I’ve mentioned Luther’s last written words here before. In this post, I’d like to turn to his close friend and associate, Philip Melanchthon. He, too, has left us a fragment from just before his death on 19 April 1560 (it seems to have been written sometime around the 16th, perhaps, or shortly thereafter–it is not possible, to my knowledge, to affix a precise date to the document).
So, then: when he knew he was about to die, Melanchthon, in a moment of apparent self-exhortation, made a list: a list of reasons that he should not be afraid to die. The list is divided into two columns, reasons “on the left” (that is, evils from which he will depart by dying) and reasons “on the right” (blessings into which he will enter by dying).
Text and Translation
The reasons why you should not shrink back from death, written by Philip Melanchthon on a small piece of paper a few days before his death.1
On the left: You will depart from sins. You will be freed from tribulations, and from the mad rage of theologians.
On the right: You will come into the light. You will see God. You will gaze upon the Son of God. You will learn those wondrous secrets which you were not able to understand in this life: why we were created as we were; what the union of the two natures in Christ is.2
- The blessed destination, it seems, provided more encouragement to Melanchthon not to be afraid than did the ills from which he would depart.
- This idea of “movement from/movement to” is encapsulated in the first reason on each list: departure from sins, arrival in the light.
- Melanchthon had been involved in controversies for most of his life, and they got worse and worse as his death approached; throughout them he remained a figure of great importance and authority. As he entered his 63rd year, he was tired: theological controversy, notwithstanding the demands of Christian charity that ought to prevail, can be nasty, and it often was. Thus Melanchthon looked forward to escaping the rabies Theologorum. In the heavenly life, there would be no such thing.
- Indeed, the rabies Theologorum would be replaced by the beatific vision and solid knowledge.
- Melanchthon devotes two caussae, in fact, to the former, indicating to us that Christ, for Melanchthon, is the beatific vision. There is presumably some significance to his change from videbis to intueberis. Both verbs can mean “seeing,” both physically and mentally; in the physical sense, intueri is the stronger, more intense verb (“to look closely at, gaze at”), and that perhaps explains its use here, as the third caussa specifies and sharpens the second: the visio Dei is at its most basic and most concrete the visio Christi.
- The latter of the two blessings mentioned in (4), knowledge, relates to things too hard for pilgrims, Christians who are in via, to understand adequately. Melanchthon was confident that the heavenly life would bring about a change in the depth with which he was able to learn of and comprehend such great mysteries as creation and the hypostatic union. It is fascinating that his last words in this document, and therefore almost the last words in his life as far as the historical record is concerned, are essentially an expression of his hope to better grasp the Chalcedonian Definition.
- What we see in these final thoughts of Melanchthon’s, then, is the willingness to depart from this life in order to see and know God in Christ. His destination of beatitude will, he believes, account for his origin, even as it consummates it.