Recap: In the fall of 1517, a monk named Tetzel was selling indulgences. Martin Luther took exception to Tetzel’s promise to purchasers that the certificates of indulgence were good even for sins no repented of. Luther, university professor and pastor of the nearby All Saints’ Church, worried that his church members would lose out on heaven if they fell for Tetzel’s deceptive sales tactics. On October 31, 1517, he followed a common practice among academics for inviting debate by posting his 95 arguments on indulgences, the famous 95 Theses, on the door of his church.
There might have been no Reformation if…..
Luther was no break-away, rogue monk intent on rebellion. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose faith was sincere and whose loyalty to the church was firm. He was simply seeking an open, academic appraisal on the question of indulgences.
Nobody showed up to discuss his propositions. But that doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about indulgences or what Luther had done. In private conversations all over Europe, Luther was the topic of conversation. Within a few weeks, copies of the Theses had spread across Europe; within a month, they were in Rome.
You might think the pope would have been enraged, but Leo X was a cultured man of letters. He seems to have admired Luther’s ability as a writer. After reading the Theses, he called Luther “a very fine genius” and said that the monks who were calling for his head were just jealous.
In fact, response to the Theses was mixed. Popular writers and honest men within the church rejoiced at Luther’s call for reforms on indulgences. Many of the ruling class, the politicians of the day, weren’t sure how to respond at first. But it was those within the church who spoke out most strongly against the Theses. They clamored for Luther’s immediate and severe punishment.
When Luther fell under attack from monks and other church clergymen, he appealed to the pope. In his letter, he explained that it was his zeal for Christ that caused him to write the Theses. He told the pope that he had been tired of hearing people complain about the wickedness of priests and monks. In fact, the church was at a low point in public opinion in the 16th century. Debauched monks and church leaders were mocked in tavern tunes, cartoons, and comedies. People like Luther were pained by the wicked lifestyles of church leaders who brought contempt upon the church.
Luther told the pope that he had tried to talk with some of the church’s leaders about the need for reform in the church but they only laughed at him or wouldn’t listen. It was then, he said, that he decided to post the 95 Theses.
Luther appealed to the pope and told him he wished to find “safety under the shadow of your wings.” He pled his submission to Leo, saying, “I fall at the feet of your holiness…I shall acknowledge your voice as the voice of Jesus Christ, who presides and speaks through you.” Luther even told the pope that he was willing to die if he deserved it. It seems Luther believed the pope was unaware of the scandal surrounding indulgences. The truth is, the pope was involved in Tetzel’s traffic, as he was taking a cut for the lavish construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The pope was soon won over to the side calling for Luther’s condemnation. Why? Desiderius Erasmus, a Catholic priest and leading theologian of the day perhaps said it best when he explained that Luther had “committed two unpardonable crimes; he has attacked the pope’s tiara and the monks’ bellies.”[i]
The pope sent Cardinal Thomas de Vio, or Cajetan, to Germany to deal with Luther. Cajetan’s was to send Luther to prison unless he recanted.
Cajetan told Luther the pope wanted three things. He was to 1) retract his “errors, propositions and sermons”[ii]; 2) stop spreading his opinions; and 3) avoid “everything that may grieve or disturb the Church.”
Luther asked the cardinal to show him from the Bible where he’d gone wrong. Cajetan instead quoted the church fathers. When Luther pressed him, Cajetan answered, “The pope has power and authority over all things.”
Luther replied, “Except Scripture.”
Although Luther and the church had come to an impasse, the turbulent events of the Reformation were still not inevitable at this point. There were some who did what they could to bring reconciliation.
Cardinal Charles Miltitz convinced the pope to let him negotiate a deal with Luther. Being a diplomatic German, he was successful in arranging the following terms of peace with Luther. Both parties were forbidden to preach, write or discuss the matter any further. Miltitz would ask the pope to assign a bishop to look into the affair and identify Luther’s errors. If Luther was wrong, he agreed to recant. Luther agreed not to do anything that would lessen the honor or authority of the church.
Miltitz’s arrangement might have marked the end of the disturbance within the church, if it wasn’t for the fact that Luther had touched the pride of a former friend, the famous theologian, John Eck. Eck published an attack on Luther, thereby breaking the peace bond between the two factions. The Leipzig debates between Eck and Luther that followed further developed Luther’s doctrinal stance and effectively entrenched both parties in their respective positions.
It was at Leipzig that issues about authority for the Christian church were clarified. Luther argued that a Christian’s authority was Christ Himself, through the Bible. Eck maintained that it was the pope, standing in the place of Christ on earth.
After the Leipzig disputes, Eck reported to the pope at Rome. The pope issued his bull, a papal edict or law, condemning Luther’s writings to the flames. The bull condemned Luther and his followers as heretics who were to be arrested and sent to Rome. (To be continued.)
[i] As quoted in J H Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 170.