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course and face those two classes of men.
He will meet first the unyielding, stubborn
ceremonialists, who like deaf adders are not
willing to hear the truth of liberty, but, hav-
ing no faith, boast of, prescribe, and insist
upon their ceremonies as means of justifica-
tion. . . . These he must resist, do the
very opposite and offend them boldly, lest
by their impious views they drag many with
them into error. In the presence of these
men it is good to eat meat, to break the fasts
and for the sake of the liberty of faith to do
other things which they regard the greatest
of sins. . . . The other class of men
whom a Christian will meet, are the simple-
minded, ignorant men, weak in faith, as the
Apostle calls them, who cannot yet grasp the
liberty of faith, even if they were willing to
do so. These he must take care not to of-
fend; he must yield to their weakness until
they are more fully instructed. For since


these do and think as they do, not because
they are stubbornly wicked, but only because
their faith is weak, the fasts and other things
which they think necessary must be observed
to avoid giving them offence. For so love
demands, which would harm no one, but
would serve all men. It is not their fault
that they are weak, but their pastors have
taken them captive with the snares of their
traditions and have wickedly used these tra-
ditions as rods with which to beat them. . .
"In brief, as wealth is the test of poverty,
business the test of faithfulness, honors the
test of humility, feasts the test of temper-
ance, pleasures the test of chastity, so cere-
monies are the test of the righteousness of
faith. 'Can a man,' says Solomon, 'take
fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be
burned?' . . . Hence ceremonies are to
be given the same place in the life of a Chris-
tian as models and plans have among build-
ers and artisans. They are prepared not as
permanent structures, but because without
them nothing could be built or made. When
the structure is completed they are laid aside.
You see, they are not despised, rather, they


are greatly sought after; but what we de-
spise is the false estimate of them, since no
one holds them to be the real and permanent
structure. If any man were so egregiously
foolish as to care for nothing all his life long
except the most costly, careful and persistent
preparation of plans and models, and never
to think of the structure itself, and were sat-
isfied with his work in producing plans and
mere aids to work, and boasted of it, would
not all men pity his insanity, and estimate
that with what he has wasted something
great might have been built?"

These three products of Luther's pen show
strikingly the development of the man's
mind. There are successive stages. At
some places he pauses to explain that he has
advanced a pace in his view, and admits his
former errors; and at other points he takes
pains to explain the fact that, because he has
turned away from certain teachings of the
old Church, it does not follow that the whole
must be rejected.

Blind, indeed, the papal party would have
been if it had not perceived that the Witten-
berg professor was determined to stand by


the principles so boldly and clearly pro-
claimed in his three great works. Ridicule,
abuse, and threats proving of no avail, the
pope decided to employ the engine of excom-
munication. On the fifteenth of June, 1520,
the papal bull was published. It condemned
forty-one propositions drawn from Luther's
writings as "heretical or false, scandalous,
offensive to pious ears, insulting, ensnaring
and contrary to Catholic truth;" forbade
the reading of his books ; threatened with the
ban everybody who should support or pro-
tect him; prohibited him from preaching;
and threatened him with excommunication
if he did not repent and recant within sixty
days after the publication of the bull in Ger-
many. Luther was now in a position where
either he had to admit that he was a false
prophet who had misled thousands, and
abandon those who at great personal risk had
stood by him, or bid defiance to his enemies.
He remained loyal to his conscience.

His answer was unmistakable and dra-
matic. In order to announce to Europe his
contempt for papal decrees, in the presence
of a large concourse of people, of whom a con-


siderable number were Wittenberg students,
on December 10th, he committed to the
flames the papal bull and the whole canon
law. The fire which consumed these docu-
ments severed the last fibre of the bonds that
had united Martin Luther to the Church of
Rome. Henceforth he was to be an irrecon-
cilable enemy to "Antichrist." The fearless
German was free to go about his constructive
work, to erect a new edifice in place of the old
one, from whose portals the pope had ban-
ished him. But although he has turned his
back upon an ancient institution, he goes
back to the time antedating its completion
for material to be used in the construction of
the new one. Wherever possible he models
his structure upon the plans of the architects
which designed the Medieval Church; but
the foundation rests, not upon the rock of St.
Peter, but upon faith — faith drawn from
Holy Scripture. Luther set about to restore
the Church of the fathers. Could he have
done so with the aid and co-operation of the
pope and bishops, he would have done it;
but when they declined, he became con-


vinced that they were not a necessary part
of the Church.

