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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 13 — Luther's return to Wittemberg and labours there

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Luther Writes to the Cardinal, and Leaves Augsburg — His Journey — The Pope's Bull Condemning him — Luther's Protestation — De Vio's Rage — Luther Enters Wittemberg — Cajetan's Letter to Elector Frederick — Frederick's Reply — Luther's Account of the Conference — Activity in the University — Study of the Bible — The Pope's Bull on Indulgences — Luther Appeals from the Pope to the Church — Frederick Requests Luther to Leave Saxony — Whither shall he Go? — Supper with his Friends — Anguish and Courage

Two days had passed since the legate had bidden Luther "be gone, and see his face no more, unless he changed his mind." [1] After leaving the cardinal's presence, Luther wrote him a letter (October 16th) in which, although he retracted nothing, he expressed great respect and submission. The cardinal returned no answer to this. What did his silence mean? "It bodes no good," said Luther's friends; "he is concocting some plot with the emperor; we must be beforehand with him."

In fact, Cajetan did not need to consult the emperor or any one else. He had received instructions from his master at Rome in view of the possible miscarriage of his mission. If he delayed to put these instructions in force, it was because he thought he had snared his victim: the walls of Augsburg had shut him in.

The trap was not quite so sure as the cardinal deemed it. Mounted on a horse, provided for him by his friends, a trusty guide by his side, Luther is traversing before dawn the silent streets of Augsburg. He is escaping from the cardinal. He approaches a small gate in the city walls. A friendly hand opens it, and he passes out into the open country. [2] This was on the morning of the fourth day (October 20th) after his last interview.

Behind him is the sleeping city, before him is the champaign country, just beginning to be visible in the early daybreak. In what direction shall he turn his horse's head? He stands a moment uncertain. The French ambassador had mentioned his name with favor at the late Diet; may he not expect protection in his master's dominions? His hand is on his bridle-rein to direct his flight to France. But no; he turns northward. It was Wittemberg, not Paris, that was destined to be the center of the new movement.

The two travelers rode away at what speed they could. Luther was but little accustomed to the saddle, the horse he rode was a hard trotter, and so overcome by fatigue was he, that when he arrived at the end of his first stage, unable to stand upright, he lay down upon the straw in the stable of the hostelry where he was to pass the night. [3] On arriving at Nuremberg, he read for the first time the directions forwarded from Rome to De Vio, touching the way in which himself and his cause were to be disposed of. [4] These showed him that he had left Augsburg not a moment too soon, and that during his stay there a sword had all the while been hanging above his head.

The Papal brief — in the hands of the legate when he sat down on the judgment-seat — enjoined him to compel Luther to retract. From Rome, then, had come the one word Revoco, which Serra Longa first, and Cajetan next, dictated as that which Luther was contritely to utter. If he could be brought to retract, and to beg forgiveness for the disturbance he had made, and the scandal he had caused to the hierarchy, the legate was empowered to "receive him into the unity of our Holy Mother the Church." But if the monk should prove obstinate, De Vio was to use summary and sharp measures to have the business ended. He was to seize the person of Luther, and keep him in safe custody, that he might be sent to Rome. To effect this, should it be necessary, the legate was to demand the aid of the emperor, of the princes of Germany, and of all the communities and potentates ecclesiastical and secular. If, notwithstanding, Luther should escape, he was to proscribe him in every part of Germany, and lay under interdict all those princes, communities, universities, and potentates, with their cities, towns, countries, and villages, which should offer him an asylum, or in any way befriend him. [5]

Even before the summons to appear before De Vio had been put into Luther's hands, his cause had been adjudged and himself condemned as a heretic in a Papal court, that of Jerome, Bishop of Ascoli. Of this Luther knew nothing when he set out for Augsburg. When he learned it he exclaimed, "Is this the style and fashion of the Roman court, which in the same day summons, exhorts, accuses, judges, condemns, and declares a man guilty, who is so far from Rome, and who knows nothing of all these things?" The danger was passed before he knew its full extent; but when he saw it he gave thanks with his whole soul to God for his escape. The angel of the Lord had encamped round about him and delivered him.

