Chapter 7: Crisis

Luther: A Life
by John M. Todd

Chapter 7: Crisis

The Elector Frederick had been ruling Ernestine Saxony for thirty years. He was able to look at some substantial achievements. Government itself was more efficient. More money was coming into the fisc. An important matter here was that he confined permission for the preaching of Indulgences to those sponsored locally; he would not grant permission for papal Indulgences issued from Rome to be preached in his lands. Money did not flow out. He was able to achieve a substantial surplus in the balance of payments in and out of his territory. From this he undertook public works, roads, bridges, buildings, among which, and most notable, were the University and new buildings at the castle at Wittenberg.

The University had become his favourite project. Frederick had been right to get Staupitz in. He in his turn had attracted some brilliant people. Some had moved on, like Christoph Scheurl and Albrecht Durer. Others had stayed, like Karlstadt; and a brilliant young painter, Lucas Cranach had stayed in his service to adorn the interior of the castle. Wittenberg was becoming an outpost of the whole avant garde movement. Frederick had also chosen well in his ‘chaplain and librarian’, Spalt, who kept him informed of all the details of what was going on at Wittenberg. For two years now he had been bringing his sovereign news about a brilliant young friar, Dr Martin Luther. Frederick’s policy was to keep himself away from direct personal contact with events, but to have a very efficient information service, and a few chosen servants, to bring him news not only of everything going on in his own lands, but everywhere in Europe. On the international scene, the Emperor Maximilian was getting iller and older and would die sometime. Elector Frederick, his Deputy, though old, might succeed him. Meanwhile, he continued with energy and care to govern his domains in Saxony and Thuringia.

He had no reason for any particular concern about a papal Indulgence being preached in 1517 in the Brandenburg territory to the north. As usual he had declined to invite the preachers into his domain. It was the Indulgence, previously referred to, which the young pluralist Archbishop of Mainz had promoted — half of all the money collected was going to his bankers, the Fugger, to whom he owed a very substantial sum on account of the fines paid by them to Rome on his behalf for his election to the Archbishopric, and for his pluralism. This arrangement was known or suspected by Frederick but was not public knowledge. The people knew, doubtless, that the preacher, Father Tetzel, OP, and his assistant, could draw their expenses from what was collected — they had to live after all, but assumed that the rest went towards the object for which they were told it was being collected, the erection of the great new Basilica of St Peter in Rome. In any case that was not really their concern. In return for their cash they got their Letter of Indulgence which assured them of relief from punishment after death for sins committed, for which they had repented and been to Confession. The Letter of Indulgence could alternatively be attributed to their deceased friends or relations, whom they feared might still be suffering in purgatory. When Fr Tetzel came to the town of Juterborg in the bordering territory he was within eighteen miles of Wittenberg. Many Wittenbergers felt it was worth the walk or the ride to attend his session. They would hear the sermons, frightening and then consoling. They would see the banners, get their script, and receive solid assurance from this confidently conducted occasion.

As soon as the coin in coffer rings

So the soul to heaven springs

went the little jingle. And Tetzel thundered forth: ‘How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a year, how many in a whole lifetime? They are all but infinite and they have to undergo an infinite penalty in the flaming punishment of purgatory. . . yet in virtue of these confessional letters, you shall be able to gain, once in a life, full pardon of the penalties .’ So ran one of his sample sermons. No reputable theologian could really defend the idea that a sincere Christian frequently committed numerous mortal sins, but a burden of personal guilt lay heavily in the sermons of the day, and people looked for an assurance, not just of absolution, but of release from the punishment that they feared they had incurred.

Although the attendance of Wittenbergers was sufficient to irritate Luther greatly, the relatively small loss of cash did not make Frederick think that he should take any action. On the argument about Indulgences as such, he had an open mind. They were for ever being denounced — Luther was only the last in a long line of denouncers. But Indulgences did seem to encourage devotion, and at the same time brought in so much money both to the civil and to the ecclesiastical governments that it was to be wondered how else such sums of money could be found. His own magnificent collection of relics with its attached Indulgence was one of the successes of his reign. But Frederick did not silence the critics. Such things ought not to be abused. He wanted his university to love the truth, both intellectually and religiously. So when Spalatin told him of the plans that were afoot for reform of the University studies, he was not displeased. And he was proud to have in his land a university that might some day rival the great University of Leipzig in the lands of his Cousin, Duke George, Albertine Saxony.

Through the months of 1517, Luther pondered on the paper he was drawing up about University studies, and its Aristotelean basis. He had also begun to lecture on the Letter to the Hebrews. His lecturing style was still changing. He was moving further away from the complicated conventional method, with its fourfold approach to the meaning of the text. He was moving gradually to a style that strikes a single prophetic note, a distinctively personal style, which he also shared with some of the other greatest commentators. This approach can lead to sheer banality. But with the great men it works. Augustine was a model. Luther could afford to break out in these lectures in this way, his own psychological and spiritual crisis enriching the tone: ‘Oh, it is a great thing to be a Christian man, and have a hidden life, hidden not in some cell, like the hermits, or even in the human heart, which is an unsearchable abyss, but in the invisible God himself, and thus to live in the things of the world, but to feed on him who never appears except in the one vehicle of the hearing of the Word.’ The religious dimensions of dependence and freedom had a personal stamp on them.