Luther's life shows that he did not beHeve
that man was made for system, but system
for man. If a certain system was better for
the spiritual growth of one man, let him
abide by that system. His whole idea was
to reform, not to revolutionize. It is quite
probable that he would have remained a
loyal son of Rome had he not rebelled at the
corruption within the Church. That cor-
ruption he did not at first attribute to the
system. When he arrived at that stage, he
broke with the Church. The break need not
have come had not the organization as ad-
ministered by the pope and his advisers of
the type of Eck been so absolutely inflexible.

But even after he had taken this momen-
tous step and had incurred the undying
wrath and hostility of the adherents of Rome
he did not, after the fashion of the men of the
French Revolution, sweep away all vestiges
of the past. *'\Ve are not ashamed of prais-
ing whatever good we find in the papal
churches," he declares. But antiquity of it-
self has no claim, for "then the devil would


be the most righteous person on earth, since
he is now over five thousand years old."
"If what has been in use, from of old, is to
be changed or abolished, an indubitable
proof must be given that it is contrary to
God's Word. Otherwise, what is not against
us is for us." "It is dangerous and terrible
to hear or believe anything contrary to the
unanimous testimony, faith, and doctrine of
the entire Holy Christian Church, which, for
over fifteen hundred years now, it has unan-
imously held throughout all the world."
Furthermore, "I believe and am sure, that,
even under the Papacy, the true Church re-
mains." "But we contend against and re-
ject the work of the Pope, in not abiding by
those blessings which the Christian Church
has inherited from the Apostles."

Luther was a leader, not a voice; he was a
wind which shook the reed, not a reed shaken
by the wind. He wanted a change, but he
was ardent in his opposition to a general
wave of change. He was equally powerful
in promoting and resisting change. He did
not plant many new trees; he cleared away
the underbrush of Medievalism. Frequently


violent and radical in attacking corruption,
he proceeded cautiously in altering institu-
tions. Sometimes destructively radical, he
was always constructively conservative.

The next stage in Luther's career brought
him to the city of Worms, whither he was
summoned by the newly elected Emperor
Charles V to appear before the imperial diet.
A great change had come over Europe in the
hundred years intervening since the appear-
ance of John Huss before the Council of
Constance. It was a most extraordinary
thing that Luther, a condemned heretic, was
allowed to be heard before the most august
assembly in Europe. When he set out for
Worms from Wittenberg on the second of
April, 1521, it was with the solemn convic-
tion that he had been called to defend the
cause of God. His journey of twelve days
was a triumphal procession. It is a tribute
to his sturdy character and the dignity of his
cause that the plaudits of the multitude did
not turn his head. Weighed down by the
awful responsibility, the man who appeared
before the emperor was meek and modest.
The young emperor, mistaking humility for


weakness, declared that Luther would never
make a heretic of him.

In the afternoon of April 17th Luther was
admitted to the hall. On a table in front of
the emperor lay a pile of his books. The
only questions he was asked was whether he
had written these books and whether he
would stand by them or recant. After the
titles had been read, Luther, in a low voice,
acknowledged his authorship. In the reply
to the second question Luther revealed his
presence of mind and his deep insight into
the principle involved. He had come pre-
pared to be questioned on specific points of
his doctrines, but he was not prepared to
answer off hand a single question which was
to decide his fate and probably the whole
future of Christendom. His answer, there-
fore, was that since the question concerned
faith and the salvation of souls and the Di-
vine Word, it would be rash and dangerous
to say anything without due consideration.
Some have taken Luther's request for time
for reflection as a sign of weakness. The
very opposite is the truth. The fact that he
was denied the opportunity to state his


principles and defend them in debate prob-
ably convinced him that his fate was already
decided. If the matter was to resolve itself
into a struggle, not only against the pope,
but against the emperor, his answer must
make the issue clean-cut. That very even-
ing he wrote to a friend, "With Christ's
help, I shall never retract one tittle!"

