Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 8: Demands from Rome
There had been little time for deeply depressive agonising in the months since November of 1517; and there had been a good deal for Luther to be pleased with. Apart from progress with university reform, many people had reacted not only favourably but with enthusiasm to his Theses on Indulgences. But there were worries about this. The Theses had not been written for general consumption, and the support they had received tended to have something superficial about it — whether it was the arrogance of the humanists, or the prejudiced anti-clericalism of all who enjoyed any attack on the clergy. Added to this was the fact that Church authority seemed to be unwilling to respond to Luther’s protest. For weeks there was merely silence. This was followed by rumours, increasingly strong, that the letter to the Archbishop and the criticism of Tetzel were being treated as matters for discipline at Rome. However, these things did not bother Luther as much as the thought that the Theses might be misrepresenting his case, particularly to the general public. Yet there was the warming fact of encouraging signs locally. The Elector and his chaplain, Luther’s close friend, were taking a positive attitude. And his own local bishop, though forbidding publication of his long Explanations, had implied that perhaps they should be published eventually, treating with Luther through an eminent local abbot.
Luther left Wittenberg on foot in the second week in April on the 250-mile journey to the Rhineland, for the Augustinian Chapter meeting at the ancient university town of Heidelberg. due to open at the end of the month. Depressives have their ‘up’ periods, and the visit to Heidelberg led Luther into something like euphoria; the trip went well from the moment Luther and his friar companion, Leonard Beyer, he of the Theses, crossed the bridge out of Wittenberg into the springtime countryside. Five weeks later, Luther was bubbling over with happiness about it. As soon as he was back in his cell and had attended to immediate business, he sat down and wrote to Spalatin: ‘At last my Spalatin by the grace of Christ I have returned to our hearth [penates],’ — Luther was writing on the Tuesday after the Saturday of his return —‘I who left on foot, returned on wheels.’ He had come back as a minor hero, with a vehicle specially lent from a neighbouring friary, and the detail was to be relished: My superiors made me ride almost up to Wurzburg with the delegation from Nuremberg. From there I travelled with the Erfurt delegation, and from Erfurt on, with the party from Eisleben; and they finally brought me, both at their own expense and with their horses, to Wittenberg.’ Furthermore, security had been no worry after all: ‘I certainly have been quite safe during the whole trip.’ And his health had been better: ‘Food and drink agreed wonderfully with me, so much so that several people think I look less strained and have put on some weight.’ The whole thing had been a succession of minor, sometimes major, triumphs.
Their first port of call out of Wittenberg had been at the village of Judenbach, where they were well entertained by Pfeffinger, Frederick’s Chancellor of the Exchequer — Luther had by now received that cloth, so long promised for a new habit. A careful route and stopping places had been planned to provide the minimum of danger of attack or kidnap. They continued on down through the lovely Thuringian valleys, and then over the hill to Coburg and on to Wurzburg, where Frederick’s letters gave Luther the entree to the episcopal palace and lavish entertainment from Prince Bishop Lorenz in the Marienberg Castle above the city. On his arrival, Luther heard that the Erfurt party were still in the city, and from here on Luther and Beyer were able to ride in the Erfurt wagon instead of walking. Once he had arrived at Heidelberg, instead of possible reprimands there was nothing but good to report. The young local ruler, Count Palatinate Pfalzgraf Wolfgang, was a graduate of Wittenberg and was happy to ask Luther, along with the Observants’ Superior, Father Staupitz, and Luther’s old friend the Erfurt Prior, Johann Lang, to a grand meal: ‘We enjoyed ourselves in pleasant and delightful conversation while we dined and wined. We viewed all the treasures of the castle chapel, and saw the armoury, and just about every precious object with which his truly royal and extraordinary famous castle sparkles.’ The Count’s old tutor was present and gave Luther further ground to flush with pleasure: ‘Master James could not praise highly enough the letter our sovereign had written or my behalf; in his Necker dialect, he said "By God, you have excellent Credentials!" I was given every possible courtesy.’
Staupitz had decided to back his protege. He gave Luther the podium and invited him to give the lead lecture, to preside at the defence of a set of theses, propounded by Luther and defended by his companion. They were not on the controversial Indulgence issue, but on the fundamental underlying theology of sin, grace and justification. It all went well: ‘The doctors willingly allowed my disputation and debated with me in such a fair way that they have my highest esteem.’ The next sentence was a reference to the domination of the schools by philosophy:
‘Theology seemed to be some strange thing to them; nevertheless they debated keenly and with finesse.’ One of the opposition speakers received not support but laughter from the meeting by saying: ‘If the peasants were to hear you, they would certainly stone you to death.’ There was opposition from the elderly nominalists from Erfurt: ‘My theology is like twice deadly cabbage to the Erfurters.’ But that was to be expected. Luther’s theology of the cross went beyond the intellect to the heart and to the spirit: ‘The man who deserves to be called a theologian is not the one who seeks to understand the invisible things of God through the things that are made but the one who understands that the visible things of God are seen through suffering and the cross.
It was an open occasion, and among the local citizens and graduates who came in to hear the disputation was a young Dominican priest, destined to become Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge thirty-one years later. Fr Martin Bucer, OP, wrote a letter to a friend a few days after the meeting, to tell him about Luther and give him an idea of the magnetism of the friar’s presence. Something of this was caught in the earliest engraving of him by Cranach (two years later), showing Father Luther in his white habit. The mixture of intellect, spirituality and emotion in a body still thin, and visibly sculpted by asceticism came across to young Martin Bucer. Luther s quiet voice, sharp eyes, intense conviction and his powerful arguments were overwhelming — or to others deeply offensive. Bucer wrote to his friend: ‘His sweetness in answering is remarkable, his patience in listening is incomparable . . . his answers, so brief, so wise, and drawn from the Holy Scriptures, easily made admirers of everyone who heard him.’ He was not saying that Luther had it all his own way. ‘Our best men argued against him as hard as they could. However, they were unable to make him budge an inch from his propositions.’ The contrast struck Bucer very forcibly, between the conventional language of the schools and what Luther was putting across. Here was something quite new and yet apparently difficult to defeat in argument. ‘He had got so far away from the bonds of the sophists and the trifling of Aristotle, is so devoted to the Bible and so suspicious of antiquated theologians of our schools. . . that he appears to be diametrically opposed to our teachers.’ What was exciting him as much as what Luther was actually saying, was that it was challenging all the old assumptions, and that it was being said with great intellectual confidence and conviction, backed evidently by deep emotion.
