Melanchthon’s “A Summary of Moral Philosophy”: A Sneak Peek

I am currently revising and editing my translation of the 1546 edition of Philip Melanchthon’s Philosophiae moralis epitome (A Summary of Moral Philosophy) for Lexham Press. It’s still got a ways to go, but I thought I would give a preview here. Please find below the first two questions of Book 1, which give a definition of “moral philosophy” and divide, in Melanchthon’s characteristic fashion, philosophy and the gospel.

An Excerpt from A Summary of Moral Philosophy

What is moral philosophy? 

Moral philosophy is the knowledge of commandments that concern all of the honorable actions that reason understands to be appropriate to man’s nature and to be necessary in the customary interactions of life in civil society, once the sources of the commandments have been investigated by art and by demonstrations, as far as this can be done. But the most learned definition is the following: moral philosophy is the part of the divine law that gives commands concerning external actions. 

What is the difference between philosophy and the gospel?    

First of all, it is necessary at the outset to distinguish between kinds of teaching, namely, the gospel, the law of God, and philosophy. For the confusion of these kinds begets terrible errors. On the other hand, the comparison of them bestows a very great deal of light for understanding the individual kinds, and the true praises that belong to philosophy are especially discerned in this comparison. For moral philosophy’s real and chief claim to praise is to understand that it is truly a part of the divine law, and is, as Paul says in Romans 1, the law of God.[1] But we must give careful consideration to the fact that the gospel is an absolutely different kind of teaching from philosophy. 

For the proper topic of the gospel is the promise by which God, on account of Christ, pledges to us the gracious forgiveness of sins, as well as reconciliation and the giving of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life. And this promise has been revealed by God; it is not discovered by reason, just as John says: “The Son, who is in the bosom of the father, he himself has told it to us.”[2] For reason without the word of God does not conclude that God forgives us our sins; it does not judge that sins are graciously forgiven. These things are absolutely outside of reason’s field of view, and are foreign to philosophy. 

Next, the law of God is the teaching that gives commands to us as to what sort of people we ought to be, and what works we should perform toward God and men; or, it is the teaching that requires perfect obedience toward God. It is not the promise that graciously pledges the forgiveness of sins, nor does it judge that we are pleasing to God when we do not satisfy the law. 

Now, the one who understands the distinction between the law and the gospel will easily judge which kind of teaching philosophy is related to, for philosophy is an absolutely different kind of teaching from the gospel. For philosophy teaches nothing about the forgiveness of sins, nor does it show how God can approve of the unworthy. But philosophy is part of the divine law. For it is the very law of nature, discerned and expounded in an orderly way by men of the most exceptional genius. 

From the virtues that reason understands, moreover, it is agreed that the law of nature is truly the law of God from the virtues that reason understands. For the divine law has been imprinted on the minds of men, but in the present weakness of our nature it has been obscured, so that the commandments that order us to make conclusive determinations about the will of God and about the perfect obedience of the heart cannot be sufficiently understood. 

But our capacity for making judgments about honorable external actions still remains, and this is born with us; and it is itself–despite what sin has done to our nature–the law of nature and part of the divine law. Nor does human nature have any gift more outstanding than this knowledge,[3] that is, the distinction between honorable and shameful things. This is a most manifest trace of God in nature–one that testifies that men have not come into existence by chance, but have received life from an eternal mind that distinguishes between honorable and shameful things. But if man’s nature were in a state of integrity, then God truly would shine forth in this knowledge, and man’s mind would be endowed with a clearer knowledge, and the image of God would be much brighter.[4] The dignity of a human being is great because human minds are a mirror, as it were, in which the wisdom of God (namely, the wisdom of the law) shines. For God has chiefly willed to become known through man. Great praise, therefore, belongs to moral philosophy, because it is a part of the divine law and is the wisdom of God, although it is not the gospel. 

But here we must be aware of an important qualification: philosophy is not all opinions of all people, but certain conceptions, which are demonstrations, or portions of these, that is, the first principles or the conclusions. For, just as in other arts there are first principles and demonstrations that cannot be overturned, so also in moral philosophy there are certain practical first principles; and it is from these that firm demonstrations are produced. And just as the arts are an exposition of nature, so demonstrations in moral philosophy are an exposition of the nature of man, as I shall show below. The Academic skeptics, therefore, who rob the arts of the praise of certainty, must be booed off the stage; but just as medicine sometimes makes use of reasons that are merely probable, so also does philosophy, and it is up to the one who has skill in the domain in question to judge the extent to which those probable reasons are valid. For everything that conflicts with the first principles must be absolutely rejected.


1 Rom. 1:32
2 John 1:18
3 notitia. When used in the singular, I have translated notitia as “knowledge” (as here); when used in the plural (as below), I have translated it as “conceptions.”
4  I.e., it would be more distinct; but “brighter” preserves the metaphor of light in Melanchthon’s illustrior.


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