Cranach’s woodcut of 1520 may reasonably suggest the Luther of 1517: a tonsured monk of middle stature, temporarily slender, with large eyes of serious intent, larger nose, and resolute chin, a face not pugnaciously but quietly announcing courage and character. Yet it was honest anger, rather than jejune audacity, that wrote the theses. The local bishop saw nothing heretical in them, but mildly advised Luther to write no more on the subject for a while. The author himself was at first dismayed by the furor he had aroused. In May 1518, he told Staupitz that his real ambition was to lead a life of quiet retirement. He deceived himself; he relished battle.

The theses became the talk of literate Germany. Thousands had waited for such a protest, and the pent-up anticlericalism of generations thrilled at having found a voice. The sale of indulgences declined. But many champions rose to meet the challenge. Tetzel himself, with some professional aid, replied in One Hundred and Six Anti-Theses (December 1517). He made no concessions or apologies, but “gave at times an uncompromising, even dogmatic, sanction to mere theological opinions that were hardly consonant with the most accurate scholarship,”18 When this publication reached Wittenberg a hawker offering it for sale was mobbed by university students, and his stock of 800 copies was burned in the market square—a proceeding of which Luther joyously disapproved. He answered Tetzel in “A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace,” concluding with a characteristic defiance: “If I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths, I care not much for their brawling; for only those say this whose dark understanding has never known the Bible.”19 Jakob van Hoogstraeten of Cologne thundered invectives against Luther, and suggested burning him at the stake. Johann Eck, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt, issued a pamphlet, Obelisci (March 1518), which charged Luther with disseminating “Bohemian poison” (the heresies of Huss), and subverting all ecclesiastical order. In Rome Sylvester Prierias, papal censor of literature, published a Dialogue “maintaining the absolute supremacy of the pope in terms not altogether free from exaggeration, especially stretching his theory to an unwarrantable point in dealing with indulgences.”20

Luther countered in a Latin brochure Resolutiones (April 1518), copies of which he sent to his local bishop and to the Pope—in both cases with assurances of orthodoxy and submission. The text spoke quite handsomely of Leo X:

Although there are in the Church both very learned and very holy men, it is nevertheless the infelicity of our age that even they .... cannot succor the Church.... Now at last we have a most excellent Pontiff, Leo X, whose integrity and learning are a delight to all good men’s ears. But what can that most benign of men do alone, in so great a confusion of affairs, worthy as he is to reign in better times? .... In this age we are worthy only of such popes as Julius II and Alexander VI... Rome herself, yea, Rome most of all, now laughs at good men; in what part of the Christian world do men more freely make a mock of the best bishops than in Rome, the true Babylon?

To Leo directly he professed an unwonted humility:

Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. Quicken, slay, call, recall, approve, reprove, as may seem to you good. I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you. If I have deserved death I will not refuse to die.21

However, as Leo’s advisers noted, the Resolutiones affirmed the superiority of an ecumenical council to the pope, spoke slightingly of relics and pilgrimages, denied the surplus merits of the saints, and rejected all additions made by the popes in the last three centuries to the theory and practice of indulgences. As these were a prime source of papal revenue, and Leo was at his wits’ end to finance his philanthropies, amusements, and wars, as well as the administration and building program of the Church, the harassed Pontiff, who had at first brushed the dispute aside as a passing fracas among monks, now took the matter in hand, and summoned Luther to Rome (July 7, 1518).

Luther faced a critical decision. Even if the most genial of popes should treat him leniently, he might find himself politely silenced and buried in a Roman monastery, to be soon forgotten by those who now applauded him. He wrote to Georg Spalatin, chaplain to Elector Frederick, suggesting that German princes should protect their citizens from compulsory extradition to Italy. The Elector agreed. He had a high regard for Luther, who had made the University of Wittenberg prosper; and besides, Emperor Max, seeing in Luther a possible card to play in diplomatic contests with Rome, advised the Elector to “take good care of that monk.” 22

