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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 15 — The Leipsic Disputation

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Two Theologies — Dividing Line — Question of the Power of the Will — State of the Question — Distinction between Mental Freedom and Moral Ability — Augustine — Paul — Salvation of God — Salvation of Man — Discussion between Luther and Eck on the Primacy — The Rock — False Decretals — Bohemianism — Councils have Erred — Luther Rest on the Bible Alone — Gain from the Discussion — A Great Fiction Abandoned — Wider Views — A more Catholic Church than the Roman

THE man who climbs to the summit of a mountain chain beholds the waters that gush forth from the soil rolling down the declivity, some on this side of the ridge and some on that. Very near to each other may lie the birth-places of these young rivers; but how different their courses! how dissimilar the countries which they water, and how widely apart lie the oceans, into which they ultimately pour their floods! This difference of destiny is occasioned by what would seem no great matter. The line of the mountain summit runs between their sources, and hence; though their beginnings are here, at the traveler's feet, on the same mountain-top, their endings are parted, it may be, by hundreds of miles.

We are arrived at a similar point in the history of the two great systems whose rise and course we are employed in tracing. We stand at the watershed of the two theologies. We can here clearly trace the dividing line as it runs along, parting the primeval sources of the Protestant and the Roman theologies. These sources lie close, very close to each other, and yet the one is on this side of the line which divides truth from error, the other is on that; and hence the different and opposite course on which we behold each setting out; and so far from ever meeting, the longer they flow they are but the farther parted. The discussion at Leipsic proceeded along this line; it was, in fact, the first distinct tracing-out and settling of this line, as the essential and eternal boundary between the two theologies — between the Roman and Protestant Churches.

The form which the question took was one touching the human will. What is the moral condition of man's will? in other words, What is the moral condition of man himself? As the will is, so is the man, for the will or heart is but a term expressive of the final outcome of the man; it is the organ which concentrates all the findings of his animal, intellectual, and spiritual nature — body, mind, and soul — and sends them forth in the form of wish and act. Is man able to choose that which is spiritually good? In other words, when sin and holiness are put before him, and he must make his choice between the two, will the findings of his whole nature, as summed up and expressed in his choice, be on the side of holiness? Dr. Eck and the Roman theologians at Leipsic maintained the affirmative, asserting that man has the power, without aid from the Spirit of God, and simply of himself, to choose what is spiritually good, and to obey God. Luther, Carlstadt, and the new theologians maintained the negative, affirming that man lost this power when he fell; that he is now morally unable to choose holiness; and that, till his nature be renewed by the Holy Spirit, he cannot love or serve God. [1]

This question, it is necessary to remark, is not one touching the freedom of man. About this there is no dispute. It is admitted on both sides, the Popish and Protestant, that man is a free agent. Man can make a choice; there is neither physical nor intellectual constraint upon his will, and having made his choice he can act conformably to it. This constitutes man a moral and responsible agent. But the question is one touching the moral ability of the will. Granting our freedom of choice, have we the power to choose good? Will the perceptions, bias, and desires of our nature, as summed up and expressed by the will, be on the side of holiness as holiness? They will not, says the Protestant theology, till the nature is renewed by the Holy Spirit. The will may be physically free, it may be intellectually free, and yet, by reason of the bias to sin and aversion to holiness which the Fall planted in the heart, the will is not morally free; it is dominated over by its hatred of holiness and love of sin, and will not act in the way of preferring holiness and loving God, till it be rid of the spiritual incapacity which hatred of what is good inflicts upon it. But let us return to the combatants in the arena at Leipsic. Battle has already been joined, and we find the disputants stationed beside the deepest sources of the respective theologies, only half conscious of the importance of the ground they occupy, and the far-reaching consequences of the propositions for which they are respectively to fight.

