John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon

John Calvin Did NOT Pray to Philip Melanchthon April 29, 2016

Includes Exposition of a Wider Use of Prayer (Besides Addressing God) in Scripture

Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon (1561); workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
(9-19-09; revised, with retraction, on 5-3-16)
Retraction (5-3-16): originally, I argued that Calvin “prayed” to the dead Melanchthon. I was convinced (5-3-16) that it was, rather, a use of a literary device called “apostrophe”. Thus, I will clarify my new opinion below the original post (below the double line: =====), so readers can see what I originally posted and “argued”, and what I now believe. The one who persuaded me was also guilty of significant misrepresentation of what I was arguing.
[John Calvin was one of the two most influential founders of Protestantism, along with Martin Luther. Melanchthon was Luther’s best friend and successor, and author of The Augsburg Confession]

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

(The clear explanation of sound doctrine concerning the true partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, in J. K. S. Reid’s Calvin: Theological Treatises, Westminster John Knox Press: 2000, p. 258; see an alternate 1978 printing listed on Amazon)


The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in Tracts Related to the Reformation, Volume 2, translated by Henry Beveridge, Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849; “True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ,pp. 496-497):


Thou hast said a hundred times, when weary with labour and oppressed with sadness, thou didst lay thy head familiarly on my bosom, Would, would that I could die on this bosom! . . . Certainly, thou hadst been readier to maintain contests, and stronger to despise obloquy, and set at nought false accusations. . . . I have not indeed forgotten what thou didst write.


Further online documentation.

John T. McNeill, editor of the 1960 edition of Calvin’s Institutes, mentions it as well, in his article, “Calvin as an Ecumenical Churchman,” Church History, vol. 57, 1988.


My friend, Anglican church historian, Dr. Edwin Woodruff Tait, wrote in my Facebook cross-posting of the original piece: 

It’s a highly rhetorical passage and he’s not actually asking Melanchthon to do anything–what he’s basically saying is “Melanchthon was on my side and wrote letters that prove it, and I wish he was here to say so.” But yes, it is an interesting passage I wasn’t aware of.

I think you’re interpreting the link too literally–the point isn’t that you can’t apostrophize someone who was real, only that you aren’t literally addressing them–you are, so to speak, conjuring them up as a rhetorical device to make a point.

I have my suspicions about whether Calvin and Melanchthon were really as close as the passage implies, furthermore. The whole passage should be taken with considerable pinches of salt. I also resent Calvin’s device here because it contributed to making Lutherans turn on the memory of Melanchthon. According to some scholars, a lot of German “Calvinists” were really followers of Melanchthon who were basically chased out of Lutheranism.

I replied: ” I grant that it is a possible interpretation. But I think mine is, too.” And Edwin counter-replied:

Well, I think it’s both. I think he was using a rhetorical device, but I agree that the device blurred the boundary that Protestantism tends to establish between the living and the dead.

This shows that I was not dogmatically declaring that it was necessarily prayer, and could see other possibilities. My reply was dated 4-30-16. Edwin’s second reply is interesting because it recognizes that there was (at least partially) something to my original contention, and that Calvin’s words “blurred the boundary that Protestantism tends to establish between the living and the dead.”

James M. in the combox for this post (see below), argued that Calvin was using the device of “apostrophe.” He linked to a description of apostrophe. I objected that his link did not seem to include persons in its definition, since it stated (my italics):

A writer or a speaker, using an apostrophe, detaches himself from the reality and addresses an imaginary character . . . apostrophe used in literature is an arrangement of words addressing a non-existent person or an abstract idea in such a way as if it were present and capable of understanding feelings.

I continued to disagree, but stated (again on 4-30-16), “You are possibly right.”

Then Reformed Protestant writer Ron Henzel made a much more detailed reply, entitled, “On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe” (5-2-16). He provided examples of dead people actually being addressed, which “changed the goal posts” and persuaded me that this interpretation is correct. I then located a second online definition of apostrophe which verified this.

So that’s that. Readers see that I have now publicly retracted my original claim (and will shortly broadcast that by announcing it on my Facebook page and some Facebook groups I am involved in). I’m always willing to retract when sufficiently convinced. This is but one example of scores of such instances in my long apologetics career. Some people think I am incapable of this. Well, they are now refuted (as they have often been in the past). I wrote in the combox below, right before reading Ron’s article:

Thanks for dealing in a thorough way with one of my posts, and thanks also for actually letting me know about it (which almost never happens).

I will read your post and either make an argument against it or concede the point altogether. I love being challenged.

I’ve already said (here and on Facebook) that the “non-prayer” theory is a possibility, so I have no problem speculating that I might be wrong, and that my assertion is not GOSPEL TRVTH.

