Friday, July 01, 2011

John Calvin Prayed to Philip Melanchthon?

Here's one of those odd tidbits that has circulated around the Internet for a few years. Calvin is said to have prayed to Melanchthon after he died. Calvin stated, "O Philipp Melanchthon! . . . I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in the blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot together!" A context for this quote can be found here.

The book pictured is entitled Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg. One of the most fascinating chapters is Timothy Wengert's "We Will Feast in Heaven Forever": The Epistolary Friendship of John Calvin and Philip Melanchthon. Wengert's chapter challenges the popular paradigm that Calvin and Melanchthon were friends, despite their differences. Wengert analyzes the correspondence between these two reformers within the context of Renaissance letter writing etiquette, concluding that these men were not as friendly as it appears. He argues their friendship was "a literary fiction imposed by the authors themselves, especially Calvin, onto a very complex web of interactions, not all of which were friendly" (p.22).

Of this alleged prayer to Melanchthon in question, Wengert states:

Even the oft-quoted reminiscence of Calvin regarding the recently departed Melanchthon must be seen strictly within the Renaissance and Reformation framework, where it appeared. Calvin wrote:

O Philip Melanchthon! I appeal to thee who now livest with Christ in the bosom of God, and there art waiting for us till we shall be gathered with thee to that blessed rest. A hundred times when worn out with labors and oppressed with so many troubles, didst thou repose thy head familiarly on my breast and say: 'Would that I could die in this bosom!' Since then I have a thousand times wished that it had been granted to us to live together; for certainly thou wouldst thus have had more courage for the inevitable contest, and been stronger to despise envy, and to count as nothing all accusations. In this manner, also, the malice of many would have been restrained who, from thy gentleness which they call weakness, gathered audacity for their attacks.'

In fact, Calvin was alluding to certain strains in their relationship: Melanchthon's supposed tendency to capitulate and his failure to support Calvin directly, Calvin's presumed strength, and the maliciousness of Melanchthon's accusers. However, coming as it did within a tract on the eucharist, it was also Calvin's attempt to depict Melanchthon as a supporter of the Genevan's eucharistic theology, something he never was in his own lifetime. (p.23)

As the above demonstrates, ignoring  historical contexts can lead to distortion. I pointed out similar instances of this type of error a few years ago: Luther's Letter to Pope Leo: " I acknowledge your voice, as the voice of Christ" and Luther's Imaginary Letter to Pope Leo X, January 6, 1519. We must remember to consider the politics and polemics of the Reformation when delving deep into history. What may appear to say one thing, actually may say something quite different.

Addendum 4/3016
This was an anonymous comment from the depths of cyberspace, a well-stated comment!

That is not a prayer. Calvin is using the rhetorical device called apostrophe - which anyone who has studied Latin or Greek at school would recognise. Anyone who has read Cicero's speeches, or his works on oratory, will be familiar with it. Calvin was well acquainted with the Greek and Latin authors - his very first work, as a Christian humanist, was a commentary on the De Clementia of Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD). To interpret these exclamations as prayers, in the way a Catholic might pray to St Alphonsus Liguori, St Teresa of Avila, St Josemaria Escriva, or to Blessed Pius IX, would be contrary to Calvin's theology.
Calvin argues against the practice, in Institutes Book 3 chapter 20 sections 21-24: This is from the 1559 edition, which represents his maturest thought on the issues he discusses. In the 1541 edition, he rejects the practice as evidence of lack of faith, derogating from the honour of Christ as sole Mediator, and not called for in Scripture - see pages 529-31 of the English translation of the 1541 edition.
Calvin, whether in his commentaries, polemical works, letters and sermons, or his other activities in Geneva, consistently shows great concern for true doctrine and correct conduct. Not least because he was keenly aware of opposition to what he deemed true doctrine, not only from Catholic powers outside the city, but also from his theological and political opponents within. It is in the last degree improbable that he would practice something that anyone who had read his works would know he had clearly and explicitly and constantly rejected as wrong. If his practice had been so flagrantly contradictory to his doctrine, his praying to Melanchthon could have been seized on by his opponents as yet another stick to lambaste him with. He had to contend with slanders as it was - why would he, quite needlessly, give his opponents even more fuel for their accusations ?
These objections might be discounted, if the words of the alleged prayer could be understood as nothing else than a prayer. They would be a great anomaly, since they would be inharmonious with the rest of what is known of his doctrine on the intercession of the saints. Still, such anomalies do occur. However, there is no need to understand those words as a prayer - as a result, the potential contradiction between his utterances on the intercession of the saints, and this alleged prayer, vanishes; and the supposed prayer is readily explained as a rhetorical device with which his education and reading in the Classics and Scripture alike would have made him familiar.
The moral: if X looks unlikely to be an example of Y, it likely is not an example of Y. Since it may not be an example of Y, writers - especially apologists ? - ought to exhaust all possibilities before concluding that it is what they think it is unlikely to be.

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