Martin Luther, part IV – Melancthon Reformed

When Charles ascended to the throne, he was in the vigor of youth; and everything seemed to point toward a long and prosperous reign. A prince whose scepter extended over a considerable part of the old world, and even over much of the new, he was the most powerful monarch to appear in Christendom since the days of Charlemagne. It was God who designed, by this arrangement, to teach the important lesson as to the nothingness of all the strength of man when it presumes to measure itself with the weakness of God. Never, aside from the final conflict yet to be fought, was it to be more clearly shown that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: that no flesh should glory in His presence.” I Corinthians 1:27–29.

Melancthon Joins the Reformed Movement

As the result of the debate at Leipzig, the lecture rooms of the university there were speedily deserted, while the number of students in attendance at Wittenberg soon doubled. Perhaps the most significant event to take place as the fruit of the debate, however, was the calling of the theologian of the Reformation—Melancthon. Until this conference, literature had been Melancthon’s great interest; but as he sat quietly listening to the conference, he received a new impulse. From that day forward, theology became his career. Henceforth, he and Luther became close friends, contending together for the truth, the one with the energy of Paul and the other with the meekness of John.

Luther was strengthened by the debate with Dr. Eck. Driven to new inquiries, he arrived at unexpected discoveries. He was astonished at the magnitude of evil that he saw. “Searing into the annals of the Church, he discovered that the supremacy of Rome had no other origin than ambition on the one hand, and ignorant credulity on the other. . . . The Latin Church was no longer in Luther’s estimation the universal Church; he saw the narrow barriers of Rome fall down, and exulted in discovering beyond them the glorious dominions of Christ. From that time he comprehended how a man might be a member of Christ’s church, without belonging to the popes.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 5, chapter 6.

Though Dr. Eck had proclaimed Luther vanquished in their much celebrated debate, he was much less than satisfied with the outcome. Making his way over the Alps, he arrived at Rome where he sought help to find revenge. In the city of Rome, however, he encountered greater difficulties than he had anticipated. The Roman Curia was apathetic. Its members did not yet realize the danger that Luther presented. They scoffed at the idea that Wittenberg could conquer Rome; and in that respect, history showed no evidence to support such an astounding phenomenon. Great tempests had arisen in former ages. Rebel kings and heretical nations had alike beaten themselves to death, seeking to challenge the Church. They no more availed its overthrow than the ocean’s foam to overthrow the rocks. That an insignificant German monk might topple the papal throne was an idea too preposterous to entertain.

In Rome, all appreciated that a move against the monk was not without risks. It was an easy matter for the church to launch a ban, but all depended upon the civil power executing that order. What if it should refuse? Besides, there were not a few more moderate and pious men, even in Rome, who were so displeased with the disorders of the papal court that in their heart they welcomed much of what Luther said. There were others who favored the use of diplomacy. They could not believe that among the many dignities and honors that it was within the power of the Church to bestow, some favor could not be found that would silence the clamorous monk.

In the midst of such indecisive apathy, the indefatigable Eck left no stone unturned to secure the condemnation of his opponent. His zeal in this respect was seconded by that of the banker Fugger of Augsburg. He was the treasurer of the indulgences; and had not Luther so successfully spoiled his business, he would have shown a good gain. This awoke in him a most vehement desire to crush the heresy that was so damaging to the interests of the church, as well as his own.

The news of what was taking place within the Vatican was carried to Luther. At this time of test, these reports caused him no alarm; for he had fixed his eyes on One who was greater than Leo. While all was anxiety and turmoil in Rome, Wittenberg presented a very different picture. Visitors from various countries daily arrived to see and speak with the Reformer. The halls of the university were crowded with youth, and the fame of Melancthon was extending. It was just at this moment that the young Swiss priest, Ullrich Zwingli, approached the papal nuncio in Switzerland, entreating him to use his influence at Rome to prevent the excommunication of the doctor of Wittenberg. This was the first evidence of the breaking of day in Switzerland.

