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George Major: Defender of Melancthon's View on Necessity of Good Works

After Luther's death in 1546, Melancthon became the head of the Lutheran Church. Since the 1530s, Melancthon had, with Luther's tacit approval, worked hard to engineer a correction to the sola-fidist doctrine.

As explained in the Preface to Jesus's Words on Salvation (see this link), Melancthon with Bucer had, as appointees of Luther to an ecumenical conference, tried fixing the exaggeration they jointly realized in sola-fide doctrine. In the 1530s, Melancthon pushed double justification doctrine. This taught initial justification comes from faith alone for a non-believer at conversion.  But thereafter, a Christian needed a secondary justification by repentance and good works for salvation.

This effort at an ecumenical solution collapsed shortly before Luther's death. After Luther died, Melancthon recruited George Major, a Lutheran pastor, to put forth the case for the necessity of a secondary justification by repentance and works.

Here is a detailed discussion of George Major and his writings to serve Melancthon's later successful effort to make double justification official Lutheran doctrine. After Melancthon died, Major himself reversed himself in the 1570s, which in turn supported in 1580 the sola-fidists taking back control over this issue within the Lutheran church. In the Concord that year, the Lutheran Church erased the double-justification doctrine, restoring the view that faith alone is the sole means of initial as well as continuing justification.

Universal Biography 1836 on George Major

George Major was born in 1502 in Nuremburgh and died in 1572. He was a "celebrated Lutheran divine." ("George Major,"  William A. Beckett, ed. A universal biography: including scriptural, classical and mytological memoirs, together with accounts of many eminent living characters : the whole newly compiled and composed from the most recent and authentic sources ; in three volumes (Isaac, Tuckey, and Co., 1836)  Vol. 3 at 23.)

This biography of Christian personalities then mentions that Major was

one of the most strenuous defenders of Melancthon's doctrine concerning the necessity of good works in the attaining of salvation. Id., Vol. 3 at 23.

Major was for seven years the rector at Magdeburg. He finally settled in Wittenberg. There he was appointed one of the ministers of the university, and "minister of one of the churches" there in Wittenberg. Id.

General Biography, 1807 on George Major

Another encylopedia provides more detail on the battle Major maintained against the sola fidists within the Lutheran movement. We read in John Aikin, William Enfield, Mr. Thom Nicholson, General biography: or, Lives, critical and historical, of the most eminent persons of all ages, countries, conditions, and professions, arranged according to alphabetical order (G. G. and J. Robinson, 1807) Volume 6 at 485 the following:

He had not been long returned to the divinity chair, before he incurred the odium of the more rigid disciples of Luther, by maintaining with great ability the opinion held by Melancthon and others, concerning the necessity of good works in order to the attainment of salvation. Hence arose a controversy between the rigid and moderate Lutherans, which was carried on with that keenness and animosity, which were peculiar to all debates of a religious nature at that period. In the course of this controversy, Major had reason to complain of the malice or ignorance of his adversaries, who explained his doctrine in a manner quite different from that in which he intended it should be understood; and, at length, he renounced it entirely, that he might not appear fond of wrangling, or be looked upon as a disturber of the peace of the church. He died in 1574 at the age of seventy-two. His works, consisting of " Commentaries" upon the evangelists, and the apostolical epistles, " Homilies "on the gospels and epistles for Sundays and festivals, learned " Dissertations," " Theses," have been collected together, and published in three volumes, folio. Mdchior. Adam Fit. Germ. Theol. Moreri. Mosh Hist. Eccl. sac. XVI. sect. Hi. par. ii. cap. I.

Modern Lutheran History on This Episode

In the "Majoristic Controversy" in the January / February 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran, we read a biased account of Major's efforts to vindicate Melancthon's position but yet it is informative:

Major's error may be summarized by the Latin phrase, causa sine qua non. Literally this means, a cause without which not. Idiomatically it means a necessary or essential cause. George Major taught that good works are a necessary cause to salvation! Obviously this is the same as saying that good works are necessary to justification. This false position had already arisen before Luther died. It had been expounded earlier by none other than Melancthon in his 1535 treatise called, Loci. Melancthon actually coined the phrase, causa sine qua non. However, Luther in private and others in public challenged Melancthon, whereupon Melancthon modified and somewhat backed off of his position. However, the leaven had begun to spread. Later George Major picked up on Melancthon's causa sine qua non and publicly championed this error that good works are necessary to salvation. Soon Major gained avid support from Menius who also began to teach that good works are necessary to salvation.

More Balanced History by Mosheim in 1867

Mosheim, a Lutheran historian, recounts this episode in great detail. In Johann Lorenz Mosheim, Mosheim's institutes of ecclesiastical history, ancient and modern (W. Tegg, 1867), we read:

[648] On the death of Luther, in 1546, Philip Melancthon became the head and leader of the theologians of the Lutheran church. He was undoubtedly a great and excellent man....He supposed that certain opinions maintained by Luther against the papists,—for instance, concerning faith as the sole ground of justification, the necessity of good works in order to salvation, and the inability of man to convert himself to God,—might be softened down a little, so as not to give occasion to others to mistake. ****

The commencement of these calamities was in the year 1548, when Maurice, the new elector of Saxony, directed Melancthon and the divines of Wittemberg and Leipsic to assemble at Leipsic, and to consider how far the noted Interim which Charles V. would obtrude upon Germany might be received. Melancthon, partly through fear of the emperor and partly from his native mildness and moderation, here decided with the concurrence of the other divines that in things indifferent (? rebus adiaphoris) the will of the emperor might be obeyed.'

