After Luther published his 95 theses, inviting debate on the abuse of indulgences, things began to move rapidly in Wittenberg. Phillip Schaff, the grand church historian, sums up the course of events during the following year:1
Pope Leo X. was disposed to ignore the Wittenberg movement as a contemptible monkish quarrel; but when it threatened to become dangerous, he tried to make the German monk harmless by the exercise of his power. He is reported to have said first, “Brother Martin is a man of fine genius, and this outbreak is a mere squabble of envious monks;” but afterwards, “It is a drunken German who wrote the Theses; when sober he will change his mind.”
Three months after the appearance of the Theses, he directed the vicar-general of the Augustinian Order to quiet down the restless monk. In March, 1518, he found it necessary to appoint a commission of inquiry under the direction of the learned Dominican Silvester Mazzolini, called from his birthplace Prierio or Prierias (also Prieras), who was master of the sacred palace and professor of theology.
Prierias came to the conclusion that Luther was an ignorant and blasphemous arch-heretic, and hastily wrote a Latin dialogue against his Theses, hoping to crush him by subtle scholastic distinctions, and the weight of papal authority (June, 1518). He identified the Pope with the Church of Rome, and the Church of Rome with the Church universal, and denounced every departure from it as a heresy. He said of Luther’s Theses, that they bite like a cur.
Luther republished the Dialogue with a reply, in which he called it “sufficiently supercilious, and thoroughly Italian and Thomistic” (August, 1518).
Prierias answered with a Replica (November, 1518). Luther republished it likewise, with a brief preface, and sent it to Prierias with the advice not to make himself any more ridiculous by writing books.
The effect of this controversy was to widen the breach.
In the mean time Luther’s fate had already been decided. The Roman hierarchy could no more tolerate such a dangerous man than the Jewish hierarchy could tolerate Christ and the apostles. On the 7th of August, 1518, he was cited to appear in Rome within sixty days to recant his heresies. On the 23d of the same month, the Pope demanded of the Elector Frederick the Wise, that he should deliver up this “child of the Devil” to the papal legate.
But the Elector, who was one of the most powerful and esteemed princes of Germany, felt unwilling to sacrifice the shining light of his beloved university, and arranged a peaceful interview with the papal legate at the Diet of Augsburg on promise of kind treatment and safe return.
Luther himself explain how this meeting went:2
I was received by the most reverend lord cardinal legate both graciously and with almost too much respect, for he is a man who is in all respects different from those extremely harsh bloodhounds who track down monks among us. After he had stated that he did not wish to argue with me, but to settle the matter peacefully and in a fatherly fashion, he proposed that I do three things which, he said, had been demanded by the Pope:
- That I come to my senses and retract my errors;
- That I promise to abstain from them in the future;
- And, that I abstain from doing anything which might disturb the Church.
Realizing that I could have just as well have done these things at Wittenberg without exposing myself to danger and going to so much trouble, and that I did not need to seek this papal admonition in Augsburg, I immediately asked to be instructed in what matters I had been wrong, since I was not conscious of any errors.
Then he referred to the Extravagante of Clement VI which begins with the word Unigenitus, because in Thesis 58 I had asserted contrary to it that the merits of Christ did not constitute the treasure of merits of indulgences. Then he demanded that I retract and confidently pursued the matter, sure of victory; for he was certain and secure in assuming that I had not seen the Extravagante, probably relying upon the fact that not all editions of the canon law contain it.
In the second place he reproached me for having taught in the explanation of Thesis 7 that a person taking the sacrament had to have faith or he would take it to his own damnation, for he wished to have this judged a new and erroneous doctrine. According to him, every person going to this sacrament was uncertain whether or not he would receive grace. By his boldness he made it appear as though I had been defeated, especially since the Italians and others of his companions smiled and, according to their custom, even giggled aloud.
I then answered that I had carefully examined not only this Extravagante of Clement, but also the other one of Sixtus IV which emulated and was similar to it (for I had actually read both and had found them characterized by the same verbosity, which destroys one’s faith in their trustworthiness, stuffed as they are with ignorance). The Extravagante did not impress me as being trustworthy or authoritative for many reasons, but especially because it distorts the Holy Scriptures and audaciously twists the words (if indeed their customary meaning still should be accepted) into a meaning which they do not have in their context, in fact into a contrary meaning. The Scriptures, which I follow in my Thesis 7, are to be preferred to the bull in every case. Nothing is proven in the bull. Only the teaching of St. Thomas is trotted out and retold.
Then, in contradiction to what I had said, he began to extol the authority of the Pope, stating that it is above church councils, Scripture, and the entire Church. With the purpose of persuading me to accept this point of view, he called attention to the rejection and dissolution of the Council of Basel and was of the opinion that the Gersonists as well as Gerson should be condemned. Since this was something new to me, I denied that the Pope was superior to the council and Scripture and I praised the appeal made by the University of Paris.
Then we exchanged words concerning penance and grace in no prearranged order. The second objection caused me much grief, for I should scarcely have feared anything less than that this doctrine would ever be called into question. Thus in no one point did we even remotely come to any agreement, but as one thing led to another, as is usually the case, so a new contradiction arose. When, however, I saw that nothing was accomplished by such a dispute, except that many points were raised and none solved – indeed we already conjured up nothing but papal bulls – and especially since he was representing the Pope and did wish to appear to yield, I asked that I be given time for deliberation.
On the next day, when four counsellors of his majesty the Emperor were present, I, with a notary and witnesses who had been brought to the meeting, testified formally and personally by reading in the presence of the most reverend legate the following:
Above all I, Martin Luther, Augustinian, declare publicly that I cherish and follow the holy Roman Church in all my words and actions – present, past and future. If I have said or shall say anything contrary to this, I wish it to be considered as not having been said.
The most reverend cardinal Cajetan by command of the Pope has asserted, proposed, and urged that with respect to the above disputation which I held on indulgences I do these three things: first, to come to my sense and retract my error, second, to pledge not to repeat it in the future, and third, to promise to abstain from all things which might disturb the Church.
I, who debated and sought the truth, could not have done wrong by such inquiry, much less be compelled to retract unheard or unconvicted. Today I declare publicly that I am not conscious of having said anything contrary to Holy Scripture, the church fathers, or papal decretals or their correct meaning. All I have said today seems to me to have been sensible, true, and catholic.
Nevertheless, since I am a man who can err, I have submitted and now again submit to the judgment and lawful conclusion of the holy Church and of all who are better informed than I. In addition to this, however, I offer myself personally here or elsewhere to give an account also in public of all that I have said. But if this does not please the most reverend lord legate, I am even prepared to answer in writing the objections which he intends to raise against me, and to hear the judgment and opinion concerning these points of the doctors of the famed imperial universities of Basel, Freiburg, and Louvain, or, if this is not satisfactory, also of Paris, the parent of learning and from the beginning the university which was most Christian and most renowned in theology.
1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 7:170–172.
2 The following is taken from Hans Hillerbrand (ed.), The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964), 63-65.