When he nailed his theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Luther acted without a plan, a fact that he later admitted. He was acting upon what he believed to be his duty of the moment, without thought that the sound of his hammer would resound throughout Christianity for years to come, toppling the throne of the pontiff that, as of yet, he professed to revere. At the time, Luther’s great concern was that his flock at Wittenberg not be ensnared by Tetzel’s indulgences. Little did he dream that by the action that he was taking he would arouse the opposition that was soon to be manifest.
The theses spread with the rapidity of lightning. A month had not elapsed before they had arrived in Rome and, in as little time, they had been circulated throughout all of Christendom. A response was not lacking. The widespread interest that they aroused greatly increased the fears of the papal authorities, and Luther received a summons to appear in Rome within sixty days to answer the charge of heresy. In spite of the rising storm of opposition, however, Luther was unmoved. Though he stood alone, he was ready to stand on his theses. He had thrown down the gage, and he would not decline the battle. Luther’s friends, fearing greatly for his safety, petitioned the elector to have the case heard in Germany; and a hearing was eventually arranged in Augsburg.
Before Luther’s lodging in Augsburg, the Italian courtier, Urban of Serra Longa, presented himself. He made unbounded professions of friendship for the doctor of Wittenberg and had come, he said, “to give hi a piece of advice before appearing in the presence of De Vio. . . .
“The advice of Urban was expressed in a single word—‘Submit. Surely he [Luther] had not come this long way to break a lance with the cardinal: of course, he had not. He was speaking, he presumed, to a wise man.’
“Luther hinted that the matter was not so plain as his advisor took it to be.
“’Oh,’ continued the Italian, with a profusion of politeness, ‘I understand: you have posted up “Theses,” you have preached sermons, you have sworn oaths; but three syllables, just six letters, will do the business—Revoco.’”
God’s Word Luther’s Only Authority in Matters of Faith
“’If I am convinced out of the sacred Scriptures,’ rejoined Luther, ‘that I have erred, I shall be but too glad to retract.’
“The Italian Urban opened his eyes somewhat widely when he heard the monk appeal to a Book which had long ceased to be read or believed at the metropolis of Christendom. But surely, he thought, Luther will not be so fanatical as to persist in putting the authority of the Bible in opposition to that of the pope; and so the courtier continued.
“’The pope,’ said he, ‘can by a single nod change or suppress articles of faith, and surely you must feel yourself safe when you have the pope on your side, more especially when emolument, position, and life might all lie on your coming to the same conclusion with his Holiness.’ He exhorted him not to lose a moment in tearing down his ‘Theses’ and recalling his oaths.
“Urban of Serra Longa had overshot the mark. Luther found it necessary to tell him yet more plainly that the thing was impossible, unless the cardinal should convince him by arguments drawn from the Word of God that he had taught a false doctrine.” Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 275, 276.
Three times Luther appeared before the council at Augsburg. As he returned for the third meeting, accompanied by the elector’s councilors, he was immediately surrounded by the Italians, who were present at the conference in great numbers. They crowded around him, eager to obtain a glimpse of the monk who had stirred up such a commotion in Christianity. Luther advanced to present his protest to the cardinal. In this protest, Luther addressed two points on which he had been attacked. The concept that the indulgences were the treasure of the merit of Jesus Christ and of the saints was the first point to which he had objected. Second, Luther showed that no man can be justified before God if he has not faith, a point that he proved with a number of statements from Scripture.
The legate took the declaration from Luther’s hand; and after coldly looking it over, declared, “’You have indulged in useless verbiage; you have penned many idle words; you have replied in a foolish manner to the two articles and have blackened your paper with a great number of passages from Scripture that have no connection with the subject.’ Then, with an air of contempt, De Vio flung Luther’s protest aside; as if it were of no value, . . . he began to exclaim with all his might that Luther ought to retract. The latter was immovable. . . . The cardinal then began a long speech, extracted from the writing of St. Thomas; he again extolled the constitution of Clement VI and persisted in maintaining that by virtue of this constitution it is the very merits of Jesus Christ that are dispensed to the believer by means of indulgences. He thought he had reduced Luther to silence; the latter sometimes interrupted him; but De Vio raved and stormed without intermission and claimed, as on the previous day, the sole right of speaking. . . .
“His [Luther’s] indignation burst out at last; it is his turn to astonish the spectators, who believe him already conquered by the prelate’s volubility. He raises his sonorous voice, seizes upon the cardinal’s favorite subject, and makes him pay dearly for his rashness in venturing to enter into discussion with him. ‘Retract, retract!’ repeated De Vio, pointing to the papal constitution.
Luther Meets De Vio on His Own Ground
“’Well, if it can be proved by this constitution,’ said Luther, ‘that the treasure of indulgences is the very merits of Jesus Christ, I consent to retract, according to your eminence’s good-will and pleasure.’” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 4, chapter 8.
