Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Fortune Favors the Bold

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.

You think?

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.


  1. "Individual man had freedom to make of Christianity whatever he desired."

    This I think is the key statement of the article. The question is, was it ever not the reality? Didn't each person need to understand the Bible as best he could? The Catholic church before the Reformation and still now has a large amount of doctrinal variability even with the effort to dictate orthodoxy. Luther's initial criticisms weren't allowed because they mostly attacked the prerogative of the rulers not because he was somehow contradicting Scripture or even some fundamental doctrine.

    Luther was right to challenge the use of Aquinas or church teaching over Scripture. If Church doctrine was based on a reasonable interpretation of Scripture they would have had no problem meeting his request, even if Luther didn't agree with them. They didn't which says a lot. Jesus himself had similar disputes with the Pharisees of His day. One example is in Matthew 15:1-7

    "1 Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” 3 And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” 6 he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you"

    Luther clearly saw that some Church doctrine was not built on the word of God but on traditions of men. It shouldn't be hard starting from Scripture to understand that penance, indulgence, and corrupting greed are not things that belong in the church. But Aquinas said...

    A second problem that is hinted at in this situation is how Church leadership tried to keep things hidden. They didn't want the Bible to be readable by common people. They didn't want people to be aware of valid criticisms. Quite simply the Catholic church leaders did not want to be held accountable in any way. Centralized power with no accountability is very bad thing.

    My further comment is that Libertarians should at least in some way identify with Luther. He is the Mises to Pope Leo's Keynes. He is the Lysander Spooner to Pope Leo's Hamilton.

    The Catholic church killed Huss. They deceived him and murdered him. They did the same thing to William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English. They based some interpretations on the Latin translation even where it was shown inaccurate by the manuscripts in the original languages. They as an organization had (and have) a lot to answer for.

    But I do get it. Luther was an asshole. He really was. He didn't play well with Pope Leo and he didn't play well with Zwingli or Calvin either. Didn't mean he was wrong though.

    Last, I do think most people can agree on what Scripture says. There are parts which are difficult to interpret. We all have ideas and approaches to understanding that appeal to us more than others. But if you focus on what is written, think reasonably about things, and be aware of your own fallibility, disagreements can be held to the margins or agreed that the Scripture is vague enough to allow for variability. But that is how individuals relate to each other not how central authorities of powerful organizations with no accountability relate to individuals.

    1. RMB, A very thoughtful comment. Thank you. I reply in two parts.

      “Didn't each person need to understand the Bible as best he could?”

      I struggle so much with this. No matter my work on tradition and culture, I have vast amounts of “Enlightenment” ground in me: “Individual reason is the answer to everything.” But is it so? We lean on experts for understanding many things. Whatever any of us believe is proper Biblical interpretation, I think we must all admit that it is a) complicated, and b) individual passages can be seen as contradictory to other individual passages. Are we each capable of sorting this out properly?

      Individuals act and reason, but it is institutions that last. Why would we not lean on experts here – and given that only one interpretation of Scripture can be “right” (not to say that man will ever fully discover this), why would we not lean on an institution for this expertise?

      Without the institution that was the Church, in what form would Christianity “last”? I don’t speak of the political governance issues that have been my focus at this blog, but “Christianity.” With everyone free to make their own interpretation, we can say with certainty that all interpretations but one are wrong (and likely all are wrong on some aspect). Does this matter for salvation? This is where my code word “resurrection” comes in, I guess. Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as we focus on the resurrection. But even here, I cannot say that all interpretations that incorporate resurrection are right.

      None of this is to say that I believe the Church at the time acted honorably or Biblically – let’s just say that I don’t believe that the Church acted in a Christian manner. But I cannot really say that Luther did either, although sooner or later a “Luther” was going to come to the scene and shake things up.

      My views are similar to yours regarding Luther. I think if the Church addressed him seriously things could have turned out differently. I think Luther’s anger and aggression came to the fore only after he felt rebuffed – he felt that his issues were not dealt with Scripturally.

      I think we can all understand this, in various aspects of life. If I have a legitimate concern and I am dismissed without the facts of the concern being addressed, my spine only grows stronger and I become more convinced that “I must be right, because they are afraid to address my points.” If I feel strongly enough about something in such a situation, I could easily become intransigent – even (intellectually) aggressive and obnoxious. As Luther truly believed salvation was at stake, his intransigence is understandable.

    2. Part two:

      I also hold similar views to yours regarding the Church at the time: a desire to hold power at the expense of holding truth.

      I return to my questions / reasons for diving into this book, from my first post:

      • If the decentralized governance of the medieval period offered reasonably libertarian law, it will be helpful to understand why this crumbled.

      • It is worth understanding the costs and benefits to entrenched power in the face of criticism.

      • In a most divisive circumstance, how effective was the decentralized nature of early sixteenth century Europe? How beneficial?

      • Was such a division of Christendom inevitable, given the realities of the time?

      I think all of this is part of the discussion – including points you have raised and points I hope to address through this work.

      “My further comment is that Libertarians should at least in some way identify with Luther. He is the Mises to Pope Leo's Keynes. He is the Lysander Spooner to Pope Leo's Hamilton.” “Last, I do think most people can agree on what Scripture says.”

      RMB, I want to consider these two comments together. Let me try this: “I do think most people can agree on what the non-aggression principle says.” We know how this sentence doesn’t ring true, given the reality of debates / discussions / views all held in the name of the non-aggression principle. Yet compared to Scripture, the NAP is child’s play – the simplest concept I can imagine.