This was far removed from the dry theology of the logical ‘Moderns’. However, Luther was happy to use the clear and logical approach when he wished to show how unsuited the Modernist style was to an interpretation of the Gospel to religion as distinct from philosophy. He shared his working paper with a student, conveniently in need of a thesis for his next examination. On 4 September 1517, Franz Gunther, graduate of Erfurt and now proceeding to the Biblical Baccalaureate, defended, in the presence of Dr Luther, now himself Dean of the Faculty of Theology, theses entitled: Disputation against Scholastic Theology. In assisting with the preparation of these Theses, Luther got the bit between his teeth. Aristotle, whom he had disliked for so long, he was able at last to denounce in a full-scale attack, along with modern writers, including his own onetime beloved Biel whose book on the Mass had so inspired him. The Theses thunder out: ‘No syllogistic form is valid when applied to divine terms. This in opposition to the Cardinal [D’Ailly]’; ‘It is not true that God can accept man without his justifying grace. This in opposition to Ockham’; ‘It is dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God. This in opposition to the Cardinal and Gabriel’; and so they go on, all ninety-seven of them. ‘Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the scholastics.’ Underlying the text was an impassioned certainty and a religious fire that must have begun to stir those who heard it with a little fear or a little excitement, if, like Spalatin, they had not already begun to wonder where it was all leading.

The University problems were proving entirely tractable, Spalatin was in favour of the changes. The Elector was pleased with the good intake of students being achieved, and was placing no opposition in the way of the formation of a new policy which was generally accepted now that Karlstadt had come round to it, and a formal set of Theses on the subject had been successfully defended. Luther was glad for his students and for his fellow dons and friars. But his worries about the ordinary people, the congregation at St Mary’s, were increasing; it was quite another matter to try to change their programme. Luther had regrouped the emphases in theology so that the institutional played a much smaller part than the communitarian and the personal. He found more difficulty in preaching this in church than expounding it in the lecture hall. His congregation were caught up in a tissue of observances, of which while he did not absolutely disapprove, and which though in theory they were an acceptable expression of a deeply personal and communal faith, in practice seemed to be used more like insurance policies for the life after death. One of these observances, the Mass, he was himself deeply committed to, since it was rooted in the New Testament text; it was abuse of it that he opposed. But other devotional practices, and most notably the obtaining of Indulgences, seemed to have nothing, in principle, to do with the gospel. Every week in choir (or reciting to himself in his cell), Luther came on the verse in the Psalms — ‘I want no holocausts but the sacrifice of a broken heart.’ The repentant heart was what he had asked for in his sermons for the last year. The Indulgence sellers traded on people’s sense of guilt and offered them spurious ways of dissipating it. It is true, he thought, they helped to reassure nervous souls. Perhaps they were better than nothing; to some extent maybe they encouraged people to turn away from evil doing. But they were second or third best, and a whole dimension away from that ‘repentance’, that ‘change of heart’ which the gospel asked for. They encouraged a kind of bogus dependence which outlawed the very freedom it should have promoted.

It was second nature to Luther to begin to write down his thoughts, so he started on a Treatise on Indulgences which led in turn to a new set of Theses for debate. Yet another file took its place on his desk cluttered with reports from the Augustinian friaries, sermons, Wittenberg Friary matters, University reform plans, letters from the humanist wing in Nuremberg, and much else. He set the propositions down in short, dense, dialectical sentences, sometimes theological, sometimes practical, sometimes hortatory.

The opening words ring out sharply:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction as admistered by the clergy.

Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.

This was dialectic with a practical edge. The Theses roll ineluctably on, powered by a fundamentally spiritual but also practical understanding of man, an understanding which Luther had learnt in the first place from his parents, his schools and University and his fellow friars; and in preaching which he shared with many other preachers and most notably his ‘father-in-God’, Fr Staupitz. Most of the Theses are single sentences like the first three above.

After a series of distinctions, and theologically unexceptionable expositions of the limitations of Indulgences, put however, in the same dialectical and somewhat provocative form, Luther moves into a more affirmative and prophetic tone:

‘Christians are to be taught . . .’, Christiani docendi, rings out nine times. He has gone beyond argumentation — although in fact the Thesis form makes it clear that these demanding sentences are still intended as something to be debated. ‘Christians are to be taught that the Pope does not intend that the buying of Indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys Indulgences. Christians are to be taught . . .’ They must support their families and not squander money on Indulgences, and the Pope should wish to sell the basilica of St Peter so that he can give alms to many of those whose money is wheedled out of them by Indulgence sellers — to build the Pope’s basilica.

Then the Theses become very spirited and specific ‘To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the Indulgence preachers, is equal in worth to the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.’ The Theses wind up with Luther’s favourite finale from the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Away then with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace" and there is no peace. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, Cross", and then there is no cross. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death and hell; and thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.’

