Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Strong Enthusiasm For Astrology of Early Lutheran Luminaries Philip Melanchthon & Martin Chemnitz

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was a compatriot of Martin Luther, author of the Augsburg Confession, and Luther's successor. Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) was also a very important Lutheran theologian (probably the greatest in the generation following Melanchthon's death; if not the premier Lutheran theologian); he was a co-author of the Formula of Concord.

* * * * *

Philip Melanchthon

1) Historians Will Durant, Roland Bainton, and Preserved Smith:

Melanchthon changed the date of Luther's birth to give him a more propitious horoscope, and begged him not to travel under a new moon.

(Will Durant, The Reformation [vol. 6 of 10-volume The Story of Civilization, 1967], New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, 851)
Durant backed up the first part of his statement above with Luther historian and biographer Roland H. Bainton's book Hunted Heretic: The Life of Michael Servetus (Boston, 1953, p. 112). For the second clause, he cited Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911, p. 310). I happen to have that volume in my library. Here is the passage Durant drew from:

Luther was anxious to leave Schmalkalden so as . . . to spend his last hours in Saxony. Melanchthon would have held him back on account of the new moon, but Luther was free from this form of superstition and insisted on setting out.
2) Historian Henri Daniel-Rops:

One of the most curious features of Melanchthon's character . . . was his morbid tendency to superstition. For example, at the time of the Diet of Augsburg he wrote that several prodigious portents seemed to favour the success of Lutheranism: the bursting of the Tiber's banks, the prolonged labour of a mule, the birth of a two-headed calf were all signs which suggested Rome's ruin. By contrast, when his daughter fell ill, Melanchthon was filled with terror by the unfavourable aspect of Mars. He never did anything without consulting astrologers.

(The Protestant Reformation, Vol. II, translated by Audrey Butler, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1961, 315)
3) Donald H. Kobe, professor of physics:

Luther accepted astronomy as a science, but rejected astrology as a superstition because it cannot be confirmed by demonstration. Astrology, according to Luther, is idolatry and violates the first commandment. He was both amused and distressed by Melanchthon's interest in astrology, a belief system that was widely accepted at the time.

("Luther and Science"; one instance of Luther poking fun at Melanchthon's interest in astrology is recorded in the 55-volume Luther's Works; Vol. 50, p. 86)
4) Books:

Paola Zambelli (editor), 'Astrologi hallucinati' : Stars and the End of the World in Luther's Time, Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1986. Includes a chapter by Stefano Caroti, "Melanchthon's Astrology," pp. 109-121.

Sachiko Kusukawa, "Aspectio divinorum operum: Melanchthon and Astrology for Lutheran Medics", in Ole Grell and A. R. Cunningham (editors), Medicine and the Reformation, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 33-56.

John Henry, in his review of the above book in Medical History (April 1995, 245-246), comments on this portion:

Astrology was defended by Melanchthon as a "pointer to God" (p. 41), an undeniable indicator of the interconnectedness of all things, and therefore of the existence of divine Providence.
Melanchthon's own book: Orations on Philosophy and Education (Cambridge University Press: 1999); includes chapter 14: "14. The dignity of astrology."

Philip Melanchthon

5) Historian Philip Schaff:

Calvin's clear, acute, and independent intellect was in advance of the crude superstitions of his age. He wrote a warning against judicial astrology or divination, which presumes to pronounce judgment upon a man's character or destiny as written in the stars. This spurious science, which had wandered from Babylon to ancient Rome and from heathen Rome to the Christian Church, flourished especially in Italy and France at the very time when other superstitions were shaken to the base. Several popes of the Renaissance - Sixtus IV, Julius II, Leo X, Paul III were addicted to it, but Pico della Mirandola wrote a book against it. King Francis I dismissed his physician because he was not sufficiently skilled in this science. The Duchess Renata of Ferrara consulted, even in her later years, the astrologer Luc Guaric. The court of Catherine de Medici made extensive use of this and other black arts, so that the Church and the State had to interfere.

