The posting of Luther’s theses led to a series of debates and trials, culminating in the Diet of Worms in 1521. There were a number of conflicting powers at work within the church and outside that church that protected Luther. First, the pope asked the Augustinian monks to deal with Luther, since he was a member of their order. However, many Augustinians were sympathetic to what Luther had to say. This is, in part, because there was also a conflict between two of the most powerful orders of monks—the Dominicans and the Augustinians.
The Dominicans sided with Tetzel and hastily conferred on Tetzel a doctorate, so he could be permitted to publish and respond to Luther. Soon more capable opponents arose. Cardinal Cajetan, a brilliant scholar and respected churchman pressured Luther to recant at the Diet of Augsburg. Eventually, Johann Eck emerged as Luther’s primary nemesis and debated Luther at Leipzig for 18 days. One of the chief accusations he made against Luther (and what ended up firmly driving the stake between Luther and the church) was that Luther agreed with Wycliffe and Hus: “I see that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wycliffe, who said, ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of Jan Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.” It was when Luther admitted to agreeing with Wycliffe and Hus that his fate was sealed. Johann Eck tagged him with a moniker that Luther couldn’t shake: Luther was the “Saxon Hus.”In all this, Prince Frederick the Wise protected Luther. His motives weren’t so much that he agreed with Luther but that he wanted his legacy to be one of true justice and wisdom. He was thus concerned that Luther should receive a fair trial.
Diet of Worms
Eventually, Luther appeared before the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. He wasn’t given the opportunity to debate but was shown copies of his works and asked if he would recant or retract what he had written. Realizing the stakes were incredibly high, he asked to sleep on the matter. The question of recanting was posed to Luther again the next day. In reply, Luther said that much of his writings contained basic doctrine that all agreed on, and he couldn’t recant these things.
His interrogator pressed him: “Do you recant, or do you not?” Luther now replied in German (rather than the usual Latin, departing from the accepted norms of debate): “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The earliest published record of the diet also added these words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Luther in Exile
After the Diet of Worms, Luther was “captured” by some of Frederick’s men and taken to Wartburg Castle. His abduction was so secretive that not even Frederick himself knew his whereabouts (and didn’t want to know, so he could truthfully claim ignorance of Luther’s whereabouts). Luther dressed as a knight and grew a long beard to disguise himself.
This enforced exile was a blessing in disguise, as Luther made the most of his time away. In just three months he produced a German translation of the New Testament. His translation is brilliant by any objective standard and formed a foundation for the German language for centuries to come. It’s said that his work advanced the standards of translation by 1000 years. It took Luther some time to translate the Old Testament, and the complete Bible was published in 1534. Though he first translated the New Testament in 1522, he continued revising, updating, and improving it until his death in 1546.
The Word forms the beginning and end of Luther’s theology. By rooting authority in the Word, he changed the entire conversation around church doctrine and all of life.
Luther went to the Wartburg on May 4, 1521. Seven months later he returned, beard and all, to Wittenberg on December 4, 1521. The Reformation had progressed in his absence; on Christmas Day, 1521, Luther’s colleague, Carlstadt spoke the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper in German, rather than Latin. One of the worshipers was so overcome by the moment that he trembled and dropped his bread on the floor.
Carlstadt had emerged as leader in Luther’s absence and saw that many of Luther’s reforms were implemented, but he also led the Reformation to grow more radical in some unhealthy ways. As the Reformation movement in Wittenberg grew more radical, it led to increased tensions between the Reformers and Prince Frederick. In the midst of the conflict, the town council invited Luther to return home. By this time, Luther was seen as a reasonable, moderating influence, in comparison to the more radical Carlstadt and his colleague Zwilling.
Luther’s return, without Frederick’s official invitation, meant that the Prince couldn’t offer Luther protection from the pope and emperor as he had previously done. Though he didn’t intervene to stop Luther, neither could he truly protect him. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, Luther opted to return.
Roland Bainton tells the following story of Luther’s journey home recorded by a Swiss traveler:
“The host brought (some) bedraggled travelers into a room where sat a knight with a bushy black beard clad in a scarlet cloak and woolen tights, his hands resting on the hilt of a sword as he engaged in reading. The knight rose and hospitably invited the muddy wayfarers to sit and share with him a glass. They noticed that his book was in Hebrew. They asked him whether he knew if Luther were in Wittenberg. ‘I know quite positively that he is not … but he will be.’ Then he inquired what the Swiss thought of Luther. The host, observing that the pair were well disposed to the reformer, confided to one that the knight was Luther himself. The Swiss could not believe his ears, thought he must have mistaken the name for Hutten. On parting the next morning they let the knight know that they took him for Hutten. “No, he is Luther,” interposed the host. The knight laughed. ‘You take me for Hutten. He takes me for Luther. Maybe I am the Devil.’ Within a week they were to meet him again in Wittenberg.”
