Obviously, everyone should celebrate Reformation Day. At this point, even the Church of Rome has surreptitiously attempted to take on board many of the Reformation’s emphases, albeit in impure form and without the necessary dogmatic changes—er, development—that would allow her a closer conformity to the regula fidei.
So, to celebrate the Reformation’s 502nd anniversary, herewith a poem by Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon, Wittenberg’s “quite Reformer,” is moderately well known as a theologian; less so as a philosopher; still less to as a classicist; and perhaps least of all as a poet. But he did write a substantial amount of small-scale verse (he had some talent as an epigrammatist); thus I’ve chosen a poem to share that is relevant to the season, a season that ought to be held in high esteem by the church catholic. In an epigram of only two lines in elegiac couplets, we can—if we pay sufficiently close attention—see a number of the Reformation’s major concerns epitomized.
The Text of the Poem
Non sic Daedaleus Christum pinxisset Apelles,
ut sacer hunc Paulus exprimit ore pio.
Apelles, who had skill like Daedalus, could not have so painted Christ
as sacred Paul expresses him with pious mouth.
In commending the clarity with which Paul teaches Christ, Melanchthon sets up a comparison with the revered fourth century ancient Greek painter Apelles. Apelles is given the epithet Daedaleus, connecting him to the mythological figure Daedalus, designer of the Labyrinth and creator of the wings that allowed him and his son Icarus to escape from imprisonment (alas, with unfortunate consequences for the latter), among other things. The use of the adjective, then, signals skill or craft.
But with all of his visual skill, when it comes to the portrayal of Christ Apelles could not match the expressiveness of the Apostle Paul. Paul, too, it should be noted, has his own epithet: where the adjective describing Apelles points to a kind of human or natural skill–the skill of contrived verisimilitude–the adjective describing Paul points to an alien source for his wisdom; he is sacer, inspired by God. (That gloss for sacer is not unfounded. Melanchthon made a Greek version of this epigram, in which he rendered sacer as ἔνθεος [entheos], “having God within.”)
That is not the end of the contrasts Melanchthon introduces. Another, perhaps the central, contrast has to do with medium, that is, the contrast between visual and aural expressiveness. While both verbs used in this epigram can mean “to depict” in general, Apelles “depicts” for the eye through painting, while Paul “depicts” for the ear through speaking (ore pio, “with pious mouth”). Yet his depiction is so vivid that it brings its object to life, as it were: exprimere often means “to model,” “to form,” or “to represent.” Compare what Paul himself says in Galatians 3.1 (“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” [ESV]), where “portray” has the same aural sense as here, viz., Christ’s crucifixion was “portrayed” by being preached.
Melanchthon’s emphasis on the aural is reinforced by soundplay as evident in Apelles/Paulus, pinxisset/exprimit, and ore/pio. Pio itself, the last word of the poem, caps off a series of alliterations: pinxisset, Apelles, Paulus, exprimit, pio. In fact, the two words that sit in parallel to each other that do not have similar sound to each other, and that thereby stand out by way of contrast, are the epithets discussed above: Daedaleus and sacer. This is surely intentional and employed to reinforce the disparity between Apelles and Paul in the midst of a comparison of their depictive activities.
In a brief two lines, Melanchthon voices a number of Reformational emphases. First, we see the priority of the oral and aural over the visual. It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suspect that the old saw about “images as the books of the unlearned,” originating with Gregory the Pretty Good, is in the background. For, however brilliantly an artist may paint Christ, his depiction pales in comparison to Christ as taught by the medium of the Word.
Second, and as a corollary of the first, we see the centrality of that teaching to Christian ministry.
Third, we catch a hint of the Scripture principle: the depiction of Christ must take the Bible as its source, not man’s imagination.
Fourth, one notes the centrality of the Apostle Paul in the Scriptural ministry of the Reformers. It is well known that Martin Luther’s awakening came through the inbreaking upon his conscience of Paul’s statement, drawn from the Old Testament, that “the just shall live by faith.” But Paul was central for Melanchthon as well—so central, in fact, that his great work of theology, the Loci communes, took its arrangement from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Fifth, we catch a glimpse of the Reformation polemic regarding the role of works in justification. The Latin adjective Daedaleus is extremely rare; the Greek word of which it is a transliteration, δαίδαλος [daidalos], is much more frequent. Its meaning, “cunningly/curiously wrought,” reminds us of works, as does the verb from which it may be derived, δαιδάλλω [daidallō], “to work cunningly,” pointing toward the kind of embellishment that man can generate.
But the story of Daedalus reminds us at the same time of the inadequacy of human works, for Daedalus, despite his cunning, could not save his son Icarus when he flew too close to the sun on wings that Daedalus had made. In contrast stands, as noted above, the adjective sacer, which makes Paul the conduit for an alien life and righteousness, which comes from Christ alone and which, as we know from elsewhere in the writings of the Reformers, comes to us through the instrumentality of faith alone.
Sixth, and finally, the allusion to Daedalus and the comparison of Paul with Apelles foregrounds the importance of humanistic and classical learning in the Protestant Reformation. (In other poems, perhaps to be discussed here in the future, Melanchthon compares the ship of the church to Jason’s Argo, and Martin Luther to the hero Orion.) In many respects, the Reformation cannot be understood at all adequately if it is isolated from the broader concerns of the small-“r” humanist reformers throughout the res publica litterarum. The note is struck even in Melanchton’s translation of his own poem into ancient Greek. At the same time, it serves as a reminder of the limits of humanism and Melanchton’s oft-repeated distinction between philosophy and the gospel: classical learning can never tell us about the remedy for sins or God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ. We only come to a knowledge of God’s promises through the church’s teaching of God’s holy speech in Scripture and in the Son.
All in all, not bad for two lines of Latin.
So, on this Reformation Day, give thanks for the Reformers. Give thanks for the Bible, which teaches us about God. And give thanks to God for the salvation he gives us in Christ. There are no extra points for doing it in meter; but there is extra pleasure.
- Indeed, the Church of Rome recently canonized as “saint” the man who, despite himself, made this covert Protestantizing possible, as Philip Schaff had already realized a century and a half ago. ↑
- The year of composition is unknown. ↑
- The translation (to my knowledge, the first into English) is my own. ↑
- The Greek verb used by Paul is related to the one Melanchthon uses to render pinxisset in line 1 of the poem above. ↑