens, who seek to promote the wellbeing of the temporal realm in which they live, are those who have studied the subjects that teach them about social life. Thus Melanchthon asks, how can anyone be a good civic leader if he has never read "that literature in which is contained all thought on the ruling of cities (63)"? Going beyond the practical advantages granted by schooling, the "Teacher of Germany" instructs parents to encourage their children to learn about virtues, ideas, and principles. Children who will best contribute to the state are those who understand the higher goals of their vocations. They must learn the virtues of their chosen professions, and see their own tasks in the context of the larger purposes of the temporal realm.

Moral and intellectual developments are connected, and religious piety is linked to civic responsibility. In short, Melanchthon applies education to the whole person rather than to two aspects of one person.

Not drawing the distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms as sharply as Luther does, Melanchthon views education as integral to religious and civic life. By focussing on the training of the individual, Melanchthon seeks to unite the religious and civic duties of each believer. According to him, education should be seen as contributing to the formation of the human being, rather than as performing distinct functions in two spheres of activity. For this reason Melanchthon speaks about church and state in one breath. Without education, he argues, there can be no knowledge of the earthly estate and "no correct views of religion or of God's will for mortals (60)." The civic leaders are encouraged to support reformed education for "unless you preserve literature, religion and good laws cannot endure (63)." Moral and intellectual developments are connected, and religious piety is linked to civic responsibility. In short, Melanchthon applies education to the whole person rather than to two aspects of one person. According to Melanchthon, then, the goal of education is "learned piety".

The Instructions (1528)

The combining of religious and intellectual reform found its expression in several works by Melanchthon, but is most succinctly expressed in the Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony (1528). (3) Luther and Melanchthon penned this document in order to assist in the reform of churches and schools. It comprises two parts: 1) a summary of the doctrine of the reformed faith as it should be taught in the churches, and 2) a summary of rules for reformed schools. After receiving approval from the faculty at Wittenberg University, the Instructions were sent to all churches in the region, in the hopes that it would effect some unity in church and school. The second part is useful for our present purposes, as it contains detailed advice concerning curricula and levels of instruction at the elementary schools.

The premise for reformed schooling is baldly stated: "because it is God's will,... parents should send their children to school, and prepare them for the Lord God so that he may use them for the service of others (314)." Also clearly stated is the purpose of this part of the Instructions: to provide a "syllabus of study so that the youth may be rightly instructed (315)." After a brief introduction, the Instructions dealing with schools proposes that elementary education be divided into three main sections, or divisions.

The first division in the elementary school consists of children who are starting to read. The suggested text is a primer containing the basics of grammar, as well as the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and other prayers. All this in Latin, not German. For while Luther and Melanchthon thought it unwise that children learn many languages because it would be too complicated for them, they strongly encourage - indeed assume - instruction in Latin, as this language would provide students with grammatical skills readily applicable to their own language and to Scripture. After all, the standard edition of the Bible was still in Latin. For this reason the goal in grade one was building up vocabulary, memorizing the rules of grammar, and learning to write. Students should also develop their skills of memory, and learn music.

Parents should send their children to school, and prepare them for the Lord God so that He may use them for the service of others.

In the second grade, besides learning more music, students should develop their reading and writing skills. The teacher should inculcate his charges with good morals; the ones in Erasmus' Colloquies that "are useful and edifying for the children (317)" may be learned. Students at this level should also memorize classical proverbs, and read Aesop's Fables. They then go on to study advanced grammar, etymology, and sentence structure. "The children are to recite these grammatical rules from memory, so that they are compelled and driven to learn grammar well (318)." On one day of the week, the class must study Scripture, for "it is essential that the children learn the beginning of a Christian and blessed life (318)." In teaching Scripture, the schoolmaster should avoid difficult or contentious passages, focussing instead upon those parts which teach "what is necessary for living a good life, namely, the fear of God, faith, good works (318)." Sections of the Gospel of Matthew are particularly advocated, as are those Psalms that "contain in themselves a summary of the Christian life, and speak about the fear of God, faith and good works (318)". Mentioned by name are Ps. 112:1, Ps. 125:1, and Ps.133:1.

