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 9: What Is the Church?
From December 1518 there was a lull in the Martin Luther affair. Cardinal Cajetan had failed to deliver either a recantation or Martin Luther in person, and had antagonised the Elector. The Roman Curia put the case into the officious hands of an ambitious young Saxon, papal chamberlain Karl von Miltitz, still in his twenties. The case ceased to occupy a place of much importance by comparison with the future of the Empire. The Emperor was dying, and finally died on 12 January 1519. The lobbying for the election of his successor became intense and remained so until the matter was resolved at Frankfurt in June. Nineteen-year-old French speaking Charles Habsburg, already ruler of most of Spain, the Netherlands and Burgundy was elected in spite of all the attempts by Pope and Curia to prevent it. A full record of the machinations involved with the German Electors, with Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England and his ministers would themselves make a large book. The Luther affair was not resumed by Rome till the turn of the year 1519-20, and it was nine months after that before the resumption began to have any emphatic results as far as the general public were concerned. In the meantime, however, the whole of Germany and much of the rest of northern Europe were becoming flooded with Luther’s writings.
The first trickle of writings had begun in 1516 and 1517 with the two German pieces; and Luther was already writing a great number of letters, always in Latin unless he was writing to rulers with whom it was usually wiser to communicate in German. In the second half of 1517 had come the two sets of Latin dialectical theses, the second being taken up very widely to his great surprise and translated into German, becoming ‘Martin Luther’s 95 Theses’. Then the need to explain these led to the first full-scale Latin work The Explanations, immediately followed by the very brief German sermon pamphlet, for general consumption, with similar explanatory but also pastoral purpose. Then began the experience of having to put out correct versions of texts published precipitately by both friends and enemies, of spoken material, in the first case on the Lord’s prayer, and in the second on The Ban. And at the end of 1518 came Luther’s account of the Augsburg encounter with Cajetan.
By early 1519, Luther’s magnetism as a preacher and lecturer, his eloquent and imaginative presentation of current concerns, together with his notoriety, were drawing students, young and old, to Wittenberg and readers to his writings. The little town was swarming with them. During 1519, a spate of German writings began to flow from his pen, non-polemical writings, designed for the traditional religious purposes of instruction and comfort, reminding people of that on which they ultimately depended, designed to nurture their true freedom. People asked for these things and Luther responded: A Meditation on Christ’s Passion, The Lord’s Prayer, Rogationtide Prayers, On Preparing to Die, Fourteen Consolations (written especially for the Elector who was very ill in the autumn and likely to die — it was to replace the Fourteen Saints to whom people pie commonly turned), and finally How Confession should be Made. Towards the end of the year Luther turned to the Sacraments of Penance, Baptism and the Mass, again in German; these were for general non-academic consumption, but Luther used them to enable him to move towards a re-cast understanding of the Sacraments at a serious intellectual level. Early in 1519, came an important short sermon on Marriage with a warm confident note to it: ‘Married people can do no better work than bring up their children well’ — that was better than any work of piety. There was also strictly academic Latin fare; his Lectures on Galatians and a volume of his Psalms Commentary were published for the first time.
Then there were writings connected with the public theological controversy. In February 1519, Luther issued a brief Latin guide to his position on six controverted matters, Saints, Purgatory, Indulgences, the Church’s commandments, Good Works, and the Roman Church, in his Apologia Vernacula. As far as concerned the controversial writings, from this time on they were almost entirely related to a debate with Johann Eck to be held at the end of June 1519 at Leipzig, leading up to it or flowing from it. Finally, correspondence poured out in a never-ending stream. By 1520, the totality of Luther’s writings had come to bewilder the public. Every week there seemed to be some new pamphlet on sale with its wood engraving on the cover. Enemies put around rumours that this or that person was the true author of this or that of Luther’s writings. But, in fact, Luther was the author of the whole extraordinary corpus.
Luther’s authorship had received something like the seal of respectability. Froben, Erasmus’s publisher in Basle, had issued in the autumn of 1518 a collection of his shorter Latin writings. Being in Latin they were available to every educated person in Europe and were soon in sharp demand; 600 copies were sold by Froben at the Frankfurt Spring Book Fair, destined for towns all over Europe from Cambridge to Spain and Italy. Further editions followed. But in no case did the canny Froben, warned by Erasmus, print his name as printer, nor did Wolfgang Capito his assistant put his name to the fervent Introduction he had written: ‘Here you have the theological works of the Reverend Martin Luther, whom many consider a Daniel sent at length in mercy by Christ to correct abuses and restore a theology based on the Gospel and Paul . . .’
Luther was drawing every kind of human being to himself from the ordinary layman needing counsel, to civil servants wanting advice, from the Elector himself wanting religious comfort and Spalatin requesting theological explanation, to the scholars and academics trying to keep up with his latest theological speculation, on that which lay at the heart of Society’s Myth. For a long time there had been crazes for great itinerant preachers. To hear them was both entertainment and inspiration. They were often outspoken about the misdoings of princes and popes, and abuses generally, but they normally kept well within the parameters of the theological party line, and the received structures. As a popular preacher, Luther was exceptional in being also a genuine scholar— a true Renaissance man. But he was unlike the Renaissance man in that his own personal problems lent a bitter urgency, a sense of emotional desperation and intensity and determination to all he said, eyes flashing, calm voice firmly enunciating, occasional smile revealing a man still with roots deep in the Saxon soil from which he continued to draw a stream of homely metaphors and coarse comment. His philological approach to language, encouraged by Erasmus and the whole neo-classical movement, together with his long training in rhetoric and his love of classical literature, all contributed to his success. But, above all, success was due to the personal flair for language, his message, set into the satisfactory and effective sentences of a rough and energetic German, just emerging as a complete expressive medium.
In February 1519, Luther counted four months since he had said a hurried auf wiedersehen to Staupitz at Augsburg. Not a word had he heard since then. He was sad about it, even resentful. He longed to be personally close to his spiritual superior and mentor, and to share events with him. But Staupitz stayed safely away from it all in the south, at Salzburg. On 20 February, Luther wrote: ‘ To the Reverend and excellent Father John Staupitz, vicar of the Eremites of St Augustine, my patron and superior, honoured in Christ. Even though you are so far away and silent, Reverend Father, and do not write to us who are eager to hear from you, I shall nevertheless break the silence. I wish — all of us wish — to see you in this part of the country.’
Luther plunged into an emphatic statement of his own inner emotional and spiritual troubles, It was to Staupitz more than anyone that he could reveal his inner turmoil. ‘I believe my Proceedings [at Augsburg] have reached you and that you know about Rome’s anger and indignation. God is pushing me — he drives me on, rather than leading. I cannot control my own life. I long to be quiet but am driven into the middle of the storm.’