Luther was not the first to be aroused by the anomaly of Indulgences. It was precisely the preaching of an Indulgence in Bohemia, in 1412 (an Indulgence issued by the pseudo-Pope John XXIII to raise money for a war he was fighting against Naples), that had encouraged Reverend Father John Hus to believe he must persevere in his reform movement. In a Swiss valley in 1517 another Catholic priest was agonising about the pilgrimages, relics and Indulgences which brought so much business and so much worldliness and apparent abuse of the Gospel, to the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln where he ministered. That was Ulrich Zwingli — who knew nothing of young Dr Luther. For more than a hundred years, European literature had been full of irony and sarcasm at the expense of the easy money ecclesiastic. Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’, whose relics turned out to be chicken bones, pre-dated Luther by nearly a hundred and fifty years. In early fourteenth-century Montaillou in south-west France, Indulgences had been thought of as a racket.

To try to tackle Indulgences was to start to tamper with the whole ecclesiastical economic structure, held together by financial, political and psychological ties. It needed some courage and some naivete to set about cutting them: courage because to cut some of them was defined, ultimately, as treason; naivete because many people had attempted the job before and had failed. In this circumstance, not to know too much about the whole interlocking scene was a help. Today’s historian knows more about it than anyone living at the time; Luther in particular was working from a very limited standpoint. He did not see himself as another Hus, another Savonarola, even less as a prophet come to turn the whole Church upside down. He was simply trying, out at Wittenberg, to get to the root of Christian theology and then to live by it, and encourage others to do so. While he was often very nervous, he seemed to be largely devoid of that paralysing fear which sometimes attacks people once they see the full dimensions of what they are attempting to change. Not fear, but anger was the emotion that attacked him when he was shown the Instruction being distributed to the preachers (Fr Tetzel, notably) of the new Indulgence being offered in Juterborg about twenty miles away, over the border in Albertine Saxony. Its authoritarian way of dealing out spiritual riches was the last straw; the phrases were all well known to Luther, but their formulation for the sub-commissioners of the Indulgence, in this Instructio Summaria seemed to him to reach a height of spiritual presumption and contradiction of the New Testament that he could stomach no longer: subscribers would receive plenary and perfect remission of all their sins; they would be relieved of all the pains of purgatory; Indulgences obtained on behalf of those who had died did not require confession of one’s sins as Indulgences for oneself did. It was all presented with the absolute assurance that man could dispose of the goods of God, and that man’s authority reached into the ultimate domains of the Almighty. Conditions were attached indeed, that the Indulgence seeker should go to Confession. But this was no way to handle spiritual responsibilities.

The man immediately responsible locally was young Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz. It flashed into Luther’s mind that the time had come when he should write a formal protest to him; and he would have his new Treatise on Indulgences and the set of Theses copied out, and send them too. They had been growing on his desk during the last two months. It was ‘Indulgence time’ again, with All Saints Day coming up; on 1 November a dozen or more priests would be hearing confessions in the castle church. It was on 31 October that Luther sent a letter to the Archbishop. It was a typically ‘Lutheran’ letter, starting with an exaggerated self-abasement but eventually reaching what was practically a studied denunciation of him.

To the Most Reverend Father in Christ, the Most illustrious Lord, your Honour Albrecht, archbishop of the churches of Magdeburg and Mainz, primate, margrave of Brandenburg, etc., my lord and shepherd in Christ, esteemed in respect and love Jesus Grace and mercy from God, and my complete devotion Most Reverend Father in Christ, Most Illustrious Sovereign:

Forgive me that I, the least of all men, have the temerity to consider writing to Your Highness. The lord Jesus is my witness that I have long hesitated doing this. . .

The letter contained in discursive prose form the heart of what was in the Theses, and what was at greater length and far more moderately in the Treatise. Luther played the conventional line that of course the Archbishop himself did not know what was being done in his name. ‘Under your most distinguished name, papal Indulgences are offered all across the land for the construction of St Peter’s.’ He starts in immediately on the theological abuse: ‘The poor people believe that when they have bought Indulgence Letters they are then assured of their salvation.’ After elaborating on the detail of this, Luther burst forth in a manner hardly consonant with the opening self abasement: ‘Oh great God! The souls committed to your care, excellent Father, are thus directed to death. For all these souls you have the heaviest and a constantly increasing responsibility. . . No man can be assured of his salvation by an episcopal function.’

Luther then came to what really concerned him, the failure of the Church to present the Gospel and this led him to warn the Bishop with some severity of his own spiritual predicament: ‘The first and only duty of the bishops however, is to see that the people learn the Gospel and love of Christ. For on no occasion has Christ ordered that Indulgences should be preached but he forcefully commanded the Gospel to be preached. What a horror, what a danger for a bishop to permit the loud noise of Indulgences among his people which the Gospel is silenced.’ The words ‘Gospel is silenced’ was a reference to the prohibition put on all other sermons when an Indulgence was being preached in order to encourage maximum participation in it.

