On June 15,1520, Leo X issued a bull, Exsurge Domine, which condemned forty-one statements by Luther, ordered the public burning of the writings in which these had appeared, and exhorted Luther to abjure his errors and return to the fold. After sixty days of further refusal to come to Rome and make a public recantation, he was to be cut off from Christendom by excommunication, he was to be shunned as a heretic by all the faithful, all places where he stayed were to suspend religious services, and all secular authorities were to banish him from their dominions or deliver him to Rome.

Luther marked the end of his period of grace by publishing the first of three little books that constituted a program of religious revolution. Hitherto he had written in Latin for the intellectual classes; now he wrote in German—and as a German patriot—An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate. He included in his appeal the “noble youth” who, a year before, had been chosen emperor as Charles V, and whom “God has given us to be our head, thereby awakening great hopes of good in many hearts.”43 Luther attacked the “three walls” that the papacy had built around itself: the distinction between the clergy and the laity, the right of the pope to decide the interpretation of Scripture, and his exclusive right to summon a general council of the Church. All these defensive assumptions, said Luther, must be overthrown.

First, there is no real difference between clergy and laity; every Christian is made a priest by baptism. Secular rulers, therefore, should exercise their powers “without let or hindrance, regardless whether it be pope, bishop or priest whom they affect .... All that the canon law has said to the contrary is sheer invention of Roman presumption.”44 Second, since every Christian is a priest, he has the right to interpret the Scriptures according to his own light,45 Third, Scripture should be our final authority for doctrine or practice, and Scripture offers no warrant for the exclusive right of the pope to call a council. If he seeks by excommunication or interdict to prevent a council, “we should despise his conduct as that of a madman, and, relying on God, hurl back the ban on him, and coerce him as best we can.”46 A council should be called very soon; it should examine the “horrible” anomaly that the head of Christendom lives in more worldly splendor than any king; it should end the appropriation of German benefices by Italian clergymen; it should reduce to a hundredth the “swarm of vermin” holding ecclesiastical sinecures in Rome and living chiefly on money from Germany.

Some have estimated that every year more than 300,000 gulden find their way from Germany to Italy.... We here come to the heart of the matter.... How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope?... If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free? For he is the greatest thief and robber that has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter! Who can longer endure it or keep silence?47

Why should the German Church pay this perpetual tribute to a foreign power? Let the German clergy throw off their subjection to Rome, and establish a national church under the leadership of the Archbishop of Mainz. Mendicant orders should be reduced, priests should be allowed to marry, no binding monastic vows should be taken before the age of thirty; interdicts, pilgrimages, Masses for the dead, and holydays (except Sundays) should be abolished. The German Church should be reconciled with the Hussites of Bohemia; Huss was burned in flagrant violation of the safe-conduct given him by the emperor; and in any case “we should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning.”48 All canon law should be discarded; there should be only one law, for clergy and laity alike.

Above all, we should drive out from German lands the papal legates with their “powers”—which they sell us for large sums of money—to legalize unjust gains, dissolve oaths, vows, and agreements, saying that the pope has authority to do this—though it is sheer knavery.... If there were no other evil wiles to prove that the pope is the true Antichrist, this one thing would be enough to prove it. Hearest thou this, O pope, not most holy of men but most sinful? Oh, that God from heaven would soon destroy thy throne, and sink it in the abyss of hell! . . O Christ my Lord, look down, let the day of thy judgment break, and destroy the Devil’s nest at Rome! 49

This headlong assault of one man against a power that pervaded all Western Europe became the sensation of Germany. Cautious men considered it intemperate and rash; many reckoned it among the most heroic deeds in German history. The first edition of theOpen Letter was soon exhausted, and the presses of Wittenberg were kept busy with new printings. Germany, like England, was ripe for an appeal to nationalism; there was as yet no Germany on the map, but there were Germans, newly conscious of themselves as a people. As Huss had stressed his Bohemian patriotism, as Henry VIII would reject not Catholic doctrine but papal power over England, so Luther now planted his standard of revolt not in theological deserts, but in the rich soil of the German national spirit. Wherever Protestantism won, nationalism carried the flag.

In September 1520, Eck and Jerome Aleander promulgated the bull of excommunication in Germany. Luther fought back with a second manifesto, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 6). Addressed to theologians and scholars, it reverted to Latin, but it was soon translated, and had almost as much influence on Christian doctrine as the Open Letter had on ecclesiastical and political history. As the Jews had suffered a long captivity in Babylonia, so the Church as established by Christ, and as described in the New Testament, had undergone over a thousand years of captivity under the papacy in Rome. During that period the religion of Christ had been corrupted in faith, morals, and ritual. Since Christ had given his Apostles wine as well as bread at the Last Supper, the Hussites were right: the Eucharist should be administered in both forms wherever the people so desired. The priest does not change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; no priest has such mystical potency; but to the fervent communicant Christ comes spiritually and substantially, not through any miraculous transformation by a priest, but by His own will and power; He is present in the Eucharist along with bread and wine, by consubstantiation, not by transubstantiation.50 Luther rejected with horror the notion that in the Mass the priest offers up Christ to His Father as a sacrifice in atonement for man’s sins—though he found nothing horrible in the idea that God had allowed man to crucify God as a sacrifice to God in atonement for man’s sins.

