Luther burns the papal bull

Luther Excommunicated

The bull condemned forty-one propositions extracted from Luther’s writings as scandalous, heretical, and damnable. It left room, however, for the recovery of the lost son of the Church if Luther would make proof of the sincerity of his penitence by reading his recantation and committing all of his books to the flames within a sixty-day period. Failing to submit and obey, Luther and all of his adherents were pronounced accursed. All princes and magistrates were enjoined to apprehend and send them to Rome, or banish them from their country. The towns in which they continued to reside were to be placed under interdict, and everyone who opposed the publication and execution of the bull was excommunicated from the Church.

 "These were haughty words [the pope’s bull]; and at what a moment they were spoken! The finger of a man’s hand was even then about to appear, and to write on the wall that Rome had fulfilled her glory, and reached her zenith, and would henceforward hasten to her setting. But she knew not this. She saw only the track of light she had left behind her in her onward path athwart the ages. A thick veil hid the future with all its humiliations and defeats from her eyes." Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 311.

While excommunicating Luther on the one hand, the pope wrote a flattering letter to Elector Frederick. In his communication, the pope referred to the errors of that "son of iniquity," Martin Luther. He expressed his certainty that Frederick cherish an abhorrence of these errors and in a glowing eulogy, praised the piety and orthodoxy of the elector.

Frederick had, however, begun to drink at the well of Wittenberg and had lost his relish for the Roman cistern. The purpose of the letter was transparently clear, and it produced the opposite effect of that which the pope intended. From that day on, Frederick of Saxony resolved that he would protect the Reformer.

Rome had launched her bull, but she had yet to see it published in every country of Christendom. In order to accomplish this, two nuncios were chosen to attend to the mission—Eck and Aleander. Bearing the bull which he had so large a share in fabricating, Eck viewed himself as the very Atlas who bore up the sinking Roman world. As he passed through German towns, he met with coldness and contempt. His progress was more like that of a fugitive than a conqueror. At times he was even forced to seek shelter in the nearest convent to avoid the popular fury.

While awaiting the arrival of the bull, Luther wrote two publications, the first of which was The Babylonish Captivity of the Church, in which he stated, "I know that the papacy is none other than the kingdom of Babylon, and the violence of Nimrod the mighty hunter. I therefore beseech all my friends and all booksellers to burn the books that I have written on this subject and to substitute this one proposition in their place: The papacy is a general chase led by the Roman bishop to catch and destroy souls." Ibid., 313.

He next attacked the priest and the Sacrament. "Grace and salvation, he affirmed, are neither in the power of the priest nor the efficacy of the recipient. Faith lays hold on that which the Sacrament represents, signifies, and seals—even the promise of God; and the soul resting on that promise has grace and salvation. . . . ‘Without faith in God’s promise,’ without a jewel, a scabbard without a sword.’ . . . At the very moment when Rome was advancing to crush him with the bolt she had just forged, did Luther pluck from her hand that weapon of imaginary omnipotence which had enabled her to vanquish men." Ibid.

The bull of excommunication arrived at Wittenberg in October of 1520. "Luther and Leo: Wittenberg and Rome now stand face to face—Rome has excommunicated Wittenberg, and Wittenberg will excommunicate Rome. Neither can retreat, and the war must be to the death." Ibid., 315.

As Aleander and Eck advanced, they left in their track numerous blazing piles. In many of the towns in the hereditary estates of the emperor, a bonfire was made of Luther’s works. To add to these many fires lighted by Eck and Aleander, Luther kindled one of his own. A Placard on the walls of the University of Wittenberg announced Luther’s intention to burn the pope’s bull and that this would take place at nine o’clock on the morning of December 10. At the appointed time, Luther, accompanied by approximately six hundred students and doctors, as well as an enthusiastic and sympathetic crowd of town folks, made his way to the eastern gate of the town. Arriving at the spot, they found a scaffold already erected and a pile of logs laid in order. One of the more distinguished Masters of the Arts applied the torch to the pile; and as soon as the flames blazed up, the Reformer stepped forward, holding in his hand the several volumes which constitute the Canon Law and various other writings of earlier popes, committing them one at a time to the flames. Finally, the bull of Leo was also cast into the flames.

