Staupitz, the Augustinian Superior and Luther’s friend, felt anxious for Luther. He urged Spalatin, Frederick the Wise’s secretary, to encourage Frederick to make his states safe for Luther and his followers. Staupitz wrote to Spalatin, “Let there be one place at least where men may speak freely and without fear.”[i]
At the same time, Staupitz did not seem to hold out much hope that Luther could be kept safe. He wrote to his friend, telling him to flee from Wittenberg. “Erelong no one will be able, without the pope’s permission, to search the Scriptures, and therein look for Jesus Christ, which Jesus Christ, however, commands…The wisest course is for you to abandon Wittenberg for a season and come to me. Then we shall live and die together.”[ii]
Ready to Die
But Luther would not seek asylum. He felt he had little to lose. He wrote, “They have already destroyed my honor and my reputation. One single thing remains; it is my wretched body: let them take it. They will thus shorten my life by a few hours.”
He set out on foot for Augsburg to appear before the pope’s representative to be judged. He stopped in Nuremburg and stayed with his friend, the preacher, Wenceslas Link. Luther borrowed a robe from Link because his was worn out.
Cardinal Thomas de Vio, also called Cajetan was a theologian and defender of the papacy. The pope had advanced him to cardinal for upholding the rights of the papacy in writing. He was a powerful representative and favourite of the pope. For instance, the pope had chosen him to give the emperor a hat and sword which he had blessed. Cardinal de Vio had the pope’s respect.
De Vio understood that Luther had already been condemned and it would be his business to send him to prison unless he recanted, or took back his 95 Theses and teachings.
Luther’s friends urged him not to go to Cardinal de Vio without a safe-conduct, a promise of safety, from the emperor. The cardinal’s representative said it wasn’t necessary, but Luther waited until he had it before meeting with de Vio.
Pomp and Humility Meet
When Luther, in his borrowed robe, met with de Vio, he fell to the ground on his face before him, as he’d been told to do. The cardinal asked him to rise. Luther kneeled. Finally, after the cardinal asked him again to rise, Luther stood on his feet.
De Vio told Luther the pope wanted three things from him. He was to:
- Retract his “errors, propositions and sermons”[iii];
- Stop spreading his opinions; and
- Avoid “everything that may grieve or disturb the Church.”
Luther asked the cardinal to explain how he had gone wrong. De Vio quoted writings of church leaders who had written about indulgences. Luther asked him to show him from the Bible where he was mistaken. De Vio quoted Pope Clement.
Word of God or Word of the Pope?
Luther insisted he show him from the Scriptures his errors. De Vio was frustrated that Luther would not accept the word of a pope on indulgences. He said, “The pope has power and authority over all things.”
Luther replied, “Except Scripture.”
After the first meeting with de Vio, Staupitz, Luther’s superior in the Augustine order, released him from the order. What that meant was that Luther was officially no longer an Augustine monk. If de Vio condemned Luther, all the Augustinians would not be disgraced. Although this might seem like a harsh thing for Staupitz to do to his friend, it was actually a kindness to Luther. Staupitz would not be obligated to turn Luther over to the authorities if Luther was no longer a monk under his care.
Cardinal de Vio met three times with Luther, but he got no where with this monk who insisted the Bible had greater authority than any pope. Luther would not retract his teachings or writings because they were based on Bible truths.
Finally, frustrated with Luther, de Vio threatened to send Luther to Rome for trial unless he retracted. He told Luther none of the German princes would be able to stop him. “The pope’s little finger is stronger than all the German princes put together,” he declared.[iv] “Retract, or return no more!”
Luther bowed and left.
[i] The History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.