At this very time the Emperor had summoned an Imperial Diet to meet at Augsburg to consider the Pope’s request that it should tax Germany to help finance a new crusade against the Turks. The clergy (Leo proposed) should pay a tenth, the laity a twelfth, of their income, and every fifty householders should furnish one man. The Diet refused; on the contrary, it firmly restated the grievances that were providing the background of Luther’s success. It pointed out to the papal legate that Germany had often taxed herself for crusades, only to see the funds used for other papal purposes; that the people would vigorously oppose any further remission of money to Italy; that the annates, confirmation fees, and costs of canonical litigation referred to Rome were already an intolerable burden; and that German benefices were given as plums to Italian priests. So bold a rejection of papal requests, said one delegate, had never been known in German history.23 Noting the spirit of rebellion among the princes, Maximilian wrote to Rome advising caution in the treatment of Luther, but promising cooperation in suppressing heresy .

Leo was disposed or compelled to lenience; indeed, a Protestant historian has ascribed the triumph of the Reformation to the moderation of the Pope.24 He put aside the order for Luther’s appearance in Rome; instead he bade him present himself at Augsburg before Cardinal Cajetan, and answer charges of indiscipline and heresy. He instructed his legate to offer Luther full pardon, and future dignities, if he would recant and submit; otherwise the secular authorities should be asked to send him to Rome.25 About the same time Leo announced his intention of presenting to Frederick an honor that the pious Elector had long coveted—that “Golden Rose” which the popes bestowed upon secular rulers whom they wished to signalize with their highest favor. Probably Leo now offered to support Frederick as successor to the Imperial crown.26

Armed with an Imperial safe-conduct, Luther met Cajetan at Augsburg (October 12–14, 1518). The Cardinal was a man of great theological learning and exemplary life, but he misread his function to be that of judge, not diplomat. As he saw the matter, it was primarily a question of ecclesiastical discipline and order: should a monk be allowed to criticize publicly his superiors—to whom he had vowed obedience—and to advocate views condemned by the Church? Refusing to discuss the right or wrong of Luther’s statements, he demanded a retraction and a pledge never again to disturb the peace of the Church. Each lost patience with the other. Luther returned impenitent to Wittenberg; Cajetan asked Frederick to send him to Rome; Frederick refused. Luther wrote a spirited account of the interviews, which was circulated throughout Germany. In forwarding it to his friend Wenzel Link, he added: “I send you my trifling work that you may see whether I am not right in supposing that, according to Paul, the real Antichrist holds sway over the Roman court. I think he is worse than any Turk.”27 In a milder letter to Duke George he asked that “a common reformation should be undertaken of the spiritual and temporal estates” 28—his first known use of the word that was to give his rebellion its historic name.

Leo continued his efforts for conciliation. By a bull of November 9,1518, he repudiated many of the extreme claims for indulgences; these forgave neither sins nor guilt, but only those earthly penalties that the Church—not secular rulers—had imposed; as to releasing souls from purgatory, the power of the pope was limited to his prayers, beseeching God to apply to a dead soul the surplus merits of Christ and the saints. On November 28 Luther issued an appeal from the judgment of the pope to that of a generalcouncil. In that same month Leo commissioned Karl von Miltitz, a young Saxon nobleman in minor orders in Rome, to take the Golden Rose to Frederick, and also to make a quiet effort to bring Luther, that “child of Satan,” back to obedience.29

On reaching Germany, Miltitz was astonished to find half the country openly hostile to the Roman See. Among his own friends in Augsburg and Nuremberg three out of five were for Luther. In Saxony anti-papal feeling ran so strong that he divested himself of all indications that he was a papal commissioner. When he met Luther at Altenburg (January 3, 1519), he found him more open to reason than to fear. Probably at this stage Luther was sincerely anxious to preserve the unity of Western Christendom. He made generous concessions: to observe silence if his opponents would do likewise; to write a letter of submission to the Pope; to acknowledge publicly the propriety of prayers to the saints, the reality of purgatory, and the usefulness of indulgences in remitting canonical penances; and to recommend to the people a peaceful allegiance to the Church; meanwhile the details of the controversy were to be submitted for adjudication to some German bishop acceptable to both parties.30 Well pleased, Miltitz went to Leipzig, summoned Tetzel, reproved him for excesses, accused him of mendacity and embezzlement, and dismissed him. Tetzel retired to his monastery, and died soon afterward (August 11,1519). On his deathbed he received a kindly letter from Luther, assuring him that the indulgence sale was only an occasion, not a cause, of the disturbance, “that the affair had not been begun on that account, but that the child had quite another father.” 31 On March 3 Luther wrote to the Pope a letter of complete submission. Leo replied in a friendly spirit (March 29), inviting him to come to Rome to make his confession, and offering him money for the journey.32 However, with consistent inconsistency, Luther had written to Spalatin on March 13: “I am at a loss to know whether the Pope is Antichrist or his apostle.”33 Under the circumstances he thought it safer to stay in Wittenberg.