On his second appearance before the diet,
the following day, Luther was master of him-
self. He could not retract all his books,
since some of them even his opponents ad-
mitted were worthy to be read by Christian
people. Neither could he condemn those
books against the papacy and popish pro-
ceedings without strengthening their tyr-
anny. "Under cover of this my recanta-
tion, the yoke of its shameless wickedness
would become utterly unbearable to the poor
miserable people, and it would be thereby
established and confirmed all the more if
men could say that this had come about by
the power and direction of your Imperial
Majesty, and of the whole Roman Empire."
The third kind of books had been written
against individuals who had defended the


papacy. He admitted that he had trans-
gressed the position and character of a Chris-
tian by the vehemence of his attacks, but he
could not withdraw them without proof of
the errors contained in them.

Enraged by the audacity of the monk who
dared to dispute things that had been con-
demned by councils, the papal party de-
manded an unequivocal answer to the ques-
tion: Do you recant those books or not?
Luther's answer was the keynote of Protes-
tantism. It was noble, convincing, and

"Well, then, if your Imperial Majesty re-
quires a plain answer, I will give one without
horns or teeth! It is this: that I must be
convinced either by the testimony of the
Scriptures or clear arguments. For I be-
lieve things contrary to the Pope and Coun-
cils, because it is as clear as day that they
have often erred and said things inconsistent
with themselves. I am bound by the Scrip-
tures which I have quoted ; my conscience is
submissive to the Word of God ; therefore I
may not, and will not, recant, because to act


against conscience is unholy and unsafe. So
help me God! Amen."

All further efforts to shake Luther's firm-
ness were futile. He feared his conscience
more than papal bulls and imperial edicts.
He appealed to a higher law — the law of
Christ revealed in Scripture. His warfare
against the powers which sought to shackle
the human mind went on until he wrested
from them the key to salvation — the open

The triumph of the papal party at the
diet of Worms was a foregone conclusion. A
treaty was signed between the emperor and
the pope, by which they were to make com-
mon cause against their enemies, among
whom Luther was one. The edict against
Luther stigmatized his doctrine as a cesspool
of heresies, forbade the printing, selling, and
reading of his books, and made him an out-
law. After the diet of Worms the world
could never be the same.

The Radicals at Wittenberg

For almost a year after he left Worms
Luther lived in an entirely different world.
After four years of uncertainty and strife,
thanks to his friends he lived in seclusion at
the Wartburg, near Eisenach, where, safe
from his enemies, he could rest and recover
his health, which had commenced to break
down under the strain.

But Luther was a man of action; he could
not be idle. His pen was never more prolific.
Besides writing numerous letters, commen-
taries on the Bible, and various treatises, he
began the translation of the Bible from the
original tongues into clear, idiomatic Ger-
man, a monumental achievement which
alone would entitle him to lasting fame.
"With little apparatus, not even consulting
previous translations until the first draft was
finished," writes Doctor Jacobs, "he worked
with such rapidity that within three months



the entire New Testament was in idiomatic
German that to the present hour is the won-
der of all literary critics. His entire life and
character are reflected in the style. All his
attainments are kept subordinate to the one
object of presenting the thoughts of Revela-
tion in language that is the simplest and
most intelligible to all classes of the people.
In giving the Germans their Bible he gave
the German language a permanent literary
form, and, upon the basis of a common lan-
guage replacing the confusion of dialects
that had heretofore been current, unified the
German people."

