Doctor Eck, still seeking revenge against Luther for his humiliation at the Leipzig debate, somehow managed to convince the pope to send him to Germany with the pope’s bull. This notice of the pope’s condemnation of Luther, required that Luther and his followers be arrested and delivered to Rome and that Luther’s writings be burned. Along with Eck, the pope sent his representative Aleander.
What the German People Thought of the Bull
Perhaps the pope and other church leaders thought the German people would be impressed and terrified by the papal bull. But the German people despised it instead. They felt insulted that the pope had chosen Eck as his representative. Thinking people understood that Eck only wanted revenge and that he was jealous of Luther’s popularity and influence. The people didn’t consider the bull to be the pope’s declaration of war against Luther. They thought of it as Eck’s bull. They remembered how Eck was embarrassed by Luther’s clear arguments from the Scriptures and how Eck’s arguments had been noisy and without substance. They knew he only pretended to have won the debate. He had lost their respect, and the pope, by choosing Eck as his representative, lost their respect, as well. The bull was a further insult to the German people.
Eck went first to Leipzig, thinking that he had many supporters there. It was in Leipzig, after all, that he had supposedly “won” the debate against Luther. But when Eck arrived at Leipzig with the papal bull, Leipzig university students put posters all around the town, attacking him. Then 150 students from Wittenberg arrived, creating a ruckus in the streets. Dr. Eck hid in a monastery for a while, then ran away from the town one night.
Eck didn’t give up, however. He carried the bull to Erfurth and published it there. But the university students grabbed all the copies they could get hold of, ripped them up and threw the pieces in the river. They made a joke that played upon the word bull which, in German, meant bubble. As the pope’s important document floated away on the water, they laughed that it really was a bubble now.
Eck sent the bull to the University of Wittenberg and told the rector, the man in charge of the university, that the university would be destroyed unless he obeyed the pope’s order to hand over Luther and burn all his writings. The university rejected Eck’s demands. They would not arrest Luther or burn his books.
Eck was not unsuccessful everywhere in Germany. In Duke George’s kingdom, he finally met with some success. In October 1520, Luther’s books were gathered from all the book sellers in Ingolstadt and locked up. Ulrich of Hutten, a supporter of Luther’s, was banished and his printer was thrown in jail.
In Belgium, the theologians built a fire and gathered a large pile of books, inviting students and citizens to bring their own books for the burning. Students and people added many books to the burning pile. Church leaders and monks were pleased. But they found out when it was too late, that the books the people brought to the fire were not Luther’s books, but books written by church doctors.
In Holland, the Dominican monks wanted to burn Luther’s books. The Count of Nassau would not permit it. Instead, he told them to preach the Gospel and then they wouldn’t have anything to complain about against Luther.
On November 17, 1520, Luther gathered legal witnesses and made a public appeal to a general Christian council to judge his case. He then requested Emperor Charles and all the rulers of Germany to protest with him and resist the “anti-Christian conduct of the pope, for the glory of God, the defense of the Church and of the Christian doctrine….”[i]
Then on December 10, Luther, along with the university’s professors and students, burned a pile of church law books and the despised papal bull.
So it was, that the bull which the pope believed would put an end to the revolt against the church, instead acted more like fuel thrown on a smouldering fire.
[i] History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.