But more remarkable is the fact that such an enlightened scholar as Melanchthon should have anxiously watched the constellations for their supposed bearing upon human events. Lelio Sozini was at a loss to know whether Melanchthon depended most on the stars, or on their Maker and Ruler. In this respect Luther, notwithstanding his strong belief in witchcraft and personal encounters with the devil, was in advance of his more learned friend, and refuted his astrological calculation of the nativity of Cicero with the Scripture fact of Esau's and Jacob's birth in the same hour. Yet he regarded the comets, or "harlot stars," as he called them, as tokens of God's wrath, or as works of the devil . . .

Nothing of this kind is found in Calvin. He denounced the attempt to reveal what God has hidden, and to seek him outside of his revealed will, as an impious presumption and a satanic delusion. It is right and proper, he maintains, to study the laws and motions of the heavenly bodies. True astronomy leads to the praise of God’s wisdom and majesty; but astrology upsets the moral order. God is sovereign in his gifts and not bound to any necessity of nature. He has foreordained all things by his eternal decree . . . In conclusion he rejects the whole theory and practice of astrology as not only superfluous and useless, but even pernicious . . .

Calvin might have made his task easier if he had accepted the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, which was known in his time, though only as a hypothesis.

But in this matter Calvin was no more in advance of his age than any other divine. He believed that "the whole heaven moves around the earth," and declared it preposterous to set the conjecture of a man against the authority of God, who in the first chapter of Genesis had pointed out the relation of the sun and moon to the earth. Luther speaks with contempt of that upstart astronomer who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy and the sacred Scripture, which tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth. Melanchthon condemned the system in his treatise on the "Elements of Physics," published six years after the death of Copernicus, and cited against it the witness of the eyes, which inform us that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours; and passages from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, which assert that the earth stands fast and that the sun moves around it. He suggests severe measures to restrain such impious teaching as that of Copernicus.

(History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: Modern Christianity, 135. "Calvin and the Astrologers")

On the other hand, he [Luther] doubted the calculations of astrology. "I have no patience with such stuff," he said to Melanchthon, who showed him the nativity of Cicero from the stars. "Esau and Jacob were born of the same father and mother, at the same time, and under the same planets, but their nature was wholly different. You would persuade me that astrology is a true science! I was a monk, and grieved my father; I caught the Pope by his hair, and he caught me by mine; I married a runaway nun, and begat children with her. Who saw that in the stars? Who foretold that? Astronomy is very good, astrology is humbug. The example of Esau and Jacob disproves it."

(Ibid., Vol. VII, Modern Christianity, 78. "Luther's Home Life")

6) Michael T. Cooper, Ph.D.

By the Protestant reformation, several prominent individuals were known to practice astrology; two are of particular interest: Philip Melanchthon and Johannes Kepler. In the case of Melanchthon, a friend and colleague of Martin Luther, his interest would lie in the relationship of astrology to medicine, however, he rejected astrology’s fatalism. Kepler, well known for his theories of planetary motion, would attempt to harmonize astrology and theology.

("New Testament Astral Portents: God's Self-Disclosure in the Heavens")

7) (Lutheran pastor?) James R. Huebner:

When Melanchthon was down he sometimes turned to his hobby, astrology. Luther once said:

Astrology had some significance for Melanchthon, as a drink of strong beer has for me, when his thoughts depressed him...I could never believe that he was really serious about this (astrology). As for me, I do not fear the heavens, for our nature is higher than that of the stars; it cannot be subjected to them . . . I do not care for dreams and visions I have something more certain, namely the Word of God.
("The Relationship Between Luther and Melanchthon with Practical Applications for the Ministry," from the Metro North-South Joint Pastoral Conference at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, November 14, 1983; Luther citation from W. Pauck, "Luther and Melanchthon", Luther and Melanchthon in the History and Theology of the Reformation, 28)
8) M. Miles:

Luther differed sharply from Melanchthon, whom he considered "very much deluded" by belief in astrology (LW [Luther's works] 54: 219-220, No. 3520). Melanchthon "devoted much attention to this business, but he has never been able to persuade me to accept it" (LW 54: 173, 458-459; Nos. 2834b, 5573).

("Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany: What did he write? What did he say?," revised version of paper first published in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, 2001, vol. 5 [4], pp. 5-36)
9) Clyde L. Manschreck (Melanchthon biographer and Protestant Church historian):

The paradoxical sixteenth century was an age of criticism. It questioned history, theology, ecclesiasticism, and culture. It was an age of learning, with many strains of culture mingling to produce the foundations of modern life; but it was also an age of superstition, with its books of fantasy, sorcery, astrology, and demonology. Humanism was the great tool of this critical age, but humanism was also used to preserve the past. Some of the most educated men were the most morbidly scrupulous. None of the great leaders of the age escaped this aspect of the dark past. A large circle of astrologers surrounded Pope Paul III. Kepler included astrological predictions in his calendar of 1594 and became court astrologer under Kaiser Rudolf II. The founding of the Wittenberg University was delayed until a favorable astrological moment presented itself, and the first rector, Martin Polich of Mellerstadt, was the author of many annual star predictions. Those who did not accept astrology nevertheless had their dreams, and devils, and angelologies.

Records show that a large circle of the best scholars of the time were directly associated with Melanchthon in pursuing astrology.

[footnote #5: Hieronymous Wolf, Camerarius, Achilles Gassar, Vitus Amerbach, Johannes Homelius, J. Schoner, J. Heller, David Chytraeus, Joachim Cureus, Herman Witekind, Jacob Milich, and Caspar Peucer]

[ . . . ]

Astrology, dreams, and omens were a part of Melanchthon's inheritance, a legacy which he did not transcend. He inherited some of his religious nature from his father, who was unusually pious and god-fearing [sic], but also superstitious about such things as astrology, for he had Phillip's horoscope read. Melanchthon's tendency toward astrology might be analyzed as an attachment to his father. Philip was also greatly influenced by his uncle Reuchlin, who, in spite of the fact that he criticized alchemy and astrology as magical arts of the devil, was strongly attached to the cabala. Reuchlin sought to find in Jewish words and numbers the secret depths of religion. Even enlightened, critical humanism was not without its Aberglaube. Renaissance popes Julius II and Paul III honored astrology, and chairs of astrology were actually established in many universities. Almost every court had its astrologer.

(Melanchthon: The Quiet Reformer, New York: Abingdon Press, 1958, 103, 110-112; many thanks to amateur Luther historian John Q. Doe for kindly transcribing the above material)

While crossing the domain of the Landgrave, Camerarius, Melanchthon, and Nesen, who had rejoined the party, stopped to water their horses. The others rode on. Nesen noticed three crows on a nearby hill cawing and "doing a victory dance." He wondered what this might mean. "What else," exclaimed Melanchthon, "than that one of us three is near death."

. . . The astrological configurations of 1524 alarmed Melanchthon for he felt that they presaged an increase in the general tumult.

(Ibid., 102)

The belief that the heavenly bodies prophesied fate, and that one's destiny could be known through a study of celestial movements, was probably the most widely accepted form of aberglaube. Systematized astrology, which Melanchthon considered a science, fascinated him as well as many humanists of the time. He delved into the theoretical question of astrology and defended this pseudoscience in several solemn Latin speeches at the university. In notes to the king of Denmark he called attention to the position of heavenly bodies and what this might mean for approaching events. In numerous letters he spoke of the anxiety awakened in him by the observation of various planets and stars. he had his own horoscope and those of his children read, and often regretted that he did not take the same precaution with his unruly son-in-law. "Sabinus is headstrong and will not listen to advice; this is due to the conjunction of Mars and Saturn at his nativity, a fact which I ought to have taken into account, when he asked the hand of my daughter."

. . . it is difficult to understand this element of a bygone age and to orient ourselves to those who accepted it. In Melanchthon's defense of strology, there is a strange mixture of religion, common sense, stupidity, and fear.

