Wengert on Melanchthon and John Agricola

Wengert, Timothy J. Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia. Grand Rapids, MI/Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1997. 231pp. $19.99.

Timothy Wengert has distinguished himself as one of the world’s leading contemporary Melanchthon scholars.[1] The book Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia has caused Wengert to become widely regarded as the premier Melanchthon scholar in North America.[2] The following essay commences with a brief summary of this landmark study and is followed by a short evaluation and critique of the same.

The heart of Wengert’s study is to examine the historical development[3] of a debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola of Eisleben concerning the proper place of poenitentia in the Christian life. Poenitentia and its German equivalent Bube may be translated “repentance,” “penitence,” or “penance.”[4] Because the Latin term and its meaning are precisely the point of dispute between Melanchthon and Agricola, Wengert leaves it untranslated throughout the book.

Wengert focuses attention on how Melanchthon “came to define the relation between poenitentia and law” during the time his theology came under attack by John Agricola (p. 15). While both reformers united with Luther in their protest of the Roman doctrine of penance[5], they disagreed over how to formulate a positive response to what they believed was an erroneous definition of poenitentia. They also disputed concerning the relationship of the God’s law to poenitentia. On the one hand, Philip Melanchthon retains the traditional three-fold Roman division of poenitentia and with new definitions[6] enlists it in the Protestant cause (p. 98). He argues that God intends the Law to provoke poenitentia not faith; the gospel provokes faith (p. 147). After the Law terrifies the conscience unto poenitentia, the gospel moves the conscience to faith in Christ. Thus for Melanchthon, poenitentia precedes faith.

On the other hand, “Agricola completely severs poenitentia from the sacramental system of the church” (p. 74) and jettisons the traditional three-fold division of poenitentia. Contending that the gospel, not the law, stirs people to sorrow over sin, Agricola argues that the “gospel itself takes over all salvific functions by both condemning and making alive” (p. 29). Since the gospel is that which condemns, Agricola said the law “had no role to play in the life of the believer” (p. 29; cf. 31). Therefore, “one does not move from an anxious conscience to absolution, but from the promise of God to sorrow over sin” (p. 45). For Agricola, the gospel (not the Law) terrifies the conscience and moves it to faith in Christ. Thus, faith precedes poenitentia, and the Law is taken totally out of the salvific equation.

Wengert shows how the controversy between Agricola and Melanchthon unfolded historically in two distinct phases. The first phase dealt with, “the general charge of returning to Rome, the specific complaint [from Agricola] regarding the division of poenitentia, and the dispute over the content of preaching and its relation to Christian freedom” (p. 141). The second phase concerned, “the role of fear in contrition, the relation of faith and poenitentia, the preaching of the law, and the interpretation of Galatians 3:19” (p. 142).

Evaluation & Critique
One positive aspect of this study is Wengert’s decision to leave poenitentia untranslated. This move respects the debated meaning of the term and keeps the question open for the reader.[7]
Wengert can also be credited for helping to liberate Melanchthon from the “antiquated but still used stereotype of the hesitating and cautious theologian.”[8] This unfortunate caricature of Melanchthon is perhaps a result of an uncritical appropriation of misrepresentations from an earlier era. In this connection Robert Kolb notes, “This study reminds us how much we continue to pass on images of certain aspects of the story of Wittenberg reform in much the same form as the original sixteenth-century assessments.”[9] Wengert brings to the fore Melanchthon’s initiative in advancing his theological position. In this way, Wengert’s portrayal cuts against the hackneyed image of the “hesitating and cautious” theologian.

Wengert also helps the reader to see that the early reformers’ thought went through a process of development and refinement throughout this period. As Scott Amos has pointed out, “Wengert stresses the necessity of recognizing the there was a fluidity in the theological context within Lutheranism during these years.”[10] It is not as if Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door one day, and the next day out came the Formula of Concord. Discussions concerning the central doctrines of the Lutheran reformation continued during this time, and “many issues remained open for development.”[11] Even though Melanchthon’s view ultimately “won widespread acceptance among Lutherans” (p. 174), this uniformity was achieved through the birth pains of controversy.

One critique concerns the relationship of the final chapter to the rest of the book. Scott Amos charges that chapter six “does not seem to be integrally related to the rest of the book.”[12] Whereas the bulk of Wengert’s study focuses on the definition of poenitentia and the relationship of the Law to the same, the final chapter on Melanchthon’s third use of the law departs from this discussion. However, it should be stated that this chapter functions as an important bridge to understanding some of the issues at stake in the later antinomian controversy between Luther and Agricola (p. 178).

Also, Wengert does leave the reader wondering about the relationship between Melanchthon’s development of the third use of the law and that of Luther, later Lutheranism, and the rest of the reformed tradition.[13] With regard to the latter, one wonders how this third use of the law became such a prominent part of Calvin’s theology. Wengert acknowledges that Calvin may have been influenced by Melanchthon on this point (p. 206, n.123), but surely “there is more to be said in this regard.”[14] Robert Kolb is correct in saying, “Understanding these developments in Melanchthon’s thinking opens up new perspectives on the long-running but continuing theological discussion regarding the relationship between justification and sanctification in Reformation theology.”[15]

This volume is a great help in understanding the historical roots of the Law-Gospel debate in Protestant theology. Indeed even today, students of the Bible continue to debate the proper way to think about the Law’s relationship to the gospel. In many ways, Melanchthon’s controversy with Agricola concerning poenitentia and the subsequent antinomian controversy established a framework for understanding the modern discussion. Wengert’s book offers a fresh glimpse of the origins of this dispute.
[1]Martin I. Klauber, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, JETS 43 (2000): 349
[2]Robert Kolb, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Church History 68 (1999): 455. It is noteworthy that such high praise should come from Kolb, upon whose work Wengert built (Klauber, 350).
[3]It is significant to note that Wengert “self-consciously” intends this work to be “a history of the dispute,” and not a thematic treatment of theological concepts (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 20).
[4]The term poenitentia is derived from the Latin translation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 4:17, “metanoei’te.” As Wengert points out, Matthew 4:17 employs the verb “poeniteniam” (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 15, n. 1).
[5]Luther’s first formal renunciation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of poenitentia appears in the first four theses of the famed “Ninety-Five Theses” (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 15).
[6]Melanchthon acknowledges that, “the doctors of the church divided poenitentia into three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction” (p. 98). Melanchthon argued that as long as satisfaction is attributed to Christ, the three-fold division is useful for teaching (p. 105). Agricola strenuously objected to this division, contending that it was a throwback to Roman error (pp. 113-114).
[7]Gregory A. Walter, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Word & World 19 (1999): 102.
[8]Nicole Kuropka, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Calvin Theological Journal 34 (1999): 484.
[9]Robert Kolb, review, p. 455.
[10]Scott Amos, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 130.
[12]Ibid, 132.
[15]Robert Kolb, review, p. 456.


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