He gave the news of a meeting between himself and Miltitz at Altenburg (where Spalatin held a Canonry): ‘He complained that I have pulled the whole world to my side and alienated it from the Pope. He said he had explored all the pubs and found that for every five people, barely two or three favour the Roman party.’ Arbitration was suggested by Miltitz, and Luther agreed: ‘I nominated the Archbishops of Salzburg, Trier and Freising. He entertained me in the evening, we had a good time at dinner, he kissed me, and so we parted. I pretended not to see through this Italian act and insincerity.’ A series of negotiations, which included the Elector, went on all through the next two years, showing a healthy record of activity on Miltitz’s work sheet, achieving, however, nothing but the steadily deepening disillusionment both of Luther and of the Electoral Court with Roman ways.
Part of Miltitz’s operation, an attempt to mollify Luther, was to make an example of Tetzel the Indulgence preacher, whose financial accounts were not above suspicion. Tetzel was requested to come to meet the young chamberlain at Altenburg, but declared himself unable to travel, being ill, and also without a safe conduct pass. He was frightened to be seen in public so swiftly and fiercely had public opinion turned against him. Luther told Staupitz: ‘Now Tetzel has disappeared and nobody knows where he has gone except perhaps the Fathers of his Order.’ Later in the year, he wrote Tetzel a letter of kindly commiseration in his serious and eventually fatal illness.
The letter to Staupitz moved on to Johann Eck, who in controversial mood had recently turned to attack Erasmus, much to the astonishment of the latter, as well as Karlstadt and Luther. ‘Finally my Eck, that deceitful man, is again dragging me into a new controversy. . . Thus the Lord sees to it that I am not idle; but Christ willing, this debate will end sadly for Roman laws and practices, those reeds on which Eck leans for support.’ Then Luther had something to boast about: ‘I wish you could see my shorter works, published at Basle, so that you could realise what educated people think of me, and of Eck and of Sylvester and the scholastic theologians.’ But Staupitz had seen the Froben volume and knew only too well what ‘educated people’ were thinking of these matters. Copies of the book were all over Europe. In March, Cardinal Wolsey’s agents discovered a copy hidden in a bale of wool imported into England. Luther enjoyed telling Staupitz of his success, and of a deliberate misprint – Magirus (cook) being printed instead of Magister(master): ‘The amusing fellows, the printers, by an intentional error call Sylvester magirus palatti instead of Magister Palatii; they needle him with other remarks which are quite biting. This affair will be quite a blow to the Roman dignitaries.’
Luther continued with his own fears and burdens, and his need of support: ‘I beg you to pray for me. I am exposed to and overwhelmed by the world with all its drunkenness, insults, carelessness and other annoyances, not counting the problems which burden me in my office.’
As he and his cause grew more important, Luther felt it was time that he was in direct contact with Erasmus. On 28 March he at last wrote a letter to the great man, attempting an elegant style and a way of speaking not totally congenial to him. In the convoluted embarrassment of his sentences, Luther seems to turn again into the shy young man inviting Fr Braun to his first Mass, self assertive and self-deprecating at the same time:
I am foolish that I, with unwashed hands and without a reverential and honorific introduction, address you, such great man, as it were, in the most familiar tone. But in your kindness, may you attribute this either to my affection or to my lack of skill. Although I have spent my life among academics, yet I have not learned enough to greet a learned man by letter. Were this not so, I would have troubled you a long time ago with I don’t know how many letters, and would not have endured that you should always speak to me only in my cell.
It was clearly written by someone who knew his Latin classics. But, equally, it was clearly written by someone who was not fully at home in the Renaissance style, lacking the sophisticated detachment which generally went along with the cult of ‘good letters’.
A further section of the letter continued with praise of Erasmus: ‘I feel compelled to acknowledge (even if in a most elementary letter) your outstanding spirit . . . My Erasmus. kindly man, if it seems acceptable to you, acknowledge also this little brother in Christ.’ Luther said he wanted to remain buried in some little corner (the angulum again), but now, to his shame his lack of knowledge was laid bare for the learned to see. The letter then took on the lineaments of over-familiarity. He told Erasmus that Melancthon overworked and Erasmus might perhaps tell him to be careful. And suddenly: ‘Andreas Karlstadt, in great reverence for the Christ dwelling in you, sends greetings. The Lord Jesus himself preserve you into eternal life, excellent Erasmus. Amen.. I was verbose; but remember that one ought not always to read only learned letters. Sometimes you have to be weak with the weak. Wittenberg, 28 March 1519.’ So a quotation from St Paul on sympathetic weakness brought Luther on to better loved ground, and a suitable ending after a rather artificial apology for the verbosity of a letter which was not in fact very long. Erasmus was in contact with the Elector at the time (as with so many of the leading figures in Europe), having dedicated a recent new edition of Suetonius’ History to him. He felt he must do something about Luther, prompted both by Luther’s letter and by a visit just then from Fr Justus Jonas, Augustinian, now Rector of Erfurt University. In a letter to Frederick of 14 April 1519 Erasmus expressed his irritation at the cry of ‘heretic’ which was always being raised, and said he had not studied Luther’s writings carefully, but that his character was regarded as above suspicion. The best men in Antwerp read him. The Elector replied, echoing respect for Luther’s character, and some official support for his cause generally, without committing himself formally to Luther in person. It would have been most unlike him to make such a commitment in any case in writing to a third party. But in both Frederick’s and Erasmus’s communications can be sensed a concern about Luther’s increasingly strong language and his wayward approach to problems. There was plenty of precedent for Luther’s emotive language, not least in the denunciations of evil by the Jewish prophets, and by the greatest prophet of them all, Jesus of Nazareth. But Frederick was a sovereign, with the welfare of his state to think of. And Erasmus was ever intensely concerned above all with the future of scholarship, and was always worrying lest the new learning would be attacked and put into reverse.
The reservations in Erasmus’s letter were less important than the sheer fact that the best known literary man in Europe had written a letter essentially in support of Luther to Luther’s Sovereign. Without scruple, the text of the letter was copied and spread about Europe. Spalatin did a German translation for the purpose. Luther was delighted — and not delighted. He wrote to Spalatin: ‘The letter of Erasmus pleases me and our friends very much. However, I would have preferred not only not to be mentioned personally in it, but not to have been praised, especially by such an outstanding man.’ Luther continued about various University affairs, and hoped to catch Spalatin before he left with the Elector for the Diet to be held by Frederick Elector and Reichsvikar in Frankfurt for the election of the new emperor.
Erasmus replied directly to Luther late in May, in a supportive but careful letter, written of course in his usual beautiful style. It showed up all the temperamental differences between Luther and Erasmus. Peace rather than violence was the message. The Pope himself should not be attacked but only those who abuse papal authority. Erasmus admitted to being concerned that people thought he had helped Luther with his writings, but commended Luther for his Psalms commentary. He told Luther that some of the top people (maximi) in England thought highly of his writings. It was a friendly letter, but one attempting to turn Luther into a quiet, optimistic, scholarly reformer, rather than the distraught theologian-poet, the small-town idealist the anxious pastor torn with concern for those misled, the cultured and uncultured alike, by wrong-headed institutional religion. Erasmus suggested that there was always a danger, as one became famous, of desire for glory — and anger and hatred were not good. Luther knew about the anger and its inappropriateness but, as he had said to Staupitz, ‘I cannot control my own life . . . I am driven into the middle of the storm.’ Erasmus, frequently consulted by the highest in Church and State, continued his efforts to keep the rising storm down, using his own personal reputation to do so, writing a letter to the Pope in August and to Albert the Archbishop of Mainz in November. In the latter, he did not entirety excuse Luther for being too loud-mouthed but said he was provoked, and blamed ecclesiastical authority severely for the difficulties with him. Albert was pleased to be in touch with the great scholar, but continued to keep the low profile he had always cultivated in matters of theology.
