On the afternoon  of December 10, 1520, a number of faculty from the University of Wittenberg and a batch of students gathered outside the Elster gate on the east end of the city. A notice that had been posted in a nearby chapel inviting anyone who thought the Roman church’s teaching stank to join to together at the city’s rankest spot: the town carrion pit. There they could witness the burning of the church’s foulest books of Scholastic theology and papal laws, all of it organized by Martin Luther’s friend and colleague Johann Agricola.
There was an initial glitch in the planned bonfire. Agricola could only find copies of canon law to burn because his faculty colleagues weren’t willing to part with the works of Scholastic theologians like Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel. So after the fire was lit, in went various sets of papal law and a copy of a medieval penitential – a manual for priests on how to impose penance on those confessing to them, and a few books by theologians folks in Wittenberg loved to hate: Johannes Eck and Jerome Emser. But the notice at the chapel of the Holy Cross didn’t say anything about what Luther had brought with him to the church roast.
Most paintings and woodcuts of the event show Luther as a defiant hothead. But in reality, the pesky professor stepped up to the fire, “trembling and praying,” as he confessed to his superior in the Augustinian order, and consigned to the flames a copy of the papal bull that threatened excommunication if he didn’t recant. According to some reports Luther said, “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” The smell of burning paper and leather bindings joined with the stench of the rotting offal cast into the pit by local butchers. It didn’t take long at all for the symbolic event to be over. Professors went back to work, and students did their sophomoric best to down some ale and create a satirical requiem with song parodies and a processional to further mock the theology their teachers had been fighting against.
Johannes Eck, whose own books were burned that day, had been given the commission from Rome to proclaim the papal bull in that part of Germany. It wasn’t well received. In Leipzig, anti-Eck and anti-bull pamphlets appeared, and he received such imposing threats that the city council issued an order of protection and he had to sequester himself in a Dominican monastery for safety. Eck never delivered the bull in person as he was supposed to do (he offered the excuse that he didn’t have the proper clothes for traveling), so a Leipzig militiaman was sent to Wittenberg with the bull on October 11. Luther now had sixty days to respond properly to the pope’s demands.
The Pope Leo X used the psalm description of a boar uprooting grape vines in a vineyard as a metaphor for what the upstart German monk had been doing at that backwater university.
The papal bull’s name, Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord), comes from Psalm 74 with which it begins. The Pope Leo X used the psalm description of a boar uprooting grape vines in a vineyard as a metaphor for what the upstart German monk had been doing at that backwater university. The bull objected to Luther’s teachings about penance, indulgences, the pope’s authority, good works, burning heretics, purgatory, and whether monks could beg for alms, among others. It declared that anything he had said or written about these topics was condemned. Luther was thereby summoned to Rome, and his books were to be burned. What’s more, those who supported him were subject to the same penalties and would officially become notorious heretics. Someone who provided Luther with lodging faced equal condemnation. Universities would lose their privileges if they did not support the coming ban.
Luther’s elector Frederick the Wise had been aware of what was coming within a couple months of the bull’s publication on June 15. Political machinations were in the works, along with brainstorming about how to protect his Bible professor if he didn’t recant. Luther for his part declared that the accusations against him were unjust. Initially with the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther asked merely for an intramural discussion about indulgences at the university, but he’d been drawn into this conflagration due to others’ moves against him. He didn’t even want his books to be widely published, because he thought they could have used some more polish.
But Luther took seriously the vows he made when he earned his doctorate, to teach only the truth and to fight against those who taught otherwise. When he did what he’d vowed, it resulted in persecution. He was willing to negotiate, but he wouldn’t recant, nor would he accept being called a heretic or lose his academic freedom. In writing to his prince, Luther called himself a “little flea,” but he hoped that it was the truth that would be defended rather than the inconsequential professor proclaiming it. The goal had only ever been to bring comfort to consciences troubled by sin, which had been heightened by Rome’s burning of Luther’s books. To defy the church’s demands so publicly was to show others they also should have no fear.
The goal had only ever been to bring comfort to consciences troubled by sin, which had been heightened by Rome’s burning of Luther’s books.
With the delivery of the bull to Wittenberg, Luther now had sixty days to decide how to respond. He didn’t lie low. Instead, he wrote a defense of the bonfire in “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned.” More important, as the forces arrayed against him waited the two months for his reply, Luther drafted “On the Freedom of a Christian,” the greatest of his four important treatises that year. In it, he claimed his freedom in Christ as well as his call to serve his neighbor – especially in his vocation as a preacher. He drafted a cover letter to Leo X warning him about the false teachers that surrounding the pontiff.
Having fought fire with fire outside the city walls, Luther now stood in complete defiance of Rome. His supporters hailed the events of December 10, but others were left wondering, “What is this mangy monk starting?” Certainly, Luther’s opponents had few options. On January 3, 1521, the hammer finally came down with the bull that actually excommunicated him. His books were banned in cities across Germany. Luther was moved to write, “An Instruction for Penitents Concerning the Forbidden Books of Dr. M. Luther,” advising people whose confessors hounded them to demand absolution. By that time negotiations over how to force Luther to face his opponents and publicly recant had begun. The burning of the papal bull put Luther on the verge of his appearance before Emperor Charles V, apparatchiks from Rome, the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, and representatives of free imperial cities at the Diet of Worms in June.
The bonfire at the Wittenberg dump and Luther’s speech in Worms six months later were of a piece. He would not relent. He could do no other. There he stood in both places with his own heart burning for the Gospel.