Like the Parthian, Luther discharged his arrows as he fled. He did not leave Augsburg without leaving behind him something that would speak for him when he was gone; and not in Augsburg only, but in all Christendom. He penned an appeal to Rome. In that document he recapitulated the arguments with which he had combated indulgences, and characterized the cardinal's procedure as unreasonable, in insisting on a retractation without deigning to show him wherein he had erred. He had not yet renounced the authority of the Pope: he still reverenced the chair of Peter, though disgraced by mal-administrations, and therefore he closed his appeal in the following terms: — "I appeal from

the Most Holy Father the Pope, ill-informed, to the Most Holy Father the Pope Leo X., by the grace of God to be better-informed." [6]

This appeal was to be handed to the legate only when the writer was at a safe distance. But the question was, who should bell the cat. De Vio was in no mood to be approached with such a document. The cardinal burned with a sense of the disaster which had befallen himself and the cause of Rome, in Luther's flight. He, and all the men of craft, his advisers, had been outwitted by the German! He had failed to compel the retractation of the monk; his person was now beyond his reach; and he carried with him the prestige of victory; Rome had been foiled in this her first passage of arms with the new faith; the cardinal, who hoped to rehabilitate himself as a diplomatist, had come out of the affair as a bungler: what would they say of him at Rome? The more he reflected, the greater appeared to him the mischief that would grow out of this matter. He had secretly exulted when told that Luther was in Augsburg; but better the monk had never entered its gates, than that he should come hither to defy Rome in the person of her legate, and go away, not only unharmed, but even triumphing. The cardinal was filled with indignation, shame, and rage.

Meanwhile Luther was every day placing a greater distance between himself and the legate. The rumor spread through Germany that the monk had held his own before the cardinal, and the inhabitants of the villages and towns in his route turned out to congratulate him on his victory. Their joy was the greater inasmuch as their hopes had been but faint that he should ever return. Germany had triumphed in Luther. Proud Italy, who sent her dogmas and edicts across the Alps, to be swallowed without examination, and who followed them by her tax-gatherers, had received a check. That haughty and oppressive Power had begun to fall, and the dawn of deliverance had broke for the Northern nations.

Luther re-entered Wittemberg on the day (October 30th, 1518) preceding the anniversary of that on which he had posted up his "Theses." The 1st of November was All Saints' Day. There came this year no crowd of pilgrims to Wittemberg to visit the relics and purchase indulgences. So much for the blow Luther had struck: the trade of Rome in these parts had well-nigh been ruined; it was manifest that the doctrines of the Reformer were spreading.

But if the crowd of pilgrims that annually resorted to Wittemberg was all but extinct, that of students had greatly increased. With the growing renown of Luther grew the fame of the university, and the Elector Frederick saw with joy the prosperity of a seminary in which he took so deep an interest. This helped to draw him to the side of the Reformer. Luther resumed, with heart and soul, his labors in his chair. He strove to forget what Rome might be hatching; he knew that trouble was not far off; but meanwhile he went on with his work, being all the more anxious to make the best use of the interval of quiet, the more he felt that it would be short.

It was short indeed. On November the 19th Frederick of Saxony received a letter from Cardinal Cajetan, giving his version of the interviews at Augsburg, [7] and imploring the elector no longer to sully the fame of his name and the glory of his house by protecting a heretic, whom the tribunals of Rome were prosecuting, and of whom and of whose affairs he had now and for ever washed his hands. The result of this application was the more to be dreaded inasmuch as Frederick was as yet ignorant of the reformed doctrine. But he well merited the epithet bestowed on him of "Wise;" in all things he acted with consideration and candor, and he might be expected to do so in this. The elector had no sooner received the legate's letter than, desirous of hearing both sides, he sent it to Luther. [8] The latter gave Frederick his account of the affair, dwelling on Cajetan's promise, which he had not kept, to convince him out of Scripture; the unreasonableness of his demand, that he should retract, and the gross and manifest perversion of those passages from Sacred Writ on which, in his letter to the elector, Cajetan had professed to ground his cause; and all with such clearness, force, and obvious truth, that Frederick resolved not to abandon Luther. He knew his virtues, though he did not understand his doctrines, and he knew the grievances that Germany groaned under from Italian pride and Papal greed. The reply of Frederick to De Vio was in reality the same with that of Luther — "Prove the errors which you allege" — a reply which deepened the mortification and crowned the misfortunes of the cardinal.

