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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 5 — History of Protestantism in Germany to the Leipsic Disputation, 1519

Chapter 10 — Luther attacked by Tetzel, Prierio, and Eck

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Consequences – Unforeseen by Luther – Rapid Dissemination of the "Theses" – Counter-Theses of Tetzel – Burned by the Students at Wittemberg – Sylvester, Master of the Sacred Palace, Attacks Luther – The Church All, the Bible Nothing – Luther Replies – Prierio again Attacks – Is Silenced by the Pope – Dr. Eck next Attacks – Is Discomfited

THE day on which the monk of Wittemberg posted up his "Theses," occupies a distinguished place among the great days of history. It marks a new and grander starting-point in religion and liberty. [1] The propositions of Luther preached to all Christendom that God does not sell pardon, but bestows it as a free gift on the ground of the death of his Son; the "Theses" in short were but an echo of the song sung by the angels on the plain of Bethlehem fifteen centuries before – "On earth peace: good-will to men."

The world had forgotten that song: no wonder, seeing the Book that contains it had long been hidden. Taking God to be a hard task-master, who would admit no one into heaven unless he paid a great price, Christendom had groaned for ages under penances and expiatory works of self-righteousness. But the sound of Luther's hammer was like that of the silver trumpet on the day of Jubilee: it proclaimed the advent of the year of release – the begun opening of the doors of that great prison-house in which the human soul had sat for ages and sighed in chains.

Luther acted without plan – so he himself afterwards confessed. He obeyed an impulse that was borne in upon him; he did what he felt it to be his duty at the moment, without looking carefully or anxiously along the line of consequences to see whether the blow might not fall on greater personages than Tetzel. His arm would have been unnerved, and the hammer would have fallen from his grasp, had he been told that its strokes would not merely scare away Tetzel and break up the market at Juterbock, but would resound through Christendom, and centuries after he had gone to his grave, would be sending back their echoes in the fall of hierarchies, and in the overthrow of that throne before which Luther was still disposed to bow as the seat of the Vicar of Christ.

Luther's eye did not extend to these remote countries and times; he looked only at what was before him – the professors and students of the university; his flock in Wittemberg in danger of being ensnared; the crowd of pilgrims assembled to earn an indulgence – and to the neighboring towns and parts of Germany. These he hoped to influence.

But far beyond these modest limits was spread the fame of Luther's "Theses." They contained truth, and truth is light, and light must necessarily diffuse itself, and penetrate the darkness on every side. The "Theses" were found to be as applicable to Christendom as to Wittemberg, and as hostile to the great indulgence-market at Rome as to the little one at Juterbock. Now was seen the power of that instrumentality which God had prepared beforehand for this emergency – the printing-press. Copied with the hand, how slowly would these propositions have traveled, and how limited the number of persons who would have read them! But the printing-press, multiplying copies, sowed them like snow-flakes over Saxony. Other printing-presses set to work, and speedily there was no country in Europe where the "Theses" of the monk of Wittemberg were not as well known as in Saxony.

The moment of their publication was singularly opportune; pilgrims from all the surrounding States were then assembled at Wittemberg. Instead of buying an indulgence they bought Luther's "Theses," not one, but many copies, and carried them in their wallets to their own homes. In a fortnight these propositions were circulated over all Germany. [2] They were translated into Dutch, and read in Holland; they were rendered into Spanish, and studied in the cities and universities of the Iberian peninsula. In a month they had made the tour of Europe. [3] "It seemed," to use the words of Myconius, "as if the angels had been their carriers." Copies were offered for sale in Jerusalem. In four short weeks Luther's tract had become a household book, and his name a household word in all Europe.

The "Theses" were the one topic of conversation everywhere – in all circles, and in all sorts of places. They were discussed by the learned in the universities, and by the monks in their cells. [4] In the market-place, in the shop, and in the tavern, men paused and talked together of the bold act and the new doctrine of the monk of Wittemberg. A copy was procured and read by Leo X. in the Vatican.

The very darkness of the age helped to extend the circulation and the knowledge of the "Theses." The man who kindles a bonfire on a mountain-top by day will have much to do to attract the eyes of even a single parish. He who kindles his signal amid the darkness of night will arouse a whole kingdom. This last was what Luther had done. He had lighted a great fire in the midst of the darkness of Christendom, and far and wide over distant realms was diffused the splendor of that light; and men, opening their eyes on the sudden illumination that was brightening the sky, hailed the new dawn.

No one was more surprised at the effects produced than Luther himself. That a sharp discussion should spring up in the university; that the convents and colleges of Saxony should be agitated; that some of his friends should approve and others condemn, was what he had anticipated; but that all Christendom should be shaken as by an earthquake, was an issue he had never dreamed of. Yet this was what had happened. The blow

he had dealt had loosened the foundations of an ancient and venerable edifice, which had received the reverence of many preceding generations, and his own reverence among the rest. It was now that he saw the full extent of the responsibility he had incurred, and the formidable character of the opposition he had provoked. His friends were silent, stunned by the suddenness and boldness of the act. He stood alone. He had thrown down the gage, and he could not now decline the battle. That battle was mustering on every side. Still he did not repent of what he had done. He was prepared to stand by the doctrine of his "Theses." He looked upward.

