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Melanchthon on the Church

Continuing with our Websterian/Calvinian theme for the moment…

Philipp Melanchthon, in his oration De discrimine Ecclesiae Dei et imperii mundi (“On the Difference between the Church of God and Worldly Sovereignty”), about which I may have more to say in the future, concisely defines what the “church” is on the basis of Isaiah 59:21 (“‘And as for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the LORD: ‘My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,’ says the LORD, ‘from this time forth and forevermore”). From this text, Melanchthon believes he can speak about the “eternity” (aeternitate) of the church, and also can say what kind of “gathering” (coetus) it is, and where it is.

For Melanchthon, it is a crucial point that the church is coetus, a gathering. It is a gathering of people that takes its beginning from divine action that has three stages: revelation, preservation of promise, and the sending of the Son:

…prodiens ex arcana sua sede, generi humano se patefecit, sua voce tradidit promissionem reconciliationis et vitae aeternae, et filium misit, ut esset placator.

…[G]oing forth from his own secret abode, he revealed himself to the human race, by his own Word handed on the promise of reconciliation and eternal life, and sent his Son to be the peacemaker.1

The people of God, then, are the people gathered around this Word (in Scripture) and Word (the Theanthropos)–those who hear of God’s action on their behalf and believe:

Ut autem edidit promissionem de nostra salute, ita adfirmat se coetum aliquem semper servaturum esse, in quo et sonet vox Evangelii, et amplectentes eam vocem, haeredes faciat vitae aeternae.

As, moreover, he published the promise of our salvation, so he affirms that he will always preserve a gathering in which both the word of the Gospel sounds forth and [in which] he makes those who embrace this word heirs of eternal life.

God’s people are a hearing people and a believing people. Thus Melanchthon defines the Church shortly afterwards as a centripetal community assembled around the Word, a community in which God’s action is effective and bears fruit (thus limiting the church, when defined most sharply, to those in whom God works to believe in him):

Est igitur Ecclesia Dei coetus hominum amplectens Evangelium, in quo coetu Deus ministerio Evangelii vere est efficax, et agentibus poenitentiam, et credentibus promissioni reconciliationis, dat Spiritum sanctum et vitam aeternam: interea vero in hac vita multi admixti sunt non renati, qui tamen de doctrina consentiunt.

The Church of God, therefore, is a gathering of men that embraces2 the Gospel, in which gathering God, by the ministry of the Gospel, is efficacious; and to those who repent and believe the promise of reconciliation he gives the Holy Spirit and eternal life: though meanwhile in this life many are mixed in [with this gathering] who are not reborn, who nevertheless agree about the doctrine [that is taught].3

  1. Note the connection between the “promise” (promissionem) of reconciliation and the “sending” (misit) of the Son.
  2. The participle agrees with coetus rather than hominum.
  3. All translations are my own and come from coll. 759-60.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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