Then Luther refers to the Instruction which had so outraged him: ‘published under your Highness’s name. . . certainly without your full awareness and consent . . . What can I do, excellent Bishop and Most Illustrious Sovereign? I can only beg you. Most Reverend Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ, to deign to give this matter your fatherly attention and totally withdraw that little brief and command the preachers of Indulgences to preach in another way.’ The letter virtually becomes a threat at this point. Something must be allowed for a convention of a considerably greater freedom of speech between subjects and sovereigns, within a formal structure of great obeisance, than one would expect today. And it is to be remembered that Luther was in fact the Archbishop’s senior by a decade. Even so. the phrases must surprise. The writer has leapt from his angulum, and is behaving as the Old Testament prophets behaved when denouncing the evils of their times, though herein the quiet and clear, practical sentences of western man: ‘If this is not done, someone may rise, and, by means of publications, silence those preachers and refute the little book. This would be the greatest disgrace for your Most Illustrious Highness. I certainly shudder at this possibility, yet I am afraid it will happen if things are not quickly remedied.’

This was an accurate forecast of what was to happen apart from the ‘disgrace’ (if political or ecclesiastical disgrace was meant) of the Archbishop. Luther had no specific plan to be himself the one destined to fulfil the prophecy. But, like the papal nuncio Aleander, he understood the widespread disillusion and could imagine the events which had inevitably to follow. And he had a sharp eye for practicalities; it was the pamphlets, the Flugschriften, the ‘flying writings’ that would play the crucial role.

I beg your Most Illustrious Grace to accept the faithful service of my humble self in a princely and episcopal — that is in the most kind — way, just as I am rendering it with a most honest heart, and in absolute loyalty to you, Most Reverend Father. For I too am a part of your flock. May the Lord Jesus protect you, Most Reverend Father forever. Amen.

From Wittenberg, 31 October 1517. Were it agreeable to you, Most Reverend Father, you could examine my disputation theses, so that you may see how dubious is this belief concerning Indulgences, which these preachers propagate as if it was the surest thing in the whole world. Your unworthy Son, Martin Luther Augustinian, called Doctor of Theology.

Like the young Henry VIII, Albrecht considered himself a sincere Christian, with a sense of responsibility for his people, and above all he was proud of his intellectual ability, of his acquaintance with the followers of good letters, very pleased to think that he knew Erasmus. He would be polite, considerate, circumspect. He had been brought up at court. Diplomacy was all — in a world of which, however, the distinctive thing was that he ruled it. He had not previously received anything like the missive which reached him in November from the University professor at Wittenberg, just coming up to his thirty-fourth year. He soon saw that it needed attention on various levels: pastoral (which covered financial), theological (which included legal) and disciplinary. Luther had asked for action to be taken about the inflated claims of the Indulgence preachers. That was easily attended to, and it certainly needed to be done, for financial reasons — the last thing Albrecht wanted was for the preachers to provoke a reaction which would reduce his takings and upset his arrangements with the Fugger and the Roman Curia. The matter was referred for pastoral attention to the Council of those North German churches which came under the Archbishop’s jurisdiction, and to the local Bishop of Brandenburg. Then the letter and theses were sent to the University of Mainz for the theologians and lawyers (most dangerous of combinations) to look at — these questions of theology were not Albrecht’s forte. Finally the important disciplinary matter: that was easily settled, upwards to Rome; the method was to send the letter, treatise and theses to Rome and request an inhibitory process, to send also Luther’s previous scholastic theology theses and mention ‘new doctrines’. The matter was soon off the Archbishop’s desk. The ‘impudent monk’, as the documents call him, was quickly dealt with. Little more happened. The University reported it was a matter for the Pope. The Council which looked after Albrecht’s various diocesan responsibilities sat tight, wishing not to offend other rulers, or anyone.

Luther had himself already sent a second copy of the Theses to his own local Bishop, Dr Schulz of Brandenburg. He delayed some days before showing one to anyone else, saying later that he wanted to avoid all possibility of involving the Elector in responsibility for his criticisms of the young Archbishop, whose elder brother in Brandenburg was another of the imperial electors. (Probably Luther did not nail the Theses on the door of the castle church.)

Seven days after dispatching the letters to Mainz and Brandenburg, Luther was in a depressed state. The inevitable silence was irking him, and three small things all connected with the Elector were also irritating him. He sent a note to Frederick marked ‘Personal’, and with the minimum of formal address. Luther’s thanks of a year previously for cloth for a new cowl had been premature; he tells the Elector he is still waiting for it; the Saxon treasurer Pfeffinger is ‘very good at spinning a mighty good yarn; but these do not produce good cloth’. The second matter is that the Elector was apparently annoyed with Staupitz over something and Luther feels bound to try to put matters right: ‘I plead on his behalf. . . that Your Grace continue to favour and be loyal to him . . . just as Your Grace has undoubtedly experienced his loyalty many times.’ Luther has not finished with the Elector but moves on to give advice about taxes — not to increase them; and he has the humour which might be thought impertinent to suggest that this gratuitous advice ‘may earn my courtly cowl’. It was a further tax on drink that the Elector was planning. ‘Even the last taxation has reduced your Grace’s reputation.’ The letter is soon ended, signed ‘Your Grace’s dedicated priest, Doctor Martin Luder at Wittenberg’, after a further apology and a suggestion that maybe ‘even great wisdom’ might sometimes need to ‘be guided by the lesser’. The Saxon vernacular form ‘Luder’ went appropriately with this personal note in German.