(Ibid., 103-104)

Melanchthon wrote about strange happenings experienced by his friends - about the snakes in Hungary that fought in the sky, a female mule that foaled a colt, a fiery ship seen in the sky by a man in Breslau, a glowing rainbow, the sun split into two parts, bleeding ears of corn, and a calf with two heads . . .

Because such superstitions were common in the sixteenth century, Melanchthon's booklet Of two Wonderful popish monsters, to wyt, Of a popish Asse found at Rome and a Monkish Calf which was found at Friberge in Misne received ready acceptance . . .

These beasts were supposed to be signs of "God's wrath" . . . Before explaining each part of the beast's anatomy, Melanchthon called attention to the Antichrist passages in Dan. 8 and Matt. 24, which he said were signs for the faithful lest they be trapped by Satan. The ass clearly indicates, Melanchthon wrote, that the pope's kingdom is abominable. God has taken this means to declare his "horrible indignation on account of the tyrannical domination of the pope."

. . . The old man's head issuing from the buttocks implies the coming end of the pope's kingdom which like all other flesh will perish . . .

He did not call for men to overthrow the papacy, for the beast was found dead. This was to him a sign that God Himself would wreak his destruction.

Luther added a short statement and a similar interpretation of the monkish calf found at Freiberg.

(Ibid., 107-108, 110)

In adulthood Melanchthon developed elaborate theories of astrology and demonology. Luther chided Philip about this and once remarked that when Melanchthon talked about astrology he sounded like Luther under the influence of too many beers.

(Ibid., 29)

10) John Warwick Montgomery (Lutheran):

Melanchthon himself was an avid astrologer, as his most recent English biographer, Manschreck, points out.

(In Defense of Martin Luther
, Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1970, 94; citation in footnote 21: Clyde L. Manschreck, Melanchthon, the Quiet Reformer [New York: Abingdon Press, 1958], pp. 102-112 and passim)
Martin Chemnitz

1) Claudia Brosseder

Martin Chemnitz, Paul Eber, and many others were the Wittenberg teachers. and students who left manuscripts and printed works on astrology to posterity. . . .

("The Writing in the Wittenberg Sky: Astrology in Sixteenth-Century Germany"
Journal of the History of Ideas
- Volume 66, Number 4, October 2005, pp. 557-576)
2) Dr. Eugene Klug (Lutheran)

During his years at the university Chemnitz had become quite expert in what he himself described as "judiciary astrology." We would call it dabbling in horoscopes, calculating propitious moments and influences on a person's life and events through the zodiacal signs, the positions of the stars and planets. One may question just how much confidence he placed in this "art," but by it he was able, as we say today, "to work his way through college." Not insignificantly it also helped get him the appointment to the Prussian ducal library at Konigsberg, since the rulers put much stock in these astrological tables. Chemnitz was willing to oblige, even though he undoubtedly knew that Luther had viewed this practice of trying to tell the future by the stars not only as tom foolery but idolatry, contrary to the first commandment. Melanchthon also was "soft" on astrology, even while Luther was alive and in spite of Luther's pointed remonstrances and opposition. In one of Luther's exchanges with his colleague, the Reformer stated point-blank: "I do not want to tell Germany's fortune on the basis of the stars; but on the basis of theology I announce to Germany the wrath of God."

("Chemnitz And Authority," Lecture I of the Reformation Lectures : Bethany Lutheran College and Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary : October 30, 1985)
3) George Wolfgang Forell

Chemnitz observed, "Next to God I had my one protection in my astrology, . . ."

("The Formula of Concord and the Teaching Ministry," Sixteenth Century Journal
, Vol. 8, No. 4, The Formula of Concord: Quadricentennial Essays, Dec. 1977, pp. 39-47)
See the related paper: Early Protestant Hostility Towards Science



astrodreamer said...

This is an amazing piece of work. Thanks very much.

Mark Shulgasser

Dave Armstrong said...

You're welcome.