Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Luther’s “Road to Damascus” Moments

First, the impasse: a position or situation from which there is no escape; deadlock; a road or way that has no outlet; cul-de-sac.

Two months before Luther posted (or merely distributed) his famous 95 theses, he penned 97 theses, these titled “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology.”  It is a list primarily concerned with questions of faith, grace, will, and works.  Not a single word about indulgences.  As an aside, his points that reference Aristotelian thought begin at item 41 and continue for 10 or 12 points.  

In any case, this list had no impact at all – not within the Church, not within the community, not toward Luther’s fame.  Nothing.  This would change with the publication two months later of the 95 theses, entitled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”  Yes, the key difference was on the point of indulgences.  In this latter, more famous list, the words “indulgence” or “indulgences” appear forty-five times – after appearing not at all in his list from two months prior.

It seems clear that it was this point that the Church noticed and it was this point that created the impasse between Luther and the Church.  To dispute about the relative merits of Aristotelian thought or the specific formula that explains the role of grace and the role of works – I don’t know this for certain, but I believe it safe to say that there were wide-ranging opinions on these matters within the Church.

But the indulgences – especially during this time of fundraising for the new St. Peter in Rome, and when the German nobles were especially tired of seeing wealth leave the region, and when the pope was extremely profligate and wasteful – these went to the heart of the power and authority of the Church.

With that out of the way, what of these “Road to Damascus” moments for Luther?  The first one is mentioned above – his struggle regarding faith, works, grace, and will.  On this point, at least from what I have read, it is difficult to point to a “moment,” a specific time or event when this concern crystalized for him.  It seems to be something he struggled with for years, slowly and steadily building a foundation of belief.

Luther’s other Road to Damascus moment regards his temperament.  It is well-known that Luther was hard-headed and hard-charging – for all the good and bad that might come with these characteristics.  But he didn’t start this way.

When his 95 theses first gained attention, he was regularly asking for an argument – a standard practice at the time.  Posting items for disputation to later be disputed, hopefully with an outcome of moving toward a common understanding.  And it is on this matter where Luther’s softer demeanor turned very hard.  And it began, clearly, with his engagement with Thomas Cajetan.

As is the case regarding all of my writing on such matters: my point is not to take one side or the other on the theological issues; instead, it is to examine this most critical point in Western history.  Whatever one believes about the theology, it is clear that the events – as historical events – were of tremendous import.

Cajetan was sent by the pope to the Diet of Augsburg to address many matters, one of which was to examine and test the teachings of Luther. 

According to Hilaire Belloc, "[Luther] had not been treated roughly by his opponents, the roughness had been on his side. But things had gone against him, and he had been made to look foolish; he had been cross-examined into denying, for instance, the authority of a General Council—which authority was the trump card to play against the Papacy."

I will add to this the further description of this engagement as provided by Michael Massing in his book, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.

The Diet would be held at the Fugger Palace, the most sumptuous residence north of the Alps.  It was testament to the extraordinary wealth of this merchant-banker family, and, in part, a testament to the amount of wealth that was transferred through them to the Church in the form of indulgences. 

Cajetan was well-respected for his integrity, resented for his arrogance.  He was a staunch defender of Thomas’s Summa against the attacks of the Scotists.  He was also a strong supporter of reform, but also a defender of hierarchical authority. 

He was not in Augsburg merely for Luther.  He did his best to persuade the Germans to support a new crusade against the Turks – a war that would put to end, once and for all, the threat.  It was the diet’s duty to support a special tax for this purpose.  The reception was chilly, as calls to battle lately came as often as the change of seasons.

Nor was Luther to be the only complainant.  The diet submitted a list of grievances against the Church (these “sons of Nimrod”); this would become a rallying point for the German people, and would offer some hint as to the fertility of the soil on which Luther would plant seeds.  Cajetan would bear the brunt of these attacks; he was counting the moments until he could finally leave and return south to Rome.

Then came the direction: he was to interview Luther.  After three months of dealing with the Germans, he had little patience for this.  Yet he was determined to treat Luther as a loving father might treat a wayward son, thus guiding him on the path of revocation.

