Luther approached the throne where Emperor Charles V sat at the head of the council. Chancellor John ab Eck addressed Luther and told him that he must answer two questions. “Do you acknowledge these books to have been written by you?” The chancellor pointed at a pile of Luther’s books. “Secondly,” the chancellor continued, “are you prepared to retract these books, and their contents, or do you persist in the opinions you have advanced in them?”
Luther would have said yes to the first question, but his lawyer requested that the titles be read out loud. The chancellor read the titles. They were all Luther’s books, but some of them were simply devotional books and had nothing to do with indulgences or church reform.
Luther acknowledged that he had written the books. But he seemed unsure how to answer the second question, whether or not he would retract the books and their teachings. Luther answered, “I entreat you, Imperial Majesty, with all humility to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.”
The council broke into three groups to consider Luther’s request: the emperor with his ministers, the electors and princes, and finally the deputies of the free cities. When they returned to the main meeting room the chancellor told Luther he could come back tomorrow with his answer, but he could not put it in writing, but must deliver his answer by spoken word.
The next day at four o’clock, the imperial herald returned for Luther and painstakingly, they made their way to the council. The council was not ready for Luther when he returned. For two hours he stood, crushed by the crowd. It was night time before Luther was called in. Torches lit up the council hall.
The chancellor repeated the two questions of the previous day. The council’s recorder wrote that Luther answered “with decency, mildness, suitability, and moderation, and yet with much joy and Christian firmness.”
Luther restated his answer to the first question. Yes, the books were his. “As for the second,” Luther continued, “I have written works on many different subjects.”[i] He explained that some of the books on the table were simple descriptions of Christian faith and conduct that even his enemies could say were useful. He said that to retract these would be to “abandon truths that friends and enemies approve.”
The next group were books he’d written against the papacy in which he “attacked those who, by their false doctrine, their evil lives, or their scandalous example, afflict the Christian world, and destroy both body and soul.” Luther said that if he retracted those books, he would “lend additional strength to this tyranny and open the floodgates to a torrent of impiety.”[ii]
The third group of writings he spoke about were books he’d written against people who defended the Roman tyranny and destroyed the faith. He admitted attacking them more violently than was right for a religious person to do. But even those, he said, he could not retract because if he did he approve the sinfulness of his adversaries “and they would seize the opportunity of oppressing the people of God with still greater cruelty.”[iii]
Luther then begged the council “to prove from the writings of the prophets and apostles” where he was mistaken. Luther had given his defence in German. He was ordered to repeat it in Latin. Understandably, Luther was exhausted from the long journey to Worms on foot, from illness, from being thronged by crowds at every town, from the noise and from having to stand in the crush of the crowd for two hours. Nonetheless, he gave his defence again in Latin.
This did not satisfy the chancellor. “Will you, or will you not, retract?” he demanded.
Luther answered, “I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning…by means of the passages I have quoted…and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!”[iv]
[i] History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.