And so it came to pass. I read his article and was immediately persuaded that my opinion was incorrect. His giving an example of the technique applied to a dead person was the clincher (he even provided a scriptural example: 2 Sam 18:33: David and his dead son Absalom). If James had done that, and/or answered my reply (he did neither), I would have already been persuaded three days ago.

In conclusion, I wish to clarify a few secondary things that Ron got wrong about my view: even my mistaken one. He exaggerates what I actually argued, and in so doing, misrepresents it in part (i.e., his reply contains some straw man elements, and it is important to clarify these). He stated:

Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Except that in the excerpt I cited, Calvin did seem to make some sort of petition, since he said, “I appeal to you . . . ” That is likely what originally caught my eye and made me think this was an actual address or type of prayer: especially since this word is used of Jesus potentially petitioning the Father:

Matthew 26:53 (RSV) Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? [Ron cited ESV; it uses “appeal” in this verse, too]

Ron continues:

Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

I did no such thing. I merely described it as a “prayer” or Calvin having “prayed” without further specification. The rub is that there are many kinds of prayer, and even uses of the word “pray” as I will demonstrate below. Too often, Protestant debaters or apologists assume without proof (i.e., begging the question) that the Catholic must be equating some noted Protestant similarity of belief or practice with the Catholic counterpart, as if the two are absolutely identical in all respects and aspects

This is a classic case of this error. I never mentioned the intercession of saints. I never said that I thought Calvin was thinking that Melanchthon could present his petitions to God. This is all bald speculation and fanciful imagination on Ron’s part. Then he takes the straw man that he created to try to make me look silly. I don’t think I look silly by retracting. I think I look like an honest and open-minded thinker. But this stuff assuredly makes Ron look a bit silly and one who is sloppy in argument (at least this one) and in presenting opponents’ views.

I observed the same error of false equation in all particulars (repeated over and over) recently, when I critiqued reformed Protestant polemicist James Swan with regard to Luther and the veneration of saints: which Luther certainly believed to a great extent with regard to Mary. It’s a bit humorous because in both cases, Catholics are accused of missing basic distinctions, whereas the critics are doing exactly that in both of these instances.

James M., mentioned above, had made the same mistake. I replied to him in the combox (4-30-16) before I ever read Ron’s article: 

In any event, I did not “interpret these exclamations as prayers, in the way a Catholic might pray to St Alphonsus Liguori, St Teresa of Avila, St Josemaria Escriva, or to Blessed Pius IX”. I said nothing of the sort. I simply presented what he wrote, without further comment except to describe the words as “prayer.”

Despite having just railed against me for an imaginary argument I never made, Ron turns on a dime and says, “With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment . . .” Which is it? Is it an elaborate argument of the intercession of saints (no; plainly not), or a simple post reeking with “cynical brevity” with “no substantive comment”? The two are contradictory. It can’t be both things at once! But Ron blasts me for the fanciful myth that he dreamt up and also for the opposite error of “cynical brevity”. I guess he’s covering all his bases. I have to be wrong (as Catholics always are in all things), whatever the truth is. 

Ron nitpicks, “Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly”. Mea culpa. I did that because on the Google page where I found this source, it had “J. K. Reid” (not “J. K. S.”) on the left, under the book title (as anyone can verify for themselves). How outrageous, huh? If we really wanna strain at gnats and make fun (and have some fun), we can also note a Protestant book using “J. K. Reid” as author of the same volume (footnote 33). And we can find another book, about TULIP, using the same form of his name. And a third Calvinist book that does the same . . . Can’t these guys cite the man’s name correctly!?

[I]if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melancthon, . . .

That’s a nice tidbit of relevant information, but it was not obvious that Reid would have mentioned this one citation in the Introduction.

Ron goes on to an extended exposition / critique of the full Catholic notion of intercession of saints. But since I never claimed that Calvin engaged in that, all of it is an extended version of the straw man fallacy; perfectly irrelevant to the present dispute.

Part of the confusion here is the typical Protestant conception of the word prayer, which basically exclusively limits it to petitions made to God, or intercession made to God on behalf of others. That’s not even true in the Bible, as can most readily be seen from the “rich man’s” (Dives’) petitions of “Father Abraham” in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), which is not a parable. More on that below . . . 

In any event, Catholics use the word in a larger sense; not just to include asking saints to intercede to God for us (which is what we do, properly understood), but in a broader literary / dictionary sense, far beyond only theology. The word can mean something as simple as communication or request, and can be done person-to-person, not just person-to-God.

