It is the 18th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1521
We are in Germany for today's show, and this being only four years since the year 1517, get ready for some Reformation goodness on today's show.
But let me remind you a point from previous shows that the Reformation (with a capital R) of the 16th century is but one of many reformations, renewals, revivals, reconsiderations, etc. For many, this 16th century Reformation has become the symbol of a reform movement that sought to proclaim Jesus more loudly than church polity, preach freedom more vociferously than Papal authority, and uphold the Bible in the vernacular over one authorized Latin translation.
And on account of this, we have developed our favorite stories (and sometimes pious myths) about the era. 1517, of course, is the year of Luther's dissent with his 95 theses. But have you read those? Most likely, you haven't… partially because they are repetitive and not representative of Luther's "mature" theology. But the act of (probably) physically nailing a copy of the theses on the Wittenberg church door has retained its significance for centuries regardless of the specific content of the theses.
And today, we remember the response to Luther's protest, his ex-communication, and famous words at his trial. 1518, 1519, and 1520 were wild years for the suddenly famous young Saxon Professor. His theses caused a stir and led to the church easing up on the indulgences that looked like a pay-to-play forgiveness scheme. He debated Papal officials and continued to expand on his developing theology of Gospel freedom. But in 1519, the Papal Bull Exsurge Domini put Luther on notice, and in 1521 he was excommunicated. Despite some misgivings about his safety, Luther headed to Worms to answer the charges directed against him. This story has been retreaded and retold ad nauseam, but that makes it no less significant.
Luther is asked if he wrote the books attributed to him and whether he would recant the theology therein. Luther asked for a day to think and then, on this, the 18th of April in 1521, he was prepared to answer. His answer deserves another listen:
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
Did you catch what wasn't said? "Here I stand. I can do no other". Some Luther apologists have worked very hard to shoehorn in reasons why he could have said those words, but it remains not only unlikely but unimportant. This was not some modern existential stand against authority. Instead, it was a stand-in favor of the authority of Scripture and reason. And no, not reason like Enlightenment style. Descartes "I think therefore I am" business.
Luther's point was that the Papacy couldn't claim some level of authority based on infallibility when the church had historically proven that it was subject to err. And what was the response from Rome? It was "you're just doing what the past heretics have done," and they were partially correct. Luther's reform (especially this early) was part of a longstanding Christian tradition of questioning illegitimate authority attempting to usurp the authority of Jesus.
Luther's thoughts would develop and change. He would write brilliant things as well as mind-numbingly stupid things. He has been made into a theological superhero and arch-villain. He has been played by brooding actors and had his face on everything from socks to coffee to ammunition. The "Here I Stand I can do no other" was added to Luther's written comments, likely by a friend or colleague. Perhaps Luther wanted to say this or said things like it on other occasions. But don't get lost in the vagaries of textual evidence and criticism. Today we remember the monumental personal clash in Worms that set the stage for the fracturing of the church and the birth of the Modern Age. Martin Luther made his stand for the authority of Scripture and plain reason over tradition and Roman authority on this the 18th of April in 1521.
The reading for today comes from Luther himself. This is a stanza in English translation from his famous "A Mighty Fortress." This is the 4th stanza and quite fitting for our story today
That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the Davey to my Goliath Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok