Luther From The Opening Of The Leipzig Disputation To The Close Of The Diet Of Worms

Luther From The Opening Of The Leipzig Disputation To The Close Of The Diet Of Worms


This was the crisis epoch in the life of Luther. Within the brief interval of less than two years, he traveled out of sight of Roman sovereignty, and started no small part of Europe on the road to like emancipation. Another life, showing greater fruitfulness in word and deed in the same space of time, cannot easily be found since the foundation era of Christianity.


The truce entered into with Miltitz was understood to be a temporary expedient. It imposed obligation only while the case of Luther was waiting decision from the stipulated tribunal. In fact, it was ended before any hearing had been arranged. The adversaries of Luther were not disposed to keep quiet. Doctor Eck, supremely confident of his controversial superiority, would rest short of nothing but a contest with the chief agitator. He published, therefore, a set of theses, ostensibly in preparation for a disputation with Carlstadt, but really directed against the principal doctrines of Luther. This was regarded by Luther as a challenge which needed to be answered. The result was the disputation held at Leipzig, June 27-July 16, 1519, under the auspices of Duke George of Saxony.


The disputation opened between Carlstadt and Eck on free will, and was continued between Luther and Eck on the primacy of the Pope, purgatory, penance, and indulgences. The principal significance and interest centered in the discussion of the primacy. Luther contended that the Pope's primacy is simply de jure humano, or based on the consent of Christians, and cannot claim any divine right. He argued, as Wycliffe had done before, that the need of a head over the Church does not imply any divinely appointed ecclesiastical monarch, since the monarchical ideal is adequately realized in the fact that Christ is the perpetual Head of the Church. He referred to the council of Nicæa and to North African synods as plainly implying by their decisions that they recognized no universal headship in the Roman bishop. Cyprian's representation respecting sacerdotal unity proceeding from Rome, he contended, could apply only to the West; and as the Roman Church owed its origin to that in Jerusalem, the mother of all churches, the figure of Cyprian, if it proves ally thing about headship, would direct to the conclusion that the supremacy over all churches belongs to Jerusalem. Certain passages of Jerome were also quoted as clearly indicating that the papal monarchy was no part of the primitive constitution of the Church. The Eastern Christians, Luther claimed, had repudiated such monarchy for fourteen hundred years. If, then, it is of divine right, they must be counted heretics and outside the pale of salvation,--a most abhorrent conclusion. "I hold it to be certain," said Luther, "that neither the Roman pontiff nor all of his flatterers are able to cast out of heaven so great a number of saints, who have never been subject to his authority.... If they are heretics because they did not recognize the Roman pontiff, I will accuse my opponent of being a heretic, who dares to assert that so many saints held in honor throughout the universal Church are damned."


But while Luther gave place to historical considerations, he laid the main stress upon the evidence of the Scriptures. Augustine and all the fathers put together, he declared, could not bind his judgment counter to the teaching of God's Word. He complained of Eck, that he merely skimmed over the surface of Scripture, or rather fled from it as the devil flees from the cross. In the Acts of the Apostles, he said, we have the clearest proof that Peter had no authority over the other apostles; while the exegesis which affects to find in Matt. xvi. 18, John xxi. 15-17, or Luke xxii. 32, a foundation for the papal supremacy, is far-fetched and counter to the tenor of the New Testament.


The most important result of the disputation was the incentive which it gave Luther to cut loose from the whole system of pretentious infallibility. He had, indeed, previously reached the conclusion, -- as appears from his reply to Prierias,--that it was possible for a council to err. But as yet he had not ventured to take exception to any specific decision of a general council. This was first brought about at the Leipzig disputation, under pressure of Eck's assertion, that, in denying the divine right of the Pope, Luther was making himself a patron of the Hussite heresy, and was contending for a proposition which the council of Constance had expressly condemned. At first Luther took umbrage at being associated with Huss; his mind not yet being fully disabused of the prejudice against the Bohemian martyr, which a century of industrious vilification had ingrained into the minds of the Germans generally. But on reflection he declared, of his own accord, that several of the sentences of Huss, condemned by the council of Constance, were most Christian and evangelical. This naturally produced no small stir among the auditors. Eck, in a letter to Hochstraten, says that many who had been favorable to Luther were terrified by this daring error, and ceased to give him countenance. To have brought his opponent to this confession, was, no doubt, a formal victory for Eck, for it enabled him to brand him in the eyes of Roman Catholics generally as a manifest heretic. But what was a formal victory for Eck was a real advantage to Luther and his cause. By assisting him to a clearer apprehension of truth, it only increased the momentum with which he was preparing to assail the ramparts of papal and hierarchical sovereignty. Luther gives an account of the disputation in Epist. cxlvii., cxlix., cli.