Luther was preparing for the proposed debate at Leipzig. A letter to Spalatin on 13 March referred to his researches in this respect. But first on University affairs — Luther resisted the idea that Melancthon should take over the lectures on Aristotle’s Physics, a suggestion from Frederick’s Treasurer intent on resisting further escalation of salaries. ‘Aristotle’s Physics is an entirely useless subject . . .These lectures had better be continued only until they can be abolished.’
After references to his various publications and his evening parish courses on the Our Father and the Commandments, Luther went on to the frightening thoughts which were arising in his mind as he was reading the history of papal decrees. ‘I am studying the papal decrees for the debate. Confidentially I do not know whether the Pope is Antichrist himself or whether he is his apostle, so miserably is Christ corrupted and crucified by the Pope . . .’ He was returning to the frightening thought about Antichrist which had first arisen in his mind the previous autumn. Antichrist was a word used originally in St John’s Letters in the New Testament to indicate those who deny that Jesus is God, and subsequently widely used over the centuries to indicate some final manifestation of the devil before the end of the world — it was resorted to when all ordinary explanations seemed insufficient to explain events, or when the emotions such events aroused needed the greatest possible verbal outlet. Luther was not the first to suggest that the ‘Pope’, apart from the goodness or badness of the reigning Pope, must be Antichrist. From a belief that he was the Head of God’s Church, Christ’s ‘Vicar on Earth’ as a grossly exaggerated theologism sometimes had it, it was not difficult to shift to the extreme opposite. So corrupt, so appalling did events sometimes seem, that perhaps the only explanation of it must be that Evil had crept somehow into the very highest place of all. Following the dangerous reference to Antichrist, Luther said with a deep subjectivism which frightened Spalatin: ‘Daily greater and greater help and support wells up in me by virtue of the authority of Holy Scripture.’ He thought Luther’s arguments well based. But this sense of certainty without reference to anything but Scripture, made him wonder. With a further reference to other letters, books, the administrative work of the President of the University and a farm rent unpaid (by a relation of Staupitz), Luther’s letter came to an end.
The question of Church authority, as such, did not really interest Luther greatly. His concern was the heart of the Christian religion itself; the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. But Eck had seen Church authority to be his weak point and insisted that it be included on the agenda of topics to be debated at Leipzig. So Luther began his methodical reading of the papal decrees, and a formal consideration of the nature of papal authority. By the following February, he was writing to Spalatin, ‘We are all Hussites now’, in the same spirit as someone said in the late nineteenth century, ‘We are all socialists now’. Truths were becoming self-evident which had not previously engaged people’s minds. In the theology school there had been no regular teaching De Ecclesia, on the Church.
The Church was all around one, and the need to theorise about it had not arisen. Founded by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, it was the great ‘a priori’. It had hardly been seen objectively for what it was: the most efficient, most successful, most powerful, and oldest polity in Europe. The easy assumption that the Church was just as it should be was never universally accepted, but central and western European society, ‘Christendom’, had come to be based on a majority consensus that it was. From time to time thinkers and pastors, identified at the time by authority as ‘heretics’, seen by others as prophets, and by some historians now as social revolutionaries, reached the conclusion that the Christian Gospel spoke of a body of Christians, of an incipient ‘Church’, of a kind far removed from the type of political and economic structure maintained by Roman Canon Law. But these men and women lacked the printing press; and the theological and political climate did not enable their views to be sympathetically examined. Into this category fell Marsilius of Padua in the fourteenth century with his ‘modern’ theory of the Church as a spiritual body in an entirely secular society, and Jan Huss (d. 1415), a Bohemian priest and university lecturer in Prague, one of the first to compose a treatise on The Church. His theory reached towards a theology which in some particulars was not so different from that of the Roman catholic twentieth-century Second Vatican Council, with his statement: ‘The Pope is not the head nor are the cardinals the entire body of the holy, Catholic and universal Church. For Christ alone is the head of that Church and all the predestined together form the body . . .’ Some of these ‘prophets’ lacked theological expertise, like many Lollards in England and Waldensians in Southern France; and some, like Huss ended up in flames, though many also did not.
In Wittenberg, in May 1519, a prophet finally found favourable circumstances. In composing one of his preparatory texts for his forthcoming debate in Leipzig (his Resolution on the Thirteenth Proposition), Dr Luther was forced to thrash out what the Church must be if it cannot be defined in terms simply of obedience to Rome, to Canon Law, to Pope and bishops as infallible interpreters of the gospel. ‘Where the gospel is preached and believed, there is the true faith, there is the immovable rock, there is the Church’, was the sentence which expressed his conclusion. The combined activities of preaching and believing would always enable one to identify the Church — and Luther also held that this real ‘Church’ would always baptise and would always celebrate the eucharist. Where the Gospel itself was preached and believed, and its central public acts of baptism and the celebration of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples were seen to be done, there was the Church founded by him. This went to the heart of the matter but omitted any theory about the inevitable institutional ramifications. ‘Seen’ by whom? The detail was still to be worked out.
Eck could hardly believe his luck. The man was delivering himself into his hands. Luther was denying the absolute authority over the Church of the Bishop of Rome, both because, as Luther thought, this must be tempered by the authority of Councils, and because of the historical fact that Christians in the east had not in fact been under the authority, either of the Pope or of later Councils.
The prophet does not always know what he does and speaks on several different levels. Luther had been laying his hands for several years on the great Latin texts of scripture, with the grave patina of ages on them. He had been piercing through the noble prose to the Greek behind. And behind the Greek words again he was sensing the Semitic words of the great Prophet himself, Jesus of Nazareth, the Word, with a thousand years and more of Judaic religion wound into everything he said. His superiors had encouraged him. In the self-confidence of centuries, stretching back to secular Rome, they knew that greater elucidation of the text would always be harmonious with their authority. They were the Church, a living tradition, with its vast law book, its obedient priests, and its machinery for dispensing sacramental grace. The scripture said, plain to see, ‘Thou art Peter and on this rock I will found my Church’. Peter was the first Pope. Jesus had handed him all authority in religious matters. As for secular matters, there too the Pope had overriding authority. The ‘Donation of Constantine’ was a text by which the first Christian Emperor had bequeathed imperial authority itself in the west to the Pope.