The Italians, who were not expecting such a response, were in complete astonishment. As for the cardinal, he was beside himself, scarcely believing how completely he had captured his opponent. Exulting in the victory he now thought to be certain, De Vio seized the book which contained the famous constitution and eagerly read the passage. The Italians could not suppress their elation, nor could the elector’s councilors hide their embarrassment. Luther, however, waited for his opponent. “At last, the cardinal read the words: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ has acquired this treasure by His sufferings,’ and Luther stopped him.
‘Most worthy father,’ said he, ‘pray, meditate, and weigh these words carefully: He has acquired. Christ has acquired a treasure by His merits; the merits, therefore, are not the treasure; for, to speak philosophically, the cause and effect are very different matters. . . .’
“De Vio still held the book in his hands, his eyes resting on the fatal passage; he could make no reply. He was caught in the very snare he had laid; and Luther held him thee with a strong hand, to the inexpressible astonishment of the Italian courtiers around him. The legate would have eluded the difficulty, but he had not the means; he had long abandoned the testimony of Scripture and of the fathers. . . . Desirous of concealing his disgrace, the prince of the church suddenly quitted this subject and violently attacked on other articles. Luther, who perceived this skillful maneuver, did not permit him to escape; he tightened and closed on every side the net in which he had taken the cardinal and rendered all escape impossible. ‘Most reverend Father,’ said he, with an ironical, yet very respectful tone, ‘your eminence cannot, however, imagine that w Germans are ignorant of grammar; to be a treasure, and to acquire a treasure, are two very different things.’
“’Retract!’ said De Vio, ‘retract! Or if you do not, I shall send you to Rome to appear before judges commissioned to take cognizance of your affair. . . . Think you that your protectors will stop me? Do you imagine that the pope cares anything for Germany? The pope’s little finger is stronger than all the German princes put together.’” Ibid.
Luther’s only reply was to request that the legate forward his reply to the pope. At these words, the legate in anger said, “Retract, or return no more.”
Without reply, Luther, followed by the elector’s councilors, withdrew. The cardinal and the Italians, remaining alone, looked at one another in confusion.
Though they never met again, messages of friendship from the cardinal were conveyed to Luther. The concern of the Germans for Luther’s safety increased, however, just in proportion to the mildness of the prelate’s language. They greatly feared that the legate was laying plans to seize the Reformer and throw him in prison; but he feared to move and violate the imperial safe-conduct on his own, until he should receive a reply from Rome.’’
Luther, realizing that God had preserved him until that hour, determined not to tempt God. Quickly plans were laid for a secret departure. A horse was provided, and the city magistrate supplied him with a guide. Before daybreak, they slipped through a small gate and as rapidly as possible made their way away from Augsburg. Luther pressed his poor animal to gallop as fast as its strength would allow. He well remembered the supposed flight of Huss and the manner in which he was caught. At the time when Huss was committed to the flames, his adversaries asserted that by his flight he had forfeited the safe-conduct and that they had a right to burn him.
Surprised and angered at the news of Luther’s escape, the legate wrote Frederick, the elector of Saxony, bitterly denouncing Luther and demanding that Frederick send him to Rome or banish him from Saxony.
Though the elector had, as yet, little knowledge of Luther’s doctrine, he was greatly impressed by the force and clearness of his reasoning; and until he should be proved to be in error, Frederick resolved to stand as his protector. He wrote the legate: “’Since Doctor Martin appeared before you at Augsburg, you ought to be satisfied. We did not expect that you would endeavor to make him retract without having convinced him of his errors. None of the learned men in our principality have informed me that Martin’s doctrine is impious, anti-Christian, or heretical.’ The prince refused, moreover, to send Luther to Rome or to expel him from his states.” Ibid., chapter 10.
The darkness seemed to thicken around Luther. Everywhere were ominous signs of a gathering storm. Just when the danger had reached its height, Emperor Maximilian died (January 12, 1519). Negotiations and intrigues were now set on foot for the election of a new emperor. The pope, who favored a particular candidate, found it necessary, in order to obtain his objective to court the favor of the elector Frederick, whose position as regent and whose character for wisdom gave him a potential voice in the electoral college. For the time being, it did not seem prudent to push the issue regarding Luther.
