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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 12 — Luther's appearance before cardinal Cajetan

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Urban of Serra Longa — His Interview with Luther — Revoco — Non-Revoco — A Safe-Conduct — Luther and the Papal Legate Face to Face — Luther Breaks Silence — Doctrines to be Retracted — Refusal — Second Interview — Discussion on the Sacrament and Indulgences — Luther takes his Stand on Scripture — Third Interview — Luther Reads Statement of his Views — The Legate's Haughtiness — The Difference Irreconcilable

A LITTLE melodrama preceded the serious part of the business. Early on the day after Luther's arrival, an Italian courtier, Urban of Serra Longa — a creature of the cardinal's, though he took care not to say so — presented himself at the door of the monastery where Luther lodged. He made unbounded professions of friendship for the doctor of Wittemberg, and had come, he said, to give him a piece of advice before appearing in the presence of De Vio. A greater contrast it is impossible to imagine than that between the smiling, bowing, and voluble Italian, and the bluff but honest German.

The advice of Urban was expressed in a single word — "Submit. Surely he had not come this long way to break a lance with the cardinal: of course he had not. He spoke, he presumed, to a wise man."

Luther hinted that the matter was not so plain as his adviser took it to be. "Oh," continued the Italian, with a profusion of politeness., "I understand: you have posted up 'Theses;' you have preached sermons, you have sworn oaths; but three syllables, just six letters, will do the business — Revoco."

"If I am convinced out of the Sacred Scriptures," rejoined Luther, "that I have erred, I shall be but too glad to retract."

The Italian Urban opened his eyes somewhat widely when he heard the monk appeal to a Book which had long ceased to be read or believed in at the metropolis of Christendom. But surely, he thought, Luther will not be so fanatical as to persist in putting the authority of the Bible in opposition to that of the Pope; and so the courtier continued.

"The Pope," he said, "can by a single nod change or suppress articles of faith, [1] and surely you must feel yourself safe when you have the Pope on your side, more especially when emolument, position, and life might all lie on your coming to the same conclusion with his Holiness." He exhorted him not to lose a moment in tearing down his "Theses" and recalling his oaths.

Urban of Serra Longa had overshot the mark. Luther found it necessary to tell him yet more plainly that the thing was impossible, unless the cardinal should convince him by arguments drawn from the Word of God that he had taught false doctrine.

That a single monk, nay, that a whole army of monks should stand up to contest a matter with Rome, appeared to the supple Italian an astounding prodigy. The thing was incomprehensible to him. The doctor of Wittemberg appeared to the courtier a man bent on his own ruin. "What!" continued the Italian, "do you imagine that any princes or lords will protect you against the Holy See? What support can you have? Where will you remain?"

"I shall still have heaven," answered Luther. [2] Luther saw through this man's disguise, despite his craft, and his protestations of regard, and perceived him to be an emissary of the legate, sent to sound and it might be to entrap him. He therefore became more reserved, and dismissed his loquacious visitor with the assurance that he would show all humility when he appeared before the cardinal, and would retract what was proved to be erroneous. Thereupon Urban, promising to return and conduct him into the legate's presence, went back to the man from whom he had come, to tell him how he had failed in his errand.

Augsburg was one of the chief cities of the Empire, and Luther was encouraged by finding that even here his doctrines had made considerable way. Many of the more honorable councilors of the city waited upon him, invited him to their tables, inquired into his matters; and when they learned that he had come to Augsburg without a safe-conduct, they could not help expressing their astonishment at his boldness — "a gentle name," said Luther, "for rashness." These friends with one accord entreated him on no account to venture into the legate's presence without a safe-conduct, and they undertook to procure one for him from the emperor, who was still in the neighborhood hunting. Luther deemed it prudent to follow their advice; they knew De Vio better than he did, and their testimony regarding him was not assuring. Accordingly, when Urban returned to conduct him to the audience of the cardinal, Luther had to inform him that he must first obtain a safe-conduct. The Italian affected to ridicule the idea of such a thing; it was useless; it would spoil all; the legate was gentleness itself. "Come," he urged, "come, and let us have the matter settled off-hand; one little word will do it," he repeated, imagining that he had found a spell before which all difficulties must give way; "one little word — Revoco." But Luther was immovable: "Whenever I have a safe-conduct I shall appear." The grimacing Italian was compelled to put up with his repulse, and, biting his finger, [3] he returned to tell the legate that his mission had sped even worse the second than the first time.

At length a safe-conduct was obtained, and the 11th of October was fixed for Luther's appearance before De Vio. Dr. Link, of Nuremberg, and some other friends, accompanied him to the palace of the legate. On his entrance the Italian courtiers crowded round him, eager to have "a peep at the Erostratus who had kindled such a conflagration." Many pressed in after him to the hall of audience, to be the

witnesses of his submission, for however courageous at Wittemberg, they never doubted that the monk would be pliant enough when he stood before the Roman purple.