Students entering the third division have studied grammar well, and show promise of further learning. These advanced students should continue to learn music, and to develop their skills in translating and interpreting literature, including the poets Vergil and Ovid, and Cicero, Roman orator, politician and philosopher. When these skills have been developed, students may go on to acquire the ability of public speaking, cogent arguing, and eloquent writing.

These instructions and the three divisions of education set out in them have been much studied, and the debate concerning the reasoning behind the proposals continues. What has become clear, however, is that Melanchthon and Luther attempted to effect a number of reformed principles in them. One is the priority granted to the spiritual realm. The repeated words, "the fear of God," reveal an emphasis upon the moral aspect of education. While the first part of the Instructions stresses the teaching of the basics of the Christian faith in church, the second emphasises the role of the schools in advancing knowledge of the commandments, creeds, and prayers. Students who had learned how to read, could read the Bible, and so fulfil their duties as prophets, priests and kings. Knowledge of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric would help every believer to read, interpret and explain the Bible. Memory work, musical skills, and logical thinking would help the student to learn the value of control, self-discipline, and orderliness. Furthermore, the students would learn, as a group, the tenets of the Christian faith, and so form a generation of like-minded believers.

Students who had learned how to read, could read the Bible, and so fulfil their duties as prophets, priests and kings.

It should also be noted here that an important educational tool developed by Luther and Melanchthon was the catechism. Luther's Small Catechism, developed and adapted by Melanchthon, became a widely used textbook in reformed schools of the sixteenth century. There are several reasons for this: it presented the key elements of the reformed faith in direct and short statements. It could also function as a teacher's manual for instruction. And it presented a simple interpretation of the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, etc. And its composition in the form of questions and answers served well in the classroom. As a means of indoctrination, then, the catechism would help bring about harmony in the church by uniting young students in their understanding of the faith.


In conclusion it will be worthwhile to summarize the main features of Melanchthon's views on education, and to compare them with his fellow reformer, Martin Luther. As might be expected of a reformer with humanist training, Melanchthon held education in high regard. He even believed that schools as such were ordained in Scripture. He sought to support this view by pointing to the "teachers" in the Bible: Moses, the schools of the prophets, the apostle Paul and his spiritual students, and the Great Rabbi, our Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples. All the doctrines of Scripture, according to Melanchthon, may be viewed as teaching that is handed down by faithful instructors. The function of schools, then, is to inculcate, preserve, and pass on the true teachings of the Bible. In order for church and society to be truly reformed, Melanchthon concluded, education must be improved continually.

Whereas Luther viewed education more as preparatory to the understanding of the Gospel, Melanchthon believed that learning had an end in and of itself. Languages, for example, were viewed by Luther more as a means whereby the Spirit spreads the gospel in this world, and not - as Melanchthon thought - as part of the rediscovery of the human being. And for Melanchthon, learning and education perform a more positive role in the renewal of the church and society; the revelation in Scripture can only be appropriated via knowledge gained through learning. To express this view in different terms: Melanchthon sought to understand more deeply the relationship between God's revelation of salvation and mankind's ability to understand and reason. He wished to define the relationship between faith and knowledge, belief and learning. He desired to comprehend how the heritage of the Western world in ancient Greece and Rome related to the true Biblical heritage. In so doing, he did not seek to place Humanism and Christianity on a par, but to subject all learning to the revelation of God, and to do so for the praise of His glory. This view of education was summed up for him in 2 Corinthians 10:5, 6: "We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ."


1. An English translation of the Latin text may be found in R. Keen, A Melanchthon Reader (New York, 1988), 47-63; quotations of the speech come from this edition.

2. Citations of this speech come from R. Keen's translation in A Melanchthon Reader, 59-63.

3. Citations from Instructions are taken from the translation by C. Bergendoff, in H.T. Lehmann, ed., Luther's Works. Vol. 40 (Philadelphia 1958), 269-320.