At the Wartburg Luther had nothing to
fear from the papal and imperial party, but
the conduct of his friends at Wittenberg was
most disconcerting. Without the steadying
hand of Luther events moved rapidly. The
high tension under which the Wittenbergers
had lived for several years made them easy
prey for fanatics who were versed in the art
of popular appeal. Even the man who had
stood closest to him, the gentle and scholarly
Melanchthon, was swept on by the radical


Under the leadership of one of Luther's
colleagues on the university faculty, Carl-
stadt, innovations were begun, which accel-
erated into the wildest excesses. Priests,
monks, and nuns, declaring themselves no
longer bound by their vows, entered the
marriage relation. There was a general exo-
dus from the monasteries and nunneries.

Luther's attitude toward the monastic
vow is highly characteristic of the man. Far
from regarding it as a useless incumbrance to
be brushed aside lightly at the call of per-
sonal convenience, he carefully weighed the
matter in his own mind and applied the test
of Scripture. He had no objection to the
marriage of priests, but there was a difference
between their circumstances and those of
the monks. The monk's oath had been
taken without compulsion. As his mind
traveled farther and farther away from
things Romish, however, he became con-
vinced that such an oath could not be bind-
ing because it was contrary to the Word of
God. It was not until June, 1525, — almost
eight years after he nailed up his theses, —
that he himself married. Luther's respect


for law and order instinctively turned him
away from tumult. For this reason he could
not sanction the methods of the radicals,
who forced the monks to leave the cloister
against their will.

Luther understood, what Carlstadt and his
followers did not, that the Reformation was
on trial. Each step away from Rome must
be taken with caution, citing Scripture and
invoking clear and cogent reasoning, to pre-
vent enemies from taking unfair adv^antage.
From the Wartburg he wrote: "How I wish
that Carlstadt in attacking sacerdotal celi-
bacy would quote more applicable texts. I
fear he will excite prejudice against it.
It is a noble cause he has taken
up, I wish he were more equal to it. . . .
For what is more dangerous than to invite
so many monks and nuns to marry and to
urge it with unconvincing texts of Scripture,
by complying with which invitation the con-
sciences of the parties may be burdened with
an eternal cross worse than they now bear.
I wish that celibacy might be left free, as the
Gospel requires, but how to add to that
principle I know not."


As a part of the program to do away with
the remnants of Romanism, Carlstadt at-
tacked the celebration of the mass with such
vehemence that churches were invaded,
images destroyed, and priests stoned.

Out of respect for the wishes of the Elector
Frederic, his protector, Luther refrained
from public appearance in order to combat
the woi'k of the fanatics, much as he desired
to do so. In December (1521), before the
movement was well under way, he made a
secret visit to Wittenberg to see with his own
eyes how affairs were shaping. After a stay
of several days he returned to his retreat con-
vinced that the zeal of the leaders would soon
burn itself out. Events proved otherwise.
With the advent of the Zwickau prophets the
fire burned more fiercely and threatened to
spread to other communities.

In the Saxon town of Zwickau, about
eighty miles from Wittenberg, a religious
movement entirely apart from Lutheranism
had developed. The members of this sect,
later called the Anabaptists, were well-
meaning and sincere, but their doctrines were
so revolutionary — probably impractical as


taught by their most extreme prophets —
that their application involved the entire
reconstruction of the existing poHtical, social,
and religious order. Intoxicated with the
new wine of faith, some of their prophets, by
their crude religious exercises and exhorta-
tions, brought deserved ridicule upon them-
selves and discredit upon their more level-
headed brethren.

The Zwickau prophets claimed they were
inspired. They accepted the authority of
the Scriptures as the declared will of God,
but they professed to have immediate reve-
lations from God. The Bible was Luther's
sole authority; the more extreme prophets
regarded the inspiration of the Spirit of God
superior in authority to the written Word.
The Anabaptist, therefore, could dispense
with outward organization because he stood
in direct relation with God. He looked with
contempt on the ponderous tomes of dogma
and theological lore. Priest, Bible, and
Church were unnecessary mediums, because
each man was a medium. He rejected infant
baptism because to him it was unwarranted
by Scripture and unaccompanied by the


faith of the individual baptized. The Ana-
baptist conception of the "Church" was that
of a body of behevers who have been regen-
erated by the spirit. This is the "puritan-
ical" idea of the Church. It follows, of
course, that there should be no connection
between " Church " and state. "There was,
in fact," writes Professor Vedder, "no re-
conciling these teachings with those of state
churches, set up, as they often were, by un-
worthy princes and ungodly town councils —
churches in which little or no attempt was
made to discriminate between regenerate and
unregenerate. These were reasons enough
— these were the real reasons — why govern-
ments everywhere tried to harry the Ana-
baptists out of their lands."