To these theological subtleties he added some ethical novelties. Marriage is not a sacrament, for Christ made no promise to infuse it with divine grace. “The marriages of the ancients were no less sacred than ours, nor are those of unbelievers less true.”51Consequently there should be no prohibition of marriage between Christians and non-Christians. “Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk...and do business with a heathen, a Jew, a Turk, or a heretic, so also I may marry any of them. Do not give heed to the fool’s law which forbids this... A heathen is just as much a man or a woman created by God as St. Peter, St. Paul, or St. Lucy.”52 A woman married to an impotent husband should be allowed, if he consents, to have intercourse with another man in order to have a child, and should be permitted to pass the child off as her husband’s. If the husband refuses consent she may justly divorce him. Yet divorce is an endless tragedy; perhaps bigamy would be better.53 Then, adding defiance to heresy, Luther concluded: “I hear a rumor of new bulls and papal maledictions sent out against me, in which I am urged to recant.... If that is true, I desire this book to be a portion of the recantation I shall make.”54

Such a taunt should have deflected Miltitz from still dreaming of a reconciliation. Nevertheless he again sought out Luther (October 11, 1520), and persuaded him to send to Pope Leo a letter disclaiming any intent to attack him personally, and presenting temperately the case for reform. For his part Miltitz would try to secure a revocation of the bull. Luther, the thirty-seven-year-old “peasant, son of a peasant” (as he proudly called himself), wrote a letter not of apology but of almost paternal counsel to the forty-five-year-old heir of St. Peter and the Medici. He expressed his respect for the Pope as an individual, but condemned without compromise the corruption of the papacy in the past, and of the papal Curia in the present:

Thy reputation, and the fame of thy blameless life... are too well known and too high to be assailed.... . But thy See, which is called the Roman Curia, and of which neither thou nor any man can deny that it is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which is, as far as I can see, characterized by a totally depraved, hopeless, and notorious wickedness—that See I have truly despised.... . The Roman Church has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death, and hell.... I have always grieved, most excellent Leo, that thou hast been made pope in these times, for thou wert worthy of better days.....

Do not listen, therefore, my dear Leo, to those sirens who make thee out to be no mere man but a demigod, so that thou mayest command... what thou wilt.... Thou art a servant of servants, and beyond all other men in a most pitiable and dangerous position. Be not deceived by those who pretend that thou art lord of the world... who prate that thou hast power over heaven, hell, and purgatory....

... They err who exalt thee above a council and above the Church universal. They err who ascribe to thee the right of interpreting Scripture, for under cover of thy name they seek to set up their own wickedness in the Church, and, alas, through them Satan has already made much headway under thy predecessors. In short, believe none who exalt thee, believe those who humble thee.55

Along with this letter Luther sent to Leo the third of his manifestoes. He called it A Treatise on Christian Liberty (November 1520), and felt that “unless I am deceived, it is the whole of Christian living in a brief form.”56 Here he expressed with uncongenial moderation his basic doctrine—that faith alone, not good works, makes the true Christian and saves him from hell. For it is faith in Christ that makes a man good; his good works follow from that faith. “The tree bears fruit, the fruit does not bear the tree.”57 A man firm in his faith in the divinity and redeeming sacrifice of Christ enjoys not freedom of will, but the profoundest freedom of all: freedom from his own carnal nature, from all evil powers, from damnation, even from law; for the man whose virtue flows spontaneously from his faith needs no commands to righteousness.58 Yet this free man must be servant to all men, for he will not be happy if he fails to do all in his power to save others as well as himself. He is united to God by faith, to his neighbor by love. Every believing Christian is a ministering priest.

While Luther was writing these historic treatises, Eck and Aleander were encountering the religious revolution at first hand. In Meissen, Merseburg, and Brandenburg they were successful in proclaiming the bull of excommunication; at Nuremberg they elicited apologies from Pirkheimer and Spengler; at Mainz Archbishop Albrecht, after flirting a while with the Reformation, excluded Hutten from his court and imprisoned the printers of Hutten’s books; at Ingolstadt Luther’s books were confiscated, and in Mainz, Louvain, and Cologne they were burned. But at Leipzig, Torgau, and Döbeln the posted bull was pelted with dirt and torn down; at Erfurt many professors and clergymen joined in a general refusal to recognize the bull, and students threw all available copies into the river; finally Eck fled from the scenes of his triumphs a year before.59

Luther denounced the ban in a series of bitter pamphlets, in one of which he fully approved the doctrines of Huss. About August 31, 1520, as “a single flea daring to address the king of kings,” he appealed to the Emperor for protection; and on November 17 he published a formal appeal from the Pope to a free council of the Church. When he learned that the papal envoys were burning his books, he decided to reply in kind. He issued an invitation to the “pious and studious youths” of Wittenberg to assemble outside the Elster gate of the city on the morning of December 10. There, with his own hands, he cast the papal bull into a fire, along with some canonical decretals and volumes of Scholastic theology; in one act he symbolized his rejection of canon law, of Aquinas’s philosophy, and of any coercive authority of the Church. The students joyfully collected other books of the kind, and with them kept the fire burning till late afternoon.

On December 11 Luther proclaimed that no man could be saved unless he renounced the rule of the papacy.60 The monk had excommunicated the pope.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!