As you all know, I enjoy history of theology. Usually when we study the history of faith we like to emphasize the stalwart heroes. Those are good and inspiring stories after all. We all know how much Athanasius suffered and how brilliantly he fought both the Arians and the progressive Originians (at least you should if you've ever read this blog). Luther was a lighting rod with the strength to withstand the charge that began the reformation that was years in the making.
Yet we know that for every Athanasius there's a Liberius and for every Luther there's a Melanchthon. The ones who fell down a few times. Hard. I find that people with no experience of such pressure and a Donatist streak in their hearts like to reach through the ages to push them down all over again. Yet in many ways, they exemplify the struggles of the faithful better than their stronger contemporaries. Not everyone has the strength to stand contra mundum. Not everyone is meant to. We repeat the story of Peter's betrayal, understanding he was forgiven, but often do not extend the same to those who followed after him.
So I love Athanasius and Luther, but I understand Liberius and Melanchthon. And I think if most of us were honest with ourselves we would. We aren't Athanasiuses (as much as we would like to pretend we are while arguing with losers on the internet). We don't have his brilliance or his foresight or his ability to know which battles to pick and how to pick them. Most of us are b team with the other rejects.
Liberius had both the weight of exile and of his flock back at home on his shoulders. In the end it proved too hard to be separated from them all. His lapse was certainly a disappointment and it seems he tried hard to forget it. He capsized in humiliation and weakness.
I have often thought Philipp Melanchthon was a man in some ways out of his own time, faulted for lacking conviction and being too conciliatory (today he'd probably be commended for his irenicism). He seemed so unsuited to the role foistered on to him-the scholar now following around in Luther's wake like a clean up crew of one, apologizing for all the destruction. He tried hard to build bridges--but too often those bridges led to nowhere and he wavered and foundered in trying to build them. While he did show weakness of conviction, he struggled to do what he thought was best. It turned out it wasn't.
As much as I'd like to hang with Athanasius, this sounds like my team.
In the end I think we need to give the less than heroic brothers a break. They have much to teach us. If the Christian life really is one of repentance as Melanchthon's great friend said, it requires some ugly and abject defeats. But our failures could not give up on the faithfulness of God even when they had to give up on themselves as sunken wrecks and disappointments. They, not the heroes, are the ones who remind us of the faithfulness of God in Christ to the faithless, to the broken. When one is sinking in the sea, one can only reach out in one direction. In weakness, they can only point to him.