      Most people – left to their own reason – will never agree on what Scripture says. Libertarians cannot and will not do it with the NAP; how can it be done with something infinitely richer, vibrant, complex?

    3. I recognize the dilemma between giving people freedom to come to their own understanding on subjects and needing some group of experts to explain what people should think on that subject. It is true of the Bible and everything else really. I agree their needs to be experts that can be guides to everyone else. But they have to be accountable to other experts and to insightful novices. Today the local church still does provide that guidance. There are different views but at least a person can look at those different views and make a choice about which one does the best job of explaining what the Bible says and means. I don't think there is a better system really. People are always involved so having one monolithic organization will lead to abuse of power.

      My meta-point was even with the unified Church making pronouncements on orthodoxy, that didn't eliminate people coming to their own ideas about things. What they believed in some ways was dictated by Church experts but in many ways they mixed that in with their own reasoning about life and experiences. But it was based mostly in ignorance of what the Bible said. This is a problem, because there are promises in the Bible itself that the Holy Spirit is a teacher. Him teaching you presupposes you can read the Bible for yourself. Of course that also means that people will be wrong about what they believe. The promise isn't that the Holy Spirit will communicate unequivocally and people will understand perfectly. But that is the process described in the Bible for people to grow in faith and Christian maturity.

      But the Church of Luther's day didn't allow that process to happen, as imperfect and fractious as it will inevitably be. They sought to keep people in ignorance. And to keep them in ignorance the Church had to murder people.

      Once Luther understood their was a problem he started looking for other areas where official Church doctrine was based on tradition and not Bible. He found that fundamental teachings on salvation were off. He went overboard with rhetoric but I do believe salvation was at stake.

      I think Christianity lasts as long as 1 local church continues in the orthodox faith, imperfectly. I also believe while we should have seminaries, pastors, professors, churches, denominations, associations, focused on doing our best to carry the torch to the next generation of Christians, it is ultimately God who will preserve the Church. Ultimately my faith rests not in the Church or churches or doctrinal systems but Jesus to preserve His church on the earth.

    4. About agreement on the Bible. I think most of the disagreements come not from arguing over what the Bible says but how each person approaches the Bible at a base level. The issues are Bibliology (what is the Bible) and epistemology (how do we learn from it). It is the presuppositions that are always the main issues in philosophy.

      As far as Bibliology, the Bible is self referential. You can form a view about it based on what it says. Now the issue is do you believe what it says about itself? But if you don't are you really following God? Can you be a believer in Jesus and reject His revelation? I know that doesn't solve the issue, but it points to humility and faith being prerequisites. Do we have authority over it or does its truth have authority over us?

      As far as epistemology, the question is what is the process of interpretation. There are 2 factors I think are important. Do you interpret literally or allegorically? Do you interpret by purposefully adding in your own bias, experience, philosophy or do you do your best to take what is their in the text and extract it out? That doesn't mean you can remove your own perspective and experience. It doesn't mean those things can't help you understand the Bible better. However, it does mean that you start by simply trying to understand what it says and what the author intended it to mean. Rationally, using a literal interpretation is the best approach. By literally, I mean using grammar, original definitions of words, acknowledging differences in literary genre between sections. This sounds really complicated. It can be. But a lot of it is common sense. That doesn't mean everyone will agree. But talking through any epistemological differences helps you understand where the other person is coming from and can lead to acceptance of variability where the specific issue isn't central to the gospel.

      Usually disagreements revolve around using one group of verses to understand a topic while the other group has another. Sometimes the solution is to compare the verses and base your views on both groups. If not exact agreement you can get pretty close. It is harder to get agreement when one or both parties is trying to adhere to a doctrinal system. In those cases they will be opposed to including the other verses because their is an authority telling them not to.

    5. “I don't think there is a better system really.”

      Nor do I, but it is dependent on men of goodwill in the role of “expert.” Of course, if the so-called experts are NOT of good will, then it is really best that we each are left to our own reason and choosing our own counselors.

      “Ultimately my faith rests not in the Church or churches or doctrinal systems but Jesus to preserve His church on the earth.”

      As does mine. And He will raise men of good will.

      “…it points to humility and faith being prerequisites.”

      I have found it very easy to accept that the gap in the pyramid is there and will always be there. The more I have educated myself, the more I believe this to be true.

      “If not exact agreement you can get pretty close.”

      Part of my faith and humility is in accepting – in fact, embracing – that there is and will remain much that is a mystery to me.

  2. And, yet, the Word of God, Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to be denied to those Jesus came to save. Whether it is heard or read.

    Revelation 10: 9 So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’[a]” 10 I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. 11 Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”

    So it is with being saved and freed from sin to slavery. "Ignorance is bliss" it is said. It is a joy to be rescued but having eyes opened to this world system is a bitter sight.

    "With great power comes great responsibility."

    "There is no human solution to the human condition." Quoting me.

    And the struggle will continue until Jesus' return.

  3. Dear RMB and Bionic,
    One small addition to your interesting conversation. RMB wrote, "A second problem that is hinted at in this situation is how Church leadership tried to keep things hidden. They didn't want the Bible to be readable by common people. They didn't want people to be aware of valid criticisms."
    Printing arrived in Europe just 60-70 years before the events Bionic has described. This "revolution" was a big part of the events. But beforehand to expect people to have the bible and be able to read it in any language was highly improbable. It was presumably passed to people in the oral tradition, and there are still the readings every Sunday. Thus, I think to say it was "hidden" is not accurate. That the Church did not respond to the printing revolution properly is closer to the truth as I see it.
    Ira Katz