Luther returned to chaos. He urged the people to remember that true faith can’t be coerced. In his absence, the leaders of the Reformation had turned to violence, destroying churches, smashing altars, dragging priests out by the hair to shame and ridicule. Luther urged peaceful persuasion: “Give men time. I took three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion to arrive where I now am, and can the common man, untutored in such matters, be expected to move the same distance in three months? Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God.”
Under Luther’s leadership much of the chaos settled, but the conflict among segments of the Reformation was not one that would easily go away. Luther attempted to articulate a “middle way.” He harshly condemned the abuses and false teachings of the Catholic Church, but he called for a relatively peaceful resistance. During this period Luther continued to fight the for the authority of Scripture over the church. The new pope, Pope Hadrian condemned Luther: “Be not beguiled because Martin Luther appeals to Scripture. So does every heretic, but Scripture is a book sealed with seven seals which cannot be so well opened by one carnal man as by all the holy saints.”
While Luther had many gifts, diplomacy wasn’t one of them. In challenging King Henry VIII of England, Luther wrote to the king, referring to himself as “minister at Wittenberg by the grace of God” and to “Henry, King of England by the disgrace of God.”
By far the biggest blow to Luther came when his own followers began to defect from the movement he was leading. Andrew Carlstadt and Thomas Muntzer led the way. While many of Carlstadt’s ideas actually had biblical warrant (like rejecting infant baptism), he was personally unstable and lent his section of the movement a chaotic, violent tone. Muntzer went even further than Carlstadt, rallying an army “to slaughter the ungodly.” Fortunately, all he accomplished was the burning of one chapel. Though Carlstadt condemned Muntzer, the two were lumped together and banished from Saxony, the province in which Luther ministered. Muntzer continued to foment rebellion against church and state. As unrest grew, the common people rose up against the princes in the Peasants’ Rebellion. Muntzer attempted to lead the people into battle, but the combined forces of the princes proved too much. The peasant army was surrounded, 5000 were violently slaughtered, and only 600 taken prisoner. Muntzer initially got away but was later captured, tortured, and beheaded.
Diet of Augsburg
Luther and his colleague Phillip Melanchthon led the way in formally articulating the theology of the German Reformation (a theology that would eventually become Lutheranism). They first drafted the Articles of Schwabach in 1529. Emperor Charles V, however, was growing increasingly concerned for the unity of his empire. Germany at this time was a collection of provinces ruled by princes. One of the great unifiers of the Holy Roman Empire had been its religion. Now that some princes were Protestant, while others were Catholic, the empire threatened to rip apart. So Charles called for the Diet of Augsburg, to encourage the Protestant princes to adopt a statement of belief. That statement from June 25, 1530, is largely the work of Phillip Melanchthon and is known as the Augsburg Confession. It forms the basis of Lutheran doctrine to this day.
When the statement was first read, the emperor required that it be read in a tiny chapel, to attempt to exclude the people from hearing what was articulated. But the influence of the princes allowed the dissemination of the document. It was written in both Latin and German. The German reading lasted two hours and was read so clearly that every word could be heard both inside and outside the chapel.
Though Luther initially questioned whether Melanchthon’s irenic spirit would produce a suitable document (he was concerned that the confession would “defang” the Reformation), he gladly approved of the finished document. Though other Protestant confessions would arise, the Augsburg Confession formalized and finalized the theological division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation.
In 1523 Luther helped some nuns who had recently escape their convent. A merchant who delivered barrels of fish to the nunnery shipped out twelve nuns in empty barrels. Three returned to their homes, but the task fell to Luther to find places for the other nine. A student wrote: “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”
Since Luther was still a bachelor, it was suggested that he solve the problem of a home for one of the nuns. Luther resisted the suggestion because he feared that he could die a martyr’s death at any moment. Yet two years after the dramatic escape in the fish barrels, one nun still remained unaccounted for. Her name was Katherine von Bora. Luther chose a husband for her, a Dr. Glatz. Katherine was completely unwilling to marry Dr. Glatz, but she proposed to Luther that she be matched to another doctor, Dr. Amsdorf, or to Luther himself.
Luther still had no intentions of marrying, but upon returning home to visit his parents, his father was excited at the prospect. What Luther shared as a good joke, Hans took seriously, because he wanted his son to carry on the family name. Martin and Katherine were married—not for love but for pragmatic reasons. Luther gave three reasons for marrying: (1) to satisfy his father, (2) to defy the pope and the devil, and (3) to validate his witness before martyrdom might come.
Marriage did bring some positive changes for Luther: “Before I was married the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” Katie kept the house clean. Luther never received a single payment for any of his writings, though he was by far the best-selling author of his day. Therefore, he and Katie often struggled to make ends meet. He grew to love Katie, eventually paying her the highest of compliments, calling the book of Galatians, “my Katherine von Bora.” Katie and Martin had 6 children, the eldest of whom was named Hans.
In addition to their children, the Luthers took in all kinds of guests, from folks fleeing persecution to students eager to learn from Dr. Martin.