The Stupid Monk at The Diet at Worms: Part One

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Luther’s confessions and writings during that time demonstrated the diagnosis of the problem he faced had always been the same.

At Pleissenburg Castle during June and July of 1519, during the “Leipzig Debate,” Luther had so inflamed Duke George of Saxony with his words that George was only too eager to declare Luther’s heretical guilt. Luther himself did very little to assuage George, especially when compelled during proceedings to affirm several theological opinions of John Huss; opinions that had been condemned by the Roman church. This and other confrontations with representatives of the Roman curia led Luther, by June of 1520 to the decision that he could no longer apologize for his teachings. He was convinced that his opponents held false theological opinions and served a Roman curia enslaved by the spirit of anti-Christ. As Luther wrote in response to a tract written by Silvester Prierias, “farewell, ill-fated, doomed, blasphemous Rome; the wrath of God has come over you.” (Martin Luther, WA 6.329 17f.)

For Luther, there could be no doubt the spirit of anti-Christ had captivated the papacy at Rome. But not only Rome, Satan had been loosed against his dear German people as well. Thus, by the time he appeared before Charles V at Worms on April 16th, 1521 Luther’s published works provided more than enough proof for the papal legates that he had indeed become a heretic. With his collected works heaped before him on the floor as evidence Luther was asked two simple questions:

First, “Do you, Martin Luther, recognize the books published under your name as your own?” And, second: “Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?”

Luther’s lawyer, Hieronymous Schurf, a professor of canon and imperial law, objected to the first question, arguing, “The titles of the books must be named.” After this had been done Luther acknowledged that each of the works mentioned was his own. For the papal legate Hieronymous Aleander, Luther’s answer was already confirmation enough of the heretic’s mendacity. “For the ‘stupid monk’ could not possibly have written all those books and was obviously covering up for the clever men behind the scenes.” (Heiko Obermann, “Luther: Man Between God and the Devil,” 38.) Regarding the second question though, Luther asked for one day to think it over.

The time was granted, and on the following day Luther refused to answer their simplistic question. Instead, he formulated a distinction: “Some of my books, he said, are neither sharp nor polemical; they deal with nothing but faith and the Christian life in accordance with the Gospel. Even my opponents will be able to find nothing objectionable in them. Other writings are directed against the papacy, which is ruining the Church, weighing down the human conscience, and oppressing the empire.” (Obermann, “God and the Devil,” 38-39.) He then concluded his apology without loops or holes as had been requested, asserting,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” (Obermann, “God and the Devil,” 38-39.)

At the time these words were spoken Luther’s reputation had already spread. People outside of Wittenberg had heard of Luther. His reputation had traveled beyond the narrow audience of academic and ecclesial circles as a kind of folk hero who stood up against Roman rule and authority. With the spreading popularity of Luther’s statements at Worms it did not take very long for pamphlets, letters, and reproductions of his speech at Worms to circulate throughout Germany and the surrounding territories. In fact, as Heiko Obermann explained, “the nation heard even more than its rulers – namely the impressive final statement that can be found only in the published version of Luther’s confession: ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.’” (Obermann, “God and the Devil,” 40.)

Yet Worms was more than a German event, it was also a theological confession such as that found in the short tract on the Magnificat of Mary written by Luther the same year as the Diet. The work on the Magnificat was done amidst the interruptions of the imperial Diet, the translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek, into colloquial German, and the exposition of selected Psalms. As Gordon Rupp noted, what was most striking of all about the Magnificat of Mary, was that:

“...the tract contains material for a philosophy of history, a profound diagnosis of the might and vulnerability of human pride, that ‘bubble’-like quality by which arrogance resting on violence has been able, again and again, to stretch and swell into vast and terrifying systems of empire, battening upon great historical forces, until it seems to be invincible, until, with breathtaking suddenness, its hour comes (what Luther called a stundlein, and the Bible kairos) when God stretches forth His finger and the vast balloon collapses, and the once paralyzing and terrifying painted face upon it sags into sudden ruin, like Egypt, Babylon, the Third Reich.” (Gordon Rupp, "The Righteousness of Faith, Luther’s Progress,” 100.)

Luther’s confessions and writings during that time demonstrated the diagnosis of the problem he faced had always been the same. It was the conflict between sin and salvation regarding true theology and true knowledge of God.