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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 6 — From the Leipsic Disputation to the Diet at Worms, 1521

Chapter 2 — Interviews and Negotiations

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Eck at Rome – His Activity against Luther – Procures his Condemnation – The Bull – Authorship of the Bull – Its Terms – Its Two Bearers – The Bull crosses the Alps – Luther's "Babylonish Captivity " – The Sacrament – His Extraordinary Letter to Pope Leo – Bull arrives in Wittemberg – Luther enters a Notarial Protest against it – He Burns it – Astonishment and Rage of Rome – Luther's Address to the Students.

WE have almost lost sight of Dr. Eck. We saw him, after his disputation with Luther at Leipsic, set off for Rome. What was the object of his journey? He crossed the Alps to solicit the Pope's help against the man whom he boasted having vanquished. He was preceded by Cardinal Cajetan, another "conqueror" after the fashion of Eck, and who too was so little satisfied with the victory which he so loudly vaunted that, like Eck, he had gone to Rome to seek help and find revenge.

In the metropolis of the Papacy these men encountered greater difficulties than they had reckoned on. The Roman Curia was apathetic. Its members had not yet realised the danger in its full extent. They scouted the idea that Wittemberg would conquer Rome, and that an insignificant monk could shake the Pontiff's throne. History exhibited no example of any such astounding phenomenon. Great tempests had arisen in former ages. Rebel kings, proud heresiarchs, and barbarous or heretical nations had dashed themselves against the Papal chair, but their violence had no more availed to overturn it than ocean's foam to overthrow the rock.

The affair, however, was not without its risks, to which all were not blind. It was easy for the Church to launch her ban, but the civil power must execute it. What if it should refuse? Besides there were, even in Rome itself, a few moderate men who, having a near view of thedisorders of the Papal court, were not in their secret heart ill-pleased to hear Luther speak as he did. In the midst of so many adulators, might not one honest censor be tolerated? There were also men of diplomacy who said, Surely, amid the innumerable dignities and honors in the gift of the Church, something may be found to satisfy this clamorous monk. Send him a pall: give him a red hat. The members of the Curia were divided. The jurists were for citing Luther again before pronouncing sentence upon him: the theologians would brook no longer delay, [1] and pleaded for instant anathema.

The indefatigable Eck left no stone unturned to procure the condemnation of his opponent. He labored to gain over every one he came in contact with. His eloquence raised to a white heat the zeal of the monks. He spent hours of deliberation in the Vatican. He melted even the coldness of Leo. He dwelt on the character of Luther–so obstinate and so incorrigible that all attempts at conciliation were but a waste of time. He dwelt on the urgency of the matter; while they sat in debate in the Vatican, the movement was growing by days, by moments, in Germany. To second Eck's arguments, Cajetan, so ill as to be unable to walk, was borne every day in a litter into the council-chamber. [2] The doctor of Ingolstadt found another, and, it is said, even a more potent ally. This was no other than the banker Fugger of Augsburg. He was treasurer of the indulgences, and would have made a good thing of it if Luther had not spoilt his speculation. This awoke in him a most vehement desire to crush a heresy so hurtful to the Church's interest–and his own.

Meanwhile rumors reached Luther of what was preparing for him in the halls of the Vatican. These rumors caused him no alarm; his heart was fixed; he saw a Greater than Leo. A very different scene from Rome did Wittemberg at that moment present. In the former city all was anxiety and turmoil, in the latter all was peaceful and fruitful labor. Visitors from all countries were daily arriving to see and converse with the Reformer. The halls of the university were crowded with youth the hope of the Reformation. The fame of Melanchthon was extending; he had just given his hand to Catherine Krapp, and so formed the first link between the Reformation and domestic life, infusing thereby a new sweetness into both. It was at this hour, too, that a young Swiss priest was not ashamed to own his adherence to that Gospel which Luther preached. He waited upon the interim Papal nuncio in Helvetia, entreating him to use his influence at head-quarters to prevent the excommunication of the doctor of Wittemberg. The name of this priest was Ulrich Zwingli. This was the first break of day visible on the Swiss mountains.