Frederick, swarthy, pragmatic, of vast experience, known as ‘the Wise’, was practically unflappable, and knew all about young dons liable to get themselves involved in politics. His reaction to the letter was covered in the usual silence.

Meanwhile, at the University on 11 November, Luther sent a copy of the new Theses to his closest friend, Johann Lang, still Prior at Erfurt. He also gave copies to friends at the Priory and University. But no formal steps were taken to set up a place and time for a formal defence of the Theses; instead of that Luther added a note at the beginning, saying that the Theses were to be publicly discussed’, inviting anyone who liked to do so to send him their views. Reactions from his friends were immediate and strong, favourable and unfavourable.

The Prior and Sub-Prior of the Friary were worried that Luther would bring some disgrace on the Order. Dr Schurf of the University Law Faculty was equally worried when Luther visited him at his home at Kemburg eight miles from Wittenberg; he warned Luther that he had better not attack the Pope. They all seemed to realise that the Theses had hit the nail on the head, decisively. Canon Ulrich von Dinstedt at the castle church sent a copy to Christoph Scheurl at Nuremberg — Luther had deliberately avoided sending copies to him, or to Spalatin at court since he was not out for publicity. When Spalatin protested at not having received a copy, Luther wrote to him saying that he did not want the Elector to see the Theses until those whom Luther had criticised had received copies. On receiving his copy, Scheurl acted immediately and got the Theses printed and translated into German. Within weeks, copies were flying about Europe; compliments began to reach Luther from a wide constituency. Albrecht Durer, resident in Nuremberg, sent Luther a set of prints of woodcuts, as thanks for expressing what everyone wanted said. One of the printers added numbers to the Theses and from then on they became the famous ‘95 Theses of Martin Luther’.

From Nuremberg, on 5 January, Scheurl acknowledged the Theses to Canon von Dinstedt: ‘I am most grateful to have received Martin’s theses. Friends here have translated them and we think highly of them.’ Three days later he wrote to an Augustinian friar in Eisleben: ‘I am gradually ensuring for Dr M. Luther the friendship of illustrious men. Pirkheimer, A. Tucher and Wenzeslaus are amazed and delighted with his Theses. C. Nutzel translated them into German, and I sent them on to Augsburg and Ingolstadt.’ By this time editions were also appearing in Magdeburg, Leipzig and Basle. In the latter town was Erasmus’s printer Froben, who began collecting Luther’s texts with a view to an edition of his writings. Erasmus sent Sir Thomas More a copy of the theses on 5 March. On the same day, Luther sent a letter to Christoph Scheurl who had written complaining that Luther had not seen fit to send him a copy direct with his letter, Scheurl sent copies of the Theses reprinted in Latin and German. Luther replied:

You are surprised that I did not send them to you. But I did not want to circulate them widely. I only intended to submit them to a few close friends for discussion, and if they disapproved of the Theses, to suppress them. I wanted to publish them, only if they met with approval. But now they are being printed and spread everywhere far beyond my expectation, a result that I regret. It is not that I am against telling the people the truth, in fact that is all that I want, but this is not the proper way to instruct the people. For I have doubts about some of the Theses, and others I would have put much differently and more cogently, and some I would have omitted, had I known what was to come. Still, the spread of my Theses shows what people everywhere really think of Indulgences, although they conceal their thoughts ‘out of fear of the Jews.’ Therefore, I had to write out proof for my Theses, but I do not yet have permission to publish these.

‘For fear of the Jews’ was a phrase from the New Testament, describing the fear which the first followers of Jesus had for the Jewish authorities. Luther was categorising the Church authorities as equivalent to the chief priests and heads of the Jewish groups who persecuted the first Christians; the rest of the Church, he suggested, priests and people, was afraid to face the truth for fear of the higher authorities. The ‘proofs’ to which he refers was a large seventy-thousand-word document he had worked on through January and early February, when he realised that the Theses had gone abroad and would need some more thorough, and carefully and quietly argued defence than was contained within their own sharp and sometimes paradoxical sentences.

The reaction of the preacher Fr Tetzel, a friar priest of the Dominican Order, to the Theses, which were in his hands before the turn of the year, was to turn the whole thing into a legal dogfight; he took the battle into the enemy’s country and denounced the author to Rome. At the Dominican Friary at Frankfort-am-Oder on 15 January, counter-theses drawn up by Dr Konrad Koch (or Wimpina as he was sometimes called) were defended by Fr Tetzel and a formal denunciation of Luther as a heretic was sent off to the powerful Cardinal protector of the Dominicans, Thomas de Vio, better known as Cajetan. Tetzel boasted that Luther would be in the flames within three weeks. The counter-theses upset Luther more than anything had done previously. In an argument which was becoming public, he was being offered a virtually magical doctrine, a sort of droit de papaute extending autocratically into life after death, and all of it backed with the threat of public violence, the violence of death by fire. His own Explanations were the more necessary and soon his desk was littered with page after page of Latin.

