Of the many debates, disputations, and diets that we use to mark Reformation time, the Leipzig Debate of 1519 is one of the more obscure despite being a significant part of Luther’s reformational turn from the papacy to Christ. One of the reasons many haven’t heard of or studied this debate is because Luther considered the debate a failure. After the fact, Luther wrote to the court chaplain of Fredrick the Wise, George Spalatin, and lamented that it was “a complete fiasco” and that it “began badly and ended worse!” He complained vigorously that he had never experienced so much malice and spite, nor had he ever seen such a twisted sham of a debate (LW 31:325).

The disputation had its genesis in December of 1518 when Johann Eck published a set of twelve theses to be debated at Leipzig University. The initial challenge went to one of Luther’s colleagues, Andreas Karlstadt, but in subsequent announcements of the debate, it became clear that Eck’s target was truly Luther himself. With each announcement of the debate, Eck also craftily added to and rearranged his set of theses, and in so doing, changed the focus of the debate from indulgences (comprising eleven of the initial twelve theses) to free will and the papacy (only two of the final thirteen theses). Although not primary to Eck’s argument, these two theses would become the central focus of the debate. Against these thirteen theses, Luther prepared thirteen counter-theses; however, because of Eck’s guile and skill in the debate hall, Luther wasn’t able to defend any of them.

Instead, after much fanfare, banqueting, and a high mass, the debate began on June 27 between Karlstadt and Eck on free will (Thesis 7), which lasted for almost a week. During this time, Eck did not once address indulgences as promised. However, on the topic of free will, Karlstadt was more than a match for Eck. Luther recounted how Karlstadt defended the bound will excellently and with force! He came equipped with a vast collection of books from which he cited the church fathers and the words of Scripture. Karlstadt so severely beat Eck that he resorted to chiding and bullying him, saying that he did not come to debate a library but a man (LW 31:321). After forcing Karlstadt to put away his books, Eck craftily conceded everything to Karlstadt and explained away Karlstadt’s position as his own, claiming that he had brought Karlstadt to this truth. At every turn, Luther recalled, Eck sought not the truth, but his own glory by hook and crook (LW 31:319).

Both Hus and Luther arrived at the same conclusion: neither councils nor the pope had final authority in the church. Headship in the church belongs solely to Christ

With the topic of free will exhausted and Karlstadt excused, Luther stepped in for the remaining days of the debate. The topic Eck chose was the papacy (Thesis 13). Luther was convinced that particular popes could and did indeed err. This was not a new opinion. The corruption, for instance, of the Renaissance popes, was well known throughout Europe. However, in the process of preparing for the Leipzig debate and while debating with Eck, Luther concluded that few had ever dared to voice. Not only did individual popes err, but because the Apostolic See held for itself the sole authority to remit and retain sins, the papacy had dethroned Christ, usurped his authority, and taken a stand in his place. This substitution for Christ is the same argument Luther would use when later that same year, for the first time, he called the papacy, Anti-Christ (LW 41:114).

Before Luther, the only man brave enough (or foolish enough) to challenge the papacy was a Bohemian named Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake exactly one hundred years earlier. Because of this connection, Eck was able to use his eloquence and dialectic skills to avoid debating the papacy. Instead, he spent his energy maneuvering Luther into denouncing the pope, the papacy, and councils as capable of erring. As soon as Eck laid his trap, Luther lost the debate. Since Hus was named a heretic and enemy of the church, any man associated with him was likewise a heretic and enemy of the church. In this way, Eck had pushed Luther beyond any pretense of being loyal to the papacy. The Reformer’s break with Rome was forced to come to a climax. Now labeled “the Saxon Hus,” there was no more debating and no going back for Luther.

And yet Luther had never even read any of Hus’ works. It wasn’t until after the debate that followers of Hus secretly wrote to Luther and gave him a copy of Hus’ book, Concerning the Church. Luther enjoyed it so immensely that he exclaimed, “We are all Hussites without knowing it!” (LW 48:153). Both Hus and Luther arrived at the same conclusion: neither councils nor the pope had final authority in the church. Headship in the church belongs solely to Christ, and to claim for oneself the sole power to forgive sins is to destroy Christ and his word.

Later in 1520, Luther would write, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, where he outlined in more detail how the papacy had stolen the place of Christ (LW 44). By claiming clerical supremacy, the sole authority to call councils, and sole authority to interpret Scripture, the papacy had kept themselves from scrutiny and enthroned themselves in Christ’s place in the temple of God (2 Thess 2:4). Luther argues in radical contrast that the Power of the Keys and the power to forgive and retain sins was not given to Peter and his successors, but to all the baptized. The word of absolution is the unique gift of God to the church, and it is hers to give to the world.

In Luther’s time, the papacy had covered up and buried this word of forgiveness with many other meaningless words about indulgences, free will, purgatory, and the treasury of merit (Leipzig Debate, Theses 6-13). But Luther, in his unspoken theses for the Leipzig debate and elsewhere, pierces right to the heart of the matter: man sins daily and must repent daily (Thesis 1). He must repent of all evil deeds and especially his good ones (Thesis 2). Whoever denies this neither knows Aristotle nor the Scriptures (Thesis 3). The job of the priest is not to burden people with punishments and satisfactions for their sins (Thesis 4). Instead, the word the priest, properly given, is the word of absolution, which sets captives free and raises dead sinners to new life (Thesis 5).

Even undefended, the Leipzig Debate caused a reformational turn for Luther. It served to tear down the papacy and their abuses and build up the free gift of forgiveness in Christ alone.