Following the nailing of the 95 Theses to the northern door of All Saints’ Church, commonly known as the Schlosskirke or Castle Church in Wittenberg 500 years ago on October 31, 1517, (see my previous article on the subject here) Martin Luther got the University debate he wanted at Wittenberg… and a lot more.
Spread of the 95 Theses
The small local debate was held in the Corpus Christi Chapel next to St. Mary’s Church, the town church in Wittenberg where Luther preached daily and was attended by the faculty of the University of Wittenberg. But that was not the end of the matter. Luther had also sent the 95 Theses to his church superior, Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, under whose authority the indulgences were being sold. He respectfully appealed to Albert to recognize that danger of this practice. Luther began a pamphlet war with indulgence promoter, Johannes Tetzel the Dominican friar, similar to a Twitter battle today. This only increased Luther’s fame. Three weeks later, Tetzel called for Luther to be burned for heresy.
Luther had sent copies to friends in Erfurt and elsewhere. A printer in Nuremberg printed these out and distributed them widely, as did printers in Basel and Leipzig. Translated from Latin into German, and even English they fell into the hands of Erasmus, Thomas More, and King Henry VIII of England who would write so vociferously against Luther that the Pope named him “Defender of the Faith.” Ironic, considering Henry’s future break with the Pope over a dispute on divorce. The rapid and unintentional spread of Luther’s writing was like a private Instant Message being rebroadcasted on CNN.
Disputation at Heidelberg
His ecclesiastical superiors wanted him to cease preaching against indulgences. Pope Leo X asked the head of Luther’s order, the Augustinian Hermits, to convince Luther of such. Luther presented his “Theology of the Cross” paper in Heidelberg to explain his position. Some of the younger participants at the disputation were convinced of Luther’s position.
Diet of Augsburg
The Pope summoned Luther to Augsburg in October of 1518 to defend himself against heresy in front of Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, the Papal Legate. He was ordered to recant his teaching on indulgences, justification by faith alone, and the authority of the Pope. He refused saying:
“I must be shown by Scripture.”
His request that his case be reviewed by university theologians was denied, so Luther appealed to the Pope before leaving Augsburg for Wittenberg.
Debate at Leipzig
Johann Eck, a Dominican friar, was a theologian and Professor at Ingolstadt. Luther had previously considered him a friend when they met in Wittenberg. Once Eck had read Luther’s theses he wanted very much to debate him and wrote a rebuttal of them under the name Obelisks, a subtle typographical hint that Luther’s writings were erroneous. Luther replied with Asterisks, the “little star” found in the margin of a manuscript to signify something valuable.
Eck was considered a master debater and could quote the Fathers, while Luther knew the Fathers and had most of the New Testament and huge portions of the Old Testament memorized. They debated across a table for three days. Luther held that scripture alone (sola scriptura) was authoritative and pointed out that the Pope had no authority as he was not mentioned in the Bible, nor was purgatory.
Luther was asked if he agreed with the teachings of Jan Hus of Bohemia. He said that if the truth be known, the professors at Wittenberg were all Hussites. The pastor and professor Jan Hus, 100 years previously had been burned at the stake for heresy.
Luther finished his debate with Eck convinced that Eck won. As a result of the debate, the impact of the Luther-Rome dispute begins to grow. Luther and his ideas become unignorable.
He returned to Wittenberg and wrote more tracts.
Following the debate, Pope Leo X threatened to excommunicate Luther from the Catholic Church in January with a papal bull. A bull or bulla was a seal of authority identifying a document as authentic. It was of wax or lead and featured on one side Saints Peter and Paul and on the other the name of the issuing Pope.
In this case, the famous June document was called Exurge Domine “Arise Oh Lord” and represented the first line of a treatise, or prayer to God by the Pope to thwart the “foxes ruining the vineyard/the boar from the forest [that] eats it away”:
Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Rise, Peter, and fulfill this pastoral office divinely entrusted to you as mentioned above. Give heed to the cause of the holy Roman Church, mother of all churches and teacher of the faith. We beseech you also, Paul, to arise. It was you that enlightened and illuminated the Church by your doctrine.
Luther had 60 days, in lieu of a hearing, to recant. Leo X further ordered in the bull the public burning of Luther’s writings in front of clerics and lay people. By this time Luther’s fame had grown such that people cast into the bonfires other books, rather than Luther’s. Due to the unpopularity of the bull in Saxony — from advanced rumor — Luther did not receive his copy until October, though he heard it was coming. Even before he got it he began to write a response “Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist.”
After 60 days, on December 10, 1520, Luther invited faculty and students to meet at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg, at what is now called Luther’s Oak. Those assembled built a bonfire wherein were placed papal constitutions and books of canon law. Luther walked forward and threw a copy of the Exurge Domine bull into the flames saying:
“Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!”
At this point, it was safe to say that Luther — the bull in the China shop — had broken with Rome.
Less than a month later, on January 3, 1521, the Pope wrote the bull Decet Romanum Pontefecem “It befits the Roman Pontiff,” formally excommunicating Luther, branding him a heretic.
Continued in Part 4
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian