Education and faith

Melanchthon as "Germany's teacher"

Melanchthon always remained a humanist and considered linguistic and literary education to be the first step when it comes to overcoming people’s wickedness and courseness. People should study rhetoric and dialectics, and read the ancient authors, particularly Cicero.

Education “de-roughens” people in a moral sense. “Eruditio” leads to humanity. Educated people feel responsible for their fellow human beings and respect their freedom of conscience. They do not put themselves forward and strive to overcome conflicts through communication and discussion.

The return to the ancient sources includes the return to the true source of Christianity, the Bible, and its main figure, Jesus Christ. Melanchthon was convinced that only faith in Jesus Christ can free people and bring them to act humanely : humanity needs “pietas”.

Because all people should read the Bible by themselves Luther and Melanchthon called for the improvement of elementary schools. Melanchthon particularly favoured Latin schools. On his advice, the imperial city of Nuremberg founded a “high school”, an educational establishment between the Latin school and university. Here the students were also able to take Greek. Melanchthon also wrote many school books. Due to his commitment to comprehensive education he was dubbed praeceptor Germaniae, Germany’s teacher, in the 16th century.

Peasants' Revolt

  • Peasants plunder Weissenau Monastery © Archives de Waldburg-Zeil

In 1525 the “Peasants’ Revolt” broke out. Numerous monasteries and castles were plundered and destroyed. The rebellious peasants demanded that their old rights be restored again, appealing here to the “divine law” that they derived from the Bible.

Like Luther, Melanchthon rejected this homespun biblicism and its “fundamentalist” application : not all biblical commands and bans could be applied to society. The Ten Commandments alone were binding for life in society ; they corresponded to universal human moral laws as also found in classical authors.

(The twelve articles. A flyer containing the most important complaints by the peasants against the lords spiritual and temporal (1525) © Bauernkriegsmuseum Kornmarktkirche Mühlhausen)

General education : necessary basis

Luther and Melanchthon considered general education to be the necessary basis for public life, of which the church was an essential part. Living piety (pietas) requires education (eruditio), which is above all achieved through reading and understanding the Bible. Only thus can religious “coarsening” be avoided, as the result of a lack of religious culture and knowledge, of the kind that surfaced during the Peasants’ Revolt.

Cicero an, «outstanding man»

  • Wittenberg, 1591 © Bibliothèque nationale de Bavière, Munich

Melanchthon considered Cicero an “outstanding man”, since he had sensed in human reason those moral imperatives and prohibitions that are necessary for people to live together peacefully. These reasonable moral prescriptions also apply to Christians. So Christians must not touch or rescind social order by appealing to the Bible.

(Front page of Melanchthon’s Preface to Cicero’s Book De officiis of 1525 © University Library of Freiburg im Breisgau)

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Associated notes

  • Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560)

    Melanchton was a humanist and a theologian who adapted Luther’s ideas. His attempts to reconcile the different reformation trends failed.
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