The argument was careful, assured, and impeccably laid out to keep it within orthodox bounds. It was prefaced by a statement insisting on his loyalty to Rome and making the common and theologically proper distinction between, on the one hand, Scripture and its interpretation in canonical statements from Rome and, on the other, the opinions, however venerable, of Aquinas and other Fathers of the Church. But while it was not doctrinally incorrect to do it, he continued dangerously to flaunt his independent attitude in regard to the papacy: ‘It makes no difference to me what pleases or displeases the Pope. He is a human being like the rest of us.’ It was only when the Pope spoke in accordance with the Canons and with a General Council that he was to be listened to as the Pope. This was a commonly received opinion: six years later Sir Thomas More was advising Henry VIII not to defend the papacy as though it was of divine origin, when Henry wrote his reply to Luther, the reply which earned him the papal title ‘Defender of the Faith’ still used by English sovereigns. Finally, Luther makes all clear, summing up in masterly fashion at the end of the Explanations what was in so many minds throughout Europe there must be a Reformation, and please God it should come from a general consensus: ‘The Church needs a reformation which is not the work of one man, namely the Pope, nor of many men, namely the Cardinals [such as the recent 5th Lateran Council], . . . but the work of the whole world, indeed. . . the work of God alone. However, only God who has created time knows the time for this reformation’ — the sense of history sub specie aeternatitatis breaks in. These remarks are part of the comment on Theses 89 and 90. After that, he had said all he had to say. Leaving Theses 92, 93, 94 and 95 with their famous finale from Jeremiah, uncommented, Luther packed the whole thing up and sent it to his Bishop at Brandenburg. It was about the middle of February.

Meanwhile, Luther’s correspondence with Spalatin shows him going on much as before, with University reforms proceeding and much thought devoted to the proper basis for understanding the Christian Gospel. The Indulgence controversy did not occupy Luther’s mind to the exclusion of other things it was not mentioned in a letter to Spalatin of 18 January. Luther was worried by both the enthusiasm for, and the opposition to, the Theses, but he had experienced these things before and had found his own view eventually triumphing. The theological business of explaining his Theses was really less important than the underlying truth, concern for which still occupied the exchanges with his dear friend and confidant, the key man, standing outside University and Religious Order; and, as yet, Luther was still really reluctant to believe that the academic Theses, enigmatic, and dialectical, could stir opinion widely.

It was rewarding to sit down and write to his friend in his accustomed fashion: ‘To my honest friend Georg Spalatin, truly a disciple of Christ and a brother. Jesus. Greetings, excellent Spalatin: You have previously asked me questions that were within my power — or at least my temerity — to answer.’ Spalatin had asked about the best way of studying Scripture. Before replying to that Luther had to clear his mind once again of the extreme embarrassment of disagreeing with Erasmus, but at the same time not to underplay the disagreement; he still thinks Erasmus thoroughly misguided, if superior to most people: ‘In the face of all who either passionately hate or lazily neglect good learning . I always give Erasmus the highest praise and defend him as much as I can; I am very careful not to air my disagreements with him less by chance I too would confirm such people in their hatred of him. Yet, if I have to speak as a theologian rather than as a philologian, there are many things in Erasmus which seem to me to be completely incongruous with a knowledge of Christ.’ But that is confidential, Luther added in another five sentences. Then he comes to his own reply to Spalatin’s question: It is absolutely certain that one cannot enter into the meaning of Scripture by study or innate intelligence. Therefore your first task is to begin with prayer. You must ask that the Lord in his great mercy grant you a true understanding of his words . . .You must therefore completely despair of your own diligence and intelligence and rely solely on the infusion of the spirit. Believe me, for I have had experience in this matter.

Erasmus would no doubt have agreed that Scripture had to be approached with prayer and humility. Yet the difference lay here — and Luther made it the very heart of his approach: ‘prayer’ and ‘humility’ become a matter of self-despair, part of a complete existential complex, an early version perhaps of the special German Angst. For Erasmus, ‘prayer’ and humility’ would be understood as though said in limpid classical Latin, the only proper approach to Scripture indeed, but not the crucial key to it, and certainly not voiced with Luther’s succession of superlatives.