The customary ceremonies over, a pause ensued. The monk and the cardinal looked at each other in silence: Luther because, having been cited, he expected Cajetan to speak first; and the cardinal because he deemed it impossible that Luther would appear in his presence with any other intention than that of retracting. He was to find that in this he was mistaken.

It was a moment of supreme interest. The new age now stood face to face with the old. Never before had the two come into such close contact. There sat the old, arrayed in the purple and other insignia of an ancient and venerable authority: there stood the new, in a severe simplicity, as befitted a power which had come to abolish an age of ceremony and form, and bring in one of spirit and life. Behind the one was seen a long vista of receding centuries, with their traditions, their edicts, and their Popes. Behind the other came a future, which was as yet a "sealed book," for the opening of which all men now waited — some in terror, others in hope; but all in awe, no one knowing what that future might bring, and the boldest not daring to imagine even the half of what it was destined to bring — the laws it was to change; the thrones and altars it was to cast down; the kingdoms it was to overturn, breaking in pieces the strong, and lifting up the weak to dominion and glory. No wonder that these two powers, when brought for the first time into the immediate presence of each other, paused before opening a conflict from which issues so vast were to spring.

Finding that the legate still kept silence, Luther spoke: "Most worthy Father, in obedience to the summons of his Papal Holiness, and in compliance with the orders of my gracious Lord the Elector of Saxony, I appear before you as a submissive and dutiful son of the Holy Christian Church, and acknowledge that I have published the propositions and theses ascribed to me. I am ready to listen most obediently to my accusation, and if I have erred, to submit to instruction in the truth." These words were the first utterance of the Reformation before a bar where in after-times its voice was to be often heard.

De Vio thought this an auspicious commencement. A submission was not far off. So, putting on a very gracious air, and speaking with condescending kindness, he said that he had only three things to ask of his dear son: first, that he would retract his errors; secondly, that he would abstain in future from promulgating his opinions; and thirdly, that he would avoid whatever might tend to disturb the peace of the Church. [4] The proposal, with a little more circumlocution, was precisely that which his emissary had already presented — "Retract."

Luther craved that the Papal brief might be read, in virtue of which the legate had full powers to treat of this matter.

The courtiers opened their eyes in astonishment at the monk's boldness; but the cardinal, concealing his anger, intimated with a wave of his hand that this request could not be granted.

"Then," replied Luther, "deign, most reverend Father, to point out to me wherein I have erred." The courtiers were still more astonished, but Cajetan remained unruffled. The legate took up the "Theses" of Luther: "Observe," said he, "in the seventh proposition you deny that the Sacrament can profit one unless he has faith; and in your fifty-eighth proposition you deny that the merits of Christ form part of that treasure from which the Pope grants indulgences to the faithful." [5]

These both were heinous errors in the estimation of Rome. The power of regenerating men by the opus operatum — that is, the simple giving of the Sacrament to them, irrespective altogether of the disposition of the recipient — is a mighty power, and invests her clergy with boundless influence. If, by the mere performance or the non-performance of a certain act, they can save men or can destroy men, there is no limit to the obedience they may exact, and no limit to the wealth that will flow in upon them. And so of indulgences. If the Pope has a treasury of infinite merit on which he can draw for the pardon of men's sins, all will come to him, and will pay him his price, how high soever he may choose to fix it. But explode these two dogmas; prove to men that without faith, which is the gift not of the Pope but of God, the Sacrament is utterly without efficacy — an empty sign, conferring neither grace now nor meetness for heaven hereafter — and that the Pope's treasury of inexhaustible merits is a pure fiction; and who after that will bestow a penny in buying Sacraments which contain no grace, and purchasing pardons which convey no forgiveness?

This was precisely what Luther had done. His "Theses" had broken the spell which opened to Rome the wealth of Europe. She saw at a glance the whole extent of the damage: her markets forsaken, her wares unsaleable, and the streams of gold which had flowed to her from all countries dried up. Cardinal Cajetan, therefore, obeying instructions from head-quarters, put his finger upon those two most damaging points of the "Theses," and demanded of Luther an unconditional retractation of them. "You must revoke both these errors," said De Vio, "and embrace the true doctrine of the Church."

"That the man who receives the holy Sacrament must have faith in the grace offered him," said Luther, "is a truth I never can and never will revoke."

"Whether you will or no," returned the legate, getting angry, "I must have your recantation this very day,

or for this one error I shall condemn all your propositions."

"But," replied the professor of Wittemberg, with equal decision, though with great courteousness, "I demand proof from Scripture that I am wrong; it is on Scripture that my views rest."

But no proof from Scripture could the Reformer get. The cardinal could only repeat the common-places of Rome, re-affirm the doctrine of the opus operatum, and quote one of the Extravagants of Clement VI. [6] Luther, indignant at seeing what stress the legate laid on a Papal decree, exclaimed, "I cannot admit any such constitution in proof of matters so weighty as those in debate. These interpretations put Scripture to the torture." "Do you not know," rejoined De Vio, "that the Pope has authority and power over these things?" "Save Scripture," said Luther eagerly.

