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Melanchthon’s Ideal of Piety & Erudition

by Henk Dijkgraaf

No pedagogue can escape the question: What is the aim of
education? The question actually precedes pedagogics itself,
for that science attempts to formulate the questions: Who
should be taught and what? When and how should this
occur? Anyone brave enough to enter a school and ask the
first teacher he comes across why he in fact is teaching the
children, will probably be greeted with a somewhat disparate
mumbling or poverty-stricken twaddle about the knowledge-
economy and democratic citizenship.

1 – Back to the sources of the ancient civilisation
Anyone putting the same questions on the meaning of education to Philipp Melanchthon
(1497-1560), Luther’s intellectual brother in his struggle against the obscurantism that
gripped the Church in the early 16th century, would have been given a crystal-clear ans-
wer: pietas et eruditio. For Melanchthon these were not cheap catchwords designed to
cover up an intellectual vacuum.

In the first place Melanchthon was the very incarnation of piety and erudition. He had had
a godly education, and from the earliest times had a love of the Bible that he even took
with him on walks. One of his mother’s uncles was the great Hebraicist Johann Reuchlin,
who ensured that young Philipp was taught at the Humanist university in Tübingen, where
he graduated in 1514 at the age of seventeen. Two years later he published an edition of
Terence’s comedies. Two years further on he published translations of Aratus and Plu-
tarch, wrote a Greek grammar – that was to go through many re-prints – and accepted a
professorship at the University of Wittenberg. His inaugural speech “De corrigendis
adolescentium studiis” left little doubt as to his ambitions. He wished to take his students
back to the sources of ancient civilisation. Moreover they had to acquire a thorough
knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, keys to the correct understanding of the Holy Writ.
Only thus would they be able to share Christ’s wisdom and excel in piety and virtue.

2 – Pure human activity cannot bring about salvation
In the second place piety and erudition took root at the heart of Melanchthon’s theology:
his notion of justification through faith. Melanchthon formulated this succinctly and
precisely in his Article XVIII of the Augsburg Confession (1530): “Of free will they teach
that man’s will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness and to work things accor-
ding to reason. But it has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of
God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man receiveth not the things of the
Spirit of God”. For Melanchthon the distinction between what he calls civil righteousness
(iustitia civilis) and spiritual righteousness (iustitia spiritualis) is crucial. Since mankind
became alienated from God by the Fall, inner and perfect obedience has become impos-
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sible. Man’s will is corrupted, whereby he no longer strives for the glory of God but for
his own glorification. He places his “I” over against God so that spiritual righteousness is
excluded. Human activity can no longer have any salvific significance. This does not
imply that the distinction between the honourable (honesta) and the scandalous (turpia)
has lost its significance for Man. Although it is only the Gospel that can restore Man to his
correct relationship with God, human reason is still in a position to know the divine law of
nature (lex naturae) as expression of God’s will. Ideally reason guides the will which, in
its turn, leads the passions and lessens them where necessary. Ideally – for although the
will is capable of acting according to the insights provided by the reason and to translate
them into external acts, the will does not have the power to turn against immoral desires
(affectus vitiosi). The gulf between honourable external acts and dishonourable desires
cannot thus be bridged. In many cases the will itself is unable to prevent the immoral desi-
res from emerging. Therein lies the tragedy of human existence. (1)

3 – Doctrina et disciplina: the basis of education
But this tragedy does not render upbringing and
education impossible. Indeed, it underlines their
urgency. While the range of the human will may
be limited, it can be broadened by education. Two
factors play an important part here: the overview
of reason can be enlarged by teaching (doctrina)
and the accommodation of the passions with re-
gard to the will can be reinforced by habit-forming
or discipline (assuefactio seu disciplina). Doctrina
et disciplina are the foundations on which up-
bringing and education rest – and their extension
is where Melanchthon’s humanist ideal is to be
found: the person in whom the capacities of rea-
son, will and passions are hierarchically ordered.

According to Melanchthon, therefore, the educa-
tor’s task is moral-pedagogical. Education is
above all education in virtue. In this, Melanchthon is indebted to Aristotle, in whose spirit
he regards virtue as habitus that makes the will prone to obey reason. By doctrina
Melanchthon then means the exposition of the virtues whereby we obtain a clear insight
into the essence of what is good. In consequence the will obeys more easily “because the
beauty of virtue takes it prisoner”. At the same time we should not underestimate the
power of the passions. Which is why education cannot be separated from discipline.

4 – Essential: language skills and the beauty of language
Doctrina is impossible without language and letters. For Melanchthon language is not
only of communicative significance. First and foremost it serves ethics and aesthetics.
Morals and beauty are for Melanchthon – just as for all classical thinkers – indissolubly
linked together. Language has its moral importance thanks to the fact that it is the most
important instrument of the mind: Man thinks by means of language. From this it follows
that eloquence and ability to judge are so closely related that they can in no way be sepa-
rated. Whoever is careless with language betrays the fact that his thoughts are careless.
And whoever thinks carelessly loses sight of the truth, including morality. Linguistic cor-
ruption therefore has a negative effect on virtuous relationships.