The day after the great debate, Bucer managed to have a meal with Luther: ‘I had a close and friendly discussion with the man alone; it was a supper rich with doctrine rather than fancy food.’ Bucer, like everyone else, related Luther to Erasmus, as taking Erasmus to a logical conclusion — evidently Luther kept his disagreements secret. He agrees with Erasmus in all things, but with this difference in his favour — that where Erasmus only insinuates, he teaches openly.’ Bucer had not grasped that this difference in temperament was already part of a much more far-reaching difference in attitude to the Christian Gospel. Luther’s was a more deeply subjective commitment which led to a more impassioned and practical policy.
Luther learnt at Heidelberg from Staupitz that attempts had been made to turn the occasion into one at which he would be silenced. A quiet word from his Superior in Germany, with a reference to the wishes of the Order’s Superior General in Rome, and to criticism at the papal court, would, it had been thought, do the trick. Instead, Staupitz had treated Luther and his theology simply as theologians were used to treating professors with theological initiatives — these things were a matter for debate and argument, doubtless of the expression of strong and even very strong opinions about them, but still for the moment a matter for debate. The Indulgence matter was left aside — everyone agreed with Luther’s attitude and with many of his propositions on this topic in any case. But no one wanted to debate it because of the sheer danger associated with debating matters which involved the authority of the Pope. However, the whole matter of the way Church authority carried on was irritating Luther more and more. It was not just that he felt it all to be unseemly or even scandalous in the way that Erasmus and so many people of all classes did; he certainly felt that, but he was more deeply scandalised and hurt in his own inner being; his own nature was in some sort under attack. He had acted on his own conscience in the deepest interest of the Gospel and of the Church, and in tune, as he understood it, with the theology of St Paul and St John. Yet it was beginning to seem that Church authority had no interest in these things, or in himself as a member of the Church.
One matter on the agenda at Heidelberg was the post of local provincial superior, which Luther held. He had completed his three-year stint, and it was an obvious choice to replace him with the man whose name had often been coupled with his, the Erfurt Prior, Johann Lang. And it suited Staupitz to have Luther out of the official local job for the moment. In any case, Luther was overburdened. Although not the president of the University, he had become in effect the man principally responsible for the reorganisation of the syllabus and the new appointments. So Johann Lang was voted in to take over the office of local superior of the group of Saxon friaries.
Back in Wittenberg, Luther was due to preach in the parish church. His mind was still agonising over the matter of the exercise of authority, and in particular the matter of the ‘Ban’ on the sacraments so often exercised by Church authorities when they wanted an overdue debt paying — bans ‘flying about like bats’, as he had said in March — and in general the whole business of excommunication. Heidelberg had outraged him. Whenever he grappled with a topic, the opposition seemed to melt away. So up into the pulpit he went and began the kind of classic but easily intelligible exposition he was so good at: ‘The Latin word communio means ‘fellowship’, and this is what scholars call the holy sacrament. Its opposite is the word "excommunication" which means "exclusion" from this fellowship. He pointed out that at the deepest level the ban cannot reach into a man’s deepest relation with God, quoting St Paul: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of God. . .? I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor height, nor power, nor anything else on earth.’ The ban was about their visible fellowship in the Church, an essential element in Christian life. Luther expounded the orthodox view which he accepted. There had to be a structured community and discipline; the origins of the organised Church could be found in some of Christ’s own words.
This was all impeccably orthodox. But Luther soon got on to what so affronted him, and what had been an annoyance in the Church for centuries: misuse of ecclesiastical disciplines. He said they had to put up with it — unjust excommunication had to be borne like a sickness. Unfortunately, it seemed that, more often than not — and here he began to express the biting criticism and anger inside him — authority was put into the hands of the Pilates, Herods, Annases and Caiaphases of this world. But these authorities should realise, he said, as he got into his stride, that they stood in greater spiritual danger than the people they excommunicated. They used it to get a debt paid, when the debt ‘is so small that correspondence and costs amount to more than the sum concerned’. While real sinners, especially if they were the great of this earth, ‘big Johns’, were not touched, in spite of being fornicators, slanderers, usurers and the like. An unjust ban should be endured but its importance exploded, just the way you could pop a pig’s bladder filled with peas for rattling. Another vernacular reference came fast on the heels of that one: as soon as they picked up the spoon, they smashed the bowl — bringing the whole Church into disrepute by wielding their petty powers. Thus were the more or less inadequate, casual or corrupt officers of the European Myth exposed as functionaries of a social machine, rather than servants of men in their religious affairs. Luther knew the sermon was provocative, but was already becoming convinced that he must speak out. The force of his own inner storm was driving him on to say what others held back from. The atmosphere was becoming tense. Luther had only been back from Heidelberg two days and he was already attacking authority again. People wondered how long authority would hold back from touching him.