Meanwhile Eck had triumphed at Rome. On the 15th of June, 1520, the Sacred College brought their lengthened deliberations to a close by agreeing to fulminate the bull of excommunication against Luther. The elegancies or barbarisms of its style are to be shared amongst its joint concoctors, Cardinals Pucci, Ancona, and Cajetan. [3]

"Now," thought the Vulcans of the Vatican, when they had forged this bolt, "now we have finished the business. There is an end of Luther and the Wittemberg heresy." To know how haughty at this moment was Rome's spirit, we must turn to the bull itself.

"Arise, O' Lord!"–so ran this famous document–"arise and be Judge in Thy own cause. Remember the insults daily offered to Thee by infatuated men. Arise, O Peter! remember thy holy Roman Church, the mother of all Churches, and mistress of the faith. Arise, O Paul! for here is a new Porphyry, who is attacking thy doctrines, and the holy Popes our predecessors'! Arise, in

fine, assembly of all the saints, holy Church of God, and intercede with the Almighty!" [4]

The bull then goes on to condenm as scandalous, heretical, and damnable, forty-one propositions extracted from the writings of Luther. The obnoxious propositions are simple statements of Gospel truth. One of the doctrines singled out for special anathema was that which took from Rome the right of persecution, by declaring that "to burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Ghost." [5] After the maledictory clauses of the bull, the document went on to extol the marvellous forbearance of the Holy See, as shown in its many efforts to reclaim its erring son. To heresy Luther had added contumacy. He 'had had the hardihood to appeal to the General Council in the face of the decretals of Plus II. and Julius II.; and he had filled up the measure of his sins by slandering the immaculate Papacy. The Papacy, nevertheless, yearned over its lost son, and "imitating the omnipotent God, who desireth not the death of a sinner," earnestly exhorted the prodigal to return to the bosom of his mother, to bring back with him all he had led astray, and make proof of the sincerity of his penitence by reading his recantation, and committing all his books to the flames, within the space of sixty days. Failing to obey this summons, Luther and his adherents were pronounced incorrigible and accursed heretics, whom all princes and magistrates were enjoined to apprehend and send to Rome, or banish from the country in which they happened to be found. The towns where they continued to reside were laid under interdict, and every one who opposed the publication and execution of the bull was excommunicated in "the name of the Almighty God, and of the holy apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul." [6]

These were haughty words; and at what a moment were they spoken! The finger of a man's hand was even then about to appear, and to write on the wall that Rome had fulfilled her glory, had reached her zenith, and would henceforward hasten to her setting. But she knew not this. She saw only the track of light she had left behind her in her onward path athwart the ages. A thick veil hid the future with all its humiliations and defeats from her eyes.

The Pope advanced with excommunications in one hand and fiatteries in the other. Immediately on the back of this terrible fulmination came a letter to the Elector Frederick from Leo X. The Pope in this communication dilated on the errors of that "son of iniquity," Martin Luther; he was sure that Frederick cherished an abhorrence of these errors, and he proceeded to pass a glowing eulogium on the piety and orthodoxy of the elector, who he knew would not permit the blackness of heresy to sully the brightness of his own and his ancestors' fame [7] There was a day when these compliments would have been grateful to Frederick, but he had since drunk at the well of Wittemberg, and lost his relish for the Roman cistern. The object of the letter was transparent, and the effect it produced was just the opposite of that which the Pope intended. From that day Frederick of Saxony resolved with himself that he would protect the Reformer.

Every step that Rome took in the matter was marked by infatuation. She had launched her bull, and must needs see to its being published in all the countries of Christendom. In order to this the bull was put into the hands of two nuncios, than whom it would hardly have been possible to find two men better fitted to render an odious mission yet more odious. These were Eck and Aleander.

Eck, the conqueror at Leipsic, who had left amid the laughter of the Germans, now re-crosses the Alps. He bears in his hand the bull that is to complete the ruin of his antagonist. "It is Eck's bull," said the Germans, "not the Pope's." It is the treacherous dagger of a mortal enemy, not the axe of a Roman lictor [8] Onward, however, came the nuncio, proud of the bull, which he had so large a share in fabricating–the very Atlas, in his own eyes, who bore up the sinking Roman world. As he passed through the German towns, he posted up the important document, amid the coldness of the bishops, the contempt of the burghers, and the hootings of the youth of the universities. His progress was more like that of a fugitive than a conqueror. He had to hide at times from the popular fury in the nearest convent, and he closed his career by going into permanent seclusion at Coburg.

The other functionary was Aleander. To him was committed the task of bearing a copy of the bull to the Archbishop of Mainz, and of publishing it in the Rhenish towns. Aleander had been secretary to Pope Alexander VI., the infamous Borgia; and no worthier bearer could have been found of such a missive, and no happier choice could have been made of a colleague to Eck. "A worthy pair of ambassadors," said some; "both are admirably suited for this work, and perfectly matched in effrontery, impudence, and debauchery." [9]

The bull is slowly travelling towards Luther, and a glance at two publications which at this time (6th of October, 1520) issued from his pen, enables us to judge how far he is likely to meet it with a retractation. The Pope had exhorted him to burn all his writing: here are two additional ones which will have to be added to the heap before he applies the torch. The first is The Babylonish Captivity of the Chuch. "I denied," said Luther, owning his obligations to his adversaries, "that the Papacy was of Divine origin, but I granted that it was

of human right. Now, after reading all the subtleties on which these gentry have set up their idol, I know that the Papacy is none other than the kingdom of Babylon, and the violence of Nimrod the mighty hunter [10] I therefore beseech all my friends and all the booksellers to burn the books that I have written on this subject, and to substitute this; one proposition in their place: The Papacy is a general chase led by the Roman bishop to catch and destroy souls." These are not the words of a man who is about to present himself in the garb of a penitent at the threshold of the Roman See.

Luther next passed in review the Sacramental theory of the Church of Rome. The priest and the Sacrament – these are the twin pillars of the Papal edifice, the two saviours of the world. Luther, in his Babylonish Captivity, laid his hands upon both pillars, and bore them to the ground. Grace and salvation, he affirmed, are neither in the power of the priest nor in the efficacy of the Sacrament, but in the faith of the recipient. Faith lays hold on that which the Sacrament represents, signifies, and seals–even the promise of God; and the soul resting on that promise has grace and salvation. The Sacrament, on the side of God, represents the offered blessing; on the side of man, it is a help to faith which lays hold of that blessing. "Without faith in God's promise," said Luther, "the Sacrament is dead; it is a casket without a jewel, a scabbard without a sword." Thus did he explode the opus operatum, that great mystic charm which Rome had substituted for faith, and the blessed Spirit who works in the soul by means of it. At the very moment when Rome was advancing to crush him with the bolt she had just forged, did Luther pluck from her hand that weapon of imaginary omnipotence which had enabled her to vanquish men.

Nay, more: turning to Leo himself, Luther did not hesitate to address him at this crisis in words of honest warning, and of singular courage. We refer, of course, to his well-known letter to the Pope. Some of the passages of that letter read like a piece of sarcasm, or a bitter satire; and yet it was written in no vein of this sort. The spirit it breathes is that of intense moral earnestness, which permitted the writer to think but of one thing, even the saving of those about to sink in a great destruction. Not thus did Luther write when he wished to pierce an opponent with the shafts of his wit, or to overwhelm him with the bolts of his indignation. The words he addressed to Leo were not those of insolence or of hatred, though some have taken them for such, but of affection too deep to remain silent, and too honest and fearless to flatter. Luther could distinguish between Leo and the ministers of his government.

We need give only a few extracts from this extraordinary letter: –

"To the most Holy Father in God, Leo X., Pope at Rome, be all health in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

"From amid the fearful war which I have been waging for three years with disorderly men, I cannot help looking to you, O Leo, most Holy Father in God. And though the folly of your impious flatterers has compelled me to appeal from your judgment to a future Council, my heart is not turned away from your holiness; and I have not ceased to pray God earnestly, and with profound sighs, to grant prosperity to yourself and your Pontificate.