Shortly after the Leipzig disputation, Luther took occasion to reiterate, in more emphatic terms, the position which he had there taken. In the early part of 1520, a perusal of Valla's treatise on the fictitious donation of Constantine intensified his conviction that the papal dominion was built upon falsehood. 2 Epist. cciv. Near the same time he confessed that a better acquaintance with the writings of Huss had assured him that he himself, as well as Paul and Augustine, were genuine Hussites, and had brought home to him the terrible fact that along with Huss evangelical truth had been condemned and burned. 3 Epist. ccviii.


In the latter half of the year 1520 three writings of special importance came from the pen of Luther. The first of these was his "Address to his Imperial Majesty and the Nobles of the German Nation." It was a powerful oration; a trumpet-call to the German people to lay hold upon the work of reforming the Church. In this arduous task, said Luther, wherein the contest must be waged not with men but with the magnates of hell, no carnal weapons will avail. The labor must be undertaken in humble reliance upon God, and with minds intent upon the good of a suffering Christendom rather than upon requiting evil men for their misdeeds. In essaying the reform, three walls must be broken through, which hitherto have been interposed against all efforts to heal corruptions and abuses. The first wall is the assumption that the laity are only a passive element in the Church; that the management of spiritual affairs belongs to the clergy, who constitute the spiritual order, having been sealed with an indelible character, and being endowed with special prerogatives and immunities which place them in wide contrast with other men. The way to break down the wall is to discard these fables. The truth is, all Christians belong to the spiritual order. All are introduced by baptism to the priestly rank. Necessary order, indeed, forbids that all should discharge ministerial functions. But the distinction between priest and layman is only official; the priest is but the representative of the body of believers. To induct one into the priestly office, nothing beyond the will of the congregation is absolutely necessary. A company of laymen, accidentally isolated from all fellow-Christians, would be entirely competent to empower one of their number to administer the sacraments, and to perform every priestly function. As the official is the only distinction, when that is canceled no dividing line remains. A deposed priest is only a peasant or citizen. Away, then, with this wall of separation! Away with the fiction, worthy of the chief devil himself, that a Pope must be left to pursue his own course unchallenged though he leads souls to perdition by the wholesale ! The second wall is the claim that it is the sole prerogative of the Pope to interpret Scripture. This, too, must be brought down by resolute repudiation of unfounded assumption. The claim is contradicted by the common priesthood of believers, by Paul's teaching respecting the free distribution of spiritual gifts, and by the facts of history which convict the popes of having many times fallen into error. To found the infallibility of the Pope on Christ's prayer for Peter, that his faith might not fail, is in no wise allowable; since not a few of the popes have been sadly destitute of faith, and, moreover, Christ prayed for all Christians as well as for Peter. A breach having been made through the first two walls, little trouble will be found with the third, which is built up by the pretence that the Pope alone can call a council. As this is without warrant in Scripture, and is contradicted by the early history of the Church, Christians have no need to sit with folded hands, in the presence of deadly evil, awaiting the motion of the Roman pontiff. Nor should they pause in their reformatory efforts through awe of the papal thunders, but despise them as the utterances of a frantic mortal.


The remainder of the address was largely occupied with a detailed list of the reforms which should be undertaken by the proposed council. Altogether it was an appeal supremely adapted to the national sentiments, and fitted to stir to their depths the hearts of the more liberal and thoughtful among the German people. As has been well said, "All the Teuton rage against Rome, pent up for centuries, is here set free." 1 Peter Bayne, Life and Work of Martin Luther. It is needless to add that a rapid circulation was given to the address, four thousand copies having been sent out in the space of a few weeks. 2 Luther, Epist. ccl.


