Friday, February 5, 2021

The Critical Juncture in the West


Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.

It is difficult to avoid writing about this book, given the topic covered.  I do suggest: for anyone interested in the time and events, it is a valuable resource and an easy read.

In my last post, I wrote of what seemed to clearly be the sticking point for the Church: Luther’s questioning on indulgences.  In this post, I will offer brief snippets of events in the subsequent years.

Jan Hus

Yes, I know this was prior to Luther; Hus is in the story about one century earlier.  But the story of Luther cannot be told without Hus.  It was at the Leipzig Disputation in the summer of 1519 where Luther was compared to Hus, because of a) Luther raised many of the same objections, and b) Luther said that on many points, he agreed with Hus.

Of course, Luther knew little of Hus at the time he made these statements; until this point, he had not read any of Hus’s works (probably difficult to come by, given they were deemed heretical).    Hus, like Luther after him, would condemn the papacy (an Antichrist if he lived contrary to Christ) and supported offering the cup to the laity.  These, among other positions, did not sit well in Rome.

In October 1414, Hus was called to the Council of Constance.  He traveled there with a safe-conduct granted by the emperor, but within a month it was decided that such a heretic deserved no safe return.  By the next summer, he was told: recant or else.  He would not.  On July 6, 1415, Hus was burned alive.


He was in a tough spot.  He agreed with much of what Luther wrote and said, and Luther felt – at least early on – that Erasmus could be an ally.  But, fighting the Church openly was not his style or desire.  In fact, fighting at all openly was not in his sights.  When he wanted to attack, he would author a pamphlet anonymously.

Erasmus would write plainly and openly: he had not desire to speak against Rome or the Pope; in no way would he want to be a martyr.  The pressure slowly turned up into one of those “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” climaxes.


He could be a nasty sort; he relied on the notion that Christ came, not to bring peace, but a sword.  Those who wrote against him were “doctrinal asses,” “ignorant and wicked,” “swarm of parasites,” “The ‘Holy Roman See of Avarice,’” “the monsters of this age,” “a licentious den of thieves,” “notorious godlessness.”

He even wrote a pamphlet, mimicking a papal bull, entitled “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned by Doctor Martin Luther.”

To the extent he received admonishments of various sorts from Rome, there was offered little, if any, rebuttal beyond leaning on the authority of the Church.

The Printing Press

Millions (yes, millions) of copies of Luther’s work were printed, spreading throughout Germany and Europe – not only in Latin, but also in the common tongues.  Absent the printing press, Luther may not have achieved any better result than that which came to Hus.


The Diet at Worms, 1521; Charles and the Church confront Luther.  An event as meaningful to the history of the West as was the day when the Estates General convened in France in 1789.  For Luther, finding himself in the company of the emperor, many esteemed nobles, bishops, etc., was a new and strange experience for such a lowly and haggard man.

Luther’s books were piled in front of him: Are these your books?  Will you retract anything in them?  In a voice so low as to be barely audible, Luther replied – yes, these were his books.  As to the second question, Luther asked for time to consider a proper reply.  He was granted until the next day. 

The next day, Luther spoke much more clearly; the books are of different kinds.  Some simply discuss faith and morals, topics to which no Christian could object.  The second group attacked the papacy and papists, as a group having devoured riches from Germany; were he to retract these, he would only strengthen tyranny.  The third group was against individuals who supported these various actions of the Church; were he to retract these, the godlessness against the people would only grow more fierce.

Luther asked – as he had done several times over the years: show me, through Scripture, where I have erred.  If so, I will retract – and be the first to burn my books.  Eck replied – don’t think your interpretation, the interpretation of one man, is more accurate than that of the centuries offered through the Church.

Luther stood his ground: only if convinced by Scripture and reason would he recant, at which point he may or may not have said “Here I stand – I cannot do otherwise.”  These words do not appear in any of the accounts recorded on the spot.  But the words certainly capture the mood.

The German People

Many were for Luther, tired as they were of the never-ending demands for coin to be sent south to Italy – a German nationalism starting to take root.  He also received support from those seeking a more transcendent piety.  By this time, had Luther been put to death, a hundred Luthers would rise up in his place.


Fearing for Luther’s safety – despite having a safe-conduct from the emperor (recall what this meant for Hus), Frederick, Luther’s protector, arranged to have Luther kidnapped and taken to a secret location.  If I continue with this story, I will pick it up here.


The way this history is playing out, it seems clear that what would subsequently be labeled the “Wars of Religion” were clearly, instead, wars intended to create monopoly authority – wars to birth states.  The fights were not about the Chalice; the fights were about who and how one would rule.

Would the noble be sovereign, or would he also owe allegiance to Rome?  This was the underlying question.


  1. Funny ("funny") that the nobles fighting for sovereignty apart from Rome did not consider these new Protestant Denominations as organizations to share sovereignty with. Also, it doesn't seem like the Protestant leaders assumed or asserted any kind of political authority as the Roman Catholic church did.

    1. In fact, I believe Luther would later advocate for a combination of what used to be the divided and competing authority between the Church and the king. He felt the king / prince should be the sole authority - Christian and godly, of course; according to Scripture. But a monopoly nonetheless.

      In this, it seems clear that it gave the birth of what we know as a state.