"It is true I have attacked some anti-Christian doctrines, and have inflicted a deep wound on my adversaries because of their impiety. Of this I repent not, as I have here Christ for an example. Of what use is salt if it have lost its savor, or the edge of a sword if it will not cut? Cursed be he who doeth the work of the Lord negligently. Most excellent Leo, far from having conceived any bad thoughts with regard to you, my wish is that you may enjoy the most precious blessings throughout eternity. One thing only I have done; I have maintained the word of truth. I am ready to yield to all in everything; but as to this word I will not, I cannot abandon it. He who thinks differently on this subject is in error.

"It is true that I have attacked the court of Rome; but neither yourself nor any man living can deny that there is greater corruption in it than was in Sodom and Gomorrah, and that the impiety that prevails makes cure hopeless. Yes, I have been horrified in seeing how, under your name, the poor followers of Christ were deceived…

"You know it. Rome has for many years been inundating the world with whatever could destroy both soul and body. The Church of Rome, formerly the first in holiness, has become a den of robbers, a place of prostitution, a kingdom of death and hell; so that Antichrist himself, were he to appear, would be unable to increase the amount of wickedness. All this

is as clear as day.

"And yet, O Leo, you yourself are like a lamb in the midst of wolves–a Daniel in the lions' den. But, single-handed, what can you oppose to these monsters? There may be three or four cardinals who to knowledge add virtue. But what are these against so many? You should perish by poison even before you could try any remedy. It is all over with the court of Rome. The wrath of God has overtaken and will consume it. It hates counsel–it fears reform–it will not moderate the fury of its ungodliness; and hence it may be justly said of it as of its mother: We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed–forsake her.

"Rome is not worthy of you, and those who resemble you." This, however, was no great compliment to Leo, for the Reformer immediately adds, "the only chief whom she deserves to have is Satan himself, and hence it is that in this Babylon he is more king than you are. Would to God that, laying aside this glory which your enemies so much extol, you would exchange it for a modest pastoral office, or live on your paternal inheritance. Rome's glory is of a kind fit only for Iscariots.

"Is it not true that under the vast expanse of heaven there is nothing more corrupt, more hateful than the Roman court? In vice and corruption it infinitely exceeds the Turks. Once the gate of heaven, it has become the mouth of hell–a wide mouth which the wrath of God keeps open, so that on seeing so many unhappy beings thrown headlong into it, I was obliged to lift my voice as in a tempest, in order that, at least, some might be saved from the terrible abyss."

Luther next enters into some detail touching his communications with De Vio, Eck, and Miltitz, the agents who had come from the Roman court to make him cease his opposition to the Papal corruptions. And then he closes–

"I cannot retract my doctrine. I cannot permit rules of interpretation to be imposed upon the Holy Scriptures. The Word of God–the source whence all freedom springs–must be left free. Perhaps I am too bold in giving advice to so high a majesty, whose duty it is to instruct all men, but I see the dangers which surround you at Rome; I see you driven hither and thither; tossed, as it were, upon the billows of a raging sea. Charity urges me, and I cannot resist sending forth a warning cry."

That he might not appear before the Pope empty-handed, he accompanied his letter with a little book on the "Liberty of the Christian." The two poles of that liberty he describes as faith and love; faith which makes the Christian free, and love which makes him the servant of all. Having presented this little treatise to one who "needed only spiritual gifts," he adds, "I commend myself to your Holiness. May the Lord keep you for ever and ever! Amen."

So spoke Luther to Leo–the monk of Wittemberg to the Pontiff of Christendom. Never were spoken words of greater truth, and never were words of truth spoken in circumstances in which they were more needed, or at greater peril to the speaker. If we laud historians who have painted in truthful colors, at a safe distance, the character of tyrants, and branded their vices with honest indignation, we know not on what principle we can refuse to Luther our admiration and praise. Providence so ordered it that before the final rejection of a Church which had once been renowned throughout the earth for its faith, Truth, once more and for the last time, should lift up her voice at Rome.