However, both the religious authority and the secular were based on an objectively insecure base. For several centuries the ‘Donation of Constantine’ had been suspect. The text was finally proved to be a forgery in the mid fifteenth century by both the philologist Lorenzo Valla and the German theologian, Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa. Nor had the claim to absolute religious authority ever been accepted by all Christians and there remained a majority of theologians who considered that the papacy was of human rather than divine provenance. At the same time the priestly and cultic nature of the Church, as a kind of’ super-superstition, the epitome of all ‘religions’, was also under attack by daring thinkers who gasped that Jesus’s message was one that was meant to free people from that kind of religion. Their arguments began to assume increasingly convincing proportions, and to be able to be widely disseminated. The light of scholarship, in history and philology, shone threateningly on the papal claims.
In the coming four centuries the steady accumulation of historical fact would work towards a sterilisation of those claims and a dissipation of the tabu surrounding them. But the tabu, ‘touch not the Lord’s anointed’, was strongly resistant. A new romantic ideology grew up round the papacy of the Counter Reformation, once the new Protestant institutions emerged. However, in the mid twentieth century biblical scholarship was welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church. And it had a radical effect on the Protestant Churches as well as on the Roman Catholic Church. Courses of convergence began to appear, clearly based on the fact that they all took the same data as their reference points. If this supposition is correct, Luther would be pleased. Neither in 1519 nor later did he want ‘another’ Church — he wanted to reform the Church. He left more or less unresolved the matter of the relationship between local Churches, and originally had no wish to exclude the papacy automatically.
By the sixteenth century there was already plenty for a scientific critique of received ecclesiastical positions on the matter of authority to go to work on. And behind it was more than either Luther or Erasmus knew. The twentieth-century reader is able to understand better than anyone in the sixteenth century how the contradictory positions arose. It was only in the late fourth century that the biblical text ‘Thou art Peter’ had begun to be understood as a reference to the papacy. This interpretation arose alongside the taking up of a whole spectrum of legalistic interpretations of the New Testament, directly due to Jerome’s translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts into Latin (the vulgate), a language so well endowed, as a tool of imperial rule, with legal terms. The traditions of the Semitic and Greek world were now transposed into the specific formalism of such words as ligare, solvere, potestas, imperium, gubernacula, sententia, justitia. These terms of the imperial judiciary suddenly became biblical terms. For a thousand years and more only very well-educated theologians, poets and linguists were going to be able to grasp that these words transformed and often betrayed the thought form of the culture from the lands east of Rome, in which Jesus of Nazareth lived. Luther was groping towards this conclusion.
In spite of the threatening nature of the opposition’s pre-Leipzig publications, Luther was in an ‘up’ mood in May, at any rate as far as the University was concerned. In his letter to Spalatin about Erasmus, he had written: ‘The number of students is growing tremendously, and they are of good quality. . .Our town can hardly hold them all, due to lack of lodging facilities.’ A few days later he was writing to Fr Martin Glaser the Augustinian from whom, without asking, he had borrowed the horse that took him in such an uncomfortable rush from Augsburg the previous autumn. ‘You have every right to be. . . annoyed that I have not written a single line to you before this. . . I hope you will be indulgent to a penniless man like me in regard to your horse, bearing in mind the intervention of the Reverend Father Vicar.’ Luther wrote to welcome him in Wittenberg
What a pleasure that we may see you here again. . .I believe you know of my coming Disputation at Leipzig. . . I am lecturing on the Psalms again; the University flourishes and the town is full of students . . . Rome is burning to destroy me, but I coolly laugh at her. I am told that in the Campo di Fiore a dummy of Martin has been publicly burned, cursed and execrated. . . My commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians is already being printed . . . Apart from this, we live well anti quietly.
Then a word about the new prior: ‘Our Helt is ruling quite well and also building, but only a kitchen. For thus far he cares only for the belly; later he will care also for the head . . . The whole world is wavering and shaking in body as well as soul . . .I predict massacres and wars. God have mercy upon us. Farewell in Him, and pray for poor me. 30 May 1519, Friar Martin Luther.’
The inner tensions expressed themselves now less in the misery of depressive bouts than in bursts of furious anger and forecasts of disaster. Earlier, he had sent an uninhibited blast to a lesser opponent from among the Franciscans who had been attacking his old pupil Frank Ganther, now parish priest at Jutterborg. Luther depicted the Franciscans as ‘snoring brothers who perchance have sometime seen a master of arts but have never known one personally . . .You never read anything, much less do you understand anything, and yet you claim to judge of doctrines.’ Their claims were ‘diseased, absurd and foreign to Catholic doctrine’. It was the same anger as was once directed against the ‘pagan’ Aristotle in the private notes on his Erfurt desk.
The Leipzig debate was preceded by long drawn out attempts by both the local Bishop and the University to prevent it occurring — neither wanted to risk trouble with high ecclesiastical authority. But Duke George was determined to have it, and he was the master. He wrote caustically to the Chancellor of Leipzig University: ‘That our theologians should shun such disputations seems to us contrary to their profession; for to them as teachers of the Scriptures it ought to be a joy to bring to light that for which they have eaten many good dinners.’ With this jibe at their privileged position, he made it clear that he was determined to make them sing for their suppers. And he wanted to see the notorious young Augustinian from his cousin’s territory and the upstart University of Wittenberg put down by Johann Eck, who had a reputation for winning debates.
As they rode, walked and drove into Leipzig, the Wittenbergers who included Amsdorf the Rector of the University, Melancthon, Johann Lang and many others, knew they were entering a town not likely to be too friendly. The arrival began badly. Karlstadt’s cart broke its axle and tumbled the Dean onto the ground, his great tomes falling out with him. The party went on with as much dignity as could be mustered to their lodgings, Karlstadt and Luther and the other principal men staying with Melchoir Lotter the printers. Lotter had been taking an increasing volume of Luther’s work, as Grunenberg became more and more obviously unequal to the task.
After acrimonious arguments about the judges and about the reporting of the debate; after a tedious procession to church, a new twelve-part Mass, and a long droned out and largely inaudible introduction by a local academic, the debate finally got under way on 27 July between Eck and Karlstadt in the great hall of the Pleissenburg Castle. The next two weeks were reported by numerous eye-witnesses, from all points of view. There were in fact only a few days of debate; 29 June-2 July were a break for Saints’ Days. Eck and Karlstadt debated free will and grace. Eck blustered and interrupted. Karlstadt, short-sighted and nervous, kept producing books and papers to quote from. Eck pressured the umpires to rule that Karlstadt must leave his reference books out of the chamber. On paper it looks rather as if Karlstadt had the best of the argument, but in the chamber Eck always dominated the scene, nearly twice the size of his opponent who was almost lost to sight behind his desk. Eck had a memory as good as Luther’s and he poured the texts out, loud and confident. Eventually, on 4 July, after the break and various light relief including a magnificent imitation of Eck by the Duke’s one-eyed clown, it was Luther’s turn, although his participation was in doubt up to the last moment.