There were continuous exchanges with his old friends and masters in the Augustinian Order. At Heidelberg, Luther had failed to convince the old men from Erfurt; particularly saddening was the opposition of Fr Trutvetter, whom Luther loved and held in esteem, though he spoke sharply about him sometimes in letters to Spalatin. Luther tried and failed to convince Trutvetter on his way back through Erfurt. Back at Wittenberg he wrote a long, warm letter to his old Master, saying that nearly all the principal teachers at Wittenberg agreed with him, and even the prelates, when hearing the new theology, feel that someone is speaking to them of Christ and the Gospel. Allow me to share their judgment until the question is resolved by the Church . . . I pray daily to my Lord that the pure study of the Bible and the Fathers shall be restored to honour. You don’t consider me a logician, and perhaps I am not; but I fear no man’s logic in defending this position. . .Doesn’t it disturb you that Christ’s unfortunate people are tormented and fooled by indulgences? . . . If you can still tolerate the advice of him who was your most obedient and devoted disciple, I would say this; it was from you that I first learned to trust only the canonical books . . . I am ready to endure and to accept all your criticisms. However severe they are, they will appear very gentle to me.
There were deep ties both personal and communal with the old man, and Luther hated to be out of harmony with his onetime mentor.
At Heidelberg, Luther had heard some detail of what was being said against him at Rome. On his return to Wittenberg he decided to send his Explanations to the Pope. Into it he had put all his theological expertise. This text would show the Pope what was the real purpose of the 95 Theses. With it he sent a letter to the Pope himself, written with all the frankness, openness, intellectual integrity and respect for authority of which Luther was capable. He had it all ready by the end of May. ‘Most Holy Father . . . my reputation has been seriously maligned before you and your counsellors, as if I had undertaken to diminish the authority and power of the keys which belong to the sovereign pontiff. I am accused of being a heretic, an impostor and a traitor, which leaves me overwhelmed with astonishment and horror . . .’ Luther then described the preaching and Indulgence traffic in Saxony and said it stirred opposition, ‘malicious talk was much in evidence around their booths’, and only the threat of the stake prevented people speaking openly. ‘It was then that I became incensed with zeal for Christ, as it seemed to me (or, if you prefer, by a juvenile enthusiasm).’ He wrote to prelates about the matter, and ‘I published my theses, inviting learned men and them alone to discuss them with me . . . By a miracle which astounded me more than anyone, these theses were spread through almost the entire world’, even though, being academic theses, the text was dense and summary. So, he had written the Resolutions, and as a precaution was now ‘putting them under the protection of your name’. He reminded the Pope that his University and the local ruler, Elector Frederick, approved. However, ‘I offer myself with all that I am and possess. Make me live or die, say yes or no, approve or blame according to your pleasure. I recognise in your voice the voice of Christ who reigns in you and speaks through your voice. If I have deserved death, I will not refuse to die. "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereafter." May he be blessed for ever and ever, amen, and keep you unto him eternally, Amen.’ However calmly he started, there was always a great emotional outburst before the end.
The Roman authorities were used to the kind of fanaticism displayed in the somewhat desperate last sentences. For years they had been using Canon Law, and the traditional legal norms, essentially inherited from the Roman Empire, to deal with visionaries, mystics and prophets of all kinds. Such people had to obey the Curial authority, acting on behalf of the Pope, or indeed the Pope himself.
Fr Martin knew something of this attitude, but he had not met it at first hand before. He knew there were corrupt and politically minded ambitious men everywhere as his sermon on the Ban, and many previous sermons, had made clear. He knew that Canon Law was paramount. But he thought that among the corrupt were some men, and at the moment among them the Pope, who accepted the New Testament norms as the norms for the regulation of their lives.
The Resolutions and the letter to the Pope he sent off to his immediate superior, his only one great Master, Fr Staupitz, with the request to forward it on to Rome. And to Staupitz he wrote a covering letter, which provided for his Master’s benefit a potted religious autobiography showing how he had got where he was, a disarming expose, which also involved Staupitz himself, including the sequence about the love of God and metanoia. Then he told how the ‘new war trumpets of Indulgences and the bugles of pardon started to sound, even to blast’ around in the district, using all the old arguments of threat and fear. Luther felt he had to protest: ‘This is the reason, Reverend Father, why I now, unfortunately, step out into public view. I have always loved privacy and would much prefer to watch the splendid performance of the gifted people of our age. As to the threats, ‘I have no other answer. . . than the word of Reuchlin, "He who is poor has nothing to fear; he has nothing to lose." I have no property and desire none . . . There is only one thing left: my poor worn body which is exhausted by constant hardships. If they take this away by a trap or by force (in order to serve God), then they will deprive me of perhaps only two or three hours of life. . . My dearest Father, the Lord Jesus keep you unto eternity.’
Luther’s ‘worn out body’, however, was to last another twenty-eight years, though he was undoubtedly tired, and often on the edge of exhaustion. And now he had reached a situation where he was pouring out many thousand written words a day in letters and statements, much of it for publication. In a short time, he would be producing material which amounted to a publication a fortnight for the rest of his life. And he realised well that the ultimate price might easily be exacted from him by the authorities of Church and State.
Luther secured the whole package, a substantial parcel with the 70,000-word Explanations in it, and sent it off by messenger to Staupitz who was by now at Augsburg in southern Germany. where he had come for the Imperial Diet which Emperor Maximilian was about to open. Though worried, Luther was still fairly confident of a satisfactory outcome, His enemies were trying to bring him down, but so far his case had been given a good hearing whenever there was someone willing to listen to it; and the opposition seemed to melt away or remain ineffective.
