Last week, we talked about Luther’s 95 Theses, and how they were intended only to start a scholarly debate over the efficacy of indulgences. I shared my belief that Luther wasn’t trying to start any trouble. He simply wanted to have a scholarly discussion about a theological point.
Regardless of his desires, though, what he found was nothing but trouble.
While the 95 Theses were originally written solely in Latin, they didn’t stay in that dead language for long. Some intrepid individuals realized what the theses meant. They translated the theses into German and then utilized this new-fangled piece of technology called a “printing press” to make copies for everyone to read. Soon all of Germany was talking about the ideas of this monk from Wittenberg. And then Luther’s ideas were translated into other languages and continued to spread throughout Europe. Within a few months, Luther’s beliefs had made their way to Rome.
Normally, this would have been the end of the road for Luther. About a hundred years earlier, a man named Jan Hus came to many of the same realizations as Luther and taught similar things. But Hus’s life ended badly. He was tricked into going to a church council, supposedly to talk about his beliefs. Instead, he was arrested, run through a kangaroo court, and then burned at the stake. All things being equal, the exact same thing should have happened to Luther. So why didn’t it?
Because of the ruler of Saxony at the time, Duke Frederick the Wise. Frederick was an elector of the Holy Roman Empire, and that gave him a lot of political influence. The electors were the ones who chose the emperor. And while Luther was stirring the theological pot, the Holy Roman Empire was facing something of a political crisis. The Emperor Maximilian I was on his last legs and a fight was brewing as to who would succeed him. The top contenders were King Charles I of Spain and King Francis I of France. Technically, Pope Leo X didn’t want either of those guys on the throne. From what I’ve read, he would have preferred Duke Frederick himself to take the throne. I’ve even read that, had Frederick gone with the pope’s plan, Frederick could have named someone a cardinal. Just imagine: Luther could have not only been a cardinal, but he could have theoretically become pope himself. I’m getting ahead of myself a bit since that never happened, but it is an interesting counterfactual nugget.
At any rate, since Duke Frederick wielded so much political influence, he was able to run interference for Luther. The pope couldn’t make demands on Frederick without losing his support in the upcoming elections. So the pope had to move slowly, deliberately.
So the pope tried to proceed in a way that wouldn’t ruffle Frederick’s feathers. He sent a cardinal named Cajetan to get Luther to recant. Cajetan failed because he wound up debating Luther instead. A debate was held at Leipzig between one of Luther’s colleagues (named Andreas Carlstadt; remember the name, he’ll be important later). Luther wound up taking the stage as well and, while he officially “lost” for his heretical positions, he couldn’t be silenced either. And behind the scenes, Luther churned out an impressive amount of pamphlets and books, elucidating his position and refining his theology.
But eventually, Luther’s wiggle room ran out. Emperor Maximilian died and Charles I was chosen to replace him, becoming Emperor Charles V. With the need for niceties gone, the pope unleashed his full fury. He released a papal bull, an official decree of the church, entitled Exsurge Domine. In it, Pope Leo X gave Luther sixty days to recant his false teachings or he would be excommunicated from the church.
Luther didn’t recant. Instead, he kept going. He kept publishing more and more about the abuses he saw within the church. He simply wouldn’t stop. Eventually his enemies decided that if he couldn’t be stopped by the church, he would have to be stopped by the Empire.
Emperor Charles V called a meeting, called a “Diet,” at the German city of Worms. Luther was ordered to present himself to the Emperor there. So in April, 1521, Luther went to the Diet of Worms.
At this meeting, he stood before the emperor and was asked two questions. After being shown a pile of his writings, he was asked if those were his. When he said they were, he was asked if he would recant of what he had written.
Luther had to think fast. He asked the emperor for a day to consider his answer and he was granted just that. The next day, the Diet reconvened and Luther was asked the questions again. This time, Luther pointed out that his writings weren’t all of the same kind. Some addressed basic Christian belief that even his opponents would have to agree with. If he recanted of those, he’d be denying the truth everyone knew. Another kind dealt with the abuses he saw in the church. It wouldn’t be right to deny those either. In some, he perhaps got a little too caustic in his rhetoric, and for that, he apologized.
But that wasn’t good enough. The emperor demanded a simple answer. So Luther gave one:
Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.
And by saying that, Luther stood firmly on his beliefs. But he also sealed his own fate. The emperor saw no reason to play around anymore. Luther was already a heretic, outside the bounds of salvation. Now Charles would turn him into an outlaw, meaning that Luther would live outside the protection of society. Charles withdrew the promise of safe travel and released the Edict of Worms, which basically condemned Luther to death. Anyone could kill him on sight with a clear conscience.
Luther must have seen this coming. He and his compatriots left Worms early to head home to Wittenberg. But on the way back, in the middle of the night, Luther’s party was accosted in the woods and Luther was kidnapped. No one knew what happened to him. Was it possible that the leader of the reformation had died in the middle of the woods?
To find out, you’ll have to come back next week.Author @JohnWOtte talks about the Roman Catholic response to Martin Luther's teachings. Click To Tweet