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Martin Luther, the chief catalyst of Protestantism, defies the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by refusing to recant his writings. He had been called to Worms, Germany, to appear before the Diet (assembly) of the Holy Roman Empire and answer charges of heresy.
Martin Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. In 1517, he drew up his 95 theses condemning the Catholic Church for its corrupt practice of selling “indulgences,” or forgiveness of sins. Luther followed up the revolutionary work with equally controversial and groundbreaking theological works, and his fiery words set off religious reformers across Europe. In 1521, the pope excommunicated him, and he was called to appear before the emperor at the Diet of Worms to defend his beliefs. Refusing to recant or rescind his positions, Luther was declared an outlaw and a heretic. Powerful German princes protected him, however, and by his death in 1546 his ideas had significantly altered the course of Western thought.
READ MORE: Reformation: Definition and History
The Execution of Martin Luther
How important was the man to the movement? Andrew Pettegree asks what would have happened to the Reformation had the Diet of Worms witnessed its leader’s martyrdom.
In April 1521, four years after he had first excited the controversies of the Reformation, Martin Luther rode away from his home town at Wittenberg to attend the Imperial Diet at Worms. For Luther this was a journey full of peril. He came to the Diet to answer for his heretical views before the new Emperor Charles V and he expected a hostile reception.
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The Invention of the Ego in Martin Luther’s Defiance
Thanks to Martin Luther’s defiant stand against the Catholic Church we have a politics and religion of ego—and figures like MLK Jr. stand on his shoulders.
“I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”—Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521
“I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my President, Catholic or whatever he is… He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right.” —Martin Luther King Sr., from the pulpit of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, October 31, 1960, the day his son Martin Luther King, Jr. was released from a Georgia Prison thanks to John F. Kennedy’s intervention.
Each age in our past history has bestowed on us its own contribution, as well as its own continuing curse. This intimate combination of contribution and curse then makes up a portion of the patrimony that we receive and pass on to future generations. The men that we Americans call our Founding Fathers, for instance, gave us, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, a new politics that would go by the name of democracy. But they also bequeathed to us a founding racism that we have found it almost impossible to jettison. The past is not past it continues to live with us in the present.
“Nothing will come of nothing,” snapped King Lear at his one loving daughter, as if he had just been reading Aristotle. In logic, as in evolution and in all forms of development, nothing can come of nothing rather, everything has a precedent: something that went before, something from which the phenomenon under study springs and takes its being. The one exception would seem to be the cosmos itself, which appears, whether in ancient theologies or in modern science, to emerge ex nihilo, from nothing. But everything else known to us has a cause, a trigger, a parent, a thing from which it sprang.
When did ego—the personal “I,” the self as we now understand it—come to be? Where do we find its earliest expression? Well, there is certainly ego in the Renaissance artists and, further back, in the self-promotion of a salesman such as Columbus. But nowhere in our earlier history does the force of ego ring so fully and defiantly as in the scene at Worms, where Brother Martin—this “pile of shit,” as he so often called himself—dared to say “No” to the assembled forces of early modern Europe, to the entire panoply of church and state, and to cite his own little conscience (surely a negligible phenomenon to the majority of his listeners) as the reason for his absolute, unnuanced, unhedged rebellion. For this reason, though we can certainly name many of his immediate predecessors, we must pause before the figure of Martin Luther and acknowledge both his astonishing contemporaneity and our, perhaps somewhat uncomfortable, brotherhood with him.
Thus, it is this scene at Worms that is memorialized in the epigraphs at the outset of this essay and at the outset of Heretics and Heroes, along with a scene from the life of Martin Luther King, Sr. Appropriately, I believe, Martin Luther’s 1521 statement about his conscience is followed by the 1960 statement of the self-named Martin Luther King, Sr. (named “Michael” by his parents), whose admiration for the original bearer of his name was lifelong. For Dr. King senior, the essence of the first Martin Luther was the man’s courage and once he saw “the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right” exhibited by the Roman Catholic presidential candidate he had no intention of voting for,• King switched his vote (from Nixon to Kennedy) and his lifelong political allegiance (from Republican to Democratic). King’s son, Martin Luther King, Jr., would in his brief life prove the most courageous and transformative figure of my generation of Americans, likely even of my generation of human beings.