Meanwhile, among the people making their way laboriously across Europe to the Imperial town of Augsburg was the Superior General of the Dominicans, Tetzel’s Order the famous theologian Cardinal de Vio or Cajetan. He was one of the minority of theologians who were ultra-papalist and regarded the papacy as a divine, rather than human and merely historical, institution. The Pope had made Cajetan his Legate to the Emperor’s assembly. But the Germans were not content with an Italian Legate and demanded a second German Legate, and Cardinal Matthaeus Lang of Gurk was named in addition — the same thing happened to Legate Campeggio in England and Cardinal Wolsey also became a legate there. Various official obstructions were made as Cajetan moved from Italian lands to German but eventually he reached Augsburg late in the summer. His arrival was ceremonial. On a white horse draped with Roman purple, the Cardinal processed through the stone gates of the little German town, making for the Fugger House, the mansion of the international bankers where the principal dignitaries attending the Diet were lodging and where the meetings would also take place. The Cardinal brought gifts with him; a great sword of honour for the Emperor; the announcement of a Cardinal’s hat for young Albrecht the Archbishop of Mainz, still in his middle twenties and the pluralist whose debts to Rome and the Fugger had made the recent Indulgence of particular importance; and finally the ‘Golden Rose of Virtue’, a scented golden artefact, a kind of degenerate Nobel Peace Prize. It might be usefully presented with ‘strings’, to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, Reichsvikar, number two to the Emperor, and a man of great importance on all matters, specially because he so seldom uttered and appeared to be less easily bought than most rulers, possibly not for hire at all. The Italian party surveyed their chambers and requested satin linings for Cardinal de Vio’s room, consciously exerting their sense of superiority in the rather barbarian surroundings north of the Alps.
The major item on Cajetan’s agenda (as on Campeggio’s in England) was the Turks, The Pope was worried about the threat to Christendom, with the Holy Land not only lost but the Turks far into Europe now, not far from Vienna. Indeed, the Pope would have liked to lead a new crusade himself. In a sermon in the Cathedral soon after his arrival, Cajetan presented the Diet with the need to defeat the infidel finally.
That meant only one thing to his German listeners: more taxes. The answer came very swiftly, in a meeting at the Diet; Rome was already taking far too much money, unjustly and dishonestly, out of Germany. The Bishop of Liege listed the complaints, the oft repeated Gravamina of the German nation. ‘These sons of Nimrod grab cloisters, abbeys, prebends, canonaries and parish churches, and they leave these churches without pastors, the people without shepherds. Annates and Indulgences increase. In cases before the ecclesiastical courts, the Roman Church smiles on both sides for a little palm grease. German money, in violation of nature, flies over the Alps. The pastors given to us are shepherds only in name. They care for nothing, but fleece and batten on the sins of the people. Endowed Masses are neglected, the pious founders cry for vengeance. Let the Holy Pope Leo stop these abuses.’ It was nearly as virulent as Luther himself — only it did not enquire into the doctrine behind it all, the dangerous world of ideology and ultimate commitment.
Cajetan had to stall, particularly because power politics had landed another and more serious matter on his plate. The Emperor was attempting to buy the votes of the Electors for the imperial election which must follow his death. Only fifty-nine, he was clearly sickening. His one wish was to ensure that his grandson, Charles Habsburg, already ruler of most of Spain and of Burgundy and the Netherlands, should succeed him. It was the one thing the Roman Curia and with him the Pope did not wish to happen; it would put half Europe into the hands of a single man and pose real threat to the political power of the Holy See, and of the Italian families so often associated with it. On 8 September, Cajetan wrote to the Pope that there was no alternative to shelving the Crusade plan. And, meanwhile, time was being taken on another matter, which had occupied a small place in the Cardinal’s files on leaving Rome, but which was becoming a material factor in the diplomatic manoeuvres relating to the future imperial election.
This was the matter of an Augustinian friar at Wittenberg who had been following the well-worn path of denunciation of Indulgences, but had taken the matter beyond them to theology and papal power. As an exceptionally able theologian and a man of intellectual integrity, Cajetan had read the theses of Dr Martin Luther and agreed with many of them. But the Pope’s authority should not be impugned, and the friar should respect previous papal statements which had established Indulgences as a permitted pastoral and financial instrument. The matter was perhaps not too difficult to deal with. The visit to Augsburg would afford opportunity to speak both with the man’s ecclesiastical superior, Fr Staupitz, and with his civil ruler. However, on arrival in Germany he found that the local Principal Superior had not in fact taken the steps which had been asked for, at the recent Chapter meeting of the Order in Heidelberg. And messages were coming from Rome requesting sharper action, including denunciation of Luther and a call to him to attend an examination in Rome. Following the arrival in August of this denunciation, the Emperor heard of the matter and his advisers suggested it could be used as a way of keeping the Holy See in good will towards him. He wrote to Rome requesting firm measures against the ‘heretic’ from Saxony. The Roman authorities were predictably pleased and sent a fresh command to Cajetan, formally denouncing Luther as a heretic and requesting Cajetan summarily to arrest him, with letters to the Emperor and Elector Frederick to assist the process. But a few days later, in the second week in September, the whole operation was being slowed down, qualified, and even put into reverse. The need of the Papacy to make close friends with Luther’s own ruler, Elector Frederick, in the matter of future Imperial election came to override all other matters. Frederick had expressed his opposition to the election of Charles Habsburg as Emperor. Everything must be done to support and encourage Frederick. And he became the Papacy’s own first choice, their candidate for Emperor. If Frederick was reluctant to have Luther arrested, then the Luther affair must be played down.
Giovanni de Medici, Pope Leo X, had treated the Luther affair as an administrative nuisance, something for the theologians and canon lawyers, when the first missive from the Archbishop of Mainz had arrived at the beginning of the year. Intelligent, deeply concerned for his famous Florentine family, both suave and genial, Pope Leo was destined for high office from the moment of his birth. Short-sighted and commonly using a gold monocle, but very fond of hunting and often able to give the coup de grace to some (fairly) wild beast held by the huntsmen, monocle in one hand, sword in the other, he used to get through business at a kind of morning levee in his private rooms, leaving the rest of the day free for the hunt, the banquet, family affairs, and all the glorious social life.