Luther continued his instructions: having ‘achieved this despairing humility, read the Bible in order from beginning to end, so that, first you get the simple story in your mind’. At this point, one should remember that the Bible contains little less than two million words, and that ‘simple story’ is a magnificent understatement of a description of the enormously varied history, poetry, law, prophecy and counsel. The advice rolls on with a reading list, a work of Karlstadt’s being strongly recommended. Then Luther is smitten with embarrassment again — ‘Forgive my temerity that in such a difficult subject I dare set forth my ideas over and above those of such famous men.’ Finally there was a word of obviously genuine sorrow that Erasmus was engaged in a quarrel with the scholar Lefevre d’Etaples, with the usual complicated mixture of judgements: ‘Erasmus is certainly by far the superior of the two, and he is a great master of language. However, he is also more violent, though he makes great effort to preserve friendship.’ Luther had not yet begun to display to the public in writing the extreme violence and anger of his own spirit. So far, his sermons of denunciation were only common form, whereas in his In Praise of Folly (1511) Erasmus had given public vent to a violent sarcasm, which some people had found offensive, denouncing the warlike Pope Julius II and referring in his correspondence to ‘the monopoly of the Roman High Priest’.

In February, alter getting to the end of his Explanations destined to be published later in the year, his first full-length work to be put into print, Luther was discussing Greek vocabulary in a letter to Lang, and was also in correspondence with Wolfgang Capito, a rising young priest in Basle working part-time for Froben, looking forward to reading the Utopia of More and Erasmus’s reply to Lefevre. Then he received a query from Spalatin who was getting increasingly worried, asking for a further briefing on the development of theology at the University. Karlstadt received a similar letter from Spalatin, and referred Spalatin to two forthcoming books, one by Karlstadt himself, another his editing of an Augustine text; and he took the opportunity to suggest that the Elector might manage a contribution of thirty florins for the cost of paper for the books he was about to produce. Luther’s reply, providing further theological detail, showed that he realised the seriousness with which he might have to take the controversy — subvention he never requested. He regretted the rumour that the Theses had been written under incitement from the Elector, as a political act, a shot against the Archbishop of Mainz. For the first time the possibility of canonical action was hinted at — Luther said he was willing to appear at a juridical investigation. However, a few days later, on 22 February, a further letter to Spalatin started with only a few words about the Theses, explaining that what Luther really regretted was not that his enemies were ‘speaking badly of me or that they stamp the Elector as the author of my Theses’, but that hostility might be created ‘between our great rulers’. The rest of the letter concerned Luther’s further representations to Trutvetter whom he was still trying to convert — the University reforms were still the things that really mattered. Luther signed the letter ‘Eleutherius’, the Greek version of his name which he had been using for a few months. He had come to feel accepted within the whole humanist circle and signified his sense of solidarity in this way. However, it was not long before he reverted permanently to plain ‘Luther’. His own special identity was being hammered out in the exchanges of these months, exchanges of an increasing intensity, on an increasing variety of levels.

Waiting for a reply from the Bishop of Brandenburg, to his request to be allowed to publish his substantial Explanations, Luther was overcome with frustration. All around him people were agitating pro and contra his Theses, which he had in any case only intended as exploratory and as a weapon to try to force the Archbishop of Mainz to tame the preachers of Indulgences in the middle of the growing controversy it was intolerable to remain silent. Luther wrote out in German what he called a Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, a straightforward account for ordinary people of his own opinions. This meant taking a further step into the open — his personal view was that Indulgences were simply permitted for the sake of imperfect Christians; as far as he was concerned, ‘no one should buy Indulgences.’ And he did not believe that they could free souls from purgatory. If people accused him of heresy, well, ‘I pay little attention to that kind of chatter, for no one does that but a few blockheads who never smelled the Bible or read a word of Christian doctrine’. He sent the text down to Grunenberg in the printing shop, who sold copies to the travelling merchants. Luther was using the public press for the first time to speak directly, in German, to everyone interested; and that was almost everyone. This brought the Bishop swiftly into play. Luther felt things had begun to move at last when, early in March, the Abbot of Lehnin, a Benedictine abbey in the Diocese, was announced at the Friary. He had come to see Fr Martin on behalf of the Bishop. The message he brought was a polite request from the Bishop not to publish anything more on the topic for the moment, and for the moment not to publish the Explanations either. The Abbot assured him that the Bishop was sympathetic to Luther’s concerns, but did not want to inflame public opinion any further. He would be in touch again. This was much better than the total silence from the Archbishop of Mainz.

Life went on as before, the lectures on the Letter to the Hebrews, work with Karlstadt and others on plans for the syllabus reform, and sermons in the parish church. Two sermons from mid-Lent, the time of preparation for Easter, have survived, and give an idea of the Luther whom the Wittenbergers encountered, a man like them, sincere and to the point. His words were rooted in the words of the New Testament:

You well know, dear friends, that I understand little about preaching, and so shall preach a foolish sermon; for I am a fool and thank God for it . . . Let every man, if he has a blessing or gift from God, learn to divest himself of it, shun it, give it up. . . Your attitude should be like that of Christ, who did not exalt himself and utterly lowered himself, and took on the form of a servant . . . Christ pays no attention to the distinctions we make, for he bestows children and honour upon an old unattractive woman just as readily as upon a beautiful woman.

There is here a first suggestion of the Lutheran twinkle in the eye, which later became such a typical part of his down-to-earth spirituality.

