Melanchthon on Determinism and Contingency

Recently, I read Barbara Pitkin’s essay ‘The Protestant Zeno: Calvin and the Development of Melanchthon’s Anthropology’ (published in The Journal of Religion 2004; 347-378; online available on Academia.eu). She shows how Melanchthon and Calvin differ on important issues concerning divine action and human liberty. Yes, they agree on the basic intent, namely that human beings are not capable to will the good on their own, but in the way they articulate this basic insight they differ considerably. Calvin, on the one hand, tends to downplay the ability of the human will in favour of the determing role of God’s willing and acting. Melanchthon, on the other hand, seeks to explore the way in which human willing is involved in and – in some sense – cooperates with God’s willing and acting. Pitkin shows how the interaction between the two men developped. Melanchton was concerned about Calvin’s views on predestination, deeply aware of the threat of determinism in Calvin’s theology.

This reminded me of an article in the Dutch journal Kerk en Theologie (2011; p.138-159) from Antonie Vos about the Freedom of the Will according to Melanchthon. Vos shows how Melanchthon changed his opinions about determinism and contingency between the first edition of his Loci Communes in 1521 and the second, revised edition of 1535. Vos uses the edition from the Utrecht University library, instead of the text from the Corpus Reformatorum (XXI), which is an amalgam of different editions. The textual history of the Loci is indeed quite complex (compare the ‘Introduction to the second edition’, p.xiii-xv from Benjamin T.G. Mayes in the English translation from Melanchthon’s Loci Praecipui Theologici from 1559): The Chief Theological Topics, translated by J.A.O. Preus (Concordia Publishing House 2011)). After some research I found a copy of this second 1535-edition on the internet, digitalized by the Herzog August Biblithek Wolfenbüttel. The quotes I checked, show that it is the same edition as the Utrecht-copy. The relevant texts are to be found under the title ‘De causa peccati & de contingentia’ (in PDF-reader, p.92).

On an earlier occasion I wrote about Antonie Vos and the rediscovery of synchronic contingency. Vos and his Research group published about the synchronic contingency in the theology and philosophy Duns Scotus on the one hand, and some important reformed theologians, like Voetius and Turretini, on the other hand. However, this seemed to presuppose a certain gap between medieval theology and the emergence of reformed scholasticism. And indeed, the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin show certainly deterministic traits, to say the least. Moreover, both Luther and Calvin fulminated against scholastic distinctions in this regard. The more surprising it is to discover Melanchton’s ‘conversion’ from determinism to contingency. “The freedom of the will is the cause of our action’s contingency”, he writes (Est autem libertas voluntatis causa contingentiae nostrarum actionum). The contrast with the 1521-edition is immense. There he asks rhetorically: “‘What then?’, you will ask, ‘isn’t there – to use a phrase of those – no contingency in reality, no chance, no fortune?'” (Quid igitur, inguies, nullane est in rebus, ut istorum vocabulo utar, contingentia, nihil casus, nihil fortuna).

So, between 1521 and 1535 Melanchthon changed his mind in this regard. The question is: can we trace this change more precisely? Vos mentions in his article a remark of Bernard Lohse, who suggests ‘after 1527’. Barbara Pitkin, following Timothy J. Wengert, mentions also 1527-1528, more specifically, his edition of the commentary on Colossians (‘The Protestant Zeno’, p.359). It certainly is worth further study to trace backhis notion of contingency. Moreover, it seems probable that Melanchthon wasn’t the only one who rediscovered the notion of (synchronic) contingency in the turmoil of the Reformation era. There must have been others as well, I expect. On top of my list of other ‘suspects’ is the name of Peter Martyr Vermigli