In the end, the cultural forces that brought about such transformation need not be belittled by evidence that a heightened sense of ego may have led also to a heightened egotism. Egotism, that is, a false or disproportionate value placed on personal, subjective experience and on individual identity, has certainly accompanied a deepening of subjectivity and cheapened it throughout our contemporary world. The current inflation of ego in the self-presentation of so many public figures does not, however, erase the startling moral value of what Luther did, nor can it erase what subsequent men and women of courage have achieved in every hour since then, nor what they continue to achieve in our time.
The Diet of Worms:Martin Luther on Trial
Diet of Worms: the name sounds so strange to English-speaking ears that it seems to be a joke. It's not.
My books and those Christian-history.org has published get great reviews. Synopses are at my Rebuilding the Foundations site. They are available wherever books are sold!
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Jerome Aleander, later a cardinal, conducted the "trial" of Martin Luther
A diet, pronounce dee-et with emphasis on the second syllable, is a formal conference of princes. Newly elected German king and now emperor of all Europe, Charles V, convened a diet in the German town of Worms on January 28, 1521. It's primary concern was not Martin Luther, but the popular, rebellious monk—and prodigious author— would have to be addressed.
Pope Leo X had just issued the final ban on Luther—ending his allotted time for repentance—on January 3, and the Diet of Worms opened with a papal brief requesting Charles V to do his duty, arrest Luther, and stamp out the Lutheran heresy. In fact, the two papal representatives, and in particular Jerome Aleander, informed the Germans that:
If ye Germans who pay least into the Pope's treasury shake off his yoke, we shall take care that ye mutually kill yourselves, and wade in your own blood. (ibid., ch. 3, sec. 53)
The emperor didn't know what to do. He was a loyal Catholic to the end. Thirty-four years later he would resign his multiple crowns to die a monk. He needed the pope's support, but he was also grateful to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and a Luther supporter, who had declined a nomination to be ruler of Germany, securing Charles' election.
He was also not stupid. Carrying out a strong action against Martin Luther could ruin his leadership in Germany, especially since he was king of Spain before he was king of Germany. When he tested the waters at the Diet of Worms by recommending harsh action against Luther, the Estates of Germany resisted him, and he backed off.
It was impossible not to notice the support Martin Luther had among the Germans. Not only did the German Estates not want to enforce the papal bull, but the people were so wildly supportive that Aleander wrote that nine-tenths of the Germans considered the name of Luther a war cry, and the other tenth was calling out, "Death to the court of Rome!"
Luther Promised Safe Passage to the Diet of Worms
Artist's rendering of the Diet of Worms
Thus, the emperor decided to talk to Luther and promise him safe passage. Even Aleander agreed not to push any punishment on Luther except excommunication if he did not recant.
Luther went gladly to the Diet of Worms, anxious to defend his doctrines. He was all the more encouraged by the support of his friend, Philip Melancthon, a brilliant and able scholar. He told Philip that if he were put to death, he would be comforted, for he knew that Philip could defend the truth better than he.
Martin Luther spent 10 days traveling the 300 miles from Wittenberg (near modern Berlin) to the Diet of Worms (south of Frankfurt), where he knew his life would be in danger. 106 years earlier, John Huss (or Jan Hus), considered by all involved a predecessor of Luther, had been burned at the stake despite a similar promise of safe passage.
Luther, though, would not be turned aside. "I shall go to Worms," he said, "though there be as many devils as tiles on the roofs" (ibid., ch. 3, sec. 54).
Luther's Trial at the Diet of Worms
Luther was brought into the diet the day after he arrived. It was April 17, 1521.
Twenty-five books were laid before him on a table, and he was asked two questions, given in both German and Latin.
He hesitated, apparently intimidated by the setting and huge crowd of dignitaries, and he acknowledged in a barely audible voice—both in Latin and German—that they were his. He then asked for time to consider the second question because the matter involved the salvation of his soul and the truth of the Word of God.