"Man's will before his conversion," says Carlstadt, "can perform no good work. Every good work comes entirely and exclusively from God, who gives to man first the will to do, and then the power of accomplishing." [2]

Such was the proposition maintained at one end of the hall. It was a very old proposition, though it seemed new when announced in the Pleisenberg hall, having been thoroughly obscured by the schoolmen. The Reformers could plead Augustine's authority in behalf of their proposition; they could plead a yet greater authority, even that of Paul. The apostle had maintained this proposition both negatively and positively. He had described the "carnal mind" as "enmity against God;" (Romans 8:7, 8) [3] He had spoken of the understanding as "darkness," and of men as "alienated from the life of God through

the ignorance that is in them." This same doctrine he had put also in the positive form.

"It is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:13) [4]

Our Savior has laid down a great principle which amounts to this, that corrupt human nature by itself can produce nothing but what is corrupt, when he said,

"That which is born of the flesh is flesh." (John 3:6) [5]

And the same great principle is asserted, with equal clearness, though in figurative language, when he says, "A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit." And were commentary needed to bring out the full meaning of this statement, we have it in the personal application which the apostle makes of it to himself.

"For I know that in me [that is, in my flesh] dwelleth no good thing." (Romans 7:18) [6]

If then man's whole nature be corrupt, said the Reformer, nothing but what is corrupt can proceed from him, till he be quickened by the Spirit of God. Antecedently to the operations of the Spirit upon his understanding and heart, he lacks the moral power of loving and obeying God, and of effecting anything that may really avail for his deliverance and salvation; and he who can do nothing for himself must owe all to God.

At the other end of the hall, occupying the pulpit over which was suspended the representation of St. George and the dragon, rose the tall portly form of Dr. Eck. With stentorian voice and animated gestures, he repudiates the doctrine which has just been put forth by Carlstadt. Eck admits that man is fallen, that his nature is corrupt, but he declines to define the extent of that corruption; he maintains that it is not universal, that his whole nature is not corrupt, that man has the power of doing some things that are spiritually good; and that, prior to the action of God's Spirit upon his mind and heart, man can do works which have a certain kind of merit, the merit of congruity even; and God rewards these good works done in the man's own strength, with grace by which he is able to do what still remains of the work of his salvation. [7]

The combatants at the one end of the hall fight for salvation by grace — grace to the entire exclusion of human merit: salvation of God. The combatants at the other end fight for salvation by works, a salvation beginning in man's own efforts and good works, and these efforts and good works running along the whole line of operation; and though they attract to them supernatural grace, and make it their yoke-fellow as it were, yet themselves substantially and meritoriously do the work. This is salvation of man.

If rite doctrine of the corruption of man's whole nature be true, if he has lost the power of choosing what is spiritually good, and doing work spiritually acceptable to God, the Protestant divines were right. If he retains this power, the Roman theologians were on the side of truth. There is no middle position.

Thus the controversy came to rage around this one point — Has the Will the power to choose and to do what is spiritually good? This, they said, was the whole controversy between Romanism and Protestantism. All the lines of argument on both sides flowed out of, or ran up into, this one point. It was the greatest point of all in theology viewed on the side of man; and according as it was to be decided, Romanism is true and Protestantism is false, or Protestantism is true and Romanism is false.

"I acknowledge," said Eck, who felt himself hampered in this controversy by opinions favorable to the doctrine of grace which, descending from the times of Augustine, and maintained though imperfectly and inconsistently by some of the schoolmen, had lingered in the Church of Rome till now — "I acknowledge that the first impulse in man's conversion proceeds from God, and that the will of man in this instance is entirely passive."

"Then," asked Carlstadt, who thought that he had won rite argument, "after this first impulse which proceeds from God, what follows on the part of man? Is it not that which Paul denominates will, and which the Fathers entitle consent?"

"Yes," answered the Chancellor of Ingolstadt, "but this consent of man comes partly from our natural will and partly from God's grace" — thus recalling what he appeared to have granted; making man a partner with God in the origination of will or first act of choice in the matter of his salvation, and so dividing with God the merit of the work.

"No," responded Carlstadt, "this consent or act of will comes entirely from God; he it is who creates it in the man." [8]

Offended at a doctrine which so completely took away from man all cause of glorifying, Eck, feigning astonishment and anger, exclaimed, "Your doctrine converts a man into a stone or log, incapable of any action."