To the unhappy De Vio, and the cause which he represented, one calamity followed another in rapid succession. The day following that on which the Elector Frederick dispatched his letter to the legate, Luther's narrative of the Augsburg interview, which he had been some time carefully preparing, issued from the press. The elector had requested Luther to withhold it for a little while, and the Reformer was firmly purposed to do so. But the eagerness of the public and the cupidity of the printers overreached his caution. The printing-house was besieged by a crowd of all ranks and ages, clamoring for copies. The sheets were handed out wet from the press, and as each sheet was produced a dozen hands were stretched out to clutch it. The author was the last person to see his own production. In a few days the pamphlet was spread far and near.

Luther had become not the doctor

of Wittemberg only, but of all Germany. The whole nation, not less than the youth in the university, had been drawn into the study of theology. Through the printing-press Luther's voice reached every hearth and every individual in the Fatherland. It was a new life that men were breathing; it was a new world that was opening to their eyes; it was a new influence, unfelt for ages, that was stirring their souls; the ancient yoke was being broken and cast away. In the university especially the theology of the Holy Scriptures was being studied with an ardor and a perseverance to which we can find in later times no parallel. Professors and students, kindled with the enthusiasm of Luther, if they could not keep pace with, strove to follow him as closely as possible. "Our university," wrote Luther, "glows with industry like an ant-hill."

With each new day came a new batch of students, till the halls of the university and the accommodation at Wittemberg overflowed. Not from Germany only, but from far countries, came these youths to receive here the seed of a reformed life, and to bear it thence and scatter it over regions remote.

Great attention was given to the study of Hebrew and Greek, "the two languages which, like porters, sit at the entrance of the Bible, holding the keys." From the university the passion for theological study passed to the court. The elector's secretary, Spalatin, in his correspondence with Luther, was perpetually asking and receiving expositions of Scripture, and it was believed that behind the secretary's shadow sat the elector himself, quietly but earnestly prosecuting that line of inquiry which was ultimately to place him by the side of Luther.

Meanwhile the plot was thickening. The tidings of Cajetan's "victory," as he himself phrased it, had reached Rome; but the news of that "victory" caused only consternation. The cannon of St. Angelo, which have proclaimed so many triumphs before and since, forbore to proclaim this one. There were gloomy looks and anxious deliberations in the halls of the Vatican. Rome must repair the disaster that had befallen her; but here, too, fatality attended her steps. She could have done nothing better to serve the cause of Luther than the course she took to oppose it. Serra Longa had blundered, De Vio had blundered, and now Leo X. blunders worst of all. It seemed as if the master wished to obliterate the mistakes of his servants by his own greater mistakes.

On November 9 the Pontiff issued a new decretal, in which he sanctioned afresh the doctrine of indulgences, and virtually confirmed all that Tetzel first and Cardinal Cajetan next had taught on the head of the Church's power to pardon sin. The edict ran as follows: — "That the Roman Church, the mother of all Churches, had handed down by tradition that the Roman Pontiff, the successor of St. Peter, by the power of the keys — that is, by removing the guilt and punishment due for actual sins by indulgence — can for reasonable causes grant to the faithful of Christ, whether in this life or in purgatory, indulgences out of the superabundance of the merits of Christ and the saints; can confer the indulgence by absolution, or transfer it by suffrage. And all those who have acquired indulgences, whether alive or dead, are released from so much temporal punishment for their actual sins as is the equivalent of the acquired indulgence. This doctrine is to be held and preached by all, under penalty of excommunication, from which only the Pope can absolve, save at the point of death." [9] This bull was sent to Cajetan, who was then living at Linz, in Upper Austria, whence copies were despatched by him to all the bishops of Germany, with injunctions to have it published.

The weight that belonged to the utterance of Peter's successor would, the Pope believed, overwhelm and silence the monk of Wittemberg; and, the conscience of Christendom set at rest, men would return to their former quiescence under the scepter of the Vatican. He little understood the age on which he was entering, and the state of public feeling and sentiment north of the Alps. The age was past when men would bow down implicitly before sheets of parchment and bits of lead. Wherein, men asked, does the Pope's teaching on indulgences differ from Tetzel's, unless in the greater decency of its language? The doctrine is the same, only in the one case it is written in the best Latin they are now masters of at Rome, whereas in the other it is proclaimed with stentorian voice in the coarsest Saxon. But plain it is that the Pope as really as Tetzel brings the money-chest to our doors, and expects that we shall fill it. He vaunts his treasure of merits, but it is as the chapman vaunts his wares, that we may buy; and the more we sin, the richer will they be at Rome. Money — money — money, is the beginning, middle, and end of this new decretal. It was in this fashion that the Germans spoke of the edict of November 9, which was to bolster up Cajetan and extinguish Luther. The Pope had exonerated Tetzel, but it was at the expense of taking the whole of this immense scandal upon himself and his system. The chief priest of Christendom presented himself before the world holding the bag with as covetous a grip as any friar of them all.