The emperor gave him a stay of one day, a day that would be one of the most famous in history.
Luther had time to think and to discuss things with friends. He gathered himself, and he returned to the Diet of Worms as composed and brave as he had been intimidated the day before.
The moderator, Johann von Eck—a different Johann Eck than the one he debated in 1519—phrased the question differently on this 2nd day of the trial at the Diet of Worms. He asked if Luther would defend all his books, or whether he would recant any part.
Luther's response was fascinating. He divided his books into three parts.
- Books on simple evangelical truths that even his enemies agreed with: These he could not recant.
- Books against the corruption of the papacy: These he could not retract without cloaking wickedness and tyranny.
- Books against his popish opponents: These he admitted were too vitriolic however, he could not retract those either, lest his enemies triumph and make things worse.
A Hilarious Story
I don't know that a German would find this hilarious, but as an American Christian, for whom beer has such a negative connotation, I laughed out loud when I read the following story.
A supporter, Duke Erik of Brunswick, saw how tired Martin Luther was when he left the diet, so he sent him a silver tankard of Eimbeck beer. He drank out of it himself first to assure Luther that it was not poisoned.
Luther, grateful, said, "As Duke Erik has remembered me today, may the Lord Jesus remember him in his last agony."
Later, on his deathbed, the duke thought of that tankard of ale and claimed the words of the Jesus, "Whoever shall give to one of these little ones a cup of cold water in my name, he shall by no means lose his reward."
Martin Luther, then, amazingly and in an act of great boldness, exhorted the young emperor, 17 years his junior, not to begin his reign by condemning the Word of God. He reminded him of the judgments against pharaoh, the king of Babylon, and the ungodly kings of Israel.
All this he said in German. He was requested to repeat himself in Latin, which he did with equal candor.
Because he had also added that if his works were proven to be false by Scripture, then he himself would burn his own books, Eck asked him to give a straighter answer. His views had already been refuted, Eck said, by the Council of Constance. Give us a direct answer, he demanded, "without horns."
Martin Luther answered in two languages:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience. (History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, ch. 3, sec. 55)
This irritated Eck who began to dispute with him about whether councils could err. Finally, Luther could bear the dispute no more.
Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.
The Fallout: After the Diet of Worms
With these words, Martin Luther's trial at the Diet of Worms came to an end.
The emperor was young, but he had some honesty. He honored his promise of safe passage. He gave Martin Luther 21 days to return to Wittenberg, after which time he would treat him as an obstinate heretic, which meant most likely that he would be put to death.
Luther accepted the safe passage from the Diet of Worms, and began to make his way to Wittenberg, but it was along the way that his protector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, had him snatched by soldiers and delivered to Wartburg castle, near Eisenach.
Martin Luther's fascinating story, and some details about the enigmatic Reformer's life are given on the Martin Luther page.
Opening A Historic Can Of Worms
Scrolling through events on April 18th and everything seemed standard, but THIS stood out, 1521- Martin Luther Defiant at Diet of Worms. Martin Luther was supposedly given the sick and twisted punishment of eating a diet of worms and said no thanks I'd rather be killed? That is twisted.
Turns out, April 15, 1521 didn't quite go as I thought the headline read. Fuck.
Martin Luther was defiant BUT Worms is a town in Germany and the diet wasn't referring to what he was eating, The Diet was a council of the holy roman empire put together to listen to Martin Luther list ALL his complaints as to why tyranny in the Christian church STINKS. Obviously the Diet didn't like this, but with some protection from German princes, Martin Luther was able to go on his way home.
No worms. But, it did completely change the way the western world viewed religion.
Indiana Fact: American journalist Ernie Pyle is killed by Japanese machine gun fire on this day in 1945. Pyle's incredible coverage of the European conflict made him a beloved household name. Pyle went to the Pacific theater for Iowa Jima and Okinawa, but was killed during battle on the Le Shima, Ryukyu Islands. Pyle was born near Dana Indiana and attended Indiana University.
(Pyle sharing cigarettes with Marines in the pacific theater)
New episode of Twisted History every Wednesday with myself and Large. If you subscribe to Sirius XM tonight at 11pm they will be replaying the haunting history of Hart island. Tune in.