“Rome became more and more exasperated by the attacks of Luther, and it was declared by some of his fanatical opponents, even by doctors in Catholic universities, that he would should kill the rebellious monk would be without sin. One day a stranger, with a pistol hidden under his cloak, approached the Reformer and inquired why he went thus alone. ‘I am in God’s hands,’ answered Luther. ‘He is my strength and my shield. What can man do unto me?’ Upon hearing these words, the stranger turned pale and fled away as from the presence of the angels of heaven.” The Great Controversy, 140.

Luther Excommunicated

At length, Eck triumphed, and on June 15, 1520, the Sacred College brought an end to their lengthy debates regarding the rebellious monk and placed their approval on a bull excommunicating him. With this move, they flattered themselves that they had forever successfully settled the Wittenberg heresy.

Luther, imagining that he might be expelled from Germany, engaged himself in publishing a report of the Augsburg conference. He saw the storm approaching but did not fear it. He desired, however, that when the anathema should arrive, all should know of the struggle between himself and Rome. Spalatin wrote to Luther, on behalf of the elector, asking him not to do so; but the communication arrived too late. Once it became known that the publication had already taken place, the prince gave his sanction to it.

The bull condemned forty-one propositions extracted from Luther’s writings as scandalous, heretical, and damnable. It left room, however, for the recovery of the lost son of the Church if Luther would make proof of the sincerity of his penitence by reading his recantation and committing all of his books to the flames within a sixty-day period. Failing to submit and obey, Luther and all of his adherents were pronounced accursed. All princes and magistrates were enjoined to apprehend and send them to Rome, or banish them fro their country. The towns in which they continued to reside were placed under interdict, and everyone who opposed the publication and execution of the bull was excommunicated from the Church.

“These were haughty words [the pope’s bull]; and at what a moment they were spoken! The finger of a man’s hand was even then about to appear, and to write on the wall that Rome had fulfilled her glory, and reached her zenith, and would henceforward hasten to her setting. But she knew not this. She saw only the track of light she had left behind her in her onward path athwart the ages. A thick veil hid the future with all its humiliations and defeats from her eyes.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 311.

While excommunicating Luther on the one hand, the pope wrote a flattering letter to Elector Frederick. In his communication, the pope referred to the errors of that “son of iniquity,” Martin Luther. He expressed his certainty that Frederick cherish an abhorrence of these errors and in a glowing eulogy, praised the piety and orthodoxy of the elector; he had since drunk at the well of Wittenberg and lost his relish for the Roman cistern. The purpose of the letter was transparently clear, but it produced the opposite effect of that which the pope intended. From that day on, Frederick of Saxony resolved that he would protect the Reformer.

Rome had launched her bull, but she had yet to see it published in every country of Christendom. In order to accomplish this, two nuncios were chosen to attend to the mission—Eck and Aleander. Bearing the bull which he had so large a share in fabricating, Eck viewed himself as the very Atlas who bore up the sinking Roman world. As he passed through German towns, he met with coldness and contempt. His progress was more like that of a fugitive than a conqueror. At times he was even forced to seek shelter in the nearest convent to avoid the popular fury.

While awaiting the arrival of the bull, Luther wrote two publications, the first of which was The Babylonish Captivity of the Church, in which he stated, “I know that the papacy is none other than the kingdom of Babylon, and the violence of Nimrod the mighty hunter. I therefore beseech all my friends and all booksellers to burn the books that I have written on this subject and to substitute this one proposition in their place: The papacy is a general chase led by the Roman bishop to catch and destroy souls.” Ibid., 313.

He next attacked the priest and the Sacrament. “Grace and salvation, he affirmed, are neither in the power of the priest nor the efficacy of the recipient. Faith lays hold on that which the Sacrament represents, signifies, and seals—even the promise of God; and the soul resting on that promise has grace and salvation. . . . ‘Without faith in God’s promise,’ without a jewel, a scabbard without a sword.’ . . . At the very moment when Rome was advancing to crush him with the bolt she had just forged, did Luther pluck from her hand that weapon of imaginary omnipotence which had enabled her to vanquish men.” Ibid.

The bull of excommunication arrived at Wittenberg in October of 1520. “Luther and Leo: Wittenberg and Rome now stand face to face—Rome has excommunicated Wittenberg, and Wittenberg will excommunicate Rome. Neither can retreat, and the war must be to the death.” Ibid., 315.

