In Reformation history, we remember Luther’s hearing before Cardinal Cajetan at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg on October 12, 1518. Looking back on the early events of the Reformation, Luther would refer to this theological duel as his “first excommunication” even though Luther wouldn’t be properly excommunicated by Pope Leo X until 1521. The subject of the hearing before Cajetan was Luther’s famous 95 theses which had been posted on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg almost a year earlier. Much time has been spent and much ink has been spilled by Lutherans over the exact date of Luther’s “reformational turn,” but at the very least in the eyes of the Papal theologians, the writings from September 1517 to September 1518 (Luther’s disputation against scholastic theology, his 95 theses, his sermon on indulgences, his Heidelberg disputation, and his explanation of the 95 theses) signaled a definite change in Luther that needed addressing especially in the areas of the papacy, indulgences, the treasury of merit, and the necessity of faith in justification. Luther’s theology was different enough by the summer of 1518 that the chief papal theological advisor, Sylvester Prierias, wrote a treatise condemning Luther, and the head of the Dominicans, Cardinal Cajetan, was commissioned by Pope Leo X to force Luther to recant his errors, to promise not to teach them again, and to do nothing to disturb the peace of the church. If Luther did, then forgiveness would be granted, but if he did not, the rumor was that Cajetan would then drag Luther, bound in chains, to Rome to die a heretic’s death. Even if not a turning point, 1518 is a point of no return for Luther.
The days leading up to Luther’s questioning were fraught with anxiety. The last time a priest challenged the authority of the pope and was commanded to appear for questioning was only a century before at the Council of Constance with a Czech priest named Jan Hus who was burned at the stake, despite being guaranteed safe conduct by the Emperor. In light of this, an imminent sense of doom afflicted Luther, and upon his arrival in Augsburg on October 7 his stomach was so upset and his bowels ran so freely that he could no longer stand. He didn’t recover until three days later with the constant encouragement of his friends.
Finally, when Luther appeared before Cajetan on October 12, Cajetan asked him to recant his errors. To which Luther asked to be shown where he was in error according to the Scriptures. The brunt of Cajetan’s attack centered on explanations of Thesis 58 and Thesis 7 of the 95 Theses where Luther attacked indulgences as a distribution of the treasury of merit and the sacraments as efficacious outside of faith. For Luther’s part indulgences were not equal to the treasury of merit because the true treasure of the church is the Gospel, the Word of Christ’s forgiveness. The only thing that an indulgence could “indulge” were the penalties that the Pope himself inflicted, but the goods of the Gospel remedy something far greater: the penalty for sin. It is this Word of Gospel that not only remits the penalty for sin, but also grants faith so that one can receive the Sacrament worthily. With this faith created by the Word, the Christian can cling to God’s promises that his sins are forgiven, that it is the body and blood of Christ that he eats and drinks, and that baptism now saves him. Faith and the Word, then, are the two powers that rule the world, not popes and tradition.
In denying the treasury of merit as the foundation for indulgences, however, Luther was denying a papal decree from Pope Clement VI titled Unigenitus (1343) and here Cajetan had him. Theologically Luther might have won the day in faithfully confessing the words of Scripture, but Cajetan had Luther on record claiming the pope erred and therefore breaking with the tradition of Rome. Cajetan and Luther argued and debated for days. At the end of it, Cajetan hadn’t succeeded in bringing Luther to say the one word he wanted to hear: “revoco,” or “I recant.” On October 18, Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General of the Augustinian friars, secretly released Luther from his vows of obedience as an Augustinian and fled the city. Two days later, Luther himself fled in haste through a hole in the city wall, leaving behind his dagger, riding spurs, and even his underwear, escaping on an old horse without a saddle so that by the time he dismounted he could barely walk.
Alongside the debate about when Luther became a Lutheran, many debate whether or not Luther actually said the words “Here I stand, I can do no other” at the Diet of Worms. Regardless of whether he did or not, at the Diet of Augsburg we have written record of something to the same effect, but much more profound as Luther’s final word to Cajetan: “As long as these Scripture passages stand, I cannot do otherwise, for I know that one must obey God rather than men” (AE 31:274-75). This I think is the primary take-away from Augsburg for both Luther and us today. The opinions, traditions, and words of men are not what we Christians are called to confess, but we stand and fall on the Word of God. It is not “Here I stand”, but “Here Christ stands” and therefore, we can do no other.