Luther at the Diet of Worms
“To see excitement and dissension arise because of the Word of God is to me clearly the most joyful aspect of all in these matters. For this is the way, the opportunity, and the result of the Word of God, just as He [Christ] said, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, etc.’ [Matt. 10:34-35]. Therefore, we ought to think how marvelous and terrible is our God in his counsels, lest by chance what is attempted for settling strife grows rather into an intolerable deluge of evils, if we begin by condemning the Word of God. And concern must be shown lest the reign of this most noble youth, Prince Charles (in whom after God is our great hope), become unhappy and inauspicious. I could illustrate this with abundant examples from Scripture–like Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, and the kings of Israel, who when they endeavored to pacify and strengthen their kingdoms by the wisest counsels, most surely destroyed themselves. For it is He who takes the wise in their own craftiness [Job 5:13] and overturns mountains before they know it [Job 9:5]. Therefore we must fear God. I do not say these things because there is a need of either my teachings or my warnings for such leaders as you, but because I must not withhold the allegiance which I owe my Germany. With these words I commend myself to your most serene majesty and to your lordships, humbly asking that I not be allowed through the agitation of my enemies, without cause, to be made hateful to you.” Martin Luther, “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” Luther’s Works, vol. 32, pp. 111-112.
This quote comes from Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. It demonstrates Luther’s audacity based in his trust in Christ and his Word. Additionally, he reminded the princes assembled that he was a loyal German subject of the Holy Roman Empire.
There He Stood: Luther at Worms
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On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood for the second day before Emperor Charles V at the diet being held in Worms. The diet anticipated hearing his answers to the two questions that had been put to him the day before: First, was he the author of the twenty-five works that had been gathered there, and second, would he now recant of the false teachings in them? Luther readily acknowledged the authorship of the works and then tried to engage in a discussion of what were the false teachings in his works. This ploy did not work, and he was informed that he was the theologian and knew full well the heresies that he had taught.
Luther then delivered one of the most important speeches in the history of the church. We have no full text of the speech, but we do have several accounts from various observers and so have quite a detailed record of what he said. But ironically, we are not certain about one of the most-quoted and well-known statements in the address: “Here I stand I can do no other.” Not all the accounts include this declaration, and many historians doubt that Luther actually said it. But we do know that he stood there before the powers of the world and the church with remarkable courage and commitment.
Luther had been remarkably brave to come to Worms. He was courageous to resist the pressure to make peace for himself and others by repudiating what he had taught and submitting to what the church had long taught. He showed that remarkable courage again in the bold words with which he concluded his address:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which is my basis my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand I can do no other.] God help me. Amen.
With these words, Luther made clear the source of and authority for the theology for which he was on trial. He had already been excommunicated by the church, and now he was at risk of being declared an outlaw by the state, with his life and property forfeit, for this teaching.
The church had insisted that his conscience had to submit to its teaching. The church had developed over the centuries authority structures that it believed spoke for Christ. The pope, as the successor of Peter and the vicar of Christ on earth, had the authority to teach and bind the consciences of Christians. Ecumenical councils of the church also spoke the truth with the authority of Christ. The authority of popes and councils had been accepted for centuries in the Western church. How did one man dare to stand against those authorities?
Luther had faced such questions before, and he had prayed earnestly about this matter again during the night preceding his second meeting at the diet. There before the emperor he stated clearly the remarkable conclusion to which his studies had led him. First, his study of church history and theology had led him to the conviction that various popes and councils in their official teachings had contradicted one another. How could they have the authority of Christ and be without error when they failed to agree with one another?
Luther was not standing any longer simply as a medieval man who accepted without question the traditional authority of the church. Luther was in many ways a very medieval man in his life and beliefs, but he lived in the age of the Renaissance and profited from the work of Renaissance scholars. The Renaissance had led to the printing of many works from the history of the church that made it clear that theologians, popes, and councils had indeed differed from one another. The Renaissance awakened an appreciation of historical movement. The theology of the church had not been static and unchanging as it claimed. The medieval conviction that Scripture and tradition always agreed could not withstand scrutiny.