A second writing, entitled the "Babylonish Captivity of the Church," followed the above after an interval of about two months. It is a critique of the Romish doctrine of the sacraments as it had been elaborated in the scholastic theology. In place of the traditional list of seven sacraments, Luther finds warrant for only three, the eucharist, baptism, and penance. In connection with the first, he denounces energetically the robbery practised against the laity in the withholding of the cup; declares transubstantiation a mere speculative subtlety, which no one is bound to accept and which may rationally and scripturally be rejected; denies that the mass is to be accounted either a meritorious work or a sacrifice to God, and claims that the essential verity in it is a promise of grace to be grasped by faith. Respecting baptism, he emphasizes the idea that its virtue, which is conditioned upon faith, is not spent by the first act of sin, so that one must look to another rite which may serve as a plank for the shipwrecked. Rather, the grace offered in baptism stands continually available to him who returns to it in penitence and faith. As regards confession and absolution, Luther allows that they may subserve a good purpose. He denies, however, that absolution is an exclusive prerogative of the priest, and complains, that, in practice, confession is made a means of tyranny, while the satisfactions imposed have been aggravated into an ungodly and homicidal regime. The tone of the work is one of great boldness, rising at times into a ringing defiance. One or two extracts will illustrate: "Since the bishop of Rome has ceased to be a bishop, and has become a tyrant, I fear absolutely none of his decrees, since I know that neither he nor even a general council has power to establish new articles of faith." "I for my part will set free my own mind, and deliver my conscience, by declaring aloud to the Pope and to all papists, that unless they shall throw aside ah their laws and traditions, and restore liberty to the churches of Christ, and cause that liberty to be taught, they are guilty of the death of all the souls which are perishing in this wretched bondage, and that the papacy is in truth nothing else than the kingdom of Babylon and of very Antichrist."


The third writing was a brief treatise on "Christian Liberty." It sustains the double thesis: "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to all." The discussion which is appended is largely occupied with the office of faith, which is declared to be the medium of liberty, as it is the medium of justification. Faith grasps the vivific word of Christ, joins the soul to Christ as the bride to the bridegroom, and so brings into it a principle of life which can never be attained on the basis of works. This, however, involves no rejection or disparagement of works. He whose soul has been purified through faith and filled with the love of God will desire that all his members should be purified and made subservient to the love and glory of God. Thus, works must follow in the train of faith. "These works, nevertheless, are not that which justifies the individual in the sight of God; but he performs them freely from love towards God's service, looking to no other end than the Divine pleasure." That this writing should have been addressed to Pope Leo, would be a strange fact, were not the explanation at hand, that this was no result of Luther's inclination, but simply the fulfillment of a promise which he had given to Miltitz.


Before Luther had given his "Babylonish Captivity" to the public, mutterings from Rome had reached his ear. Indeed, it was known that the industrious malice of Eck had at last been rewarded, and that he had brought back to Germany a papal fulmination against Luther. After being published in several other places, a copy of the bull at length reached Wittenberg (Oct. 3). It condemned forty-one propositions of Luther, adjudged to the flames all writings of his containing these propositions, and declared him exposed to all the penalties due to an obstinate heretic unless he should recant within sixty days.

The following were among the condemned propositions:--
1. Hæretica sententia est, sed usitata: Sacramenta novæ legis justificantem gratiam illis dare, qui non ponunt obicem.

5. Tres esse partes pœnitentiæ, contritionem, confeseionem, et satisfactionem, non set fundatum in Scriptura, nec in antiquis sanctis Christianis Doctoribus.

7. Verissimum eat proverbium, et omnium doctrina de contritionibus hucusque data præstantius: de cetero non facere, summa pœsnitentia, optima pœnitentia nova vita.

8. Nullo modo præsumas confiteri peccata venalia, sed nec omnia mortalia, quia impossibile est, ut omnia mortalia cognoscas. Unde in primitiva ecclesia solum manifesta mortalia confitebantur.

33. Hæreticos comburi est contra voluntatem Spiritus. (To burn heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.)

In relation to this last proposition, three things should be noticed: (1) The proposition could not have been condemned as being merely ill-sounding for a more plain and moderate denial of the propriety of burning heretics cannot be imagined. It must have been condemned as false and heretical. (2) The bull of Leo X. being formally issued in condemnation of errors, and solemnly binding every Roman Catholic to reject and to contend against those errors, must be regarded as an ex cathedra document. (3) Therefore, in virtue of the dogma of papal infallibility, every Roman Catholic is bound to believe in the propriety of burning heretics.