Tetzel by this time had broken up his encampment at Juterbock – having no more sins to pardon and no more money to gather – and had gone to the wealthier locality of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. He had planted the red cross and the iron box on one of the more fashionable promenades of the city. Thither the rumor of the Wittemberg "Theses" followed him. He saw at a glance the mischief the monk had done him, and made a show of fight after his own fashion. Full of rage, he kindled a great fire, and as he could not burn Luther in person he burned his "Theses." This feat accomplished, he rubbed up what little theology he knew, and attempted a reply to the doctor of Wittemberg in a set of counter-propositions. They were but poor affairs. Among them were the following: –

III. "Christians should be taught that the Pope, in the plenitude of his power, is superior to the universal Church, and superior to Councils; and that entire submission is due to his decrees."

IV. "Christians should be taught that the Pope alone has the right to decide in questions of Christian doctrine; that he alone, and no other, has power to explain, according to his judgment, the sense of Holy Scripture, and to approve or condemn the words and works of others." V. "Christians should be taught that the judgment of the Pope, in things pertaining to Christian doctrine, and necessary to the salvation of mankind, can in no case err."

XVII. "Christians should be taught that there are many things which the Church regards as certain articles of the Catholic faith, although they are not found either in the inspired Scripture or in the earlier Fathers." [5]

There is but one doctrine taught in Tetzel's "Theses" – the Pontifical supremacy, namely; and there is but one duty enjoined – absolute submission. At the feet of the Pope are to be laid the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers, human reason. The man who is not prepared to make this surrender deserves to do penance in the fire which Tetzel had kindled. So thought the Pope's vendor of pardons.

The proceeding of Tetzel at Frankfort soon came to the knowledge of the students of Wittemberg. They espoused with more warmth than was needed the cause of their professor. They bought a bundle of Tetzel's "Theses" and publicly burned them. Many of the citizens were present, and gave unmistakable signs, by their laughter and hootings, of the estimation in which they held the literary and theological attainments of the renowned indulgence-monger. Luther knew nothing of the matter. The proceedings savored too much of Rome's method of answering an opponent to find favor in his eyes. When informed of it, he said that really it was superfluous to kindle a pile to consume a document, the extravagance and absurdity of which would alone have effected its extinction.

But soon abler antagonists entered the lists. The first to present himself was Sylvester Mazzolini, of Prierio. He was Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome, and discharged the office of censor. Stationed on the watch-tower of Christendom, this man had it in charge to say what books were to be circulated, and what were to be suppressed; what doctrines Christians were to believe, and what they were not to believe. Protestant liberty, claiming freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of printing, came at this early stage into immediate conflict with Roman despotism, which claimed absolute control over the mind, the tongue, and the pen. The monk of Wittemberg, who nails his "Theses" on the church door in the open day, encounters the Papal censor, who blots out every line that is not in agreement with the Papacy. [6]

The controversy between Luther and Prierio, as raised by the latter, turned on "the rule of faith." Surely it was not altogether of chance that this fundamental point was debated at this early stage. It put in a clear light the two very different foundations on which Protestantism and the Papacy respectively stood.

Prierio's performance took the form of a dialogue. He laid down certain great principles touching the constitution of the Church, the authority vested in it, and the obedience due by all Christians to that authority. [7] The universal Church essentially, said Prierio, is a congregation for worship of all believers; virtually it is the Roman Church; representatively it is the college of cardinals; concentratively and organically it is the supreme Pontiff, who is the head of the Church, but in a different sense from Christ. Further he maintained that, as the Church universal cannot err in determining questions pertaining to faith and morals, neither can the organs through which the Church elaborates and expresses its decisions – the Councils and the supreme Pontiff – err. [8] These principles he applied practically, thus: "Whoever does not rely on the teaching of the Roman Church and of the Roman Pontiff, as the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their strength and their authority, is a heretic."

It is curious to note that already, in this first exchange of arguments between Protestantism and the Papacy, the controversy was narrowed to this one great question: Whom is man to believe, God

or the Church? – in other words, have we a Divine or a human foundation for our faith? The Bible is the sole infallible authority, said the men of Wittemberg. No, said this voice from the Vatican, the sole infallible authority is the Church. The Bible is a dead letter. Not a line of it can men understand: its true sense is utterly beyond their apprehension. In the Church – that is, in the priests – is lodged the power of infallibly perceiving the true sense of Scripture, and of revealing it to Christians. Thus there are two Bibles. Here is the one a book, a dead letter; a body without living spirit or living voice; practically of no use. Here is the other, a living organization, in which dwells the Holy Spirit. The one is a written Bible: the other is a developed Bible. The one was completed and finished eighteen hundred years since: the other has been growing with the ages; it has been coming into being through the decisions of Councils, the rules of canonists, and the edicts of Popes. Councils have discussed and deliberated; interpreters and canonists have toiled; Popes have legislated, speaking as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance; and, as the product of all these minds and of all these ages, you have now the Bible – the deposit of the faith – the sole infallible authority to which men are to listen. The written book was the original seed; but the Church – that is, the hierarchy – is the stem which has sprung from it. The Bible is now a dead husk; the living tree which has grown out of it – the fully rounded and completely developed body of doctrine, now before the world in the Church – is the only really useful and authoritative revelation of God, and the one infallible rule by which it is his will that men should walk. The Master of the Sacred Palace deposited the germ of this line of argument. Subsequent Popish polemics have more fully developed the argument, and given it the form into which we have thrown it.

