The Maturing Theologian: Knowing that Certain Answers Don’t Come Easy

In my systematic reading seminar, we recently read two works by Philip Melanchthon, or rather, two versions of one work: His Loci Communes (Commonplaces) from 1521 and one of the final versions of that, Loci Praecipui Theologici (The Chief Theological Topics) written in 1559.  The difference in tone and overall quality between the versions is striking; in 1521, Melanchthon was a young Greek scholar with a humanist background and who did some exegetical work on Romans.  He was loyal to Martin Luther and adopted much of Luther’s sharp tone against the Roman Catholic Church and others who did not fully agree with him.  In this early period, while Melanchthon is clearly intelligent and while his work was well-received, he honestly sounds fairly naive and presumptuous on many topics, lacking sophistication in many of his arguments.  In contrast, the 1559 version is much more measured in tone and handles many issues with more depth, more nuance, and ultimately more patience.  This is not to say that the 1559 version is perfect (I disagree with many parts of it), and many Lutherans feel like Melanchthon departed too much from Luther’s theology as he aged and after Luther passed away; still, I would argue that you certainly see more acuity on Melanchthon’s part in this latter work.  I think the main reason for this is clear: He shows much more awareness of the full testimony of the Bible rather than just the book of Romans, so he comes off a lot less as a brash know-it-all and more like a seasoned scholar.

The biggest example of this is his views on free will and double predestination.  In the 1521 version, he brazenly starts with these topics at the very beginning of the work and confidently asserts double predestination, the view that God actively and unilaterally elects individuals unto both salvation and damnation.  Not only does he start with this difficult topic (and not a more natural starting point like doctrine of God), he ridicules people who put off talking about it.  He flatly rejects free will and espouses an extreme version of the will’s bondage to sin, similar to Luther’s response to Erasmus.  His hard determinism borderlines fatalism.  His arguments here lack polish and awareness, though he tries to make up for that with bombastic confidence.  Frankly, he reminded me of many Neo-Calvinists I have met who are hardcore Calvinists not due to careful understanding but because their favorite celebrity pastor(s), author(s), or mentor(s) is a Calvinist, and they walk around with chests puffed up that they have all of theology figured out even though they have little awareness of the nuances of the debate.  That includes some seminarians and pastors.

However, by 1559, Melanchthon completely changes his view on free will and predestination.  There are two main reasons for this: One, as I note above, he shows a wider familiarity with the full witness of Scripture, and two, he seems to grow in philosophical ability such that he is acutely aware of the problems his previous hardcore determinism and double predestination poses to God’s goodness.  In the 1559 version, he constantly reminds the reader that God is not the cause of sin and that it would be backward to argue that, so he conspicuously dumps double predestination and advocates a libertarian view of free will.  Instead of starting with such difficult topics like in 1521, he instead starts with the doctrine of God and the Trinity (quite appropriately) and consistently tells the reader that while he will get to predestination later, it is not as important as topics such as God, the law, grace, and the Gospel.  This different emphasis comes out in his changes on his views of election; instead of particular election based upon double predestination and inscrutable mystery, he advocates election based on union with Christ (which I think is correct).  How are you elect and how do you know you are elect?  If you have faith in Jesus, the Elect One.  Overall, Melanchthon displays theological refinement and scholarly humility that comes from further study, reflection, and maturity.

Again, this is not to say that there are not problems in Melanchthon’s final work.  His arguments supporting infant baptism are poor and he builds Anabaptist strawmen to strike at.  Also, he seems to support a view that one can lose one’s salvation, though I am actually sympathetic to him here; because of his more complete study of Scripture, he is well aware of the passages that clearly warn against apostasy and sees no need to lessen their force, and he does not support a view of security that is separate from Christ.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to see the maturation process of a famous theologian and how his tone and his ideas shift when he becomes more seasoned.

I think this is a lesson to us all.  When first diving into theology and/or philosophy, it is easy to be vigorously confident in one’s views, especially if you think that you are particularly bright.  “Why don’t others know this?  Why don’t others see such obvious and clear truths?”  This path can go two ways.  One way is that such people turn more and more inwardly and deaf to people on the outside, letting their pride dictate both their arguments and tone more and more until they are just a resounding gong.  The other way is that such people get a wake up call when they keep studying Scripture, philosophy, and theology.  They start seeing that it is presumptuous to think that one can figure out all of the mysteries of God, and they start seeing how smart people can disagree with them.  A heavy dose of humility usually comes to create a more nuanced theologian.

Certainly, I think we should live with conviction; I do not think it is wrong for people to have strong opinions on theology (I obviously do).  However, brash arrogance is not a good thing, far less so in theological discussion, and the more one persists with that attitude, the more one shows that he hasn’t “grown up” as a theologian.  The mature theologian or philosopher knows that some answers don’t come easy, and that realization brings careful argument, patience, and humility.

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