Luther's teaching on this subject makes an interesting contrast. Commenting on Leo's condemnation of the thirty-third proposition, he says: "Christ delivered no weapons into the hands of the apostles, nor did He impose any other punishment than that one who refuses to bear the Church should be regarded as a heathen. And the apostle (Tit. iii.) teaches respecting an heretical man, that he is to be avoided, not that he should be slain with sword and fire. When the disciples (Luke ix.) wished to call down fire from heaven, and to destroy a city, Christ restrained them, saying, 'Ye know not what spirit ye are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy men's lives, but to save.' This is what I have said and do say, on the authority of Christ, namely, that those who assail men with fire are not men of good spirit. Of what spirit, then, are they7 Of the evil spirit, who from the beginning was a murderer. Christ has not willed that men should be brought to faith by force and fire. Wherefore he gave the sword of the Spirit, that with this they who are the sons of the Spirit might enter the contest." (Assertio Omn. Artic. per Bullam Leo X, damnat.)

As the correspondence of Luther shows, 1 Epist. cclviii., cclix. it was with little trepidation that he awaited the stroke from Rome. When it came, his response was a defiance, such was the character of the appeal which he made to a general council. The very fact of the appeal was itself an open defiance, in as much as the bull of Leo had declared, on the basis of constitutions promulgated by Pius II, and Julius II., that those who appeal from pope to council expose themselves to the penalties of heresy. Still more in its tone and content was the appeal a defiance. "I appeal," said Luther, "from the Pope, first, as an unjust, rash, and tyrannical judge, who condemns me without a hearing, and without giving any reasons for his judgment; secondly, as a heretic and an apostate, misled, hardened, and condemned by the Holy Scriptures, who commands me to deny that Catholic faith is necessary in the use of the sacraments; thirdly, as an enemy, an adversary, an antichrist, and an oppressor of Holy Scripture, who dares to set his own words in opposition to the Word of God; fourthly, as a blasphemer, a proud contemner of the holy Church, and of a legitimate council, who maintains that a council is nothing of itself."


Next, adding boldness of action to boldness of speech, Luther publicly burned the papal bull, together with copies of the papal decrees and some other writings,in Wittenberg. This seal upon an everlasting divorce from the papacy was given Dec. 10, 1520.


A few months later, a demand for still greater courage than that exhibited in the burning of the bull was placed upon Luther. In January, 1521, the Diet of the German Empire, presided over by Charles V., assembled at Worms. The case of Luther was one of the principal matters for settlement. At length it was concluded to summon the Reformer himself to answer before the august tribunal. A safe-conduct accompanied the summons. Some of Luther's friends sought to dissuade him from the journey, and pointed to the fate of Huss, who was burned at Constance in violation of the safe-conduct which the Emperor Sigismund had given. But Luther's determination was unalterably taken. Several months before he received the summons, he had written to Spalatin, the chaplain of the Elector Frederic, "If I shall be called, I will respond as far as in me lies, and will be carried there sick if I cannot go in health. Nor, if the Emperor calls me, am I permitted to doubt that I am called by God. If they shall use violence, --and it is very probable that they will,--the cause must be commended to the Lord. He still lives and reigns who preserved the three young men in the furnace of the Babylonish king. If He wills not to save me, my life is of small consequence. The question of hazard or safety is not to be entertained; let us rather take heed lest we leave the gospel which we have embraced to be the sport of the wicked, and give our adversaries occasion boastfully to insiluate against us that we dare not confess what we have taught, and fear to shed our blood in its behalf. It is not for me to decide whether my life or my death will best serve the gospel and the public weal." 1 Epist. cclxxvii. After receiving the summons he wrote, "Let God's will be done. I will commit my spirit to Christ, that while living I may contemn these ministers of Satan, and dying may overcome them.....They are laboring at Worms to bring me to a recantation of many articles. But this shall be my recantation: I said formerly that the Pope is the vicar of Christ. This I recall, and now say the Pope is the adversary of Christ, and the apostle of the devil." 2 Epist, cccv. Encountering on his journey the prediction that he was going to the fate of Huss, Luther responded, "Though they should kindle a fire all the way from Wittenberg to Worms, the flames of which should reach to heaven, I would still appear before them in the name of the Lord, I would enter the jaws of this behemoth, confessing the Lord Jesus Christ." As he approached Worms, a messenger of Spalatin met him with the advice that he should not enter the city. The answer was the memorable saying: "Even though there should be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, still mould I enter it."