The bull of excommunication arrived at Wittemberg in October, 1520. It had ere this been published far and wide, and almost the last man to see it was the man against whom it was fulminated. But here at last it is. Luther and Leo: Wittemberg and Rome now stand face to face–Rome has excommunicated Wittemberg, and Wittemberg will excommunicate Rome. Neither can retreat, and the war must be to the death.

The bull could not be published in Wittemberg, for the university possessed in this matter powers superior to those of the Bishop of Brandenburg. It did, indeed, receive publication at Wittemberg, and that of a very emphatic kind, as we shall afterwards see, but not such publication as Eck wished and anticipated. The arrival of the terrible missive caused no fear in the heart of Luther. On the contrary, it inspired him with fresh courage. The movement was expanding into greater breadth. He saw clearly the hand of God guiding it to its goal.

Meanwhile the Reformer took those formal measures that were necessary to indicate his position in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of the Church which had condemned him, and in the eyes of posterity. He renewed his appeal with all solemnity from Leo X. to a future Council. [11] On Saturday, the 17th of November, at ten o'clock in the morning, in the Augustine convent where he resided, in the presence

of a notary public and five witnesses, among whom was Caspar Cruciger, he entered a solemn protest against the bull. The notary took down his words as he uttered them. His appeal was grounded on the four following points:–First, because he stood condemned without having been heard, and without any reason or proof assigned of his being in error. Second, because he was required to deny that Christian faith was essential to the efficacious reception of the Sacrament. Third, because the Pope exalts his own opinions above the Word of God; and Fourth, because, as a proud contemner of the Holy Church of God, and of a legitimate Council, the Pope had refused to convoke a Council of the Church, declaring that a Council is nothing of itself.

This was not Luther's affair only, but that of all Christendom, and accordingly he accompanied his protest against the bull by a solemn appeal to the "emperor, the electors, princes, barons, nobles, senators, and the entire Christian magistracy of Germany," calling upon them, for the sake of Catholic truth, the Church of Christ, and the liberty and right of a lawful Council, to stand by him and his appeal, to resist the impious tyranny of the Pope, and not to execute the bull till he had been legally summoned and heard before impartial judges, and convicted from Scripture. Should they act dutifully in this matter, "Christ, our Lord," he said, "would reward them with His everlasting grace. But if there be any who scorn my prayer, and continue to obey that impious man, the Pope, rather than God," he disclaimed all responsibility for the consequences, and left them to the supreme judgment of Almighty God.

In the track of the two nuncios blazed numerous piles–not of men, as yet, but of books, the writings of Luther. In Louvain, in Cologne, and many other towns in the hereditary estates of the emperor, a bonfire had been made of his works. To these many piles of Eck and Aleander, Luther replied by kindling one pile. He had written his bill of divorcement, now he will give a sign that he has separated irrevocably from Rome.

A placard on the walls of the University of Wittemberg announced that it was Luther's intention to burn the Pope's bull, and that this would take place at nine o'clock in the morning of December 10th, at the eastern gate of the town. On the day and hour appointed, Luther was seen to issue from the gate of the university, followed by a train of doctors and students to the number of 600, and a crowd of citizens who enthusiastically sympathised. The procession held on its way through the streets of Wittemberg, till, making its exit at the gate, it bore out of the city–for all unclean things were burned without the camp–the bull of the Pontiff.

Arriving at the spot where this new and strange immolation was to take place, the members of procession found a scaffold already erected, and a pile of logs laid in order upon it. One of the more distinguished Masters of Arts took the torch and applied it to the pile. Soon the flames blazed up. At this moment, the Reformer, wearing the frock of his order, stepped out from the crowd and approached the fire, holding in his hand the several volumes which constitute the Canon Law, the Compend of Gratian, the Clementines, the Extravagants of Julius II., and other and later coinages of the Papal mint. He placed these awful volumes one after the other on the blazing pile.