Luther was first greeted by one of Cajetan’s Italian couriers, Urban de Serralonga.  Luther was told that he had only one task in Augsburg, summed up in one word: recant.  Could Luther not even defend his position?  No, nothing was to be done but to recant.  Luther would write to Melanchthon that he is prepared to be sacrificed before he would recant. 

The two would finally meet.  Luther would prostrate himself in front of this cardinal of the Church, not rising until the third prompting by Cajetan.  Meanwhile, Cajetan would praise Luther for his scholarship and his work as a teacher and lecturer. 

Once the pleasantries were over, the cardinal told Luther what was required of him – that he come to his senses and retract his error, that he promise to refrain from committing such errors in the future, and that he avoid any activity that might disturb the Church.

Listening to this, Luther would grow agitated.  He said that if this was the entire purpose of the meeting, this could have been conveyed while Luther was in Wittenberg, saving everyone a trip.  Furthermore, before he would retract anything, he must be shown where he had erred.

Despite being told not to debate with Luther, Cajetan could not resist.  He said Luther erred on two key points: the second one mentioned was that faith was essential to the sacrament of penance.  It is the first one that is of more direct relevance:

The first was in his fifty-eighth thesis, where he had maintained that the merits of Christ and the saints were not the treasure of the Church and that those merits are always working grace in the inner man, with or without the pope’s say-so.

The wording of this thesis, as follows:

Nor are they [the treasures of the Church] the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.

This directly contradicted Church teaching dating to the fourteenth century, that the Church, through Christ’s suffering and sacrificed, acquired an infinite treasure in heaven.  This treasure had been placed at Peter’s disposal, and from Peter, passed to the Church.  Through this treasure, the Church could offer relief from temporal penalties.

This was stated by Cajetan with all the assurance of one accustomed to making unchallenged pronouncements.  It was not only this tone that upset Luther, but that the matter of indulgences as raised by Luther was not more directly addressed. 

Luther noted that the decree on which Cajetan based his argument was barely noted even in the Church – relegated to an appendix of decretals (the 1343 Extravagante Unigenitus of Pope Clement VI).  Cajetan likely assumed that Luther would not be aware of the decree or its relative significance, but Luther was prepared. 

Luther was prepared with Scriptural citations, but Cajetan would not allow it.  Luther was made aware of proper Church teaching, and he now must recant.  Luther did not want to disobey the Church, but he also wanted to be heard.  Cajetan demanded nothing but complete obedience, where even speaking one’s mind was not allowable.

And this was the end of only the first day.  They would meet the next day, with Luther citing Scripture, Cajetan growing tired of this, and Luther becoming ever more frustrated with Cajetan’s habit of responding with nothing more than papal authority.  Finally, Cajetan pleaded with Luther not to continue, at which Luther asked permission to prepare a written reply.  This permission was reluctantly granted.

That evening, Luther would write of Cajetan that he was “a puzzle-headed, obscure, senseless theologian,” as fit to deal with his case “as an ass to play the harp.”  At the same time, Luther was growing aware of his many supporters in Augsburg, likely due to the disdain of the abuse of indulgences.

Luther would write fifty-six paragraphs, filled with Bible passages.  The merits of Christ could not be dispensed through men; to discard these many proofs of Scripture for an almost insignificant note in an appendix had things backwards: Scripture comes before man’s decrees  The pope is not above the word of God; he, like all of us, is under it.

“As long as these Scripture passages stand,” he wrote, “I cannot do otherwise, for I know that I must obey God rather than men…I do not want to be compelled to affirm something contrary to my conscience, for I believe without the slightest doubt that this is the meaning of Scripture.”

The next day, he would present this paper to Cajetan, who flung it back at Luther.  A long speech filled with citations from Aquinas would follow.  Luther would unsuccessfully try to interrupt several times.  Luther, frustrated, began to shout. 