[649] Among things indifferent or Adiapkora, Melancthon and his associates reckoned many things which Luther deemed of great importance, and which therefore his genuine followers could not account indifferent; for instance, the doctrine of justification before God by faith alone, the necessity of good works in order to [receive final] salvation, the number of the sacraments, several ceremonies contami* nated with superstition, extreme unction, the dominion of the Roman pontiff and of bishops, certain feast days long abrogated, and other things. Hence arose the violent contest called the Adiaphoristic controversy;1 which was protracted many years, and in which the defenders and advocates of the old doctrines of Luther (at the head of whom was Matthias Flacius of Illyricum) opposed with immense fervour the Wittemberg and Leipsic divines, especially Melancthon, by whose counsel and influence the whole had been brought about, and accused them of apostasy from the true religion. On the other hand, Melancthon and his disciples and friends defended his conduct with all their strength.

In this sad and perilous controversy there were two principal points at issue. First, whether the things which Melancthon deemed indifferent actually were so, which his adversaries denied. Secondly, whether it is lawful in things indifferent and not essential to religion to succumb to the enemies of truth.

This Adiaphoristic controversy was the fruitful purent of other and equally pernicious contests. In the first place, it produced the contest with George Major, a divine of Wittemberg, respecting the necessity of good works to salvationMelancthon had long been accustomed to concede, and in the consultation at Leipsic in 1548 respecting the Interim, he with his associates confessed, that it might be said without prejudice to the truth that good works are necessary to salvation. But the defenders of the old Lutheran theology censured this declaration, as being contrary to the doctrine of Luther and highly useful to the popish cause, Major in the year 1552 defended it against Nicholas Amsdorf, in a tract expressly on the subject of the necessity of good works. And now broke out again a fierce and bitter contest, such as all the religious controversies of that age were, between the more rteid Lutherans and the more lax. And in the course of it, Nicholas Amsdorf, a strenuous vindicator of Luther's doctrines, was carried so far by the heat of controversy as to maintain that good works are pernicious to salvation.


[650] Major bitterly complained that his opinion was misrepresented by his opponents; and at last, that he might not appear to continue the war and disturb the church unreasonably, he gave it up. Yet the dispute was continued and was terminated only by the Formula of Concord.

1556 Attacks on Law-Position of Major

Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D, "A Lutheran View of the Third Use of the Law," Systematic Theology (The Means of Grace, Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, Fall 2009) at 405 explains what happened next:

The Antinomian Controversy developed into a second phase in 1556 when Andrew Poach, pastor in Erfurt, issued a strong statement against George Major’s heretical claim that good works are necessary for salvation. Poach, soon joined by Pastor Anton Otto of Nordhausen, Professor Andrew Musculus of Frankfurt an der Oder, and Pastor Michael Neander of Ilfeld, denied that the Law had a didactic or normative function for Christians, with Poach even going so far as to deny the Law any function whatsoever in the assembly of believers. Poach, Otto, and Musculus later moderated their expressions, admitting that they had overreacted against Major’s legalism by slipping into antinomianism themselves. Musculus, in fact, helped to put the orthodox via media into its polished expression in the Bergic Book that became the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. Article V rejected Major’s position, while Article VI affirmed the Law’s “third” function, namely, to serve as a “rule” for Christian sanctification.

Resolved in 1580 Against Majoristic Position

Without admitting that Lutherans officially adopted Major's position in 1551, the Concordia Lutheran says this position was done away with in 1580 in reliance upon the words of Paul:

The Majoristic Controversy was finally and formally settled by Article IV, "Of Good Works," of the Formula of Concord 1580. We shall present what Article IV says on this matter. We shall quote from the Epitome which is the shorter version of the Formula of Concord. We shall present both the Affirmativa (the affirmed, true doctrine) and the Negativa (the rejected false doctrine). They read as follows from Pages 797-801 of the Concordia Triglotta:


Pure Doctrine of the Christian Churches concerning This Controversy.

For the thorough statement and decision of this controversy our doctrine, faith, and confession is:
1. That good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith, if it is not a dead, but living faith, as fruits of a good tree.
2. We believe, teach, and confess also that good works should be entirely excluded, just as well in the question concerning salvation as in the article of justification before God, as the apostle testifies with clear words, when he writes as follows: Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin, Rom. 4,6 ff. And again: By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast, Eph. 2,8.9.

*****  "Majoristic Controversy" in the January / February 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran


One can see that unlike Major and Melancthon who quoted Jesus for the doctrine of secondary justification, the Affirmativa only cited Paul. And it is from this point forward, as Bonhoeffer said, we achieved a "Christianity without Christ."