There the faculty, students, and citizens were predominantly friendly to his cause. He was especially happy to receive the support of a brilliant young humanist and theologian whom the Elector had appointed in 1518, at the age of twenty-one, to teach Greek at the university. Philipp Schwarzert (Black Earth) had had his name Hellenized as Melanchthon by his greatuncle Reuchlin. A man of small stature, frail physique, halting gait, homely features, lofty brow, and timid eyes, this intellectual of the Reformation became so loved in Wittenberg that five or six hundred students crowded his lecture room, and Luther himself, who described him as having “almost every virtue known to man,”34 humbly sat among his pupils. “Melanchthon,” said Erasmus, “is a man of gentle nature; even his enemies speak well of him.”35 Luther enjoyed combat; Melanchthon longed for peace and conciliation. Luther sometimes chided him as immoderately moderate; but Luther’s noblest and mildest side showed in his uninterrupted affection for one so opposed to him in temperament and policy.

I have been born to war, and fight with factions and devils; there fore my books are stormy and warlike. I must root out the stumps and stocks, cut away the thorns and hedges, fill up the ditches, and am the rough forester to break a path and make things ready. But Master Philip walks softly and silently, tills and plants, sows and waters with pleasure, as God has gifted him richly.36

Another Wittenberg professor shone with a fiercer light than Melanchthon’s. Andreas Bodenstein, known from his birthplace as Carlstadt, had joined the university staff at the age of twenty-four (1504); at thirty he received the chair of Thomistic philosophy and theology. On April 13, 1517, he anticipated Luther’s historic protest by publishing 152 theses against indulgences. At first opposed to Luther, he soon turned into an ardent supporter, “hotter in the matter than I,” said the great rebel.37 When Eck’s Obeliscichallenged Luther’s theses Carlstadt defended them in 406 propositions; one of these contained the first definite declaration, in the German Reformation, of the Bible’s paramount authority over the decretals and traditions of the Church. Eck replied with a challenge to a public debate; Carlstadt readily agreed, and Luther made the arrangements. Eck then published a prospectus listing thirteen theses which he offered to prove in the debate. One ran: “We deny that the Roman Church was not superior to other churches before the time of Sylvester; we have always recognized the possessor of Peter’s chair as his successor and as the vicar of Christ.” But it was not Carlstadt, it was Luther who, in the Resolutiones, had raised the point that in the first centuries of Christianity the Roman See had no more authority than several other bishops of the Church. Luther felt himself challenged, and claimed that Eck’s thesis freed him from his vow of silence. He determined to join Carlstadt in the theological tournament.

In June 1519, the two warriors rode off to Leipzig, accompanied by Melanchthon and six other professors, and escorted in country carts by 200 Wittenberg students armed and armored as if for battle; and in truth they were entering territory hostile to Luther. In the great tapestried hall of Pleissenburg Castle, packed with excited spectators, and under the presidency of the orthodox Duke George of Albertine Saxony, Eck and Carlstadt began the joust between the old and the new (June 27). Hardly anyone in Leipzig cared that on the morrow a new emperor was to be elected at Frank-furt-am-Main. After Carlstadt had for days suffered under Eck’s superior argumentative skill, Luther took the stand for Wittenberg. He was brilliant and powerful in debate, but recklessly candid. He denied emphatically the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the early days of Christianity, and reminded his mostly antipathetic audience that the widespread Greek Orthodox Church still rejected the supremacy of Rome. When Eck charged that Luther’s view echoed that of Huss, which the Council of Constance had condemned, Luther replied that even ecumenical councils could err, and that many doctrines of Huss were sound. When this debate ended (July 8), Eck had accomplished his real purpose—to have Luther commit himself to a definite heresy. The Reformation now advanced from a minor dispute about indulgences to a major challenge of papal authority over Christendom.