The apostle had expressed it better: "dead in trespasses and sins." Yet he did not regard those in that condition whom he addressed as a stone or a log, for he gave them the motives to believe, and held them guilty before God should they reject the Gospel.

A log or a stone! it was answered from Carlstadt's end of the hall. Does our doctrine make man such? does it reduce him to the level of an irrational animal? By no means. Can he not meditate and reflect, compare and choose? Can he not read and understand the statements of Scripture declaring to him in what state he is sunk, that he is "without strength," and bidding him ask the aid

of the Spirit of God? If he ask, will not that Spirit be given? will not the light of truth be made to shine into his understanding? and by the instrumentality of the truth, will not his heart be renewed by the Spirit, his moral bias against holiness taken away, and he become able to love and obey God? In man's capacity to become the subject of such a change, in his possessing such a framework of powers and faculties as, when touched by the Spirit, can be set in motion in the direction of good, is there not, said the Reformers, sufficient to distinguish man from a log, a stone, or an irrational animal?

The Popish divines on this head have ignored a distinction on which Protestant theologians have always and justly laid great stress, the distinction between the rational and the spiritual powers of man.

Is it not matter of experience, the Romanists have argued, that men of themselves — that is, by the promptings and powers of their unrenewed nature — have done good actions? Does not ancient history show us many noble, generous, and virtuous achievements accomplished by the heathen? Did they not love and die for their country? All enlightened Protestant theologians have most cheerfully granted this. Man even unrenewed by the Spirit of God may be truthful, benevolent, loving, patriotic; and by the exercise of these qualities, he may invest his own character with singular gracefulness and glory, and to a very large degree benefit his species. But the question here is one regarding a higher good, even that which the Bible denominates holiness — "without which no man can see God" — actions done conformably to the highest standard, which is the Divine law, and from the motive of the highest end, which is the glory of God. Such actions, the Protestant theology teaches, can come only from a heart purified by faith, and quickened by the Spirit of God. [9]

On the 4th of July, Luther stepped down into the arena. He had obtained permission to be present on condition of being simply a spectator; but, at the earnest solicitations of both sides, Duke George withdrew the restriction, and now he and Eck are about to join battle. At seven o'clock in the morning the two champions appeared in their respective pulpits, around which were grouped the friends and allies of each. Eck wore a courageous and triumphant air, claiming to have borne off the palm from Carlstadt, and it was generally allowed that he had proved himself the abler disputant. Luther appeared with a nosegay in his hand, and a face still bearing traces of the terrible storms through which he had passed. The former discussion had thinned the hall; it was too abstruse and metaphysical for the spectators to appreciate its importance. Now came mightier champions, and more palpable issues. A crowd filled the Pleisenberg hall, and looked on while the two giants contended.

It was understood that the question of the Pope's primacy was to be discussed between Luther and Eck. The Reformer's emancipation from this as from other parts of the Romish system had been gradual. When he began the war against the indulgence-mongers, he never doubted that so soon as the matter should come to the knowledge of the Pope and the other dignitaries, they would be as forward as himself to condemn the monstrous abuse. To his astonishment, he found them throwing their shield over it, and arguing from Scripture in a way that convinced him that the men whom he had imagined as sitting in a region of serene light, were in reality immersed in darkness. This led him to investigate the basis of the Roman primacy, and soon he came to the conclusion that it had no foundation whatever in either the early Church or in the Word of God. He denied that the Pope was head of the Church by Divine right, though he was still willing to grant that he was head of the Church by human right — that is, by the consent of the nations.