"Scripture!" said the cardinal derisively, "the Pope is above Scripture, and above Councils. [7] Know you not that he has condemned and punished the Council of Basle?" "But," responded Luther, "the University of Paris has appealed." "And the Parisian gentlemen," said De Vio, "will pay the penalty."

Luther saw plainly that at this rate they would never arrive at a settlement of the matter. The legate sat in state, treating the man before him with affected condescension, but real contempt. When Luther quoted Scripture in proof of his doctrine, the only answer he received from the cardinal webs a shrug of his shoulders, or a derisive laugh. The legate, despite his promise to reason the matter out on the foundation of the Word of God, would not, or perhaps could not, meet Luther on that ground. [8] He kept exclusively by the decretals and the schoolmen. Glad, perhaps, to escape for the present from a controversy which was not so manageable as he had hoped to find it, he offered to give the doctor of Wittemberg a day for deliberation, but intimated at the same time that he would accept of nothing but a retractation. So ended the first interview.

On returning to his convent his delight was great to find his valued friend Staupitz, the Vicar-General of the Augustines, who had followed him to Augsburg, in the hope of being serviceable to him at this crisis. On the morning when Luther returned to his second interview with the cardinal, the Vicar-General and four imperial councilors accompanied him, along with many other friends, a notary, and witnesses. After the customary obeisance, Luther read a paper, protesting that he honored and followed the Holy Roman Church; that he submitted himself to the judgment and determination of that Church; that he was ready here present to answer in writing whatever objection the legate of the Pope might produce against him; and, moreover, that he was willing to submit his "Theses" to the judgment of the Imperial Universities of Basle, Fribourg, and Louvain, and, if these were not enough, of Paris — from of old ever the most Christian, and in theology ever the most flourishing university. [9]

The legate evidently had some difficulty in knowing what to reply to these reasonable and manly proposals. He tried to conceal his embarrassment under an affected pity for the monk. "Leave off," he said, in accents of great mildness, "these senseless counsels, and return to your sound mind. Retract, my son, retract." Luther once more appealed to the authority of Scripture, but De Vio becoming somewhat ruffled, the conference ended, after Staupitz had craved and obtained leave for Luther to put his views in writing. [10]

At the third and last interview, the doctor of Wittemberg read a full statement of his views on all the points which had been under consideration. He maintained all his former positions, largely fortifying them by quotations from Augustine and other early Fathers, but more especially from Holy Writ. [11] The cardinal could not help, even on the judgment-seat, displaying his irritation and chagrin. Drawing himself up in his robes, he received the "declaration" with a look of contempt, and pronounced it "mere words," "a long phylactery;" but said that he would send the paper to Rome. Meanwhile the legate threatened him with the penalties enacted by the Pope unless he retracted. [12] He offered Luther, somewhat earnestly, a safe-conduct, if he would go to Rome and there be judged. The Reformer knew what this meant. It was a safe-conduct to a dungeon somewhere in the precincts of the Vatican. The proffered favor was declined, much to the annoyance of De Vio, who thought, no doubt, that this was the best way of terminating an affair which had tarnished the Roman purple, but lent eclat to the monk's serge.

This was a great crisis in the history of Protestantism, and we breathe more freely when we find it safely passed. Luther had not yet sounded the Papal dogmas to the bottom. He had not as yet those clear and well-defined views to which fuller investigation conducted him. He still believed the office of Pope to be of Divine appointment, and while condemning the errors of the man, was disposed to bow to the authority of his office.

There was risk of concessions which would have hampered him in his future course, or have totally wrecked his cause. From this he was saved, partly by his loyalty to his own convictions, partly also by the perception on the part of the theologians of Rome that the element of "faith," on which Luther so strenuously insisted, constituted an essential and eternal difference between his system and theirs. It substituted a Divine for a human agency, the operation of the Holy Spirit for the opus operatum. On such a point there could be no reconcilement on the basis of mutual concession, and this led them to insist on absolute and unconditional retractation. Luther used to say that he "did not learn all his divinity at once, but was constrained to sink deeper and deeper. The Pope said, 'Although Christ be

the Head of the Church, yet notwithstanding there must be a visible and corporeal head of the Church on earth.' With this I could have been well content, in case he had but taught the Gospel purely and clearly, and had not brought forward human inventions and lies instead thereof." [13]

So ended the first conflict between the old and the new powers. The victory remained with the latter. This was no small gain. Besides, the two men had been able to take each the measure of the other.

Luther had looked through and through Cajetan. He was astonished to find how weak a polemic and how flimsy a theologian was the champion to whom Rome had committed her battle. "One may guess from this," wrote Luther to Spalatin, "what is the calibre of those of ten times or a hundred times lower rank." The Reformer went forth ever after to meet Rome's mighty men with less anxiety touching the issue. But the cardinal had formed no contemptuous opinion of the monk, although he could find none but contemptuous epithets in which to speak of him. "I will have no more disputing with that beast," said he, when Staupitz pressed him to debate the matter once more with the doctor of Wittemberg, "for he has deep eyes and wonderful speculation in his head." [14]


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