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    Chapter 10

    Decisive Step of the Reformer—Luther’s Appeal to a General Council—Close Combat—The Bull burnt by Luther—Meaning of this daring Act—Luther in the Academy—Luther against the Pope—New Work by Melancthon—How Luther encourages his Friends—Progress of the Struggle—Melancthon’s Opinions on the Weak-hearted—Luther’s Treatise on the Bible—Doctrine of Grace—Luther’s Recantation

    Duty obliged Luther to speak, that the truth might be manifested to the world. Rome has struck the blow: he will show how he has received it. The pope has put him under the ban of the Church; he will put the pope under the ban of Christendom. Hitherto the pontiff’s commands have been all-powerful; he will oppose sentence to sentence, and the world shall know which has the greater strength. “I desire,” said he, “to set my conscience at rest, by disclosing to all men the danger that threatens them;” and at the same time he prepared to make a fresh appeal to a general council. An appeal from the pope to a council was a crime. It is therefore by a new attack on the pontifical power that Luther presumes to justify those by which it had been preceded.HRSCV2 207.1

    On the 17th November, a notary and five witnesses, among whom was Cruciger, met at ten o’clock in the morning in one of the halls of the Augustine convent where Luther resided. There, the public officer (Sarctor of Eisleben) immediately proceeding to draw up the minute of his protest, the reformer in presence of these witnesses said with a solemn tone of voice:—HRSCV2 207.2

    “Considering that a general council of the Christian Church is above the pope, especially in matters of faith;HRSCV2 207.3

    “Considering that the power of the pope is not above but inferior to Scripture; and that he has no right to slaughter the sheep of Christ’s flock, and throw them into the jaws of the wolf;HRSCV2 207.4

    “I, Martin Luther, an Augustine friar, doctor of the Holy Scriptures at Wittenberg, appeal by these presents, in behalf of myself and of those who are or who shall be with me, from the most holy pope Leo to a future general and christian council.HRSCV2 207.5

    “I appeal from the said pope, first, as an unjust, rash, and tyrannical judge, who condemns me without a hearing, and without giving any reasons for his judgment; secondly, as a heretic and an apostate, misled, hardened, and condemned by the Holy Scriptures, who commands me to deny that christian faith is necessary in the use of the sacraments; thirdly, as an enemy, an antichrist, an adversary, an oppressor of Holy Scripture, who dares set his own words in opposition to the Word of God; fourthly, as a despiser, a calumniator, a blasphemer of the holy Christian Church, and of a free council, who maintains that a council is nothing of itself.HRSCV2 207.6

    “For this reason, with all humility, I entreat the most serene, most illustrious, excellent, generous, noble, strong, wise, and prudent lords, namely, Charles emperor of Rome, the electors, princes, counts, barons, knights, gentlemen, councilors, cities and communities of the whole German nation, to adhere to my protest, and to resist with me the antichristian conduct of the pope, for the glory of God, the defense of the Church and of the christian doctrine, and for the maintenance of the free councils of Christendom; and Christ, our Lord, will reward them bountifully by his everlasting grace. But if there be any who scorn my prayer, and continue to obey that impious man the pope, rather than God, I reject by these presents all responsibility, having faithfully warned their consciences, and I abandon them to the supreme judgment of God, with the pope and his adherents.”HRSCV2 207.7

    Such is Luther’s bill of divorce; such is his reply to the pontiff’s bull. A great seriousness pervades the whole of this declaration. The charges he brings against the pope are of the gravest description, and it is not heedlessly that he makes them. This protest was circulated through Germany, and sent to most of the courts of Christendom.HRSCV2 207.8