When the Zwickau prophets came to Witt-
enberg, the radicals who were on the ground
readily joined them. Wittenberg became a
religious and social laboratory. The stu-
dents were advised to quit their studies.
Learning was unnecessary; the Holy Spirit
would enlighten them. Images and pictures
in the churches were destroyed. The situa-
tion speedily passed beyond the control of


the authorities and the conservative ele-
ment. A strong man was needed. The
town council sent Luther an urgent appeal
to return. Without asking the consent of
the elector and at the risk of his life, Luther
slipped quietly into Wittenberg, March 6,
1522, and in a series of eight remarkable ser-
mons, marvelous for their sense of propor-
tion, he exposed the fallacies of the prophets
and brought order out of chaos.

One of the men who listened to his preach-
ing wrote: "Dr. Martin's coming and
preaching have given both learned and un-
learned among us great joy and gladness.
For we poor men who had been vexed and
led astray have again been shown by him,
with God's help, the way of truth. Daily
he incontrovertibly exposes the errors into
which we were miserably led by the preach-
ers from abroad. It is evident that the
Spirit of God is in him and works through
him, and I am convinced he has returned to
Wittenberg at this time by the special provi-
dence of the Almighty."

It was the irony of fate that Luther, the
man who up to this time had used all his


magnificent force to expose the hollowness of
forms and ceremonies, felt called upon to ap-
pear as an apologist for them. The very
disturbances he had come to denounce were
in a sense the consequences of his own teach-
ings. But the methods of reform practised
by the prophets were destructive of law and
order. Luther would reform without de-
stroying. In his own words, reform must
begin with milk for babes, the pure doctrine
of charity and faith, after which may come
the strong meat of drastic law. "Compel or
force any one with power I will not, for faith
must be gentle and unforced. ... I op-
posed indulgences and all the papists, but
not with force; I only wrote, preached, and
used God's Word, and nothing else. . . .
Had I wished it, I might have brought Ger-
many to civil war. Yes, at Worms I might
have started a game which would not have
been safe for the Emperor, but it would have
been a fool's game. So I did nothing, but
only let the Word act."

In the eight sermons he frankly stated his
dislike for many of the ceremonies and cus-
toms of the past, but he declared that the


Christian life consists neither in refraining
from nor engaging in external practices. It is
better to retain indifferent things than to of-
fend weak consciences by aboHshing them.
When the Gospel was everywhere adopted
and understood, all things inconsistent there-
with would fall of themselves.

In the first and second sermons he ad-
dressed himself to the subject of the cele-
bration of the mass. "Thus there are two
things: the one, which is the most needful,
and which must be done in one way and no
other; the other, which is a matter of choice
and not of necessity, which may be kept or
not, without endangering faith or incurring
hell. In both love must deal with our neigh-
bor in the same manner as God has dealt
with us; it must walk the straight road,
straying neither to the left nor to the right.
In the things which are 'musts' and are mat-
ters of necessity, such as believing in Christ,
love nevertheless never uses force or undue
constraint. Thus the mass is an evil thing,
and God is displeased with it, because it is
performed as a sacrifice and work of merit.
Therefore it must be abolished. Here there


is no room for question, just as little as if
you should ask whether you should pray to
God. Here we are entirely agreed: the pri-
vate mass must be abolished, as I have said
in my writings. And I heartily wish it
would be abolished everywhere and only the
evangelical mass for all the people retained.
Yet Christian love should not employ harsh-

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Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 3 of 7)