Further papers kept coming to the Pope about the affair in Wittenberg, including formal complaints from the Indulgence Commissioner, Fr Tetzel, OP, who was able to enlist Cardinal Cajetan. The failure to achieve anything at Heidelberg, and the failure to quieten Tetzel with a Doctorate of Theology presented to him by the University of Frankfort-am-Oder, founded in 1506 was irritating. The curial Office decided it was necessary to teach the bumptious young Saxon a lesson and raise a formal charge of suspicion of disseminating heresy. The auditor of the Sacred Palace drew up a summons requiring Fr Martin Luther to come to a personal hearing in Rome and requested the commissioner of the Palace, seventy-year-old Sylvester Prierias (the only man in the Curia to vote against Reuchlin), to draw up a text about the theological points. He did it, boasting it took him but three days to deal with the 95 Theses of Dr Martin Luther.
Sylvester Prierias left aside almost entirely the substance of the 95 Theses, concentrating instead on the authority of the Pope and on personal abuse of Luther. His description of papal authority would be disowned by Catholics today and was scorned by most serious theologians in the sixteenth century. But in the power battles which had been raging for some centuries, the contentions were common enough: ‘The Church’s authority is greater than the authority of Scripture . . . the decretals of the Roman Church have to be added to Scripture . . . in the New Law the Pope’s judgment is the oracle of God.’ The abuse was puerile. Luther was a ‘leper and a loathsome fellow . . . a false libeller and calumniator . . . a dog and the son of a bitch, born to snap and bite at the sky with his canine mouth . . . with a brain of brass and a nose of iron.’ This was as rich as anything Luther had yet said in a sermon, and far sharper than anything he had written as yet in the public press. Coming in an official papal text, it had a particularly degrading quality about it. Copies went off to Cajetan and Luther.
Polarisation was almost inevitable from now on. Luther had sited the crux of his case in theology. Christian truth was its own authority found in Scripture, the preaching Church and in the theology which arose from it. The papacy sited the crux in authority itself; theology was a tool, and Scripture a quarry of quotations to back up the decisions of a divinely backed organisation. The mantle of the Roman Emperors, absolute and not to be challenged, still lay ambivalently across the shoulders of the Pope, and indeed was to rest there in some sort for several centuries more. Luther accepted papal authority, but assumed that it was a service to the Church of a kind which would necessarily underwrite, or at least permit clearly expounded doctrine stemming from scripture.
In the end, any theology worthy of the name would need to work out some accommodation between the structures of the Church, on the one hand, with its monarchical papal authority, its traditions and practice, and, on the other, Scripture, the written record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, together with the records of the life and teachings of the group of His first followers. In the twentieth century this process of accommodation has proceeded, and has involved further questions on the one hand about ‘God’, and on the other about the religious and spiritual traditions of cultures other than the European. But for the moment, encounter was inevitable.
Accommodation was to become the policy of a few in the sixteenth century with little influence at their disposal, Erasmus the first among them. Meanwhile, a battle for power was going on at many levels, not only between the individual prophetic Christian and Church officials but between Rome and Saxony, between papacy and Emperor, between clerics and laity, educated and uneducated; between humanists and spirituals; between conservatives and radicals; and the perennial struggle between the owners of wealth and the illiterate poorest members of society. The rules of each contest did not coincide exactly with those of any other. But when the prophetic Christian’s case was voiced by the Saxon Augustinian friar, its tones obliterated for the moment many other lines and drew powerfully to itself the laity, the anti~clericals among the priests, all nationally minded Germans, the humanists, the spirituals, the poor and the ordinary people who heard him preach — in fact the great majority of the population.
In Wittenberg, as the year ran on, the mosquitoes multiplying alongside the slow moving Elbe, and Wittenberg smelling in the summer warmth, Luther’s daily life did not change greatly. He continued to feed on the great texts of scripture and on the Psalms as they were chanted in the choir, first one side then the other, when he was able to find time to attend rather than reciting them privately late at night in his room. Mass, choir, preaching in town and cloister, lecturing, planning university developments, teaching the best students — and the continued development of the affair of his Theses; it was a perpetual round with too little time for sleep.
Karlstadt continued to be a support, sometimes however overdoing it. He produced 405 Theses defending Luther, jumping in to attack Johann Eck just as Christoph Scheurl was organising a detente between Eck and Luther, following on a very sharp reply of Luther’s against Eck’s contention that man could please God by his own unaided actions. This glorification of man’s will was, Luther had said sarcastically, true indeed. The will was indeed master in its own house, just as a brothel mistress is mistress in the brothel, one of a string of abusive Lutheran epithets. Both academics were, however, prepared now to retire, but Karlstadt tiresomely maintained the feud for the honour of Wittenberg University and Martin Luther. Tetzel had published a reply to Martin’s ‘Sermon on Indulgences’, harping on papal authority and largely ignoring the substantial issue.
Luther’s fame was spreading. Johann Lang took him on a visit to Dresden, in Albertine Saxony, where Duke George, cousin of Frederick the Elector, wanted to hear Luther preach and was shocked when he did so, on 25 July. After the banquet Luther got into an argument with an old Erfurt man, Hieronymus Emser. Dominicans, loitering outside, jotted down some of the angry words, shouted apparently on the other side of the door, joined these with some sharp sentences from the Sermon on the Ban and published the resulting concoction. When Luther hurried back to Wittenberg to prepare for the arrival of the new, and first professor of Greek, late in August, Spalatin wrote to him that the concocted pamphlet was circulating and doing him harm. So Luther got Grunenburg to print the correct text of his Sermon on the Ban. From this time on it was difficult for Luther to control publication of his works, particularly of sermons which were taken down. Agricola, a student admirer, published Luther’s ‘Our Father’ at this time without permission.
The bombshell came on 7 August. Sylvester Prierias’s text arrived — and Luther laughed. Was this the best they could do? He was soon boasting of writing the reply to such stuff not in three days, but one. Then the horror began to grow. He had been summoned to Rome, and they were threatening his life. That did not matter too much — he had surrendered that a long time ago and had been working harder than was sensible for some years. The horror was that these men in Rome were not keeping the place Luther had assigned to them in his model. They had not looked at his texts, and it was clear they just wanted to shut him up, and any method open to them would do. It was a crucial moment. He had counted on the integrity of the Pope and his advisers.