The atmosphere changed immediately. All the reporters began to write in electric terms. Luther was at his best, an innate dramatic sense enabling him to appear cool, almost casual; brilliant and genial; sharp yet apparently relaxed; carrying a bunch of pinks — people used flowers as deodorants, but it was unusual to carry them to the podium in a debate. Dr Luther sniffed at them from time to time. But here was no dilettante. The bones of his rather heavy, but still sharply ascetic-looking face, stood out. He glowed, ready to quip, ready to be angry, but confident in his possession of a single master theory which enabled him to arrange all Scripture and all of the traditional understanding of the Gospel, and all devotional life and religious behaviour in an easily understood fashion. He wore his Doctor’s silver ring, as always, and a black cowl over a white habit. Some people felt something nearly uncanny about him. Luther projected his inner neurosis and infected his listeners with his extraordinary mixture of nervous excitement, brilliant reasoning and religious commitment. An enemy, Emser, the Dominican theologian from Dresden, described him as ‘haughty, bold and presumptuous.’
Eck conceded point after point, as he had done with Karlstadt, at tactical points. On Indulgences, almost every item was agreed. None of that mattered. ‘Authority’ was the crunch where Eck could make people see that Luther was out of line. The debate went better than he could have hoped. Taunting Luther with being a Hussite heretic, a Bohemian, he had Luther virtually admitting it, saying that not everything that the Council of Constance had condemned was in fact heretical and that Huss was not entirely wrong. Duke George caught his breath. ‘Plague take it,’ came the exclamation. In Leipzig of all places! Leipzig where the University itself had originated from a group of Germans who seceded from Prague in the early fifteenth century as a protest against the teaching of Huss. The detail of the argument was not-at issue — it was enough that Luther was challenging authority, Popes and Councils alike, and defending Huss, a heretic known in the popular mind as one who said the laity should receive the wine at communion (not in fact an heretical claim), and whose followers had set up the still flourishing schismatic Church in Bohemia.
Gradually the debate petered out. Luther grumbled that Eck was like a lute player everlastingly returning to the same old tune. Then it was the turn of Karlstadt again. Luther went home. On the last two days those of Leipzig University who were bound to attend had to be woken for their meals, so one witness reported. Finally, the Duke needed the hall for some guests who were coming for a hunting expedition.
Back in Wittenberg, Luther reported at length to Spalatin on 10 July: ‘Eck stamped about with much ado as though he were in an arena, holding up the Bohemians before me. . . accusing me of heresy and support of the Bohemian heretics . . .These accusations tickled the Leipzig audience more than the debate itself. In rebuttal I brought up the Greek Christians during the past thousand years’ — Luther was right of course that the Greeks did not acknowledge the authority of the papacy — and also the ancient fathers who had not been under the authority of the Roman pontiff although I did not deny the primacy of honour due to the Pope.’ When Luther rebutted some decision of the Council of Constance, ‘at this point the adder swelled up, exaggerated my crime, and nearly went insane in his adulation of the Leipzig audience’.
The debate had been a draw, though numerous people were convinced that Luther had had the best of the argument throughout. Students and some staff migrated from Leipzig to Wittenberg. But in Leipzig itself it had been a rough time for the Wittenbergers. Luther was angry that Eck had continued to preach in Leipzig churches what he had conceded was wrong in debate. Luther had the opportunity of one sermon to expound his own point of view. Duke George provided massive hospitality for Eck, and the merest minimum of a wine party for Luther and his colleagues.
Luther ended his report to Spalatin: ‘Whereas we had hoped for harmony between the people of Wittenberg and Leipzig, they acted so aggressively that I fear it will seem that discord and enmity were actually born here. This is the fruit of human glory. I, who really restrain my impetuosity cannot but vomit out my dislike of them, for I am flesh and blood, and their hatred was very shameless and their injustice was quite shameless — it was thoroughly wrong to be so lacking in fair play in so sacred a matter. That was it. Luther was unable to adapt himself to the fundamental lack of seriousness on theological issues, the politics and opportunism of the opposition, as he saw it.
In his July letter to Spalatin, Luther welcomed him and the Elector back to Saxony from the imperial election, and wrote a word of prayer for the soul of Treasurer Pfeffinger who had died. It was back to work again now. At the University, the thrust towards reform continued. The appointment to the Chair of Hebrew continued to be a problem. Luther reported to Lang that ‘the University is prospering, especially the study of theology. Leipzig is Leipzig as usual.’ Friary business was not much different, and there was an increasing new seam of events, visits and letters from people who had been impressed by Luther’s reputation and sought advice on government or other matters. At the end of November came Count Isenburg of the Teutonic Order for a night; Luther grumbled to Spalatin that the grand man had had to spend a night in the pub outside the city gates, because the gatekeeper was already drunk when the Count arrived and refused to open the gate, which he had closed for the night at five o’clock. The Count was returning from Prussia to retire to his family estate on the Rhine, where he eventually introduced Lutheran reforms. Then a request by post for advice about a disagreement between Regensburg City Council and the local Bishop on income from a pilgrimage centre was asked by Thomas Fuchs, the Imperial Agent in the town — he recognised Luther as the kind of man who had given thought to problems of this kind and maybe he could help him to sort out the matter.
The endless letters from Luther to Spalatin included answers to the latter’s theological queries, answers delivered now without any apologies about Luther’s lack of qualification. Into the new year there was an affair about a local widow who left her house in a will to the Cathedral Canons and then wished to change the will. She had already vacated the house and the Canons were obdurate about allowing her back— Luther did his best to arbitrate and see that justice was done. In 1520, there was worry about the town, insufficient supplies and, not surprisingly, insufficient housing. Finally, unrest in the town grew into a full-blooded ‘town’ versus ‘gown’ affair, with the students and the journeymen of Cranach the successful painter who had studios and a shop in the town carrying weapons for serious use. Luther himself was highly critical of the part played by the University authorities, much to the annoyance of those authorities. The Elector had to send in a force to restore order, Towards the summer of 1520 young Melancthon was thinking after two years in Wittenberg, of marrying. Luther was quizzed about it — he said it was not his job either to advise the young layman to marry or to choose a wife for him, and that he did not seem to be in a great hurry anyhow. And there were the continuing references to Karl von Miltitz, still trying to run his single-handed reconciliation campaign between Luther and Rome, causing a stream of irritations and misunderstandings to the Elector, Spalatin, Luther and others.
In his cell Luther poured out his writings, and all over Germany printers took them up and sold them profitably. The post-Leipzigian polemics continued, in the bitterest modes on both sides. Luther felt he was simply being used. His opponents were sure of themselves as the defenders of the traditional true faith, defending the Myth in all its purity —just as, in another sense, Luther also saw himself. Supporters of Luther continued to make their appearances. From Augsburg, Oecolampadius (Hausschein) and Adelmann wrote Canonici Indocti and from Nuremberg Pirkheimer wrote Eckius Dedolatus — ‘Doctor Corner polished off’.