For Luther, however, much more important than the study of history and theology was the study of the Bible. As he liked to say, the church had made him a professor of the Bible and had made him swear to teach the Bible faithfully, and that was what he was doing and had always done. His conscience was captive to the Word of God, which was his only ultimate authority. By implication, he was teaching clearly that the Bible alone was always true and never contradicted itself. The Bible alone was the utterly reliable authority of Christ in the church. Where the Bible spoke, the Christian must believe and follow—whatever the consequences.
Luther knew that he was dividing Scripture from tradition in a way that had not been done for a very long time in the history of the church. He acknowledged to the diet that following the Word of Christ would divide the church:
Because of the Word of God, zeal and disputes arise. For that is the course, the manifestation, and the effect of the Word of God as Christ says: I came not to bring peace but the sword: for I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and so on. That is why we must bear in mind that God is wonderful and terrible in his counsel, so we will not strive to smooth out differences if by doing so we condemn the Word of God. Through this a flood of insufferable evil will most likely pour over us.
As a profoundly biblical Christian, Luther knew that his calling was not to preserve the wealth, influence, or formal unity of the church. Still less was he called to preserve Christendom or Western civilization. He was called to preach the gospel.
In his appeal to conscience and evident reason, he was not standing as a “modern” man, defending individualism and personal freedom to believe whatever he wanted. He accepted the authority of conscience only as it submitted to the Word of God. In referring to evident reason, he was not establishing reason as an autonomous authority but was speaking rather of clear thinking or careful use of the mind in studying the Bible.
For Luther, the Bible was the very Word, the very revelation of God. It is as true as God is true. It is as reliable as God is reliable. It is as authoritative as God is authoritative. We humans must use our talents as made in the image of God to understand that Word, and as we are sinners hoping for salvation we must accept the gospel it teaches.
Luther powerfully described himself and his teaching as “captive to the Word of God.” He was not being creative or self-assertive or reveling in rebellion. Rather, he was driven by the Word, taken and held by the Word. He knew the danger, but he also knew the joy and freedom of teaching as the Scriptures and the Apostles had taught. This was the path that was safe as he stood before God and sound as he hoped for the mercy of Jesus. Luther embraced the cross and whatever it brought to him because he knew from the Bible that whether he lived or died, he was the Lord’s.
Luther’s final words at the diet—“God help me. Amen”—have often been overlooked or treated as just conventional piety. But these words are as important as anything he spoke that day. He committed his cause to God, who alone could help him ultimately. He did not know if he would live or die. But he had confidence that he had served the Lord faithfully according to His Word and had preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. He believed that the Lord would help him accomplish all that He had ordained for him to do. And God did fulfill His purpose as Luther had expected when he had adopted as his life’s motto the words of Psalm 118:17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the L ORD .”
God did help him. Luther would preach, teach, and write for another twenty-five years. He would not see the whole church reformed according to the Word of God as he had hoped. But he would see the Word of God restored to its proper place in the true church and would see the gospel preached and believed far and wide. He stood there at Worms and God helped him—and through Luther, God helped us. Amen.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow and president emeritus and professor emeritus of church history at Westminster Seminary California. He is also the featured teacher for the six-part Ligonier teaching series A Survey of Church History and author of several books, including Saving the Reformation.
What Luther Said
As noted below, it was indeed this week, in 1521, when young Martin Luther was called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms ("diet" meaning a formal meeting, not a weight-loss plan, and Worms being a city south of Frankfurt). Luther thought he would have a chance to defend his ideas. Charles would only accept an ironclad recantation. What Charles got was Luther's defiant "Here I Stand" speech-or did he?
Dr. Scott H. Hendrix, author of Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict (Fortress, 1981), investigated this question for Christian History issue 34: Luther's Early Years. Hendrix notes that Luther caused such a sensation that all sorts of tales about him circulated, sometimes traveling faster than reliable facts. The speech story apparently received some quick touch-up treatment. Hendrix writes:
"Luther asserted that his conscience was .