Luther acted immediately, sending Spalatin a message on the day he had the text. He followed it with a letter on the 8th, to Augsburg where Spalatin was with the Elector at the Imperial Diet.
I now need your help more than ever, or rather, it is the honour of almost our whole University that needs it. . . You should use your influence with the Sovereign and Pfeffinger. . .to obtain for me from the Pope the return of my case, so that it is tried before German judges . . . You can see how subtly and maliciously those murderous Dominicans carry on with a view to my ruin . . This affair has to be handled in a great hurry. They have given me only a short time as you can see and read in the Summons, that Lernaean swamp full of hydras and other monsters. . . let Staupitz know.
But, said Luther, all was well. ‘Do not be disturbed or sad on my behalf. The Lord will provide . . .’, and ended with a pun to prove it, saying he was replying to the ‘Dialogue of Sylvester, which is exactly like a wild sylvan jungle’. And a final shaft: ‘That "sweetest" man is simultaneously my accuser and my judge.’
It was very frustrating. Spalatin was far away in Augsburg. Luther had to continue with the daily round at Wittenberg, and all the attendant responsibilities of friary, university and town. The days ticked by with the Summons to Rome hanging over his head. If something was not done about it he had the obligation, as an Augustinian friar, to be in Rome by 7 October, two months after receiving the Summons. He would need to start out soon. By 28 August no reply had come from Augsburg, and further rumours had reached Luther of demands being brought to bear on Elector arid Emperor to have him arrested. Friends in Wittenberg suggested that the Elector should be asked to refuse Luther a safe conduct for the journey to Rome so that Luther would have a correct excuse for not going; and the refusal should be pre-dated. Luther suggested this in a letter to Spalatin and told him the Explanations was at last through Grunenberg’s press, though full of mistakes, and he was sending a copy on. His reply to Sylvester together with Sylvester’s original piece had gone to Leipzig to be printed — Grunenberg was not up to the current demands for print, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Luther had had to abandon his preference for the local man, for a better equipped firm in the big town. The letter to Spalatin ended: ‘All I stand for I have from God. . . If he takes it away, it is taken away; if he preserves it, it is preserved. Hallowed and praised be his name forever, Amen. Thus far I do not see how I can avoid those punishments intended for me unless the Sovereign extends his help. . .’.
A letter came from Spalatin requesting Luther not to publish his sermon on the Ban, the Sermon on Excommunication. But Grunenberg had already printed and sold the little pamphlet. Spalatin had also been worrying about a proper reception at Wittenberg for the new Professor of Greek, the first to occupy the chair, a young man of twenty-one, great nephew of the famous Reuchlin. By name Schwarzerd, he used a Grecianised form, Melancthon. He was a small, dark, elfin-looking man. Luther reassured Spalatin in a letter dated 31 August. The arrival of the young man had clearly brightened the last few days: ‘Concerning our Philip Melancthon all has been done . . . Do not doubt it. Four days after he had arrived, he delivered an extremely learned and absolutely faultless address. . .We very quickly turned our minds and eyes from his appearance and person to the man himself.’ Three days later Luther replied sympathetically to a further worried letter from Spalatin about the difficulties besetting the Elector. The purpose of Luther’s letter was to ask that some of the older University courses should be optional. The students had requested this. They were jamming the lecture hall of Melancthon, wanted the Bible and real theology, and not to be obliged to study so much Aristotle.
Luther’s case was beginning to attract attention from all over Europe. Fr Wolfgang Capito in Basle, working on the proofs of Froben’s edition of Luther’s writings, wrote begging Martin to be careful in dealing with the tyranny of the Church. Everyone became anxious as the news filtered out of the Summons to Rome. But then a calmer letter came from Spalatin, hinting that after all things were going to be all right, even a word that Luther might find himself in a specially good position for putting his message across — it must mean a bishopric, if only he would keep quiet at the moment. Luther was bewildered, knowing nothing of the political intrigues connected with the jockeying for the next imperial election. In Augsburg, early in September, Spalatin and the Elector paid a visit to Cajetan. The result was that Cajetan made a suggestion to Rome, and got the Pope’s assent to it, for a hearing for Luther in Germany, in which Cajetan would be ‘fatherly’ rather than threatening. Luther was sent a message to set out for Augsburg. He was not feeling well, but started soon after receiving the message.
Once more accompanied by Leonard Beyer, Fr Luther left Wittenberg again on the long walk south and west towards Erfurt. There were no joyful surprises this time. Indeed, apprehension increased as he journeyed and listened to the worried warnings of friends, some of whom tried to dissuade him from going at all to Augsburg. Anxiety could not be escaped and it had him exhausted and suffering from constipation by the time he arrived. Fifteen years later, what came to his mind as he described the journey was the worry he had had about his parents, what they would think if he was condemned and worse what they might suffer — for the property of a heretic’s relations could be seized. And he wondered whether he was looking at his beloved Thuringian landscape for the last time.
At Weimar he was surprised to find the Electoral party on their way home. They had left Augsburg the very day the Diet was over. Luther was asked to preach before the Elector, and gave him the usual denunciatory sermon on corruption in the Church. As usual, he did not see or speak to the Elector personally but was able to hear the latest news from Spalatin. Arriving a few days later at Nuremberg, he was supposed to pick up Christoph Scheurl whose legal experience would help him in Augsburg, the Elector believed — but Scheurl was not able to come. However, among those who did join him was Wenceslas Link, eventually to succeed Staupitz as Vicar General. Luther went on and a cart was found for him for the last few miles.