For Melanchthon this has pedagogical consequences. Anyone wishing to reinforce the
mental powers of growing children must above all concentrate on their language skills.
Children’s linguistic sensitivity sharpens their powers of observation with regard to rea-
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lity. While it is true that immediate observations provide facts, their mutual relationships
are accessible only to thought for which, of course, language is its instrument. Reality is
not given to us unmediated: we track down its significance thanks to language. “Because
words (verba) are signs of things (res), the knowledge of words precedes.” Language, in
its capacity as a vehicle for the mind, must therefore be a ‘golden chariot’. Only then are
the conditions met for a logical train of thought.

And thus Melanchthon is not only concerned with the logical-moral qualities of language
but also with its aesthetic properties: “Peperit elegantiam necessitas.” All that is expres-
sed in a barbarous manner is unclear, and whatever is barbarous and unclear puts the
listener off. But where language appears in its purest form and in all its beauty, it has the
power to lead us to the good. Hence the Humanists’ preference - and, with them, Melanch-
thon - for the bona litterae, fine literature (belles lettres). Naturally the Humanists were
also aware of Socrates’ judgement on the Sophists. But even the worst is no more than the
tainted best. Hence the great moral-pedagogical value that Melanchthon attached to the
‘belles lettres’. The images of human fate and actions in the works of writers of Antiquity
such as Homer and Thucydides, Plutarch and Virgil penetrate deeper into the human soul
than many a moral-philosophical treatise. “We must therefore carry within ourselves mo-
dels and images of the virtues, to which we must turn in all our decisions and in judging
all circumstances”, Melanchthon wrote in 1534 in the preface to his “On the duties of
Cicero”. He regarded not only the content of this work to be of the greatest importance in
the formation of pupils, but also the artistic manner in which Cicero dealt with his themes.
The pupils must memorise and imitate the formulations used by Cicero so that they can
learn to express themselves eloquently. As early as 1523 Melanchthon, in his “Economion
eloquentiae”, recommends imitation as a pedagogical tool. It is not without reason that we
present our pupils with examples of fortunate formulations and striking expressions so that
they learn to comprehend the power of the words, the construction of a paragraph and the
nature of rhetorical figures. “Because, as in other art forms, imitation is also advantage-
ous in the formulation of language.”

5 – No erudition without the Holy Scripture
If the classic letters are so indispensable in the formation of pupils, how much more so the
Holy Scriptures? Without the Gospel no peace with God is possible. And whoever ven-
tures forth without knowledge of the original languages of Scripture is doomed to lose his
way. Correct understanding of the Gospel, states Melanchthon in his “Oratio de studiis
linguae Graecae” (1549), is linked to a thorough knowledge of Greek. And that is far more
a gift than a task, for here too truth and beauty go hand in hand. “What joy it gives – yes,
what happiness – to be able to speak without a translator to the Son of God, to the Evan-
gelists, to the Apostles and to Saint Paul and to hear their true and living words and to be
able to reproduce them”. Here is a meeting between the theologian and the humanist and
the ideal of pietas et eruditio comes to its principal destination.

Published in Bitterlemon no. 3 (May 2007) pp. 44-5.
Permission has been granted to disseminate this article.
Copyright © BITTERLEMON (www.bitterlemon.eu).

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This note, by Hubert Luns, was not published along with the article in Bitterlemon.

(1) The debate on free will and grace took on fresh impetus during the Reformation, for-
ming in fact a continuation of the discussion as it has been carried on in the time of
Augustine (354-430). Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638) threw himself into the debate.
He was a Flemish bishop who had made an exhaustive study of Saint Augustine of Hip-
po’s writings. In his “Augustinus”, posthumously published, he set down Augustinus’ ideas
about God’s grace, predestination and free will. The five heretical propositions, that were
later extracted from this work, were condemned by Pope Innocent X because they pro-
moted moral rigorism and a fatalistic attitude. However, those propositions did not accord
with what Jansenius had written, as was sufficiently shown by Father Lucien Ceyssens
According to Augustine our will derives neither from our reasonable insight, as Des-
cartes proposed, nor from the ‘absolute’ freedom to choose for the good or to reject it, as
the heretical Pelagius believed. In that he was right. He was wrong in other respects. He
should have stressed that our will is determined by the inclinations to sin of our decayed
nature (in Hebrew, the so called yetzer ha-ra), but ‘also’ - and not either/or - by divine
grace that will guarantee the essential and subtle balance in the dispositions of an indivi-
dual and thus give him back the freedom to act, but which, because of this received free-
dom - and as far as freedom goes - also binds him to divine justice! Slave to sin, Man can
only be freed by divine grace. Yet Man is still able to do good (the yetzer tov), as in the case
of the mother who cares for her child and does so without a special act of God’s grace. So
Man is not completely depraved. It has been well said, in a comparison of the three
contemporaries who stand against each other in this dispute: “Augustine regards Man in
his natural state as dead, Pelagius as sound and well, and Johannes Cassian - the
founder of Western monachism - as sick.” Man is subject to ‘sin’ because he is subject to
the attractive powers of the subconscious, which are stronger than anyone is likely to
admit. At the same time man is subject to the riches of God’s grace, of a God who wills that
no one should be lost.