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The Diet of Worms
The imperial Diet of Worms of 1521 was in many respects the culmination of the first phase of the Luther’s Reformation. In 1517, Luther’s protest had begun with his rejections of certain aspects of the medieval doctrine of penance and indulgences in the 95 Theses. As opposition increased, and as he studied the Scriptures in their original languages, Luther’s departures from late medieval theology grew ever more significant.
The increasing gap between Luther and the papacy on key questions regarding the Christian faith eventually culminated in a definitive rupture when in late 1518 or 1519 Luther came to his mature understanding of the Gospel. By early 1520, with the publication of his three Reformation treatises (Freedom of a Christian, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation), the implications of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith had been fully digested in Luther’s thought.
By June 1520, the Vatican’s patience had run thin. Pope Leo X published the bull Exsurge Domine (“Rise up, O Lord!”), which outline forty-one errors of Luther. The Reformer was warned unequivocally that if he did not publicly renounce these errors and submit himself to the authority of the Roman Church that he would be excommunicated. For those living in the sixteenth century, excommunication was far more serious than to simply being shunned by the institutional Church. Excommunication more often than not carried with it the penalty of torture and death at the hands of the civil authorities.
Instead of submitting to the pope’s bull, Luther publicly burned it, along with a copy of the Code of Canon Law. He told his followers (who had gathered to observe this event) that in condemning his teaching the pope had condemned the Gospel itself. In this, the pontiff had revealed himself to in fact be the occupant office of the Anti-Christ predicted by the New Testament. Luther’s defiance resulted in his official excommunication on January 3 rd , 1521.
Due to his popular support and his unwillingness to recant his views, Luther represented a serious threat to the political and religious stability of the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore, the newly elected emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to the imperial Diet that was to be held at the German city of Worms. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “diet” was a meeting of the most significant political authorities in the Holy Roman Empire for the purpose of discussing and resolving key issues facing the realm.
Although the Diet commenced on January 23 rd , 1521, Luther did not arrive until April 16 th . Prior to his agreeing to appear at the Diet, Luther’s duke, Elector Fredrick the Wise, sought and gained for Luther a promise of safe conduct. The granting of safe conduct meant that Luther could not be seized and put to death. Indeed, even with the promise of safe conduct Luther was extremely trepidatious about appearing before the Diet. Roughly one hundred years earlier, Jan Hus, the Czech proto-reformer, had been promised safe conduct at the Council of Constance (1415) by the Emperor Sigismund. The promise had not been honored and Hus was seized and burned as a heretic along with his companion Jerome of Prague. Nevertheless, in spite of his fears, Luther obeyed the summons.
On April 17 th , Luther was called before the Diet for questioning. Johann Eck, a papal theologian (not to be confused with Luther’s opponent of the same name at the Leipzig Debate of 1518), asked Luther if he was willing to renounce his errors and the works that he had published them in. Dr. Jeromee Schurff, a professor of canon law and Luther’s advocate, asked that the titles of his writings for which he was accused of heresy be read aloud. Of Luther’s works, twenty-five titles were read off. After hearing this, Luther affirmed that they were indeed his writings. Regarding the question of whether or not he would renounce the errors he was accused of, the Reformer answered that he would need a day to in order to consider the matter and give a full answer. His request was granted.
On April 18 th , Luther reappeared before the Diet. He reported that before giving his answer that he had prayed for long hours and had also consulted his friends and other counselors of high esteem. In giving his response to the question of recantation, the Reformer noted that although all these so-called errant writings were his, they were not all of the same kind. First, there were writings of a devotional nature, many which had been well received even by his theological opponents. There would be no reason to renounce these writings. Secondly, there were writing where he had attacked specific ecclesiastical abuses. Luther noted that if he recanted these writings he would do nothing but encourage error and tyranny. Thirdly, there were a number of writings that he had directed at against specific individuals. There, Luther admitted that his polemics were often very harsh and for this he was sorry. Nevertheless, he stood by the substance of what he had written and therefore could not recant them either.
