Recap: On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto the door of a church in Germany to invite an academic debate on indulgences. Eventually the theologian John Eck arranged a debate. Eck said the pope was above all authorities. Luther argued that the pope himself was subject to the authority of Scripture. The church was dividing into parties, those on the side of Eck and tradition, and those on the side of Scripture and Luther. The pope’s bull called for the burning of all of Luther’s works and the condemnation of Luther and his followers.
The pope’s bull, an official church statement or law, was published in Rome June 15, 1520.
Eleven days later, Luther published Appeal to His Imperial Majesty and to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, on the Reformation of Christianity.
In this book, Luther said the church of Rome ensured that it would never undergo reform because it had raised up three doctrinal walls of protection against change. Luther said the church taught that it was above earthly authority, so secular rulers could not require it to change. It had placed itself above Scriptural authority, so teachings in the Word of God would not induce reforms. And because only the pope was authorized to call a council, not even a council of Christians could sway the church to change.
In his Appeal to the Nobility, Luther also used Scripture to attack the church’s teaching that there were two classes of people: 1) the hierarchy of the church and its clergy, and 2) everyone else.
Not surprisingly, this work widened the gulf developing between Luther and the church, but his popularity with the common people exploded. Many of the nobility also sided with him.
The pope had appointed John Eck as the papal representative to publish the papal bull in Germany. The German people were insulted by his choice. When Eck arrived at Leipsig, the place where he’d debated against Luther and a former Roman Catholic strong-hold, university students rioted. He was similarly received in those German states where the Reformation was favoured. But in Duke George’s states, he met success and heaps of Luther’s books were burned publicly.
From January till the end of May 1521, the rulers of the empire gathered in Worms, Germany for Charles V’s first council meeting. Among imperial business on the agenda was what to do about Luther and the Reformation.
Papal nuncio Aleander, the pope’s ambassador, made his way to Germany with the usual pomp, but found it difficult to find lodgings for the night once he arrived in Germany because people saw him as Luther’s enemy. Luther’s popularity astonished him and he sent a warning to Rome saying that Germany was separating from the church. The pope issued another decree calling for the confiscation of reformers’ properties.
The newly elected emperor, Charles V, barely 21 years old, invited Aleander to address the council. The nuncio spoke for three hours, accusing Luther and his followers of heresy and many crimes. He demanded that the pope’s edict against Luther be acted upon immediately.
Duke George, who’d enforced the pope’s bull in his territories and was an avowed enemy of Luther’s, was nonetheless dissatisfied by the way Aleander had lumped together Luther with the need for reforms within the church. Duke George produced a list of 101 complaints against the church and demanded they be addressed.
But this did not get Luther off the hook. He was called to Worms to appear before the imperial council. It took Luther close to two weeks to walk to Worms. All along the route, crowds came out to meet him and hear him preach. On the day that he was to appear before the council, 5 000 people packed inside the imperial palace and soldiers had to clear a way for him to get to the door of the hall.
On the first day of his appearance, Luther was shown a stack of books and pamphlets and asked if he was the author. He said he was. He was asked if he would retract his teachings in those documents. He asked for time to consider. When he returned on the second day, he was asked the same questions. He answered that it would be wrong for him to retract all the works, since a number of them were simply general Christian teachings that even his enemies subscribed to. Some of them were simply explanations on Bible passages.
Again, he was asked if he would recant. Then he spoke those famous words translated here into English:
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 – unless I am persuaded 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.
Luther never did receive a hearing and his condemnation at the Diet of Worms has gone down into history as another example of a travesty of justice.
Luther, expecting to be called to his execution, fled Worms one morning before dawn. On his way home, he was abducted by masked horsemen. They were friends of the powerful prince Frederick, Luther’s protector.
Luther was carried to Wartburg Castle where he became Knight George and hid out for almost a year. It was there that he began translating the Bible into German. The Reformation went on in Luther’s absence. When he finally returned to public life, the emperor was too busy fighting wars against the Turks and France to deal with the Reformation. But the day was coming when the young emperor would act in a most decisive manner. (To be continued.)