As Aleander and Eck advanced, they left in their track numerous blazing piles. In many of the towns in the hereditary estates of the emperor, a bonfire was made of Luther’s works. To add to these many fires lighted by Eck and Aleander, Luther kindled one of his own. A Placard on the walls of the University of Wittenberg announced Luther’s intention to burn the pope’s bull and that this would take place at nine o’clock on the morning of December 10. At the appointed time, Luther, accompanied by approximately six hundred students and doctors, as well as enthusiastic and sympathetic crowd of town folks, made his way to the eastern gate of the town. Arriving at the spot, they found a scaffold already erected and a pile of logs laid in order. One of the more distinguished Masters of the Arts applied the torch to the pile; and as soon as the flames blazed up, the Reformer stepped forward, holding in his hand the several volumes which constitute the Canon Law and various other writings of earlier popes, committing them one at a time to the flames. Finally, the bull of Leo was also cast into the flames.

The burning of the pope’s bull marked the closing of one stage and the opening of another in the Reformation. Luther knew that one blow was not the battle, but there was now no question that the war had begun. From this point on, an understanding of the nature of the church more clearly developed. It was his clearer and perfected judgment respecting the two systems and the two churches that enabled him to act with such decision—a decision that astounded Rome, which had never doubted that her bolt would crush the Reformer. Though she had been somewhat in doubt as to whether to launch it, she never doubted that once launched, it would certainly quell the Wittenberg revolt.

When Aleander opened his campaign with a bonfire of Luther’s writings in Cologne, someone asked him of what value it was to burn the books of Luther’s opinions, when the real issue was erasing them from the hearts of men. The legate replied that while this was true, it was proper to teach by signs which all could read. It was his secret desire, however, to bring the author of the books to the pile. He realized, however, that to obtain this objective, he must get Luther into his power. In order to do this, he must detach Frederick from Luther’s side and win over the young emperor. In the legate’s mind, the latter goal seemed to pose little difficulty. Born in the Catholic faith and descended from an ancestry whose glories were closely entwined with Catholicism, there was little question where the emperor’s loyalty lay. Though he had marked out a path which he little doubted would bring the Reformer to the stake, Aleander found that the path was beset with greater difficulties than he had calculated on meeting.

Luther’s Condemnation Sought

Approaching the young emperor, on whose authority Luther’s books had been burned, the nuncio pointed out that while the books had been burned, the air was yet thick with heresy. In order to purify it, he proposed a royal edict against the author. The emperor declined to give a direct answer, deferring until he could ascertain the thinking of the Elector of Saxony on the matter.

Aleander next begged an audience with Frederick. The elector received him in the presence of his counselors and the Bishop of Trent. The haughty envoy, assuming a tone that bordered on insolence, asserted that Luther was rending the Christian State, bringing the Empire to ruin, and that Frederick alone stood between the monk and his justly deserved chastisement. He concluded by demanding that the elector himself punish Luther, or failing in that, deliver him over to Rome.

The elector met the bold assault of Aleander with a plea for justice. He pointed out that no one had yet refuted Luther and that it would be a gross scandal to sentence to punishment a man who stood uncondemned. He proposed that Luther must be summoned before a tribunal of pious, learned, and impartial judges.

The elector’s statement pointed directly to a hearing before the Diet soon to be convened at Worms. Knowing the courage and eloquence of Luther, nothing could have been more disagreeable with Aleander. He dreaded the impression that Luther’s appearance would create, and he had no interest in meeting him in a debate or to win from him any more victories of the sort Eck so loudly boasted. From his travels in Germany, he knew how popular the cause of Protestantism had already become. Wherever it was known that he was the opponent of Luther, it was only with difficulty that he was able to find admittance at a respectable inn; and even in these, the portrait of the monk stared back at him from the walls of almost every bedroom in which he slept. Besides, Luther had already been excommunicated. To grant him a hearing under such circumstances would surely give the appearance that the pope’s sentence might be reversed by secular authority, making the chair of Peter subordinate to the States-General of Germany. On all of these grounds, the papal nuncio was resolved to oppose to the uttermost Luther’s appearance before the Diet.