At Augsburg he went straight to the house of the Carmelite Friars — the Superior was another graduate of Wittenberg. The town was still half full of people who were clearing up the final business of the Diet. Johann Eck came to see Luther and they called a truce. Two Saxon lawyers provided by the Elector advised Luther not to go to visit Cajetan at the Fuggerhaus until an official safe conduct through the streets and back again had been obtained from the Emperor’s office. Emperor Maximilian had left, but there was a permanent staff in this imperial city. Staupitz arrived to be with Luther. One of Cajetan’s Italian courtiers, Serralonga, came round to see Luther, and to warn him that the meeting with Cajetan was not to be an occasion for discussion, but simply for Luther to say revoco, I recant. The Cardinal was not inviting him to have an academic disputation. Suave and superior, Luther found in him the same callous and patronising attitude which seemed to have inspired the texts from Rome. Cajetan undoubtedly thought he was being kind in sending an advance guard to warn Luther how he should deport himself. He was in sympathy both with the critics of the Church’s corruption and of much of the 95 Theses. But he held to the view that above all the Church’s authority must be upheld. He held a high sacramental view of the Church, which in practice often meant simply a dictatorial view.
The courtier outstayed his welcome and exasperated Luther. Eventually, he asked where Luther would go were the Elector to disown him. A slight shrug of the shoulders accompanied the reply ‘Oh — sub coelo’, a typically Lutheran, half-serious, half-amused Saxon ambivalence: ‘Under the heavens — God knows where — on the open road — under providence.’ The situation felt desperate to Luther, who wrote to Spalatin: ‘If I am disposed of by force, the door is open for an attack on Dr Karlstadt and the whole theological faculty—and, as I fear, the sudden ruin of our infant University.’
It has often been asked how it could be that two men of Luther’s and Cajetan’s intelligence could meet and fail to isolate at least that partial theological agreement which did in fact lie beneath their arguments and positions. To pose the question, however, is to remove the subject from the actual contestants and the historical situation. Cajetan was coming as the personal representative of the head of an organisation, the Church, which laid enormous emphasis precisely on authority. As the courtier had suggested, and as his master did subsequently, there was no way Cajetan could actually discuss with Luther. He had come solely to preside, to judge, to bind or release, albeit in as ‘fatherly’ a manner as possible. Luther, on the other hand, had released himself from the conventional view or at least practice of the Church as having in its Pope an authority practically equivalent to that of God. Further, his own personal neurosis about authority figures gave him both a strong tendency towards exaggerated obeisance, and in practice a compensating attitude of detachment and freedom. He was not prepared in anyway to go along with a view which automatically underwrote the Pope.
The safe conduct came, and Luther, accompanied by Staupitz and the lawyers, went along to the Fuggerhaus. Cajetan was all Italian welcome. Luther prostrated himself. It was not long before it became clear to Luther that Cajetan was only willing to use papal statements, not Scripture, to show that two of Luther’s Statements in the Theses were in error. Luther must recant. Luther wanted to discuss the truth of the matter, using the Bible as the norm, rather than merely to check the status of papal statements. Cajetan was hard pressed not to engage in debate, and eventually in the course of the three visits tempers were roused and Luther reached the truculent state. At the third meeting Luther tripped Cajetan up on a grammatical point, using the logical weapons he could still wield effectively. By 14 October, Luther was able to write his account of the meetings to Spalatin in a letter headed ‘Personal’, but the contents of which he asked him to pass on to the Elector:
The Legate is negotiating with me, or rather I should say, manoeuvring against me . . . He promises to handle everything leniently and in a fatherly way . . . in reality however he is handling everything with nothing but unbending force. He continually repeated one thing: recant, acknowledge that you are wrong; that is the way the Pope wants it and not otherwise whether you like it or not.
After much pleading by the officials who were with Luther, the Legate agreed to look at a written defence Luther wanted to hand him. ‘In the end the Legate disdainfully flung back my little sheet of paper and shouted again for me to recant. . .Almost ten times I started to say something and each time he thundered back and, took over the conversation. Finally, I started to shout too.’ Luther then described the challenge he put out, based on a strictly logical reading of a sentence in a recondite part of Canon Law. The Italians thought Luther had made a mistake: ‘O God, how much gesticulation and laughter that caused. Suddenly he grabbed the book and read hastily and feverishly until he came to the passage.’ Luther explained the mistake Cajetan had made and continued: ‘I was excited and interrupted (I am sure quite irreverently): "Most Reverend Father, you should not believe that we Germans are ignorant even in philology . . ." That crushed his self-confidence, although he still shouted for revocation. When I left he told me, "Go and do not return to me again unless you want to recant."’
It was a bad outcome for Cajetan. He would have to request the arrest of Luther if he could not obtain a recantation, and this would offend Elector Frederick, the one thing he had been told to avoid. So after lunch he called Staupitz round to try to get him to persuade Luther. But Staupitz told him Luther was his superior when it came to scripture and theology. There was no way out. And neither of the topics at the heart of the matter had been objectively considered. Luther had insisted on the necessity of faith, maintaining now, not only that faith alone saved man; but that, as a logical consequence, man ‘must’ believe if he was to receive grace in the sacrament of penance or any other sacrament. Interpreted mechanically this could mean, as Cajetan observed in a subsequent text, to burden the Christian with a further imperative. But Luther’s meaning did not refer to mechanical obligations but to the dynamic of a personal act. However, this substantial question was largely ignored, in favour of concern about what authority had already decided about it. The second question, about the nature of papal authority itself and the relation of the Papacy to Scripture was again taken as decided: the Pope had an absolute and final interpretative right.
It was a stalemate. Luther tried to keep some movement by addressing a letter to the Cardinal from his lodgings and by making a formal Appeal. The letter is dated is dated 18 October. He emphasised his wish to he obedient, and to be willing to be shown wherein he was wrong. He did not wish to offend. He said he would have to go home now; and the best thing seemed to be to appeal. He asked the Cardinal ‘that you interpret in a favourable way my departure and my appeal as being undertaken out of necessity on my part and under the influence of friends’. He said that the Sovereign would prefer him to appeal, rather than to leave matters as they were.