    Luther had, however, a still more daring step in reserve, although this which he had just taken appeared the extreme of audacity. He would in no respect be behindhand with Rome. The monk of Wittenberg will do all that the sovereign pontiff dares do. He gives judgment for judgment; he raises pile for pile. The son of the Medici and the son of the miner of Mansfeldt have gone down into the lists; and in this desperate struggle, which shakes the world, one does not strike a blow which the other does not return. On the 10th of December, a placard was posted on the walls of the university of Wittenberg, inviting the professors and students to be present at nine o’clock in the morning, at the Eastern Gate, near the Holy Cross. A great number of doctors and students assembled, and Luther, walking at their head, conducted the procession to the appointed place. How many burning piles has Rome erected during the course of ages! Luther resolves to make a better application of the great Roman principle. It is only a few old papers that are about to be destroyed; and fire, thinks he, is intended for that purpose. A scaffold had been prepared. One of the oldest masters of arts set fire to it. As the flames rose high into the air, the formidable Augustine, wearing his frock, approached the pile, carrying the Canon Law, the Decretals, the Clementines, the papal Extravagants, some writings by Eck and Emser, and the pope’s bull. The Decretals having been first consumed, Luther held up the bull, and said: “Since thou hast vexed the Holy One of the Lord, may everlasting fire vex and consume thee!” He then flung it into the flames. Never had war been declared with greater energy and resolution. After this Luther calmly returned to the city, and the crowd of doctors, professors, and students, testifying their approval by loud cheers, re-entered Wittenberg with him. “The Decretals,” said Luther, “resemble a body whose face is meek as a young maiden’s, whose limbs are full of violence like those of a lion, and whose tail is filled with wiles like a serpent. Among all the laws of the popes, there is not one word that teaches us who is Jesus Christ.” “My enemies,” said he on another occasion, “have been able, by burning my books, to injure the cause of truth in the minds of the common people, and destroy their souls; for this reason, I consumed their books in return. A serious struggle has just begun. Hitherto I have been only playing with the pope. I began this work in God’s name; it will be ended without me and by His might. If they dare burn my book, in which more of the Gospel is to be found (I speak without boasting) than in all the books of the pope, I can with much greater reason burn their, in which no good can be discovered.”HRSCV2 207.9

    If Luther had commenced the Reformation in this manner, such a step would undoubtedly have entailed the most deplorable results. Fanaticism might have been aroused by it, and the Church thrown into a course of violence and disorder. But the reformer had preluded his work by seriously explaining the lessons of Scripture. The foundations had been wisely laid. Now, a powerful blow, such as he had just given, might not only be without inconvenience, but even accelerate the moment in which Christendom would throw off its bonds.HRSCV2 208.1

    Luther thus solemnly declared that he separated from the pope and his church. This might appear necessary to him after his letter to Leo X. He accepted the excommunication that Rome had pronounced. He showed the christian world that there was now war unto death between him and the pope. He burnt his ships upon the beach, thus imposing on himself the necessity of advancing and of combating.HRSCV2 208.2

    Luther had re-entered Wittenberg. On the morrow, the lecture-room was more crowded than usual. All minds were in a state of excitement; a solemn feeling pervaded the assembly; they waited expecting an address from the doctor. He lectured on the Psalms,—a course that he had commenced in the month of March in the preceding year. Having finished his explanations, he remained silent a few minutes, and then continued energetically: “Be on your guard against the laws and statutes of the pope. I have burnt his Decretals, but this is merely child’s play. It is time, and more than time, that the pope were burnt; that is (explaining himself immediately), the see of Rome, with all its doctrines and abominations.” Then assuming a more solemn tone, he added: “If you do not contend with your whole heart against the impious government of the pope, you cannot be saved. Whoever takes delight in the religion and worship of popery, will be eternally lost in the world to come.”HRSCV2 208.3

    “If you reject it,” continued he, “you must expect to incur every kind of danger, and even to lose your lives. But it is far better to be exposed to such perils in this world than to keep silence! so long as I live, I will denounce to my brethren the sore and the plague of Babylon, for fear that many who are with us should fall back like the rest into the bottomless pit.”HRSCV2 208.4

    We can scarcely imagine the effect produced on the assembly by this discourse, the energy of which surprises us. “Not one among us,” adds the candid student who has handed it down, “unless he be a senseless log of wood (as all the papists are, he says parenthetically), doubts that this is truth pure and undefiled. It is evident to all believers that Dr. Luther is an angel of the living God, called to feed Christ’s wandering sheep with the Word of God.”HRSCV2 208.5

    This discourse and the act by which it was crowned mark an important epoch in the Reformation. The dispute at Leipsic had inwardly detached Luther from the pope. But the moment in which he burnt the bull, was that in which he declared in the most formal manner his entire separation from the Bishop of Rome and his church, and his attachment to the universal Church, such as it had been founded by the apostles of Jesus Christ. At the eastern gate of the city he lit up a fire that has been burning for three centuries.HRSCV2 208.6