Eck opened the discussion by affirming that the Pope's supremacy was of Divine appointment. His main proof, as it is that of Romanists to this hour, was the well-known passage, "Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my church." Luther replied, as Protestants at this day reply, that it is an unnatural interpretation of the words to make Peter the rock; that their natural and obvious sense is, that the truth Peter had just confessed — in other words Christ himself — is the rock; that Augustine and Ambrose had so interpreted the passage, and that therewith agree the express declarations of Scripture —

"Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ;"(1 Corinthians 3:11) [10]

and that Peter himself terms Christ

"the chief corner-stone, and a living stone on which we are built up a spiritual house."(1 Peter 2:4, 5, 6) [11]

It is unnecessary to go into the details of the disputation. The line of argument, so often traversed since that day, has become very familiar to Protestants. But we must not overlook the perspicacity and courage of the man who first opened the path, nor the wisdom which taught him to rely so confidently on the testimony of Scripture, nor the independence by which he was able to emancipate himself from the trammels of a servitude sanctioned by the submission of ages.

Luther in this disputation labored under the disadvantage of having to confront numerous quotations from the false decretals. That gigantic forgery, which forms so large a part of the basis of the Roman primacy, had not then been laid bare; nevertheless, Luther looking simply at the internal evidence, in the exercise of his intuitive sagacity, boldly pronounced the evidence produced against him from

this source spurious. He even retreated to his stronghold, the early centuries of Christian history, and especially the Bible, in neither of which was proof or trace of the Pope's supremacy to be discovered. [12] When the doctor of Ingolstadt found that despite his practiced logic, vast reading, and ready eloquence, he was winning no victory, and that all his arts were met and repelled by the simple massive strength, knowledge of Scripture, and familiarity with the Fathers which the monk of Wittemberg displayed, he was not above a discreditable ruse. He essayed to raise a prejudice against Luther by charging him with being "a patron of the heresies of Wicliffe and Huss." The terrors of such an accusation, we in this age can but faintly realize. The doctrines of Huss and Jerome still lay under great odium in the West; and Eck hoped to overwhelm Luther by branding him with the stigma of Bohemianism. The excitement in the hall was immense when the charge was hurled against him; and Duke George and many of the audience half rose from their seats, eager to catch the reply.

Luther well knew the peril in which Eck had placed him, but he was faithful to his convictions. "The Bohemians," he said, "are schismatics; and I strongly reprobate schism: the supreme Divine right is charity and unity. But among the articles of John Huss condemned by the Council of Constance, some are plainly most Christian and evangelical, which the universal Church cannot condemn." [13] Eck had unwittingly done both Luther and the Reformation a service. The blow which he meant should be a mortal one had severed the last link in the Reformer's chain. Luther had formerly repudiated the primacy of the Pope, and appealed from the Pope to a Council. Now he publicly accuses a Council of having condemned what was "Christian" — in short, of having erred. It was clear that the infallible authority of Councils, as well as that of the Pope, must be given up. Henceforward Luther stands upon the authority of Scripture alone.

The gain to the Protestant movement from the Leipsic discussion was great. Duke George, frightened by the charge of Bohemianism, was henceforward its bitter enemy. There were others who were incurably prejudiced against it. But these losses were more than balanced by manifold and substantial gains. The views of Luther were henceforward clearer. The cause got a broader and firmer foot-hold. Of those who sat on the benches, many became its converts. The students especially were attracted by Luther, and forsaking the University of Leipsic, flocked to that of Wittemberg. Some names, that afterwards were among the brightest in the ranks of the Reformers, were at this time enrolled on the evangelical side — Poliander, Cellarius, the young Prince of Anhalt, Cruciger, and last and greatest of all, Melancthon. Literature heretofore had occupied the intellect and filled the heart of this last distinguished man, but now, becoming as a little child, he bowed to the authority of the Word of God, and dedicating all his erudition to the Protestant cause, he began to expound the Gospel with that sweetness and clearness which were so peculiarly his own. Luther loved him before, but from this time he loved him more than ever. Luther and Melancthon were true yoke-fellows; they were not so much twain as one; they made up between them a perfect agent for the times and the work. How admirably has Luther hit this off! "I was born," said he, "to contend on the field of battle with factions and wicked spirits. It is my task to uproot the stock and the stem, to clear away the briars and the underwood. I am the rough workman who has to prepare the way and smooth the road. But Philip advances quietly and softly. He tills and plants the ground; sows and waters it joyfully, according to the gifts which God has given him with so liberal a hand." [14]

