Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, by Brad S. Gregory
In the early months of 1518, Luther’s theses circulate; several university theologians recognize the danger and respond with harsh criticism. Despite offering only propositions for debate, his critics argue that Luther is speaking recklessly – he is speaking publicly about matters that are normally reserved for internal debate.
It isn’t just that Luther is public in his work; he is public not in Latin but in German – making his thoughts available to a much wider – and apparently agreeable – audience. Luther offers his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace in late March 1518. Like his other work, this is brief. Unlike his other work, it is written in German and in a style intended to appeal to a wider audience.
Like never before, Luther writes with passion and power, a new energetic style that will continue in the following months to grow stronger during exchanges with his opponents.
It is here where I have some confusion about Luther’s initial intent – that he never intended to split the Church, etc. That may be so – and I have read it many times. Yet in the first few months – and before receiving any meaningful criticism and certainly no censure or label of heresy – Luther takes the approach most certain to antagonize. I make no statement about his theses – just questions regarding his intent given his approach.
Luther continues to draw on Augustine; in Gregory’s words, “favoring passages important to him.” I find the wording interesting – and it isn’t the only time Gregory uses this phrase in this context. Is Luther being selective in Augustine’s work – selecting supportive passages and ignoring others? Look, most authors (myself included) do this.
Most important is to come to some thought about a narrative – this only after some careful study and reflection. Thereafter, finding that which conforms with the narrative is appropriate – as long as confronting that which challenges the narrative is also accepted.
In any case, I do not know Augustine well enough to state if there is an issue here or not regarding Luther’s approach.
Christian humanists begin to see in Luther a kindred spirit; in April Luther attends a meeting in Heidelberg of the Observant Augustinians. He performs well in defending his propositions, impressing many of the attendees. Word of Luther spreads beyond Germany.
He also draws the attention of the Emperor Maximillian – and not in a good way. In August, Pope Leo X receives a letter from Maximillian denouncing Luther as a heretic. Around this time, official condemnations come from Rome and other authorities. Those who say what Luther has said about indulgences is a heretic. Yet Luther does not yet receive this label from Rome.
Luther is shaken, but not for long. As he would often do at such times, he gets angry. His response – don’t just tell me to shut up; in your challenge to me, quote from Scripture and not Aquinas. In any case, Luther is now in sight of both the empire and the Church – his situation is certainly precarious.
Pope Leo gives Luther sixty days, two short months, to appear in Rome. But Frederick of Saxony, as Luther’s elector, refrains from ordering Luther to go.
Frederick leverages Leo X and his need to finance a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks; Leo needs financial support – including from Frederick. Frederick uses this as leverage against Rome and regarding Luther.
One of several examples where the decentralized authority protected Luther during the coming years. Decisions such as these – by princes, city councils, sovereign kings and the emperor regarding Luther as well as other Protestant leaders – would come to influence the success or failure of the Reformation…however one might care to define either success or failure.
It seems to me that by this point it mattered little if Luther was free or in a dungeon; his propositions were out there and were gaining a large and growing audience among sympathetic ears. This is not to suggest that all in the audience held the same positions – they just all agreed about some subset of abuses by the Church.
Further meetings and interactions between Luther and representatives of Rome follow: renounce these ideas and all will be forgiven is the message; point out in Scripture where I am wrong is the retort. Of course, nothing is so simple either way – and certainly interpreting Scripture is one of the more complex endeavors ever taken on by man. One thing that can be said of Luther: he would have nothing of uncertainty regarding his interpretation; he was most certain in his interpretation of Scripture.
It is here where Luther starts thinking the unthinkable: the men in Rome are just like the Antichrist. Then, Maximillian dies. This strengthens Luther’s hand, as Frederick is one of seven electors that will cast a vote – and Pope Leo X needs Frederick’s vote.
Further debates are arranged – one to be judged by the theological faculties of the Universities in Erfurt and Paris – the latter the most prestigious in Christendom. The Leipzig Disputation: Luther and Eck go at it for ten straight days with only one day off. It is an aftereffect of this debate where Luther comes to understand Scripture alone – Sola Scriptura – as the only authority. Of course, interpretation is more important than source. Again, Luther was certain of his interpretation.
