Philipp Melanchthon Did Not Preach or Administer the Sacraments


Every now and again an old canard makes the rounds in the LCMS, and (for all I know) in the eddying mists of global Lutheranism beyond her. “Melanchthon preached and administered the Sacraments,” it goes. Ergo, lay ministry is fine (it is implied). This bad penny is being circulated with a bit more vim and vigor than usual these days, given that the 2016 LCMS Synodical Convention is now less than two months away, with the issue of “lay ministry” set to be one of the more contentious issues on the docket, if the past year’s worth of responses to the recommendations of the “2013 Resolution 4-06A Task Force Report” have been any indication.

With specific reference to the extra vim and vigor, what I mean is that folks in the LCMS who ordinarily show no interest whatsoever in the Lutheran Confessions, or in the life and work of its principals, suddenly seem to care a lot about Philipp Melanchthon. Curious, that. This is beside the point, though, with respect to the badness of the penny. And it really is a terrible penny. Here’s why:

There is no documentary evidence of Philipp Melanchthon ever having preached or administered the sacraments. None at all. Zip, zilch, nada.


Nope. Not ordained.

Lucas Cranach’s famous triptych from St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg (see above) does in fact depict Melanchthon baptizing a baby in the leftmost panel, this is true. But this not evidence that Melanchthon exercised the functions of the Holy Ministry in defiance of Article XIV of the solemn pious confession which he himself scripted. The Cranach altarpiece is a symbolic, even quasi-mythological depiction of the three sacraments paired with three heroes of the Reformation: Luther, Melanchthon, and Bugenhagen. Perhaps I am alone in thinking it regrettable that it shows Melanchthon performing a baptism, but it is precisely due to the sort of nonsense currently going around that I feel this way. In any case, though, this work of art— unquestionably beautiful, don’t get me wrong— is no more evidence that Melanchthon administered baptism than it is evidence that Luther was present in the upper room when Christ instituted the Last Supper.

Nope. Can’t time-travel.

But none of this stops people from saying, basically, that Melanchthon was a “lay minister.” Logically, however, the burden of proof is on them; there is no onus to “prove the negative” in this situation. However, given how most Lutherans feel about any rules that aren’t Robert’s— i.e., that they exist solely to be broken— it should come as no surprise that this objection gets ignored.

I mean, in a way, this is the entire issue in a nutshell: Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession is a rule, a regula, i.e., something that judges between right and wrong states of affairs. Thus the basic attitude of many Lutherans seems to be that it was made to broken! (Maybe this is another function of contemporary antinomianism. Personally, I think it’s quite natural that this functional or “soft” antinomianism would manifest as anti-dogmatism, for, as Yeago points out, dogma is nothing if not a kind of law; q.v. this gassy humblebrag.) More than that, though, one has to wonder if some of our people are even aware that there are is any such thing as the Augsburg Confession…


…let alone the The Book of Concord of 1580. (For the record: I don’t know Terry, or his last name, and I didn’t take this screen-cap. From the looks of it, I don’t think Terry is malicious or invincibly ignorant. He is, however, totally wrong in three out of four sentences here, and the third sentence would still need major qualification— see this article by Pr. H. R. Curtis: “There is No Such Thing as Lay Baptism”)

Still, the law of love, not the law of logic, has the ultimate claim on us Christians, and it bids us to go the extra mile to win our brothers, even— rather, especially— if they are being stubborn and unreasonable. I could not recall where, but I thought I had read some rather definitive evidence against the claim that Melanchthon preached and administered the sacraments, so I asked Pr. Charles McClean, who has the most encyclopedic Lutheran brain of anyone I’ve ever met. Here is his response:

This is simply not true. Fr (Arthur Carl) Piepkorn notes that several books have propagated this myth:

This assertion is based on a misunderstanding of a Latin account of Melanchthon’s attendance with his students at a celebration of the Eucharist in which both kinds were distributed to the communicants. Melanchthon says explicitly of himself: “I do not possess the authority to administer the sacraments (non habeo administrationem sacramentorum).” (Corpus Reformatorum 24, 313; cited in “The Sacred Ministry & Holy Ordination in the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church”; The Church: Selected Writings of A. C. Piepkorn Vol. 1, p. 74)

This article could profitably be distributed to every delegate to the upcoming convention.

The fact that Melanchthon is shown baptizing in the Wittenberg altar triptych proves nothing.

So there’s that. I’ve contacted the editor of the Piepkorn volumes, and if he gives me permission to do so, I will post a scanned PDF of the essay in question as an update to this post.