 Aleander The burning of the pope’s bull marked the closing of one stage and the opening of another in the Reformation. Luther knew that one blow was not the battle, but there was now no question that the war had begun. From this point on, an understanding of the nature of the church more clearly developed. It was his clearer and perfected judgment respecting the two systems and the two churches that enabled him to act with such decision—a decision that astounded Rome, which had never doubted that her blow would crush the Reformer. Though she had been somewhat in doubt as to whether to launch it, she never doubted that once launched, it would certainly quell the Wittenberg revolt.

When Aleander opened his campaign with a bonfire of Luther’s writings in Cologne, someone asked him of what value it was to burn the books of Luther’s opinions, when the real issue was erasing them from the hearts of men. The legate replied that while this was true, it was proper to teach by signs which all could read. It was his secret desire, however, to bring the author of the books to the pile. He realized, however, that to gain this objective, he must get Luther within his power. In order to do this, he must detach Frederick from Luther’s side and win over the young emperor. In the legate’s mind, the latter goal seemed to pose little difficulty. Born in the Catholic faith and descended from an ancestry whose glories were closely entwined with Catholicism, there was little question where the emperor’s loyalty lay. Though he had marked out a path which he little doubted would bring the Reformer to the stake, Aleander found that the path was beset with greater difficulties than he had calculated on meeting.

Luther’s Condemnation Sought

Approaching the young emperor, on whose authority Luther’s books had been burned, the nuncio pointed out that while the books had been burned, the air was yet thick with heresy. In order to purify it, he proposed a royal edict against the author. The emperor declined to give a direct answer, deferring until he could ascertain the thinking of the Elector of Saxony on the matter.

Aleander next begged an audience with Frederick. The elector received him in the presence of his counselors and the Bishop of Trent. The haughty envoy, assuming a tone that bordered on insolence, asserted that Luther was rending the Christian State, bringing the Empire to ruin, and that Frederick alone stood between the monk and his justly deserved chastisement. He concluded by demanding that the elector himself punish Luther, or failing in that, deliver him over to Rome.

The elector met the bold assault of Aleander with a plea for justice. He pointed out that no one had yet refuted Luther and that it would be a gross scandal to sentence to punishment a man who stood uncondemned. He proposed that Luther must be summoned before a tribunal of pious, learned, and impartial judges.

The elector’s statement pointed directly to a hearing before the Diet soon to be convened at Worms. Knowing the courage and eloquence of Luther, nothing could have been more disagreeable with Aleander. He dreaded the impression that Luther’s appearance would create, and he had no interest in meeting him in a debate or to win from him any more victories of the sort Eck so loudly boasted. From his travels in Germany, he knew how popular the cause of Protestantism had already become. Wherever it was known that he was the opponent of Luther, it was only with difficulty that he was able to find admittance at a respectable inn; and even in these, the portrait of the monk stared back at him from the walls of almost every bedroom in which he slept. Besides, Luther had already been excommunicated. To grant him a hearing under such circumstances would surely give the appearance that the pope’s sentence might be reversed by secular authority, making the chair of Peter subordinate to the States-General of Germany. On all of these grounds, the papal nuncio was resolved to oppose to the uttermost Luther’s appearance before the Diet.

Realizing that he could expect little help from the Elector of Saxony, Aleander now turned his attention to the emperor. As he knew, the truth or falsehood of Luther’s opinions carried little weight with Charles; his course was one of policy. The case with him revolved around the point of ambition. Quite simply, which would more further his political projects, to protect Luther or to burn him? At this time, Germany was not the center of Charles’ interest or policy. He understood neither the spirit nor the language of the German people. While not indifferent to the religious movement that was rapidly gaining ground as the result of Luther’s teaching, it had no meaning except so far as it threatened the pope.

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