Universities were pressed by Duke George and others to place their votes pro or contra Luther. Invited to judge the Leipzig debate, Erfurt entirely declined, and Paris procrastinated for nearly two years. Louvain and Cologne published predictably conservative judgements, the latter in August 1519, the former early in 1520, after consulting Charles V’s old tutor, their old member, Adrian of Utrecht, now Bishop of Tortosa in Spain, and destined to become Pope Adrian VI. There was some genuine argument. Bucer wrote to a friend that Cardinal Catejan, on being consulted, considered Luther’s statements ‘errors’ not ‘heresies’; he still wanted to minimise the implications in principle. The Franciscans who had so enraged Luther before Leipzig, stuck to their guns, drew in Eck and got Luther’s bishop to speak; in a letter to Staupitz, Luther wrote of his bishop, ‘He is only a wretched bladder blown up by Eck’s wind’. But the bluster gave way to a sad plea: ‘You are too neglectful of me. I stretch out to you as a hungry child to its mother’s breast.’ And then: ‘Last night I dreamed of you. It seemed as if you were going away from me and that I was weeping bitterly in great sadness. But you waved your hand and said that I should take courage and that you would return to me’ — desperation mingled with commitment and a tragic sense of the inevitable began to grip Luther.
As well as polemics Luther was writing his pastoral theology, his Fourteen Consolations for the very ill Elector, and a text on The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, compared in its nature as a fellowship event with the degenerate ‘religious’ fellowship of the craft brotherhoods. The sacrament of communion is ‘a ford, a bridge, a door, a ship and a stretcher by which we pass from this world into eternal life’. He believed in the true presence in the bread and wine. ‘Through the change wrought by love there is one bread, one drink, one body, one community. This is the true unity of Christian brethren.’ The Mass had, by now, ceased to be something he felt he must say every day, a ‘good work’, a ‘sacrifice’ — rather it was a communal celebration. Eck had spread the scandalous news that enquiries had revealed that Luther had not said Mass while he was in Leipzig.
This piece on the Blessed Sacrament included a mild recommendation that the laity ought to be allowed to communicate with the wine as well as the bread. When Duke George read this, he was enraged and sent off letters to the Elector and to the Council of Regency demanding Luther’s denunciation: he must after all be a Bohemian — perhaps he was one in fact. Spalatin thought he had better be in possession of the precise details of Luther’s actual pedigree, and Luther obliged with brief biographical data, but was upset again: ‘This does not frighten me at all, but it blows up the sails of my heart with an incredible wind.’
A fortnight later, Luther wrote his usual kind of letter to Johann Lang: ‘They are spreading the rumour that I was born in Bohemia. . . They have won Duke George, taken him in tow.’ Luther said he was delighted with Erasmus’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz. He ended: ‘The Ambassador of the Spaniards is staying with our Sovereign. I and Philip dined with him yesterday. It was a splendid party.’ Luther contrived to enjoy himself at Wittenberg, whatever the troubles.
Spalatin tried, towards the end of 1519, to get Luther to write a long series of postils, commentaries on the gospels and epistles for the Sundays, a ruse to get him away from polemical writing. Luther simply found time to do both. So also Spalatin got him to send conciliatory letters to Albrecht, the Cardinal Archbishop of Maim, and to the Bishop of Merseburg. The worldly Archbishop, prepared now to communicate directly with Luther, dismissed the theological matters as not really important — the right of the Pope and the freedom of the will were trifling matters, he said, nugamenta, compared with the demands of the Christian life. But he warned Luther against stirring up the people. Merseburg was more severe. But just at this time came a blast, to wreck Spalatin’s plan, from the Bishop of Meissen, who had confiscated copies of Luther’s sermon on the Mass, and said it was conducive to eternal damnation. Luther tore off a scorching reply, assuming that the Bishop himself could not of course have written such nonsense: Answer to the proclamation of the Stolpen Official, suggesting the Bishop had better burn Luther’s books just as Reuchlin’s books had been burnt— fire was the best protection against what one did not like. Miltitz reported obsequiously to the Elector that the language had brought a smile even to the face of Duke George.
It was increasingly a shock to Luther to realise that he was sure Jan Huss was a great and important theologian, and that this ‘heretic’ had been burnt for his ‘heresy’. To Spalatin, in January 1520, he wrote:
I have taught and held all the teachings of John Huss, but thus far did not know it. Johann Staupitz had taught it in the same unintentional way. In short we are all Hussites and did not know it. Even Paul and Augustine are in reality Hussites. . .I am so shocked that I do not know what to think when I see such terrible judgements of God over mankind, namely that the most evident evangelical truth was burned in public. . .Woe to this earth. Farewell, Martin Luther.
Ten days later, he wrote fatefully to Spalatin after reading Valla’s exposure of the Donation of Constantine, that he now had no doubt that the Pope was the real Antichrist, expected by the world. He said 2000 copies of Huss’s book on The Church had been printed; and then, suddenly, wanted to see a book Spalatin had ‘about the flames and fires that were seen in the sky over Vienna. . . Perhaps my tragedy is contained in them.’ The following month, replying to the condemnation of some of his writings by the University of Louvain, Luther referred to Valla in a long list of scholars whose writings were unjustly condemned including Erasmus and Reuchlin — Valla, who was charged, he said, ‘with the crime of ignorance by those who are quite unworthy to hand him a piss pot.’
In February, Spalatin sent one of his worried queries about Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. What did he mean? Were people not to do good works? Perhaps, he ventured, Luther’s doctrine was one of the causes of the increase in lawlessness and immorality. The question provided Luther with the occasion for his important German text On Good Works. He said he meant that good works in their fullness flowed from the man of faith, and that it was no good trying to earn some kind of spiritual reputation or merit by being a ‘do-gooder’, or worse a mere fulfiller of devotional practices. But of course the behaviour of the justified man, the man of faith would shine like a good deed in a naughty world. And such a man could and would do good works and make good use of spiritual advice — Luther proceeded to run through the Judaic ‘Ten Commandments’ from the Old Testament and to pour out advice inherited from a long tradition, salted by his own experience covering most spheres of human activity from insufficient discipline for instance in sexual matters, to excess of discipline in, for instance, diet. ‘Foolish women cling so firmly to their fasting that they would rather run the risk of great danger to the child they carry, as well as to themselves, than not fast with the others.’ Otherwise, however, fasting could be useful to keep the body in trim and to combat excesses in food and drink, and sex. There was no question of his championing some kind of subjective righteousness entirely detached from the realities of life.
In this piece Luther’s German was coming into its own. The conforming unbelieving multitude were not spared: ‘When we are at Mass in our Churches we stand like blockheads. . . The beads rattle, the pages rustle, and the mouth mumbles. And that is all there is to it.’ But he waxed eloquent in expounding his doctrine that God ‘justifies’ the man who believes. He quoted a catena of Scriptural passages (‘If anyone should sin, we have our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is just; he is the sacrifice that takes our sins away’: 1John 2.1-2) from the New Testament, and five quotations from the Old Testament.
Although begun in March, Luther took time (for him) over this text and it was published in June, with a dedication to Duke John, the Elector’s brother, and probable successor: ‘Many people think little of me and say that I only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity. . . Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layman to be better,’ and anyhow ‘if I had a mind to write big books . . . I could perhaps, with God’s help, do it more readily than they could write my kind of little discourse’. He was in fact already writing the ‘big books’, in the form of the commentaries or, Galatians and Psalms, though they did not seem ‘big’ to him — and he was right that the little books, were in a way, more difficult, involving genuine communication with the less well educated. In this text on Good Works he put a favourite example of how genuine faith and love work out. A loving husband and wife do not have to be continually doing things to prove their love for each other. They love each other in a deep trust and faith, without demanding proof or earning merit in some arithmetic or calculated love.
