Martin Luther, part V – Called Before The Council

Realizing that he could expect little help from the Elector of Saxony, Aleander now turned his attention to the emperor. As he knew, the truth or falsehood of Luther’s opinions carried little weight with Charles; his course was one of policy. The case with him revolved around the point of ambition. Quite simply, which would mot further his political projects, to protect Luther or to burn him? At this time, Germany was not the center of Charles’ interest or policy. He understood neither the spirit nor the language of the German people. While not indifferent to the religious movement that was rapidly gaining ground as the result of Luther’s teaching, it had no meaning except so far as it threatened the pope.

Charles Indebted to Frederick

Though Charles appeared to be the most powerful man in Christendom, there were two men whom he could not afford to offend, the Elector of Saxony and the pontiff. To the first he owed the imperial crown. It was Frederick’s influence with the electoral conclave that had placed the crown upon his head; and while the memory of absolute rulers tends to be short with regard to such obligations, Charles could not dispense with the aid and advice of Frederick in governing the empire over which he had so recently been placed. On the other hand, Charles was on the brink of war with Francis I, the King of France. The war was inevitable, and the principle scene of that war was to be Italy. Under these circumstances, he could not afford to break with the pope as his influence would be indispensable in the coming conflict. Charles would have preferred to have detached Frederick from Luther, or to have been able to satisfy the pope without offending Frederick, but as neither of these options were open to him, it occurred to Charles that the monk of Wittenberg might yet be a most valuable card to be played in the game that was about to begin. If the pope should come to his aid against the king of France, then he was quite willing to fling the Reformer to the flames. If, on the other hand, the pope should refuse his aid and side with Francis, the emperor would protect Luther, making him an opposing power against Leo. Meanwhile, negotiations were being carried on with a view to ascertaining whether Leo would stand with the emperor or Francis. Leo, for his part, dreaded and feared both.

“In this fashion did these great ones deal with the cause of the world’s regeneration. . . . The monk was in their hands; so they thought. How would it have astonished them to be told that they were in his hands, to be used by him as his cause might require; that their crowns, armies, and policies were shaped and moved, prospered, or defeated, with sole reference to those great spiritual forces which Luther wielded! Wittenberg was small among the many proud capitals of the world; yet here, and not at Madrid or at Paris, was, at this hour, the center of human affairs.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 322.

Charles had summoned the Diet for January 6, 1521. The many interests that were involved in this meeting combined to bring together a more numerous and brilliant assemblage than any gathering since the days of Charlemagne. From far and near, in unprecedented numbers, the travelers, making their way to Worms, filled the roads of Germany. As the imperial court moved toward Worms, two papal representatives, Caraccioli and Aleander, followed in the emperor’s train.

Charles Racked by Indecision

When the diet opened on January 28, it appeared that Charles did not have a policy established by which to deal with the situation. Amid the splendor that surrounded him, numberless perplexities were continuously distracting him; but all centered around the monk of Wittenberg and the new religious movement. The papal nuncios were importuning Charles day and night to execute the papal bull against Luther. Should he fail to comply, he would certainly offend the pope and send him over to the side of he French king. On the other hand, should be concede to their wishes, he would alienate the Elector of Saxony and kindle a conflagration in Germany that, even with his resources and power, he might not be able to successfully extinguish.

While the emperor vacillated, the Protestant movement advanced from one day to another; and the cause of Rome was continually losing ground. Aleander wrote to Rome with the assurance that unless he had more money to spread around among the members of the diet, all hope of influencing the national body against Luther must be abandoned. Rome responded quickly. Not only did she send more ducats but more anathemas. Her first bull against Luther had been conditional, leaving him sixty days to retract, only threatening to excommunicate him if he failed to comply. The new communication not only confirmed the excommunication, but it went further in that it also included all of Luther’s adherents, placing them under the same curse with him, thus completing the separation between Protestantism and Rome.

But if the new bull simplified matters for Luther and Aleander, it only more certainly clouded the path of the politicians, making even more obscure than before the path of political expediency.

At this moment of crisis, a new plan was struck upon. There was at the court of the emperor a Spanish Franciscan, John Galapio, who held the office of confessor to Charles. An able man, he undertook to accomplish that which had proved an unmanageable conundrum to others. He sought an interview with Pontanus, the councilor of Frederick. Pontanus, on his part, was a man of sterling integrity, competently versed in questions of theology and sagacious enough to see through the most cunning diplomat in all the court. Galapio approached Pontanus with a sigh, and calling Jesus Christ as his witness, expressed his great desire to see a reformation take place in the Church. He asserted that he, as ardently as Luther, desired to see the Church reformed. He indicated that he had often expressed his zeal to the emperor and that Charles was largely in sympathy with him, a fact that would yet be more fully known.

From the generally high opinion that he held regarding Luther’s writings, he made one exception; and that was his work, Babylonish Captivity, in which Luther had so unsparingly attacked the papacy. That particular work, Galapio maintained, was unworthy of Luther’s learning, nor did it express his style. Regarding the rest of Luther’s work, that, he stated, could be submitted to a body of intelligent and impartial men who would allow Luther to explain some things and apologize for others. The pope, exercising his beneficent power, would then reinstate Luther; and the whole matter could thus be amicably settled. Pontanus listened with mind contempt to the plan to trap Luther. When the plot was told to Luther, he met it with feelings of derision. Clearly, Luther’s enemies had misjudged the character of the man with whom they were dealing.

Charles and the Pope Unite

The negotiations between the pope and Charles were now brought to a happy conclusion with the pope agreeing to fully ally himself with the emperor against the French king. The emperor, on his part, agreed to please the pope in the matter relating to Luther. “The two are to unite, but the link between them is a stake. The Empire and popedom are to meet and shake hands over the ashes of Luther. During the two centuries which included and followed the pontificate of Gregory VII, the imperial diadem and the tiara had waged a terrible war with each other for the supremacy of Christendom. In that stage, the two shared the world between them—other competitor there was none. But now a new power had risen up, and the hatred and terror which both felt to that new power made these old enemies friends. The die was cast. The spiritual and the temporal arms have united to crush Protestantism.” Ibid., 325, 326.

As the emperor prepared to fulfill his part, it was difficult to see what might hinder him. With the overwhelming force of arms at his command and with the spiritual sword now joining him, if such a combination of power should fail to succeed, it would be an unaccountable phenomenon, one for which history might search in vain to find a parallel.

The storm did not yet break. Charles had dared to imagine that he would be able to publish his edict without opposition from the states, but such was not the case. Before he could proceed against the Reformer, the constitution of the empire required that he should inquire as to whether the States knew of any better course and if they did, assure them of his readiness to hear them, which he did. While the majority of the German princes cared little for Luther, they had a great deal of respect for their sovereign rights and were weary of the tyranny and grinding extortions of Rome. They believed that to deliver Luther up to Rome would be the most effectual means of riveting even more securely the yoke of Roman servitude about their necks, so they begged time for deliberation. This change in the course of events infuriated Aleander, as he saw the prey slipping from his hands. Charles, however, submitted to the request of the princes; and nothing that Aleander said could move him. When pressed to move from the position that he had taken, Charles laid upon the nuncio the burden of changing the mind of the assembly. In pursuit of this goal, it was arranged that Aleander should be heard before the diet on February 13.

Never before had Rome been called to make its defense before so august an assembly. “This was an important duty, but Aleander was not unworthy of it. He was not only ambassador from the sovereign pontiff, and surrounded with all the splendor of his high office, but also one of the most eloquent men of his age. . . . The elector, pretending indisposition, was not present; but he gave some his councilors orders to attend, and take notes of the nuncio’s speech.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chapter 3.

The nuncio spoke for three hours.

“There was no Luther present, with the clear and convincing truths of God’s Word, to vanquish the papal champion. No attempt was made to defend the Reformer. There was manifest a general disposition not only to condemn him and the doctrines which he taught, but if possible to uproot the heresy. Rome had enjoyed the most favorable opportunity to defend her cause. All that she could say in her own vindication had been said. But the apparent victory was the signal of defeat. Henceforth the contrast between truth and error would be more clearly seen, as they should take the field in open warfare. Never from that day would Rome stand as secure as she had stood.” The Great Controversy, 149.

Had vote been taken at the conclusion f the nuncio’s delivery, all, save one, would have undoubtedly given consent to Luther’s condemnation. However, the diet broke up as Aleander sat down; and thus the victory that seemed so certain eluded Rome’s grasp.

When the princes next assembled, the emotions that had been stirred to such a high pitch by the rhetoric of Aleander had largely subsided, and the hard facts of Rome’s extortion alone remained deeply imprinted in the memories of the German princes. These abuses no eloquence of oratory could efface. The first person to address the assembly was Duke George. That fact that he was a known enemy of the Reformer and of the Reformed movement added weight to his words. “With noble firmness, Duke George of Saxony stood up in that princely assembly and specified with terrible exactness the deceptions and abominations of popery, and their dire results. In closing he said:

“These are some of the abuses that cry out against Rome. All shame has been put aside, and their only object is . . . money, money, money, . . . so that the preachers who should teach the truth, utter nothing but falsehoods, and are not only tolerated, but rewarded, because the greater their lies, the greater their gain. It is from this foul spring that such tainted waters flow. Debauchery stretches out the hand to avarice. . . . Alas, it is the scandal caused by the clergy that hurls so many poor souls into eternal condemnation. A general reform must be effected.’” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 7, chapter 4.

The Diet Calls For Luther

A committee was appointed by the diet to draw up a list of the oppressions under which the nation groaned. When it was completed, the document listed a hundred and one grievances. This list was presented to the emperor with the request that in fulfillment of the terms that he had signed at the time he was crowned, he move to effect the reformation of the enumerated abuses. Moreover, the princes demanded that Luther should be summoned to appear before them. It was unjust, they reasoned, to condemn him without knowing whether he was, in fact, the author of the books in question and without hearing what he had to say in defense of his opinions. Before the unified diet, the emperor gave way, though he covered his retreat by asserting that he had serious doubts that Luther actually authored the books.

Aleander was horrified at the emperor’s lack of resolution in dealing with the matter, but he strove in vain to stem the tide that was now moving in a direction that could only end in disaster for the papacy. He had but one hope left, and that was that Luther could be denied a safe-conduct; but ultimately even this proposal was denied him as well. On March 6, 1521, Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet in twenty-one days. Enclosed with the summons was a safe-conduct signed by the emperor and commanding all princes, lords, and magistrates, under pain of displeasure of the emperor and the Empire, to respect Luther’s safety.

A mightier hand than that of Charles was directing in the affairs of the empire. Instead of bearing his witness at the stake, Luther is to bear testimony on the loftiest stage that the world could provide. The kings, the lords of all Christendom must come to Worms and there patiently wait to listen while the miner’s son speaks to them.

Events had so transpired as to prepare Luther in a special way for this, the great crisis of his career. His study of Paul’s writings and the Apocalypse, when compared with history, convinced him that the Church of Rome, as it then existed, was the predicted “Apostasy” and that the dominion of the papacy was the reign of Antichrist. It was this that broke the spell of Rome, freeing him from the fear of her curse. The summons to the diet at Worms found him confident and secure in this knowledge.

On March 24, 1521, the imperial herald arrived at Wittenberg, placing in Luther’s hands the summons of the emperor to appear before the diet in Worms.