    “The pope,” said he, “has three crowns; and for this reason: the first is against God, for he condemns religion; the second against the emperor, for he condemns the secular power; the third is against society, for he condemns marriage.” When he was reproached with inveighing too severely against popery: “Alas!” replied he, “would that I could speak against it with a voice of thunder, and that each of my words was a thunderbolt!”HRSCV2 208.7

    This firmness spread to Luther’s friends and fellow-countrymen. A whole nation rallied around him. The university of Wittemberg in particular grew daily more attached to this hero, to whom it was indebted for its importance and glory. Carlstadt then raised his voice against that “furious lion of Florence,” which tore all human and divine laws, and trampled under foot the principles of eternal truth. Melancthon, also, about this time addressed the states of the empire in a writing characterized by the elegance and wisdom peculiar to this amiable man. It was in reply to a work attributed to Emser, but published under the name of Rhadinus, a Roman divine. Never had Luther himself spoken with greater energy; and yet there was a grace in Melancthon’s language that won its way to every heart.HRSCV2 208.8

    After showing by various passages of Scripture that the pope is not superior to the other bishops: “What is it,” says he to the states of the empire, “that prevents our depriving the pope of the rights that we have given him? It matters little to Luther whether our riches, that is to say, the treasures of Europe, are sent to Rome; but the great cause of his grief and our is, that the laws of the pontiffs and the reign of the pope not only endanger the souls of men but ruin them entirely. Each one may judge for himself whether it is becoming or not to contribute his money for the maintenance of Roman luxury; but to judge of religion and its sacred mysteries, is not within the scope of the commonalty. It is on this ground, then, that Luther appeals to your faith and zeal, and that all pious men unite with him,—some aloud, others with sighs and groans. Call to remembrance that you are Christians, ye princes of a christian people, and wrest these sad relics of Christendom from the tyranny of Antichrist. They are deceivers who pretend that you have no authority over priests. That same spirit which animated Jehu against the priest of Baal, urges you, by this precedent, to abolish the Roman superstition, which is much more horrible than the idolatry of Baal.” Thus spoke the gentle Melancthon to the princes of Germany.HRSCV2 209.1

    A few cries of alarm were heard among the friends of the Reformation. Timid minds inclined to extreme measures of conciliation, and Staupitz, in particular, expressed the deepest anxiety. “All this matter has been hitherto mere play,” wrote Luther to him. “You have said yourself, that if God does not do these things, it is impossible they can be done. The tumult becomes more and more tumultuous, and I do not think it will ever be appeased, except at the last day.” Thus did Luther encourage these affrighted minds. Three centuries have passed away, and the tumult has not yet subsided!HRSCV2 209.2

    “The papacy,” continued he, “is no longer what it was yesterday and the day before. Let it excommunicate and burn my writings!... let it slay me!... it shall not check that which is advancing. Some great portent is at our doors. I burnt the bull, at first with great trembling, but now I experience more joy from it than from any action I have ever done in my life.”HRSCV2 209.3

    We involuntarily stop, and are delighted at reading in Luther’s great soul the mighty future that was preparing. “O my father,” said he to Staupitz in conclusion, “pray for the Word of God and for me. I am carried away and tossed about by these waves.”HRSCV2 209.4

    Thus war was declared on both sides. The combatants threw away their scabbards. The Word of God reasserted its rights, and deposed him who had taken the place of God himself. Society was shaken. In every age selfish men are not wanting who would let human society sleep on in error and corruption; but wise men, although they may be timid, think differently. “We are well aware,” said the gentle and moderate Melancthon, “that statesmen have a dread of innovation; and it must be acknowledged that, in this sad confusion which is denominated human life, controversies, and even those which proceed from the justest causes, are always tainted with some evil. It is requisite, however, that in the Church, the Word and commandments of God should be preferred to every mortal thing. God threatens with his eternal anger those who endeavour to suppress the truth. For this reason it was a duty, a christian duty, incumbent on Luther, and from which he could not draw back, especially as he was a doctor of the Church of God, to reprove the pernicious errors which unprincipled men were disseminating with inconceivable effrontery. If controversy engenders many evils, as I see to my great sorrow,” adds the wise Philip, “it is the fault of those who at first propagated error, and of those who, filled with diabolical hatred, are now seeking to uphold it.”HRSCV2 209.5