It was again a crucial time. Something broke in Luther’s mind this spring, as it had done the previous spring. The terrible query about Antichrist had become a certainty. Reports were flowing in about the new examination of Luther’s writings going on in Rome; it was known that Eck had gone there to influence the examination. Rumours were rife of plots against Luther’s life. It was reassuring, but also a reason for worry, that offers came from two knights to Luther to take refuge in their castles, one from Sylvester von Schaumberg in Franconia, the other from the famous Ulrich von Hutten, to take refuge with his friend Franz von Sickingen in his castle in the hills beside the Moselle. Luther took the offers seriously, and pointed out to Spalatin that if Rome compelled him to flee he had no need to go to Bohemia but could stay in ‘the heart of Germany’. And, to his surprise, even Staupitz sent an encouraging letter from Nuremberg, where he was visiting.
In Luther’s own mind things were moving fast. He issued a new sermon in April on the Mass: ‘Faith is the real priestly office . . . All Christians are priests, man or woman, young or old, lord or servant wife or maid, scholar or layman.’ Mass, he complained had been transfigured into an act of magic. Meanwhile, on the Franciscan front, a Leipzig man called Aveld had issued a piece against Luther and in defence of the papacy. Late in May, Luther issued a twenty-thousand word German piece in reply On the Papacy in Rome against the most celebrated Romanist in Leipzig. The words on both sides were more bitter than ever. And the content of Luther’s commits him further again against the principle of papal authority as neither established by Jesus of Nazareth nor an authority obligatory for all Christians to obey – the Russians, the Greeks and the Bohemians do without it. Aveld had compared the Pope with Aaron in the Old Testament, continuing the line of the Judaic high priest. Luther asks, ‘Must the Pope let his hair grow then, must the Pope be circumcised?’ Luther had been begged by the Leipzigians not to drag the name of Leipzig into it, as they had grave doubts about the arguments employed by Aveld.
No one should think that when I mentioned Leipzig, I wanted to shame this honourable city and its university. I was forced to do so by the bravado and arrogance of the imagined title ‘public reader of all Holy Scripture in Leipzig’, a title never heard of. This crude miller’s beast still cannot sing his heehaw and yet, all on his own, he embarks on a matter which the Roman See itself, as well as all the bishops and scholars, could not clarify in a thousand years. Moreover, I would have thought that Leipzig is too precious in his eyes for him to go smearing his drivel and snivel on this honourable and famous city.
The substantial pamphlet went through twenty editions in Germany and Switzerland, so low was the reputation of the papacy, so willing were people of all classes to listen not just to abuse, but to solid argument against papal authority, without in anyway supposing this to be an attack on Christianity. The Myth had been growing a life of its own, independent of its institutions.
Luther had come to the end of the line. The Church authorities, whatever they were planning about his own personal case, had shown no interest in the kind of radical, all over reform which he was now asking for. A hundred reform programmes had been set on foot in the previous hundred years, and failed. So Luther followed the logic of his case — he turned to the Church as a whole, the total membership and particularly to the leaders of society, the most powerful of those Church members. Over three months, he gradually put together a great reform programme. It was still published in places when he decided to publish it and began delivering the pages of his written piece to the printer, heading the piece boldly To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.
Here was no proletarian revolution, but an almost medieval turning to the State for action against the Church — only this time it was not a sovereign versus an archbishop, both competing for power. It was a monk asking the ruler and leading men to clean up the Church, which in effect meant to clean up society, so embedded in every way had the ecclesiastical operations become in the life of the country from its fundamental economic and financial resources to the inner motivations of each individual and group. This was an entirely new version of the Church turning to the secular arm to put its judgements into effect.
A torrent of German demands poured forth in this text which shocked even Luther’s closest friends, by its fierceness and by, what seemed to them, its sometimes intemperate language. And the programme itself was shocking in the extent of change it demanded. The text was preceded by a letter to his close colleague in the Theology Faculty at Wittenberg, Reverend Nikolaus Amsdorf, also a canon of the castle church: ‘Jesus. . .The time for silence is past and the time to speak has come.’ He was putting the matter of reform before the nobility ‘in the hope that God may help his Church through the laity, since the clergy, to whom this task more properly belongs, have grown quite indifferent’. He excused his impertinence with a current joke about the ever present monk — ‘perhaps I owe my God and the world another work of folly. I intend to pay my debt like an honest man. And if I succeed, I shall for the time being be a Court jester. And if I fail I still have one advantage — no one need buy me a cap or put scissors on my head. It is a question who will put the bells on whom.’ And so he goes on, coming in with his usual thumping doctoral justification: ‘I am glad for the opportunity to fulfil my doctor’s oath, even in the guise of a fool.’
The text itself was addressed in the first place to the twenty-year-old Emperor, Charles Habsburg, but shortly it moved into a more general tone: ‘God has given us a young man of noble birth as head of state, and in him has awakened great hopes of good in many hearts.’ Luther then moved into three fundamental matters, three ‘walls’ by which the ‘Romanists’ had protected themselves against reform. (1) The temporal power was declared to have no jurisdiction over the spiritual. But, Luther said, all Christians were priests — and quoted a text much beloved of supporters of the second Vatican Council, ‘You are a royal priesthood and a holy people’ (1 Peter 2.9). Translated into Institutional practice, Luther was suggesting that when a bishop consecrated a priest, he was simply acting on behalf of the community to license a man to use power he already had through his baptism. Luther may well turn out to have backed the right horse in the end, to judge by current Roman Catholic theology, veering as it is towards Reformed theology on this point, but what he said was a contradiction of official Roman Catholic theology, and put him outside traditional understanding, teaching and practice. However, his case was that the Church had always intended to be true to Scripture and he, Luther, was pointing to what Scripture actually said, as distinct from interpretations fathered on it.
It was the reform of practice as much as of theory that Luther was advocating in this text. If a priest was murdered, the case should be treated no differently than if a layman had been murdered — the community had not earned an interdict. This kind of attack on Canon Law, with all its privileges over secular law, was ‘revolutionary’ and was felt as a frightening threat even by some laity, who saw the walls of the conventional world crumbling with its disappearance.
The second wall was the Romanist ‘claim that only the Pope may interpret Scripture . . . an outrageous fancied fable’, and the third that only a Pope may summon a Council of the Church. In both cases, said Luther, any layman had authority equal to that of the Pope. Karlstadt had in fact said just this about scripture more than two years previously but no one had bothered because it was said by a rather myopic officious academic whom nobody cared much about, and who never managed to project his message widely. Luther went on to list the things which a Council should look to. It was a long list, including the following.