Prierio's doctrine was unchallengeably orthodox at the Vatican, for the meridian of which it was calculated. At Wittemberg his tractate read like a bitter satire on the Papacy. Luther thought, or affected to think, that an enemy had written it, and had given it on purpose this extravagant loftiness, in order to throw ridicule and contempt over the prerogatives of the Papal See. He said that he recognized in this affair the hand of Ulric von Hutten – a knight, whose manner it was to make war on Rome with the shafts of wit and raillery.

But Luther soon saw that he must admit the real authorship, and answer this attack from the foot of the Papal throne. Prierio boasted that he had spent only three days over his performance: Luther occupied only two in his reply. The doctor of Wittemberg placed the Bible of the living God over against the Bible of Prierio, as the foundation of men's faith. The fundamental position taken in his answer was expressed in the words of Holy Writ: "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." Prierio had centered all the faith, obedience, and hopes of men in the Pope: Luther places them on that Rock which is Christ. Thus, with every day, and with each new antagonist, the true nature of the controversy, and the momentous issues which it had raised, were coming more clearly and broadly into view.

Prierio, who deemed it impossible that a Master of the Sacred Palace could be vanquished by a German monk, wrote a reply. This second performance was even more indiscreet than his first. The Pope's prerogative he aimed at exalting to even a higher pitch than before; and he was so ill-advised as to found it on that very extraordinary part of the canon law which forbids any one to stop the Pope, or to admit the possibility of his erring, though he should be found on the high road to perdition, and dragging the whole world after him. [9] The Pope, finding that Sylvester's replies were formidable only to the Papacy, enjoined silence upon the too zealous champion of Peter's See. [10] As regarded Leo himself, he took the matter more coolly than the master of his palace. There had been noisy monks in all ages, he reflected; the Papacy had not therefore fallen. Moreover, it was but a feeble echo of the strife that reached him in the midst of his statues, gardens, courtiers, and courtesans. He even praised the genius of brother Martin; [11] for Leo could pardon a little truth, it spoken wittily and gracefully. Then, thinking that he had bestowed too much praise on the Germans, he hinted that the wine-cup may have quickened the wit of the monk, and that his pen would be found less vigorous when the fumes of the liquor had subsided, as they would soon do.

Scarcely had Prierio been disposed of, when another combatant started up. This was Hochstraten, an inquisitor at Cologne. This disputant belonged to an order unhappily more familiar with the torch than with the pen; and it was not long till Hochstraten showed that his fingers, unused to the one, itched to grasp the other. He lost his temper at the very outset, and called for a scaffold. If, replied Luther, nothing daunted by this threat, it is the faggot that is to decide the controversy, the sooner I am burned the better, otherwise the monks may have cause to rue it.

Yet another opponent! The first antagonist of Luther came from the Roman Curia; the second from monachism; he who now appears, the third, is the representative of the schools. This was Dr. Eck, professor of scholastic theology at Ingolstadt. [12]

He rose up in the fullness of his erudition and of his fame, to extinguish the monk of Wittemberg, although he had but recently contracted a friendship with him, cemented by an interchange of letters. Though a scholar, the professor of Ingolstadt did not account it beneath him to employ abuse, and resort to insinuation. "It is the Bohemian poison which you are circulating," said he to Luther, hoping to awaken against him the old prejudice which still animated the Germans against Huss and the Reformers of Bohemia. So far as Eck condescended to argue, his weapons, taken from the Aristotelian armory, were adapted for a scholastic tournament only; they were useless in a real battle, like that in which he now engaged. They were speedily shivered in his hand. "Would you not hold it impudence," asked Luther, meeting Dr. Eck on his own ground, "in one to maintain, as a part of the philosophy of Aristotle, what one found it impossible to prove Aristotle had ever taught? You grant it. It is the most impudent of all impudence to affirm that to be a part of Christianity which Christ never taught."

The doctor of Ingolstadt sank into silence. One after another the opponents of the Reformer retire from Luther's presence discomfited. First, the Master of the Sacred Palace advances against the monk, confident of crushing him by the weight of the Pope's authority. "The Pope is but a man, and may err," says Luther, as with quiet touch he demolishes the mock infallibility: "God is truth, and cannot err." Next comes the Inquisitor, with his hints that there is such an institution as the "Holy Office" for convincing those whom nothing else can. Luther laughs these threats to scorn. Last of all appears the doctor, clad in the armor of the schools, who shares the fate of his predecessors. The secret of Luther's strength they do not know, but it is clear that all their efforts to overcome it can but advertise men that Roman infallibility is a quicksand, and that the hopes of the human heart can repose in safety nowhere, save on the Eternal Rock.

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