    But all men did not think thus. Luther was overwhelmed with reproaches: the storm burst upon him from every quarter of heaven. “He is quite alone,” said some; “he is a teacher of novelties,” said others.HRSCV2 209.6

    “Who knows,” replied Luther, sensible of the call that was addressed to him from on high, “if God has not chosen and called me, and if they ought not to fear that, by despising me, they despise God himself? Moses was alone at the departure from Egypt; Elijah was alone in the reign of King Ahab;HRSCV2 209.7

    Isaiah alone in Jerusalem; Ezekiel alone in Babylon God never selected as a prophet either the high-priest or any other great personage; but ordinarily he chose low and despised men, once even the shepherd Amos. In every age, the saints have had to reprove the great, kings, princes, priests, and wise men, at the peril of their lives And was it not the same under the New Testament? Ambrose was alone in his time; after him, Jerome was alone; later still, Augustine was alone… I do not say that I am a prophet; but I say that they ought to fear, precisely because I am alone and that they are many. I am sure of this, that the Word of God is with me, and that it is not with them.HRSCV2 210.1

    “It is said also,” continues he, “that I put forward novelties, and that it is impossible to believe that all the other doctors were so long in error.HRSCV2 210.2

    “No! I do not preach novelties. But I say that all christian doctrines have been lost sight of by those who should have preserved them; namely, the learned and the bishops. Still I doubt not that the truth remained in a few hearts, even were it with infants in the cradle. Poor peasants and simple children now understand Jesus Christ better than the pope, the bishops, and the doctors.HRSCV2 210.3

    “I am accused of rejecting the holy doctors of the Church. I do not reject them; but, since all these doctors endeavour to prove their writings by Holy Scripture, Scripture must be clearer and surer than they are. Who would think of proving an obscure passage by one that was obscurer still? Thus, the, necessity obliges me to have recourse to the Bible, as all the doctors have done, and to call upon it to pronounce upon their writings; for the Bible alone is lord and master.HRSCV2 210.4

    “But (say they) men of power persecute him. Is it not clear, according to Scripture, that the persecutors are generally wrong, and the persecuted right; that the majority has ever been on the side of falsehood, and the minority with truth? Truth has in every age caused an outcry.”HRSCV2 210.5

    Luther next examines the propositions condemned in the bull as heretical, and demonstrates their truth by proofs drawn from the Holy Scriptures. With what vigor especially does he not maintain the doctrine of Grace!HRSCV2 210.6

    “What! before and without grace, nature can hate sin, avoid it, and repent of it; while even after grace is come, this nature loves sin, seeks it, longs for it, and never ceases contending against grace, and being angry with it; a state which all the saints mourn over continually! It is as if men said that a strong tree, which I cannot bend by the exertion of all my strength, would bend of itself, as soon as I left if, or that a torrent which no dikes or barriers can check, would cease running as soon as it was left alone No! it is not by reflecting on sin and its consequences that we arrive at repentance; but it is by contemplating Jesus Christ, his wounds, and his infinite love. The knowledge of sin must proceed from repentance, and not repentance from the knowledge of sin. Knowledge is the fruit, repentance is the tree. In my country, the fruit grows on the tree; but it would appear that in the states of the holy Father the tree grows on the fruit.”HRSCV2 210.7

    The courageous doctor, although he protests, still retracts some of his propositions. Our astonishment will cease when we see the manner in which he does it. After quoting the four propositions on indulgences, condemned by the bull, he simply adds:—HRSCV2 210.8

    “In submission to the holy and learned bull, I retract all that I have ever taught concerning indulgences. If my books have been justly burnt, it is certainly because I made concessions to the pope on the doctrine of indulgences; for this reason I condemn them myself to the flames.”HRSCV2 210.9

    He retracts also with respect to John Huss: “I now say that not a few articles, but all the articles of John Huss are wholly christian. By condemning John Huss, the pope has condemned the Gospel. I have done five times more than he, and yet I much fear I have not done enough. Huss only said that a wicked pope is not a member of Christendom; but if Peter himself were now sitting at Rome, I should deny that he was pope by Divine appointment.”HRSCV2 210.10

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