There was no reply. Staupitz and the others feared the worse. The Legate had told them he had the right to throw both Martin and his Superior into prison. The safe conduct might prove to be ineffective. Staupitz was frightened. He decided they had all better leave swiftly. First, he formally released Luther from his vows as an Augustinian friar, in case he needed to take a swift decision, for his own safety, to leave and go into hiding without referring to his superiors. There had been suggestions in the previous few weeks that Luther might do best to go to Paris, if he had to flee. Staupitz gave Luther a valedictory word of assurance that remained deeply rooted in his mind For the rest of his life: ‘Remember that you have begun this affair in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ In addition to the letter to the Cardinal, Luther decided to make a formal witnessed statement of his position and a formal Appeal from the ‘ill-informed’ Pope, to the ‘better-to-be-informed Pope’, a forbidden formula which had in fact been used before and quite recently by such an August body as the University of Paris when objecting to the recent Concordat of
Bologna between the King of France and the Pope about ecclesiastical appointments.
The Appeal along with Luther’s declared ill health, would explain his failure to obey the Summons to go to Rome, which might be thought to be in force now that the interview with Cajetan had come to nothing. The Appeal, which also contained once again a succinct history of the whole affair was to be sent with the letter to the Fuggerhaus and to be made public after Luther’s departure.
A horse was procured and Luther left in a hurry after dark in unsuitable clothes, to travel north to Nuremberg, a frightening and exhausting ride which he was never to forget. At Nuremberg another shock awaited him. There was a package from Spalatin. it contained a copy of the Papal Breve to Cajetan of 23 August, requesting Luther’s arrest, which Spalatin thought Luther ought to see. Martin’s reaction was to say it must be a forgery —they could not have put out such an inexcusable document. It was never clear whether he half believed his own statement about the forgery. But to refuse to accept the authenticity of the document was always one way to buy time; it was also one way to cushion his own shock at seeing the threatening text. Luther was back in Wittenberg before the end of October, hoping to meet up with Spalatin to discuss the situation, only to find the Electoral party had delayed elsewhere en route for other official business.
A letter to Spalatin dated 31 October began with a sharp statement of Luther’s personal dilemma. Any day he might he declared a heretic and the Elector might feel he should flee to another country: ‘I do not know how long I shall be able to remain here because my case is such that I both fear and hope. The suspicions of Luther’s advisers had not been wide of the mark. On 25 October, Cajetan sent a letter to the Elector demanding quite sharply that he surrender Luther: ‘Take counsel of your conscience and either send Brother Martin to Rome or exile him from your country.’ The Elector sent the letter straight on to Wittenberg for comment by Luther himself. Luther handed it onto the University to see, and then sent a full expose of the situation to the Elector. The University asked Luther himself to draft their request to the Elector not to give in to Cajetan. In spite of these promising signs of support, Luther remained in frightening doubt about the outcome. He decided in any case to put the facts on record.
Back at his desk, Luther set about making a detailed report on the Augsburg meetings. He included the text of the document he had handed Cajetan at the second or third meeting. In it he claimed that the Pope is not above Scripture, and commented on the conventional papal interpretation of the reported words of Jesus to Peter ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom. . .’. Luther found the interpretation tendentious. ‘Many such things, my reader, you will find in the sacred decretals, and also others which if you use the nose of the bride overlooking Damascus [Song of Songs 7.4], that is a nose of flesh and blood, you will often be offended by the smell.’ The reference to the biblical love poem The Song of Songs, was a sudden gratuitous, literary conceit — a reflection of the workings of Luther’s ironical and scripture soaked mind. The famous sequence reads:
How beautiful are your feet in their sandals,
It certainly sounds like a fine nose well able to detect the smells emitted by tendentious interpretations of Scripture. Luther included the text of the Papal Breve to Cajetan to arrest him together with his own analysis of it indicating his suspicion that some not too well-educated German had had some part in drafting it. The text was sent down to Grunenberg, and such was the public excitement that the printed sheets were taken up by the public one by one as they came off the press. (The profits which all printers made out of Luther were phenomenal; he exacted nothing in return — Erasmus used to get a robe or other gift occasionally from Froben.) When the Elector heard that the Acta Augustana, the account of the Augsburg meeting, was being circulated he sent a request to have it stopped especially as he was in the thick of negotiation with Cajetan. But it was too late, as it usually turned out to be when authority tried to hold up some publication of Luther’s. Luther was in any case desperate by now and decided that the Elector was wanting him out of the way. He sent his sovereign a letter saying he would leave Wittenberg — he did not know where he would go. He preached what amounted to a farewell sermon in the parish church.
Frederick managed to deal with most decisions simply by postponing them, asking for more information, handing them back down the line to the questioner or any of the other numerous ways of coping with governmental decisions. But, in the Luther affair, he was faced with the need to take a specific and definite decision, whether on the one hand to send Dr Luther to Rome or to request him to leave Saxony, or on the other to refuse the request of Cardinal Cajetan. He chose the latter course. He always kept options open if possible. To surrender Luther was something that could not be undone. He told Cajetan he had found Luther’s case as expressed by Luther himself and underwritten by the University, convincing. Luther was still waiting to be shown that his interpretation of the New Testament was unacceptable by the norms of the New Testament itself; and he was still maintaining that the Pope had no absolute and final right to tell the Church what the correct interpretation of any part of it was – the Church as a whole must play a part in any such decision.
The German Elector gave the Italian Cardinal the reply direct. No one in his lands had found Dr Luther’s teaching heretical, apart from those whose interest it was to do so. He sent along Martin’s own rebuttal and said that he waited for proof of Dr Luther’s heresy. In Martin’s public career this was one of the crucial moments. His sovereign, who seldom altered course, had decided to protect him from the insistent demands of Rome to surrender him in person.