As the sermon went on, like so many Lutheran texts, it became more biting. It was acceptable, he said, to venerate relics, ‘to encase the bones of saints in silver’, yet ‘it is the inward relic we must seek . . . for what Jesus sends to his devout children is not the wood, stone or clothing which he touched but rather the suffering, the cross’. Then, suddenly, he broke out against the bishops: ‘They are unwilling to accept their "relic" of "suffering" when they get criticised! They flee from this relic. If you speak plainly to them they would rather tear the whole place down than give in; they start the game of excommunication and the banning letters begin to fly about like bats. They say it is their duty to defend the patrimony of Christ and St Peter. Oh, you poor Christ, Oh, you wretched Peter! If you have no inheritance but wood and stone and silver and gold, you are of all people the most needy.’

This was sharp criticism for a public sermon in a parish church. Luther drove his point home with quotations from the great Old Testament prophet, Isaiah:

What house could you build me,

What place could you make for my rest?

All of this was made by my hand

and all of this is mine — it is Yahweh who speaks.

But my eyes are drawn to the man

of humble and contrite spirit,

who trembles at my word

Such speaking was no less provocative in Luther’s own day than it was in a previous millennium, some hundreds of years before the time of Jesus. The congregation left the Church uplifted. Outside in their market place they came on a messenger, with leaflets. He had a great bag full of Tetzel’s reply to Fr Martin’s famous Theses. The students began to rag and jostle him. Eventually there was something near to a riot. The man was pushed and pulled about and all his 800 copies of Tetzel’s sheets were thrown on to a fire. Luther, all undemanding, had become the man of the hour, the students’ man and the man of the people of the little town.

Two days later, Luther was preaching again, on his favourite theme that the saints were also ordinary men, sinners. At the end of the transcript are the words: ‘Luther was annoyed because the students burnt Tetzel’s theses in the market place.’ He wanted to calm things down, and had not yet grasped the extent to which religion and politics were totally mixed in, the one with the other. If he preached a radical Christian sermon, his listeners would apply it crudely. Political polarisation was inevitable. Within a couple of weeks the Elector himself would have to show his hand to some extent. Unknown to Luther himself, other wheels were turning. As early as February, Viterbo, Superior General of the Augustinians, had received a memorandum from the Pope requesting him to quieten a bumptious friar in Wittenberg before he created too much trouble. Staupitz was informed, and was writing to Luther about it, realising that some kind of crisis in the matter must come at the forthcoming chapter meeting of the Reformed Group of Augustinians due to be held at Heidelberg, at the end of April. Fr Luther would have to be present as a Provincial Superior in Saxony. Meanwhile, Luther worked away at the University reforms and sent Lang a triumphant letter on 21 March; the University curriculum reform was to receive formal consideration at the Elector’s Council. He said that people were advising him not to go to Heidelberg in case of attack en route; however, he was determined to go.

A famous theologian, Dr Johann Eck, had thought to promote himself by giving his local Bishop at Eichstadt an account of the worst that could be said against Luther and his Theses. A trouble-maker got hold of the document and sent it to Luther who was deeply shocked, since he and Johann were supposedly vowed in friendship. In a letter to a friend at Zwickau, Luther wrote about Eck’s text in desperate apocalyptic mood: ‘The book . . . is nothing less than the malice and envy of a maniac. . . Rejoice, Brother, rejoice, and be not terrified by these whirling leaves . . . The more they rage the more cause I give them. . .’

Staupitz wrote and told Luther of the bad impression his Theses had been making on high authority, sticking quietly to the facts in his usual way. In his reply on 31 March, Luther said he had simply been following Staupitz’s own teaching and that of Tauler and the other authorities Staupitz knew. He said he should be allowed to express his own opinion about doctrines not settled, just as scholastics were allowed to disagree among each other. Meanwhile, Staupitz had had a warning from the Elector to make sure Luther had adequate security at Heidelberg. With tempers rising high, there could be attempts to abduct him or worse. And at this point the Elector himself had to make adequate arrangements for Luther’s personal safety on his journey to Heidelberg. He gave Fr Martin a ‘safe conduct’ letter, which turned out to be something more than that. It was an introduction to political and ecclesiastical authority en route and at Heidelberg. The Elector was positively proud of his young Professor.

Luther finished his Lectures on the Letter to the Hebrews before leaving for Heidelberg. The surviving text ends a little before the end of the book. The author of the Letter was expounding the faith of an Old Testament figure, Moses; it was on account of his faith that Moses fled to Midian. Luther’s ending words go: ‘He chose the wisdom or rather the foolishness of the Cross . . . he was repudiated by the very brethren on account of whom he despised all these things. . .and so he was forced to flee unto Midian.

Luther always lived at a high pitch, his inner struggles visible to onlookers in his eyes, and audible in his words. Now, with a single companion, he set out on the long walk to Heidelberg, knowing that while he had an excellent recommendation from his political master, the Elector Frederick, and knowing that he had the perhaps dangerous support of many students and many avant garde university men, the big Church authorities, though for the most part silent, were possibly planning to silence him. Still no reply had come from the Archbishop. Staupitz hinted at displeasure in the highest places.