The assertion that Melanchthon was a lay minister (yes, a precursor to glorious us!) is bizarre on several counts. First off, there is the aforementioned dearth of evidence— people are just repeating something that they want to be true. Secondly, there’s the fact that this is an obvious attempt to skirt the real question of what the Lutheran Confessions actually say— more on that in a moment. Thirdly, and finally, there’s this implied conclusion that hypocrisy would invalidate the rule. To be clear, there is no evidence that Melanchthon was a hypocrite here. But what would it prove if he were? That there is no truth and we should all do as we please? That the Confessions have no meaning? This is basically what this narrative gets at: “See, the Lutheran Confessions were never even intended to be binding. Philipp Melanchthon used his Gospel freedom as a ‘commissioned minister’ of the Gospel to do something new. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t ordained! He didn’t need to be, because of the priesthood of all believers.” Either that, or it’s back to the second point: we read our twentieth/twenty-first century practices into the Confessions and— in a way that only a Supreme Court justice could admire— find penumbras of meaning that validate each and every one of our cherished pet heresies.

And yet…

“Of Ecclesiastical Order [our churches] teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (Augsburg Confession XIV, Trigl.)

Somehow we have convinced ourselves that “regularly called” (Latin: rite vocatus) means something other than “called and ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry.” But that is the minimum that it means. This is one reason why Lutheran parishes would do well to steer clear of the language of “calling” with reference to church work that is not the Holy Ministry. And for heaven’s sake, we need to stop referring to church staff who are not pastors as “ministers.” Do we not see the irony of this? It savors of the grasping at higher “spiritual estates” which was so pervasive at the time of the Reformation, against which Luther and the reformers rightly fought. Our works are not made better or more holy by our misnomering them “ministries.”

If you play the organ at church, you are not a “Music Minister.” You are an organist. Will you refuse to do that good work if it’s not called a “ministry”? If so, you got into it for the wrong reasons.

If you make the coffee and set out the donuts in the undercroft after the service, you are not a “Coffee Hour Minister.” You’re a… kind person. Thank you. Do you need a title?

If you are a parent and you’re bathing your toddler, you are not presiding over or engaging in “Bath-Time Ministry.” You’re giving your kid a bath. It’s already a good work which is in accordance with your vocation. It would not be made better, and in fact would be made worse, by you referring to it as a “ministry.”

Lutherans Engage the World

If you share your faith with Samir and Michael in a natural, non-stilted, and free way while you’re on lunch break at Chotchkies, that’s not a ministry, either. And that’s just fine. It’s evangelism, sure…

…but evangelism and ministry are not the same thing. More importantly, evangelism and the Holy Ministry are not the same thing. That doesn’t mean that there’s no overlap. But they are certainly not the same thing. So with that in mind, don’t criticize your pastor for not spending his weekdays knocking on doors on Main Street like a Mormon. In addition to teaching confirmation, leading chapel, and preparing for and writing next week’s Bible class and sermon, he’s also performing one of the most important and time-demanding of pastoral tasks: he’s visiting the homebound, hospitalized, and shut-in members, absolving their sins, preaching the Gospel to them, and giving them the Lord’s Supper. That’s his job. He’s a minister, and that’s the ministry.

But I digress…

When Philipp Melanchthon did anything— and Lord knows that he did many great and good works which still redound to the good of the Church to this day— it wasn’t “ministry” sans an article; it wasn’t a ministry; it wasn’t the Ministry. Because Philipp Melanchthon was a layman. He was not ordained. For all of his late-blooming faults (after Luther’s death), he was a far more pious and self-effacing man than we often give him credit for.

One of the greatest virtues that Melanchthon displayed was this: he knew his place. We moderns are immediately rankled by such a phrase, because we prize our sovereign individualism and putative “equality” more highly than most anything else. “No one’s going to tell me what my place is! I can do whatever I want! I’m just as good anyone else, see? There’s nothing special about being a pastor. I can preach and do communion if I want. It’s my right as a Christian.” These are things that Melanchthon never would have said, because unlike most of us (myself included, perhaps yourself excepted), Melanchthon had the virtue of humility, manifest most plainly in his living out of his vocations of teacher and lay-theologian with steadfastness and equanimity under the orders instituted by God in the Church and the Empire. God prospered his work, yes, but his work did not constitute “ministry.” This did not make it inferior or unimportant.

In the final estimation, the rumor that Philipp Melanchthon illicitly exercised the prerogatives of the Holy Ministry with no call and no ordination is nothing but a tall tale. But it is a tall tale with teeth. It becomes a lie when it is repeated without any regard for its truthfulness, and especially when it is used to bolster heterodoxy in the Church. Then it is a vile slur and calumny against a father in the faith, and that twice over, for it is to suggest that Melanchthon was guilty of both impiety and hypocrisy in this matter, and to then call such purported evil good. And that, as we all know, is the mark not of true Christian theology, the theology of the cross, but of the theology of glory.

Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set, Missouri, for it hedges off a broad path which we must not merely try to skirt, but which we must avoid entirely.

prince melanchthon

(NB: If you feel the need to use the combox to remind the world that Melanchthon compromised on Lutheran doctrine during the Augsburg and Leipzig Interims, as if this fact is somehow germane to this discussion, please understand that your comment will not be published.)

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