When Luther returned from his trip to Rome, John Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinian monks and Martin Luther’s superior, told Luther that he and the elector Frederick had arranged for Luther to receive a doctor of divinity degree. This degree was given to honor Luther for his research in the Bible and the articles that he wrote. It was the highest, most honorable of all the academic degrees. To Luther, this seemed too great an honor for him to receive and he told his superior that he should look for a more worthy person. They argued for a time and finally Staupitz told him, “Do what I command you. You have promised to obey.”
The Dean of Theology Who Didn’t Read the Bible
Professor Carlstadt was the dean of theology at the University of Wittenberg and granted Luther the degree. This is ironic, because Carlstadt admitted later that he himself had never even read the Bible, which shows how little the church and schools valued the Bible at that time.
Luther Swears to Defend the Word of God
Luther received his degree with an oath to “defend the evangelical faith” and to preach and study the Scriptures all his life. Although Luther could not have known the chaos and danger to himself that would result from it, by this oath and promise, Luther publicly declared his allegiance to God’s Word and acknowledged that it was the Bible, not the traditions of the church, which he would defend till his death.
The sole and infallible authority of the Word of God was the primary and fundamental principle of the Reformation.[iii]
Soon afterward, Luther wrote an article to be read in Rome at a meeting of church officials. In the article, Luther said that the world had become corrupt because the priests did not preach from the Bible, but taught traditions instead.
Luther himself dwelt upon God’s Word and preached it in his sermons in the churches and in the lectures he gave to students at the university. In a sermon on the Ten Commandments, he told his listeners that just because they didn’t kneel down to idols, they were still as likely to worship idols in their hearts. He said, “This idolatry prevails in every man until he is healed by the free gift of the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”[i]
He upset some people by teaching that a person can do what looks good and right, but it is the motivation of the heart that God judges by. Many people believed they could, in a way, win God’s friendship or favor by doing good works. Luther constantly taught that people are helpless to do what’s right without God’s help. Only God by His power can change a person. It is not in the power of ourselves to be good or righteous. He said, “Do not look for salvation in your own strength or in your good works, but in the merits of Christ and in God’s grace.”[ii]
[i] J. H. Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.