The war at Leipsic, then, was no affair of outposts merely. It raged round the very citadel of the Roman system. The first assault was directed against that which emphatically is the key of the Roman position, its deepest foundation as a theology — namely, man's independence of the grace of God. For it is on the doctrine of man's ability to begin and — with the help of a little supplemental grace, conveyed to him through the sole channel of the Sacraments — to accomplish his salvation, that Rome builds her scheme of works, with all its attendant penances, absolutions, and burdensome rites. The second blow was struck at that dogma which is the corner-stone of Rome as a hierarchy — the Pope's primacy.

The Reformers strove to overthrow both, that they might substitute — for the first, GOD, as the sole Author of man's salvation; and for the second, CHRIST as the sole Monarch of the Church.

Luther returned from Leipsic a freer, a nobler, and a more courageous man. The fetters of Papalism had been rent. He stood erect in the liberty wherewith the Gospel makes all who receive and follow it free. He no longer bowed to Councils; he no longer did reverence to the "chair" set up at Rome, and to which the ages had listened, believing the voice that proceeded from it to be the voice of God. Luther now acknowledged no infallible guide on earth save the Bible. From this day forward there was a greater power in every word and a greater freedom in every act of the Reformer.

Once more in the midst of his friends at Wittemberg, Luther's work was resumed. Professors and students soon felt the new impetus derived from the quickened and expanded views which the Reformer had brought back with him from his encounter with Eck.

He had discarded the mighty fiction of the primacy; lifting his eyes above the throne that stood on the Seven Hills, with its triple-crowned

occupant, he fixed them on that King whom God hath set upon the holy hill of Zion. In the living and risen Redeemer, to whom all power in heaven and in earth has been given, he recognized the one and only Head of the Church. This brought with it an expansion of view as regarded the Church herself. The Church in Luther's view was no longer that community over which the Pope stretches his scepter. The Church was that holy and glorious company which has been gathered out of every land by the instrumentality of the Gospel. On all the members of that company one Spirit has descended, knitting them together into one body, and building them up into a holy temple. The narrow walls of Rome, which had aforetime bounded his vision, were now fallen; and the Reformer beheld nations from afar who had never heard of the name of the Pope, and who had never borne his yoke, gathering, as the ancient seer had foretold, to the Shiloh. This was the Church to which Luther had now come, and of which he rejoiced in being a member.

The drama is now about to widen, and new actors are about to step upon the stage. Those who form the front rank, the originating and creative spirits, the men whose words, more powerful than edicts and armies, are passing sentence of doom upon the old order of things, and bidding a new take its place, are already on the scene. We recognize them in that select band of enlightened and powerful intellects and purified souls at Wittemberg, of whom Luther was chief. But the movement must necessarily draw into itself the political and material forces of the world, either in the way of co-operation or of antagonism. These secondary agents, often mistaken for the first, were beginning to crowd upon the stage. They had contemned the movement at its beginning — the material always under-estimates the spiritual — but now they saw that it was destined to change kingdoms—to change the world. Mediaevalism took the alarm. Shall it permit its dominion quietly to pass from it? Reviving in a power and glory unknown to it since the days of Charlemagne, if even then, it threw down the gage of battle to Protestantism. Let us attend to the new development we see taking place, at this crisis, in this old power.

Nothing more unfortunate, as it seemed, could have happened for the cause of the world's progress. All things were prognosticating a new era. The revival of ancient learning had given an impetus to the human mind. A spirit of free inquiry and a thirst for rational knowledge had been awakened; society was casting off the yoke of antiquated prejudices and terrors. The world was indulging the cheering hope that it was about to make good its escape from the Dark Ages. But, lo! the Dark Ages start up anew. They embody themselves afresh in the mighty Empire of Charles. It is a general law, traceable through all history that before their fall a rally takes place in the powers of evil.

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