Before the Diet, into whose presence Luther was ushered the 17th of April, 1521, he showed that his strong utterances had not been empty braggadocio. Copies of the various books which he had published were spread before him in the hall of the Diet, and he was asked two questions with reference to them: whether he would acknowledge them as his own, and whether he would recant their contents. Luther responded to the first question in the affirmative, and with respect to the second asked, in consideration of the gravity of the subject, a little time for consideration. He was granted until the next day to prepare his reply. He then responded that in some of his writings he may have used an unseemly acrimony of language, but as to the essential contents of his works he could not recant unless he were proved to be in the wrong. "I am," he pleaded, "but a mere man, and not God; I shall therefore defend myself as Christ did, who said, 'If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil.' How much more should I, who am but dust and ashes, and who may so easily go astray, desire every man to state his objections to my doctrine! For this reason, by the mercy of God I conjure you, most serene Emperor, and you, most illustrious electors and princes, and all men of every degree, to prove from the writings of the prophets and apostles that I have erred. As soon as I am convinced of this, I will retract every error, and will be the first to lay hold of my books, and throw them into the fire." Being pressed again for a specific answer to the demand to retract, Luther gave this unequivocal reply: "I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless, therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by clear reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless my conscience is thus bound by the Word of God, I can not and will not retract; for it is unsafe and injurious to act against one's conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other: may God help me! Amen."


One of the sublimest scenes in history! No battle ever fought or won has been worth more to the cause of human liberty than this act of the peasant's son in asserting the claims of conscience before the dignitaries of Church and empire.


Various negotiations followed from the imperial and papal party, but diplomacy and threats alike failed to shake the Reformer's resolution. Some Romish advisers urged the Emperor to violate the safe-conduct, and send the arch-heretic to the flames. That Charles did not yield to this pressure, is somewhat to his praise; but his fidelity in this instance was quite offset by his subsequent declarations of regret that he had not violated his pledge and put the offending monk out of the way. 1 See Prescott's continuation of Robertson's Charles V., vol. iii. p. 482. At length, after the departure of Luther and of several of the princes favorable to his cause, the papal legate Aleander, who had strained every nerve to secure the condemnation of the great agitator, had the joy of seeing his machinations successful. Charles V. affixed his signature to a decree as strong and decisive as could be wished. After describing Luther as being guilty of inciting to schism, war, murder, the utter ruin of the Christian faith, and, indeed, as being Satan himself in a monk's frock, the decree continued: "For this reason, under pain of incurring the penalties due to the crime of high treason, we forbid you to harbor the said Luther after the appointed time shall be expired, to conceal him, to give him food or drink, or to furnish him, by word or by deed, publicly or secretly, with any kind of succor whatsoever. We enjoin you, moreover, to seize him, or cause him to be seized, wherever you may find him, to bring him before us without any delay, or to keep him in safe custody until you have learned from us in what manner you are to act towards him, and have received the reward due to your labors in so holy a work. As for his adherents, you will apprehend them, confine them, and confiscate their property. His writings you will burn, or utterly destroy in any other manner." 2 For the complete edict of Worms, see Walch, Luther's Schriften xv. 2264-2279. We have quoted from the smooth and sufficiently accurate rendering by D' Aubigné.


So ended the Diet of Worms. The Emperor and the papal zealots thought, by destroying the brave monk, to destroy the Reformation. Even had Providence placed Luther in the hands of his adversaries, their purpose would not have been accomplished. His heroism had touched ten thousand hearts. The movement had well-nigh ceased to need his advocacy. Henceforth he must appear as one among many champions of the gospel. But Providence did not design that even upon his person should the edict be fulfilled. As Luther was skirting the Thuringian forests on his return from Worms, a troop of horsemen, disguised by masks, fell upon him, scattered his attendants, carried him into the forest, and after numerous windings, in order to obscure their trail, placed him in the Wartburg castle. This friendly violence was to save him from the present storm, and give him leisure for laying still deeper the foundations of the Reformation.