Luther would challenge Cajetan to demonstrate through the Extravagante Unigenitus that Christ’s merits are the treasury of indulgences; if this could be done, he would recant.  On this challenge, Cajetan and his courtiers would snicker with glee – Luther, they believed, stepped into it. 

Cajetan read the relevant passage, and Luther would respond.  He was somewhat trapped – the best he could do was to offer an almost insignificant point.  To sum up the point of contention, Luther pointed out that there is a difference between ‘there is’ a treasury and ‘to acquire’ a treasury.

Cajetan was puzzled; Luther, feeling cornered, had retreated into a triviality.  Luther, in his frustration of having his Scriptural arguments ignored, challenged Cajetan to point to a non-Scriptural source…and Cajetan did so, successfully.  At this point, Luther was ready to leave.  Cajetan told him to not return unless it was to recant.

Luther waited some days, knowing that he would soon be seized by Cajetan.  On the night of October 20, 1518, he would be awakened by an attended, taken to a small gate of the city, where he would be met by a groom with two horses.  Luther, not properly dressed and in the middle of the night, would escape.  Eleven days later, on the first anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses, he would arrive safely back in Wittenberg.

Luther could not believe that the pope ordered that he be treated in such a manner…

… “but that if the Curia had in fact produced it, “I will teach them their impudent rashness and wicked ignorance.”

Luther would publish an account of the proceedings, stating that he did not care for the writings of the pope if these contradicted Scripture.

Cajetan would demand from Frederick, Luther’s protector, that Luther be returned.  Luther was upset that he put Frederick in such a position.  But Frederick would reply to Cajetan: Luther had not yet been judged by an impartial panel.


There would follow other fits and starts, but the framework was clear from this interaction: Luther believed that Scriptural arguments were both sound and ignored, with the defense hiding behind papal authority.  He clearly did not have the personality to accept doctrine merely based on the say so of Church authority. 

There is good and bad with this of course.  However, with the abuse of indulgences, with the extravagant expenditures by the current pope, with the frustration of the German nobles seeing wealth departing their lands and going to Rome, with the desire by German nobles to move toward a monopoly of authority, and with the printing press, the situation was ripe for explosion.


  1. Mr. M.,

    What do you mean by this "There is good and bad with this of course."?

    Surely, you aren't referring to this statement which immediately precedes it "He clearly did not have the personality to accept doctrine merely based on the say so of Church authority."?

    1. I was. Institutions are important and necessary; institutions also can become corrupt.

      It was not a good outcome that Christianity (Christendom) was torn apart, but - given the various corruptions of the Church and the Church's unwillingness to deal properly with these - it was necessary. While Luther may not have been sound on every objection, there were many objections that hit the mark.

      This came with both good and bad consequences.

  2. What a great post and exploration. I agree with the "good and bad" comment at the end very much; I as a Catholic do believe Christ seeks unity among all Christians.

    I am no expert, but my impression from various sources is that Scholasticism, for all of its merits, failed in part because it began to treat metaphysical speculations on finer theological points as definitive truth or doctrine. The modern Church has retreated from such positions (although, it has retreated too far in many respects). This, combined with the Church's loss of moral authority from its profligacy during the pre-Reformation era (and in part, as revenge for its otherwise salutary interference in political fights as a mediator), provided fertile ground for rival powers to exploit Luther and his cause in order to centralize power.

    Cajetan himself is a very interesting character. Supremely learned. Rothbard treats him as a proto-Austrian in his famous history of economic thought tomes, and gives him much praise. Cajetan went out of his way to speak to and study merchants when coming up with his treatises on economics--he wanted to know how things actually worked. Very unusual and shows a great degree of compassion and fair-mindedness. His dealings with Luther (and surely on other matters) evince his blind side.

    1. I believe (but have only limited superficial understanding on this) that one of Luther's primary contentions with the Scholastics was on "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" types of discussions.

      Unfortunately, as you note, the pendulum has swung too far - throwing out the natural law baby with the (seemingly trivialized) bathwater.

      I hope I am not too far wrong here; as mentioned, I am just starting to gain some understanding of these positions and differences.