In summation, Luther stated that his conscience was captive to God’s Word. Luther noted that it was impossible to rely on anything other than the Bible as an ultimate source of authority because the Roman Catholic Church had often contradicted itself in its official pronouncements. Indeed, unless Eck or the other papal theologians could prove to him through appealing to the Bible or sound reason that he was wrong, he would stand by everything that that he had said. According to some traditions, Luther added at the end: “Here I stand.” Nevertheless, whether he genuinely spoke these words cannot be verified with certainty.
Eck responded that all heretics appeal to Scripture and therefore it was necessary to rely on the institutional Church’s interpretation to gain clarity regarding the content of the faith. For this reason, argued Eck, by pitting his own interpretation against the teaching of the institutional Church, Luther clearly proved himself to be a heretic and therefore should be condemned.
As a result of Luther’s failure to recant, private conferences among the various imperial authorities immediately broke out. Since the emperor insisted on not repeating the sin of Sigismund against Hus, it was impossible to seize and execute the Reformer on the spot. This allowed Luther time to flee back to Wittenberg. In the meantime, the papacy officially pronounced Luther a heretic and made it a crime for anyone to possess his writings. Likewise, on May 26, 1521, Emperor Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, which declared Luther to be an outlaw and banned his teachings. As an outlaw, anyone who captured or killed him would be rewarded by the government authorities for doing “a good work.”
König, Gustav Ferdinand Leopold. 1900. The life of Luther in forty-eight historical engravings. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
On the way back to Wittenberg, Luther was captured by Fredrick the Wise’s soldiers posing as highwaymen. He was escorted to the Wartburg Castle in the heart of the Thuringian forest. Luther remained there in hiding there for a little under a year. He used the time to translate the New Testament into German and write a number of theological treaties. Although Luther had initially believed that his condemnation at Worms was the end of his life and Reformation, it proved ultimately to be merely the end of the beginning.
Dr. Jack Kilcrease is a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
Luther is in the hot seat in today's Refo Thursday post!
By Dan Graves, Christian History Institute webmaster
Somewhere in the mists of childhood I first heard the name Martin Luther. Long before I read church history or opened a biography of the man, I knew he had created quite a stir. I could not have said just what, but I knew he had done something important.
When I began to study history, I learned Luther had reemphasized the neglected doctrine of justification by faith alone, had by example made individualism a more powerful component of western ideology than it had ever been before, and had been the wedge against which the western church split into Catholic and Protestant factions. October 31 st , 1517, is often given as the date this process began. That is the day, as Phillip Melanchthon later told the story, that Luther posted his 95 Theses. He intended them only as points for debate, but their sharp criticism of the profitable system of indulgences soon brought him into conflict with religious and secular authorities. He refused to back down, one thing led to another, and the rest is history.
Next year marks the fifth centenary of that event. In honor of the posting of the 95 Theses, we are continuing today a year-long series of Thursday blogs about the Reformation. As with other blogs in this series, this centers on an anecdote or saying from a sixteenth-century reformer.
Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1843&ndash1915)
Most famous of all Luther&rsquos quotable words are those from the Diet (Assembly) of Worms (1521). Commanded to repudiate his writings, he stood alone with his conscience against an array of powerful clergy and statesmen. The official transcript quotes him as saying, &ldquoUnless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me God. Amen.&rdquo
Luther&rsquos collected works, issued later under his supervision, give the closing words as, &ldquoHere I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.&rdquo It is that version of his speech that has come down so memorably to posterity.
I remember being taunted about the Bible when I was in college before I became a practicing Christian. Although I was only facing one of my peers, the best reply I could muster was to mumble that I had read the Bible and found it fascinating. That memory doubles my appreciation of Luther, standing on conviction not before a single peer, but before the mighty movers of his world, men who could squash him like a bug if they chose.
Whether or not he actually said &ldquohere I stand,&rdquo his actions that day spoke for him. It is impossible to imagine the last five centuries of sacred or secular history without his trembling but defiant determination to stand with God&rsquos Word when it taught truths that a corrupt church had mislaid or mangled. And that is why we are undertaking this series.
Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook for the next year as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation. #RefoThursday, #ReformationConversation