Hence, when I stated in my title that Calvin “prayed to Melanchthon” all it had to mean was that he communicated with him. Period! He could have said, “Hi Phil! Wish I were with ya. I miss all our old Lutheran vs. Reformed fights . . .” and that could be called a “prayer” in this larger meaning of the term. It’s that simple. That’s why I didn’t make the argument that Ron seems to inexplicably think I made: that this was an elaborate notion of intercession of saints: Calvin asking ol’ Phil to put in a good word for him to God. 

No one need merely take my word for this. The Free Dictionary gives many sub-definitions of prayer, including, “3. To make a devout or earnest request for: I pray your forgiveness.” Also: “5. Archaic To ask (someone) imploringly for something; beseech. Used chiefly in the phrase I pray you to introduce a polite or urgent request or question: I pray you be careful.” (cf. Online Etymology Dictionary, “pray (v.)” )

The archaic form is found many many times in Scripture (see an RSV listing). For example:

Isaiah 5:3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. (for a NT example, see Lk 14:18-19)

In the King James Version, with its older language, we find may other instances in the New Testament:

Mark 5:23 And besought him greatly, saying, My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live. (cf. Mk 5:18)

Luke 14:18-19 And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. [19] And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. (cf. Lk 5:3; John 4:31)

Acts 8:34  And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?

Acts 24:4 Notwithstanding, that I be not further tedious unto thee, I pray thee that thou wouldest hear us of thy clemency a few words.

Acts 27:34 Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you. (cf. Acts 16:9)

2 Corinthians 5:20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.

The Greek word in 2 Corinthians 5:20 is deomai (Strong’s word #1189), which is translated “pray” (to God) in many other passages (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2; 21:36; 22:32; Acts 4:31; 8:22, 24; 10:2; 1 Thess 3:10). 

The same Greek term (whether translated “pray” in English or not) is used for communication with or entreaty / beseeching / requesting of other persons on earth, including Jesus (Lk 5:12; 8:28, 38; 9:38, 40;  Acts 21:39; 26:3; 2 Cor 10:2; Gal 4:12).

If Ron claims that no one can ever “pray” to anyone but God, that’s not true, either, according to Holy Scripture. As I noted above, the “rich man” prayed to “Father Abraham” (explicitly in the sense of petition):

Luke 16:24 (KJV) And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. [petitionary request for mercy]

Luke 16:27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: [word “pray” actually used in the act of petitionary prayer]

Luke 16:30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. [further request made]

“Pray” in Luke 16:27 is the Greek word erotao (Strong’s #2065), which is translated in KJV “ask” (23 times), “beseech” (14), “pray” (14), “desire” (6), and “intreat” (once). The same Greek word is used of prayer to God (God the Son praying to God the Father) in these passages:

John 14:16 (RSV) And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever,

John 16:26 In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you;

John 17:9 I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; (cf. 17:15, 20)

Therefore, in Scripture, one can pray to God and also to other men who are not God (the rich man petitioning Abraham, as we saw; right from the mouth of Jesus). I just proved it beyond any doubt.

Ron might possibly say (especially if I hadn’t written this, but maybe even so) that I am merely rationalizing. I have no need to rationalize anything, having already retracted my original argument and reversed myself. I’m explaining what I meant in my original argument (aspects of it that he didn’t properly comprehend). If he does make this charge, I will say he is ignorant of the etymology of “prayer” and its broader sense: in literary terms and historically within Catholic, Orthodox, and even some Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist circles. And he is unfamiliar with the wider latitude of the word in Scripture, which was just demonstrated. His biblical ignorance of the communion of saints itself was quite evident in his combox for this piece, where he wrote:

Even though saints who have died are included in the communion of saints, one of the “dividing walls” that remains to be leveled is the fact that their physical deaths prevent them from communicating with the living. Bavinck does not mention it here, but he goes into it at length in 4:620-627. His position is that “Scripture consistently tells us that at death all fellowship with this earth ends,” (ibid., 625).

I replied there:

Really? Why, then, did Moses and Elijah appear at the Transfiguration? Why did Samuel appear to Saul and tell him he was to die the next day? What about the Two Witnesses of Revelation (commentators think they may be Moses and Elijah, or maybe Enoch and Elijah)?

The physical deaths of all these men did not prevent them from “communicating with the living.”

Yet you claim that this is not possible and forbidden by God. So what gives? I go with Scripture, whenever traditions of men contradict it.

If Ron replies to that, or anything else in this revised paper, I’ll be happy to counter-reply. As I wrote on his site today: “I love being challenged.” 


Meta Description: John Calvin didn’t pray to his dead friend, Melanchthon. He used the literary device of “apostrophe.”

Meta Keywords: Prayer for the dead, prayers for the dead, praying for the dead, purgatory, John Calvin, Melanchthon, literary device of apostrophe, prayer, definition of prayer, definitions of prayer 

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