These days a lot is made of this sentence from Melanchthon: Christus cognoscere est beneficia eius cognoscere (“To know Christ is to know his benefits”). Rudolf Bultmann has a famous penchant for putting all theological knowledge this way, and uses it to recall another well-known statement, this one by Wilhelm Hermann (nineteenth century): “We never know God as he is in himself, but only as he acts on us.” For Bultmann, statements like these crystallize what he is trying to say in his hermeneutics.

In all talk about God, Bultmann contends, man must be taken into account as the one addressed by God. Kerygma and existence must go hand in hand. The message is always conditioned by the person who hears and responds to it. Melanchthon, then, is said to have seen the real problem of interpretation when he insisted that knowledge of Christ is knowledge of what he is for us.

Unfortunately, Melanchthon’s famous words are usually plucked out of their context. In his Loci Communes of 1521, he is talking about the true knowledge of Christ in terms of a contrast between wisdom and folly, the words Paul uses in First Corinthians 1. He is directing a complaint against the scholastics and their method of disputation, a method by which the personal, urgent demands of the Gospel were lost in intellectual abstraction. In contrast, he insists that the mystery of God must be, in the first place, not an object of speculation, but an object of worship. Melanchthon’s admonition about knowing Christ in his benefits is not an indictment against the Church’s dogma; it is a cautionary word in view of scholastic penchant for objectivizing Christian truth in a way that beclouds the vision of Christ’s redemptive action and effects.

Melanchthon’s words are ...

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