In another way the decree of the Pope helped to overthrow the system it was meant to uphold. It compelled Luther to go deeper than he had yet ventured to do in his investigations into the Papacy. He now looked at its foundations. The doctrine of indulgences in its sacrilegious and blasphemous form he had believed to be the doctrine of Tetzel only; now he saw it to be the doctrine of Leo of Rome as well.

Leo had endorsed Tetzel's and Cajetan's interpretation of the matter. The conclusion to which Luther's studies were tending is indicated in a letter which he wrote about this time to his friend Wenceslaus Link at Nuremberg: "The conviction is daily growing upon me," says he, "that the Pope is Antichrist." And when Spalatin inquired what he thought of war against the Turk — "Let us begin," he replied, "with the Turk at home; it is fruitless to fight carnal wars and be overcome in spiritual wars." [10]

The conclusion was in due time reached. The Reformer drew up another appeal, and on Sunday, the 28th of November, he read it aloud in Corpus Christi Chapel, in the presence of a notary and witnesses. "I appeal," he said, "from the Pontiff, as a man liable to error, sin, falsehood, vanity, and other human infirmities — not above Scripture, but under Scripture — to a future Council to be legitimately convened in a safe place, so that a proctor deputed by me may have safe access." This appeal marks a new stage in Luther's enlightenment. The Pope is, in fact, abjured: Luther no longer appeals from Leo ill-informed to Leo well-informed, [11] but from the Papal authority itself to that of a General Council, from the head of the Church to the Church herself. [12]

So closed the year 1518. The sky overhead was thick with tempest. The cloud grew blacker and bigger every day. The Reformer had written the appeal read in Corpus Christi Chapel on the 28th of November, as the Israelites ate their last supper in Egypt, "his robe tucked up and his loins girded, ready to depart," though whither he knew not. He only knew that he could go nowhere where God would not be his "shield, and exceeding great reward." The Papal anathemas he knew were being prepared at Rome; they were not, improbably, at this moment on their way to Germany. Not because he feared for himself, but because he did not wish to compromise the Elector Frederick, he held himself ready at a day's notice to quit Saxony. His thoughts turned often to France. The air seemed clearer there, and the doctors of the Sorbonne spoke their thoughts with a freedom unknown to other countries; and had Luther been actually compelled to flee, most probably he would have gone to that country. And now the die was cast as it seemed. The elector sent a message to him, intimating his wishes that he should quit his dominions. He will obey, but before going forth he will solace himself, most probably for the last time, in the company of his friends. While seated with them at supper, a messenger arrives from the elector. Frederick wishes to know why Luther delays his departure. What a pang does this message send to his heart!

What a sense of sadness and desolation does he now experience! On earth he has no protector. There is not for him refuge below the skies. The beloved friends assembled round him — Jonas, Pomeranus, Carlstadt, Amsdorf, the jurist Schurff, and, dearest of all, Melancthon — are drowned in grief, almost in despair, as they behold the light of their university on the point of being quenched, and the great movement which promises a new life to the world on the brink of overthrow. So sudden an overcasting of the day they had not looked for. They waited for light, and behold darkness! No prince in all Christendom, no, not even their own wise and magnanimous elector, dare give an asylum to the man who in the cause of righteousness has stood up against Rome. [13] It was a bitter cup that Luther was now drinking. He must go forth. His enemy, he knew, would pursue him from land to land, and would never cease to dog his steps till she had overtaken and crushed him. But it was not this that troubled him. His soul, the only thing of value about him, he had committed to One who was able to keep it; and as for his body, it was at the disposal of Rome, to rot in her dungeons, to hang on her gibbets, to be reduced to ashes in her fires, just as she might will. He would have gone singing to the stake, but to go forth and leave his country in darkness, this it was that pierced him to the heart, and drew from him a flood of bitter tears.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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