On July 4, 1519, a debate was held between Dr. Eck and Luther at Leipzig, relative to the primacy of the papacy. As the debate proceeded, Eck was constantly and consciously losing ground. Finally, on the second day of the debate, he sought to direct the course of discussion in such a way as to prejudice the audience against Luther, hoping to destroy the effect of his words. Addressing the council, he said, “From primitive times downward it was acknowledged by all good Christians that the Church of Rome holds its primacy of Jesus Christ Himself, and not of man. I must confess, however, that the Bohemians, while obstinately defending their errors, attacked this doctrine. The venerable father must pardon me if I am an enemy of the Bohemians, because they are the enemies of he Church, and if he present discussion has reminded me of these heretics; for . . . according to my weak judgment, . . . the conclusions to which the doctor has come, are all in favor of their errors. It is even affirmed that the Hussites loudly boast of this.” A. T. Jones, Ecclesiastical Empire, 729.
Luther well knew the peril in which Eck had placed him. He replied, “I love not a schism, and I never shall. Since the Bohemians, of their own authority, separated from our unity, they do wrong, even were divine authority decisive in favor of their doctrines; for at the head of all divine authority is charity and the union of the Spirit.” Ibid.
The debate was adjourned for dinner. During the interval, Luther’s conscience began to trouble him for speaking as he did about the Bohemian Christians and he determined to correct the false impression that he had left on the minds of the people.
Luther Rejects the Primacy of the Church
Luther saw the difficulty of his position. He had already repudiated the primacy of the pope and had appealed from the pope to a council. This decision involved the rejection of the Council of Constance, one of the greatest councils of the Church. For him to endorse the attitude of the Christian Bohemians was to declare that a Council had condemned what was, in fact, Christian—in short, of having erred—breaking from himself the last remaining bond of attachment with the papacy; and, doing so, opening all of the floodgates of papal opposition. Yet, in Luther’s mind it was becoming clear that the infallible authority of councils, as well as that of the pope, must be given up and that he must stand on the Word of God alone.
“Accordingly, as soon as the meeting had assembled in the afternoon session, Luther seized the first moment. He arose and, with the decision of conviction in his voice, said: ‘Certain of the tenets of John Huss and the Bohemians are perfectly orthodox. This much is certain. For instance, “That there is only one universal Church,” and again, “That it is not necessary to salvation to believe the Roman Church superior to others.” Whether Wycliffe or Huss said so, I care not. It is the truth.’” Ibid., 730.
Eck had, without realizing it, done both Luther and the Reformation a great service. The blow which he had anticipated would destroy Luther served, instead, to sever the last link in the chain that still bound the Reformer to Rome.
Luther’s statement produced a sensation. Several persons who had until that moment listened to him with favor, began to doubt his orthodoxy. The impression made upon Duke George was never effaced; and from that moment, he viewed the Reformer with an unfavorable eye.
When the Bohemian Christian heard the news of the discussion, they wrote to Luther: “What Huss was formerly in Bohemia, you, O Martin, are now in Saxony. Wherefore pray, and be strong in the Lord.” Ibid., 731.
The choice for emperor fell between two men—Charles I of Spain, and Francis I of France. Charles, who at nineteen was seven years younger than his rival, scattered gold profusely among the electors and princes of Germany to gain the coveted prize. His rival, Francis, was liberal; but he lacked the gold mines of Mexico and Peru which Charles had at his command.
The very power of the two rivals nearly defeated both of them. Encouraged by the pope, who feared the rising power of both monarchs, the electors chose Frederick of Saxony. Frederick, perhaps as an act of weakness when suddenly faced with the fearful challenge meeting a multitude of distractions within the empire and the Moslems on its frontier, declined what the two most powerful sovereigns in Europe were so eager to obtain. On June 28, 1519, the electors again met; the vote was unanimous in favor of Charles. How differently might history have been written had Frederick, the friend of Luther, accepted the imperial crown. Instead, however, it passed to Charles, who was to become the bitter foe of the Reformation.
It was a year before Charles was to arrive for his coronation, and the regency was continued in the hands of Frederick. During that time, “the little group at Wittenberg busily engaged in laying the foundation of an empire that would long out last that of the man on whose head the diadem of the Caesars was about to be placed.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 305.
Luther began reading the writings of John Huss. To his surprise, he found in them the truth of free justification of the sinner. “’We have all,’ he exclaimed, half in wonder, half in joy, ‘Paul, Augustine, and myself, been Hussites without knowing it!’ and he added, with deep seriousness, ‘God will surely visit it upon the world that the truth was preached to it a century ago, and burned!’” Ibid.
It was now that Luther published his famous appeal on the reformation of Christianity to the emperor, the princes, and the people of Germany. It was the most graphic and stirring appeal that had yet issued from his pen. Like a peal of thunder, it rang from side to side of Germany, sounding the deal knell of Roman domination.
Presuming that the new emperor would be just and magnanimous, Luther appealed to Charles, knowing that his cause would triumph regardless of which side Charles might espouse. While he would rather have had its progress peaceful and its arrival at the goal speedy, Luther never doubted the ultimate triumph of truth. The emperor never condescended to reply to the doctor of Wittenberg.