The Pope should not go about in ostentatious style. Rome should cease to milk the Italians and the Germans in order to provide vast incomes for the cardinals in Rome. This was popular stuff: ‘ The "drunken Germans" are not supposed to understand what the Romanists are up to . . .’ Rome fomented a dispute then stepped in and confiscated funds. There were all kinds of pluralisms and absenteeism which should end. No dues should be paid to Rome, especially annates, the first year’s income from an ecclesiastical benefice, which led to substantial sums leaving every European country (Henry VIII redirected these payments to the crown in England in 1532, and greatly increased them.). Luther’s anger was now directed obsessively against the Pope and the Roman apparatus. ‘Cut down the creeping crawling swarm of vermin at Rome, so that the Pope’s household can be supported out of the Pope’s own pocket. . .The Pope should have no authority over the Emperor, except the right to anoint and crown him at the altar . The Pope should restrain himself, take his fingers out of the pie, and claim no title to the kingdom of Naples and Sicily.’ The text went into great detail about the various and very numerous official channels by which money went to Rome. The final scandal of it all was that all this business was itself sold to the great international banker, the Fugger.
With accuracy and well-argued presentation Luther reeled off all the machinery of the ecclesiastical institution, unworthy, as everyone knew so much of it was, unworthy of the spiritual arm of society, claiming to have an authority granted by Jesus of Nazareth. But when Luther turned to the symbol of it all, he became truly enraged. ‘What Christian heart can or ought to take pleasure in seeing that when the Pope wishes to receive Communion, he sits quietly like a gracious lord and has the sacrament brought to him on a golden rod by a bowing cardinal on bended knee? As though the holy sacrament were not worthy enough for the Pope, a poor, stinking sinner . . . Help us, O God, to get a free, general council which will teach the Pope that he, too, is a man, and not more than God, as he sets himself up to be.’
The desired reforms rolled out. Priests should be allowed to marry. ‘The priest should not be compelled to live without a wedded wife. . .many a poor priest is overburdened with wife and child, his conscience troubled.’ The priest sometimes needed a woman to keep house and then it is like putting straw and fire together and forbidding them to burn. . . The Pope has as little power to command this as he has to forbid eating, drinking defecating, or growing fat. The ‘Ban’ should be banished. Endowed Masses were to be limited, festivals to be abolished or in the case of the major ones transferred to Sundays; too much work was lost and there was too much drunkenness. Travelling beggars should be banned, and each city should mind its poor.
Luther was quite worried about his request for curtailing the endowed Masses, and abolishing therefore the swarms of priests employed to say them and do little else. He said that theologians were still trying to thrash out the true meaning of the Mass, but meanwhile these Masses should be curtailed because they kept men in idleness. But he made an exception for the great cathedral foundations where important educational work was done. ‘My proposal is perhaps too bold, and an unheard-of thing, especially for those who are concerned that they would lose their job and means of livelihood if such Masses were discontinued. I must refrain from saying more about it until we arrive again at a proper understanding of what the Mass is and what it is for . . . I am not speaking of the old foundations which were established for the children of the nobility. . . I am speaking of the new foundations . . .’ There were too many, and as things were at these smaller places their incumbents all got reduced to ‘anthem singers, organ wheezers and reciters of decadent, indifferent Masses’. The crowds of Massing priests at Erfurt and Wittenberg were vividly in Luther’s mind.
Everything came into this fulminating text. The papal legates and their faculties ‘which they sell us for large sums of money’ would be driven out of Germany. ‘This traffic is nothing but skulduggery.’ Luther reminded his readers that Huss was burned at Constance after the Pope and Emperor together had reneged on the safe conduct promised when his theology still stood in need of a careful and honest examination. He defended the taking of bread and wine, the body and the blood, by the laity, which was in no sense a heretical practice. Universities, of course, had to be reformed. Aristotle’s ‘philosophy’ should be removed, though his Logic, Rhetoric and Poetics, at least in abridged form, should be kept. Of the other two major Faculties, he had to leave the Medicine Faculty to medical men. The Legal Faculty simply needed Canon Law removed from it.
Towards the end, Luther turned to social and economic ills, and the cliches of every trimmer of stylish living are heard. Trade in spices should be curtailed since it carried money out of Germany and in any case the Germans were able to grow nearly all they needed. Dress, too, was too costly, with silks coming from abroad again. The bankers were taking too much interest. And so on to the common failings of mankind. People were eating and drinking too much. The brothels should be closed. Here he commended marriage at a reasonably early age, and deplored the common picture of young people living wildly, becoming disgusted with themselves and then turning to being a monk or a priest for which ‘not one in a hundred’ was suited. The motive was simply that they could not see how to support themselves and a family. A vow of celibacy should not be permitted before the age of thirty.
He ended this piece — which was to set the whole of the German-speaking world by the ears — in his usual personal fashion. ‘I know full well that I have been very outspoken . . . I have attacked many things too severely. But what else ought I to do?. . .I would rather have the anger of the world on me the than the anger of God . . . Well I know another little song about Rome . . .If their ears are itching to hear it I will sing that one to them too’ — he was already pondering the next cannonade. He said he would be worried if his writing was not condemned, since it was the destiny of a just cause to be condemned: ‘Therefore just let them go hard at it, pope, bishop, priest, monk or scholar. They are just the ones to persecute the truth as they have always done. God give us all a Christian mind, and grant to the Christian nobility of the German nation in particular true spiritual courage to do the best they can for the poor church. Amen. Wittenberg, in the year 1520.’
Luther had faced the fact long ago that anger and ‘persecution’ were main ingredients of real life. It had reached the stage where he positively invited persecution. Only someone willing to embrace it would have been able to bring along a sufficiently large torch flame to get the great bonfire burning, as burn it was certainly bound to do eventually, though damp and green in places. And he had no qualms about allowing anger a major place in his public writing.
When Johann Lang received his copy of the Appeal, he rushed a message to Luther to try to stop publication. But of course it was too late, Luther was in a carefree mood by now. ‘Greetings. Dear Father, is my pamphlet which you call a trumpet blast really so fierce and cruel as you and all others seem to think? I confess it is free and aggressive. . . Good or bad it is no in my power to recall it. Four thousand copies had already been printed and sent away, nor could I cause Lotther, the publisher, the loss he would sustain in recalling these. If I have sinned we must remedy it by prayer . . .’ He gave news that Melancthon was going to marry the Mayor’s daughter, Katherine Krapp, and then with a ringing shaft against the Pope, Antichrist, he ended the letter.
The die had been cast. The Church had to be reformed, and had to be done without Rome. Rome herself had to he recognised as centrally guilty for bringing the Church to the state of corruption it was in. In June a new text of Sylvester Prierias had arrived in Luther’s hand, replying to Luther’s reply to him. Luther sent back an answer more vehement than ever. Everyone in Rome had become ‘mad, foolish, raging, insane, fools, sticks, stones, hell and evil’ to allow such an infernal work to go out into the Church. ‘Antichrist is enthroned in God’s very temple. If Rome believes these things then happy is Greece, happy is Bohemia . . .Farewell you unhappy, lost and blasphemous Rome; the anger of God has come upon you at last.’ The anger of Martin Luther at any rate.