Eck passed on to Rome, presented to the Curia a report of the disputation, and recommended the excommunication of Luther. Leo was not so precipitate; he still hoped for some peaceable solution, and he was too distant from Germany to realize how far the revolt had gone. Prominent and respected citizens like Johan Holzschuher, Lazarus Spengler, and Willibald Pirkheimer spoke up for Luther; Dürer prayed for his success; the humanists were sending forth a cloud of pamphlets satirizing the papacy with all the exuberant vituperation characteristic of the age. Ulrich von Hutten, on reaching Augsburg in 1518, turned his rhymes against Leo’s call for crusading funds, and expressed the hope that the collectors would go home with empty bags. When news came of the Leipzig debate he hailed Luther as the liberator of Germany, and from that time his pen was a sword for the Reform. He enlisted among Franz von Sickingen’s knights—who were itching for revolution—and induced him to offer Luther all the support and protection that his armed band could provide. Luther replied in warm appreciation, but was not ready to use force in defense of his person.

In March 1520, Hutten published an old German manuscript written in the time of the Emperor Henry IV (r. 1056–1106), and supporting Henry in his struggle against Pope Gregory VII. He dedicated the book to the young Emperor Charles V, as a hint that Germany expected him to avenge Henry’s humiliation and defeat. To free Germany from Rome, said Hutten, was of greater urgency than to repel the Turks. “While our forefathers thought it unworthy of them to submit to the Romans when these were the most martial nation in the world, we not only submit to these effeminate slaves of lust and luxury, but suffer ourselves to be plundered to minister to their sensuality.”38 In April 1520, Hutten issued the first of two series of Gespräche, verse dialogues that played a role second only to Luther’s works in voicing and stimulating the national desire for independence from Rome. He described Rome as a “gigantic bloodsucking worm,” and declared that “the Pope is a bandit chief, and his gang bears the name of the Church.... . Rome is a sea of impurity, a mire of filth, a bottomless sink of iniquity. Should we not flock from all quarters to compass the destruction of this common curse of humanity?”39 Erasmus pleaded with Hutten to temper his style, and gave him a friendly warning that he was in danger of arrest. Hutten hid himself in one after another of Sickingen’s castles, but continued his campaign. To Elector Frederick he recommended the secular appropriation of all monastic wealth, and described the excellent uses to which Germany could put the money that was annually sent to Rome.40

But the center of the war remained in little Wittenberg. In the spring of 1520 Luther published, with furious notes, an Epitome in which he quoted the most recent and still uncompromising claims made by orthodox theologians for the primacy and powers of the popes. Luther met extremes with extremes:

If Rome thus believes and teaches with the knowledge of popes and cardinals (which I hope is not the case), then in these writings I freely declare that the true Antichrist is sitting in the temple of God and is reigning in Rome—that empurpled Babylon—and that the Roman Curia is the Synagogue of Satan.... If the fury of the Romanists thus goes on, there will be no remedy left except that the emperors, kings, and princes, girt about with force and arms, should attack these pests of the world, and settle the matter no longer by words but by the sword.... If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack in arms these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of the Roman Sodom which has without end corrupted the Church of God, and wash our hands in their blood? 41

Later in the same year Carlstadt issued a “little book”-De canonicis scripturis libellus—exalting the Bible over popes, councils, and traditions, and the Gospels over the Epistles; if Luther had followed this last line, Protestantism might have been less Pauline, Augustinian, and predestinarisan. The libellus was ahead of its time in doubting the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and the full authenticity of the Gospels. But it was weak in its central argument: it decided the authenticity of Biblical books by the traditions of the early centuries, and then rejected tradition in favor of the books so certified.

Heartened by the support of Melanchthon and Carlstadt, Hutten and Sickingen, Luther wrote to Spalatin (June 11, 1520):

I have cast the die. I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favor. I will not reconcile myself to them for all eternity.... . Let them condemn and burn all that belongs to me; in return I will do as much for them... Now I no longer fear, and I am publishing a book in the German tongue about Christian reform, directed against the pope, in language as violent as if I were addressing Antichrist.42

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