It fared with them as if they had been common things. Their mysterious virtue did not profit in the fire. The flames, fastening on them with their fierce tongues, speedily turned these monuments of the toil, the genius, and the infallibility of the Popes to ashes. This hecatomb of Papal edicts was not yet complete. The bull of Leo X. still remained. Luther held it up in his hand. "Since thou hast vexed the Holy One of the Lord," said he, "may everlasting fire vex and consume thee." [12] With these words he flung it into the burning mass. Eck had pictured to himself the terrible bull, as he bore it in triumph across the Alps, exploding in ruin above the head of the monk. A more peaceful exit awaited it. For a few moments it blazed and crackled in the flames, and then it calmly mingled its dust with the ashes of its predecessors, that winter morning, on the smouldering pile outside the walls of Wittemberg. [13]

The blow had been struck. The procession reformed. Doctors, masters, students, and townsmen, again gathering round the Reformer, walked back, amid demonstrations of triumph, to the city.

Had Luther begun his movement with this act, he would but have wrecked it. Men would have seen only fury and rage, where now they saw courage and faith. The Reformer began by posting up his "Theses"–by letting in the light upon the dark pIaces of Rome. Now, however, the minds of men were to a large extent prepared. The burning of the bull was, therefore, the right act at the right time. It was felt to be the act, not of a solitary monk, but of the German people–the explosion of a nation's indignation. The tidings of it traveled fast and far; and when the report reached Rome, the powers of the Vatican trembled upon their seats. It sounded like the Voice that is said to have echoed through the heathen world at our Savior's birth, and which awoke lamentations and wailings amid the shrines and groves of paganism: "Great Pan is dead!"

Luther knew that one blow would not win the battle; that the war was only commenced, and must be followed up by ceaseless, and if possible still mightier blows. Accordingly next day, as he was lecturing on the Psalms, he reverted to the episode of the bull, and broke out into

a strain of impassioned eloquence and invective. The burning of the Papal statutes, said he, addressing the crowd of students that thronged the lecture-room, is but the sigal, the thing signified was what they were to aim at, even the conflagration of the Papacy. His brow gathered and his voice grew more solemn as he continued:

"Unless with all your hearts you abandon the Papacy, you cannot save your souls. The reign of the Pope is so opposed to the law of Christ and the life of the Christian, that it will be safer to roam the desert and never see the face of man, than abide under the rule of Antichrist. I warn every man to look to his soul's welfare, lest by submitting to the Pope he deny Christ. The time is come when Christians must choose between death here and death hereafter. For my own part, I choose death here. I cannot lay such a burden upon my soul as to hold my peace in this matter: I must look to the great reckoning. I abominate the Babylonian pest. As long as I live I will proclaim the truth. If the wholesale destruction of souls throughout Christendom cannot be prevented, at least I shall labor to the utmost of my power to rescue my own countrymen from the bottomless pit of perdition." [14]

The burning of the Pope's bull marks the closing of one stage and the opening of another in the great movement. It defines the fullness of Luther's doctrinal views; and it was this matured and perfected judgment respecting the two systems and the two Churches, that enabled him to act with such decision–a decision which astounded Rome, and which brought numerous friends around himself. Rome never doubted that her bolt would crush the monk. She had stood in doubt as to whether she ought to launch it, but she never doubted that, once launched, it would accomplish the suppression of the Wittemberg revolt. For centuries no opponent had been able to stand before her. In no instance had her anathemas failed to execute the vengeance they were meant to inflict. Kings and nations, principalities and powers, when struck by excommunication, straightway collapsed and perished as if a vial of fire had been emptied upon them. And who was this Wittemberg heretic, that he should defy a power before which the whole world crouched in terror? Rome had only to speak, to stretch out her arm, to let fall her bolt, and this adversary would be swept from her path; nor name nor memorial would remain to him on earth. Rome would make Wittemberg and its movement a reproach, a hissing, and a desolation. She did speak, she did stretch out her arm, she did launch her bolt. And what was the result? To Rome a terrible and appalling one. The monk, rising up in his strength, grasped the bolt hurled against him from the Seven Hills, and flung it back at her from whom it came.


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