No official response on the debate is ever offered from Erfurt; Paris dallies for more than a year. Ultimately, other faculties and eventually Paris condemn Luther’s claims. Luther remains unmoved. His view? What else can you expect from scholastics who are ignorant of scripture and in service of the Pope?
Luther is evermore forceful and critical of Catholic practices of penance, baptism, and the Eucharist – reconfiguring each according to his interpretations. Word spreads from England to Italy. Lay authors start writing on these matters – offering an inkling, perhaps, of what the future held in store.
In the meantime, Luther finds more reason to be angry: he reads one treatise that examines the Donation of Constantine to the fourth-century pope as a monastic forgery; he reads a second, written by John Hus over a century earlier, with which Luther agrees completely.
…he comes to see his own defense of the gospel as the front line in an apocalyptic battle against the powers of Satan. An earlier suspicion now becomes his conviction: the Antichrist has taken over the papacy. He’s now seething….
And in June 1520, the papal bull Exsurge Domine appears, calling on Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul and the “whole communion of saints” to rise up and oppose Luther. It condemns forty-one propositions; it orders every Christian to never read, speak, publish or praise any of Luther’s work; Luther is prohibited from preaching; his writings are to be burned throughout Europe. Finally, Luther is given sixty days to recant.
The document would not be delivered to Wittenberg for four months – after which the sixty-day clock would start. Four months is a long time for Luther to work: Luther exhorts political leaders to violence against the pope and cardinals. Thieves, robbers, and heretics are punished with death; why not the same against these teachers of iniquities? “Why do we not wash our hands in their blood…?”
Luther no longer thinks of reform or reconciliation.
Satan himself has conquered the papacy and installed the Antichrist on the papal throne….
Luther is working on his most explosive treatise yet: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, appearing in August. The first edition of four thousand copies sells out in less than two weeks. As Leo and the Church will not reform on their own, Luther turns to the nobility for action.
Luther is exploiting long-standing desires by many for reform in the Church:
“Now that Italy is sucked dry, the Romanists are coming into Germany.” “How is it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and extortion of our goods at the hands of the pope?” “Oh noble princes and lords, how long will you leave your lands and your people naked and exposed to such ravenous wolves?”
University teaching of Aristotle’s ideas should stop; canon law should be abolished. Implementing such measures would alter Christian life – and as Christianity permeated everything, it would alter all of life – immeasurably. This was Luther’s intent.
This treatise strikes a deep chord – ears, hearts and minds were ready for such action. Frederick continues to refuse to send Luther to Rome. Leo X threatens excommunication; Luther responds by pronouncing the pope the pompous occupant of a tyrannical institution controlled by Satan.
Whichever side you take in this battle, you have to wonder: What’s Leo waiting for? Well, after the sixty-day clock runs out, the deed is done and Luther is excommunicated in early 1521 as a heretic. Without Frederick’s protection, Luther is a dead man.
Charles V, the new emperor, promises Luther safe passage to and from a meeting of the imperial diet at Worms. John Hus received similar assurances more than a century earlier. He was tried and burned as a heretic. Luther is concerned, but attends.
On the journey, he is treated like a rock star. In city after city, he is greeted and cheered by admiring crowds. On arrival, he expects a debate. Instead, he is asked two simple questions when presented with a stack of books: are these his work, and does he recant them? Luther answers yes to the first, and asks for time to consider his response to the second.
On the following afternoon, he delivers his response. He speaks of his writing, dividing these into three categories and defending each. Of course, he recants none of these. How can Luther be so sure in the face of thousands of theologians over hundreds of years? Well…he is.
The edict condemning him is out one month after Worms; he is now both heretic and outlaw. Frederick is now in defiance of both pope and emperor. He is also harboring the most famous man in Europe – barely five years after Luther toiled in almost complete obscurity.
Luther started the Reformation, but he never had control over it. Once his writing got out in German, in my opinion it mattered not what Luther did or didn’t do. And with only the Holy Spirit’s guidance and sola scriptura, it was certain that no one would control the Reformation.
Individual man had freedom to make of Christianity whatever he desired. This would play out over the next 130 years, in very messy and even bloody ways.