P. Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Divine Providence and the Foundations of Modern Science

 Peter Harrison’s book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Oxford University Press, 2007) brought forth a very attractive thesis for the explanation of the origins of early modern philosophy, namely the idea that the interest for the natural philosophy primarily emerged from anthropological preoccupations and not from epistemological concerns. The thesis championed is that, due especially to Protestant influence, the concerns regarding early natural philosophy were determined by the aim to vindicate the dramatic consequences the Fall had upon human capacities. More exactly, the argument goes, ‘The experimental approach [forming this natural philosophy]… was deeply indebted to Augustinian views about the limitations of human knowledge in the wake of the Fall…’ (p. 8). Despite the argument and the examples mainly refer to the English settlement, the thesis is taken to hold for Continental Europe too (pp. 4-5). A very interesting example for this is that of the Reformator Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), shortly presented in the 3rd chapter of Harrison’s book (esp. pp. 97-103). Melanchthon was one of Luther’s closest friends and the author of the first Protestant credal statement, expressed in the Augsburg Confession (1530). He had remarkable skills in Ancient Greek, a language that he taught at the University of Wittenberg, together with other courses on natural philosophy that he taught after he took upon himself the mission of reforming the curricula of the German universities (see Kusukawa, 1995). Melanchthon’s openness to the natural sciences (mathematics, medicine, astronomy, astrology etc) was partly determined by some events (Peasant’s War) occurring in his biography but also by his specific theological understanding of the Fall. Although he had the same opinion with Luther that the Fall destroyed the divine image implanted by God in man at the moment of creation, he nonetheless took a more positive stance with regard to the consequences of this event by postulating that some ‘vestiges’ of the divine light remained in the human soul under the form of principles or notions. He considered that these notions play the role of conditions for the possibility of attaining knowledge (Frank, 1995).

Harrison is aware that these theological justifications for gaining knowledge through sciences coming from Melanchthon ‘is a slightly different perspective from that which will be developed by English Calvinists, for whom the scope of natural philosophy is itself determined by theological anthropology’ (p. 99).

One of the aims of our research on P. Melanchthon is to investigate into the details of this difference. More exactly, we intend to read into Melanchthon’s emphasis upon sciences seen as depositories of God’s providence the theological justification for a whole Protestant programme of natural philosophy. Therefore, we intend to explore a more positive scenario, according to which approaches to early modern philosophy originate in the power of the human mind to decipher God’s providence as instantiated in the sciences. We will thus try to answer to questions of the following type:

-what is the relationship between divine providence, inborn notions and the sciences in Melanchthon’s and also in his fellows’ thought?

-is Melanchthon’s natural philosophy based solely on mathematical knowledge or it also deals with experience-based knowledge? (see the post on ‘universal experience’)

-what examples of Melanchthon-type arguments for the natural philosophy can be found in the early modern English thought, especially given the fact that Melanchthon might have had some influence in the English world? (see Tredwell, 2006)

-what are the features of the method of astrology in Melanchthon’s reply to Pico della Mirandola?

-what is the relationship Melanchthon posits between divine providence and man’s capacity for ruling nature? ( ‘… if someone were to pay attention to them [Astrological indications], he would have a great support for ruling nature’ (P. Melanchthon, The Dignity of Astrology (1535), translated in Kusukawa (1999, pp. 121-2))



Harrison, P., The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Frank, G., Die Theologische Philosophie Philipp Melanchthons (1497-1560), Leipzig: Benno 1995.

Kusukawa, S., The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: the case of Philip Melanchthon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kusukawa, S., (ed.), Philip Melanchthon. Orations on Philosophy and Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tredwell, K. A., The Melanchthon’s Circle’s English Epicycle, Centaurus 2006, 48 (1), pp. 23-31.