Luther Meets Di Vio on His Own Ground

Leipzig Debate

The Italians, who were not expecting such a response, were in complete astonishment. As for the cardinal, he was beside himself, scarcely believing how completely he had captured his opponent. Exulting in the victory he now thought to be certain, De Vio seized the book which contained the famous constitution and eagerly read the passage. The Italians could not suppress their elation, nor could the elector’s councilors hide their embarrassment. Luther, however, waited for his opponent. “At last, the cardinal read the words: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ has acquired this treasure by His sufferings,’ and Luther stopped him.

“‘Most worthy father,’ said he, ‘pray, meditate, and weigh these words carefully: He has acquired. Christ has acquired a treasure by His merits; the merits, therefore, are not the treasure; for, to speak philosophically, the cause and effect are very different matters. . . .’

“De Vio still held the book in his hands, his eyes resting on the fatal passage; he could make no reply. He was caught in the very snare he had laid; and Luther held him thee with a strong hand, to the inexpressible astonishment of the Italian courtiers around him. The legate would have eluded the difficulty, but he had not the means; he had long abandoned the testimony of Scripture and of the fathers. . . . Desirous of concealing his disgrace, the prince of the church suddenly quitted this subject and violently attacked on other articles. Luther, who perceived this skillful maneuver, did not permit him to escape; he tightened and closed on every side the net in which he had taken the cardinal and rendered all escape impossible. ‘Most reverend Father,’ said he, with an ironical, yet very respectful tone, ‘your eminence cannot, however, imagine that Germans are ignorant of grammar; to be a treasure, and to acquire a treasure, are two very different things.’

“‘Retract!’ said De Vio, ‘retract! Or if you do not, I shall send you to Rome to appear before judges commissioned to take cognizance of your affair. . . . Think you that your protectors will stop me? Do you imagine that the pope cares anything for Germany? The pope’s little finger is stronger than all the German princes put together.’” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 4, chapter 8

Luther’s only reply was to request that the legate forward his reply to the pope. At these words, the legate in anger said, “Retract, or return no more.”

Without reply, Luther, followed by the elector’s councilors, withdrew. The cardinal and the Italians, remaining alone, looked at one another in confusion.

Though they never met again, messages of friendship from the cardinal were conveyed to Luther. The concern of the Germans for Luther’s safety increased, however, just in proportion to the mildness of the prelate’s language. They greatly feared that the legate was laying plans to seize the Reformer and throw him in prison; but he feared to move and violate the imperial safe-conduct on his own, until he should receive a reply from Rome.

Luther Leaving Augsburg

Luther, realizing that God had preserved him until that hour, determined not to tempt God. Quickly plans were laid for a secret departure. A horse was provided, and the city magistrate supplied him with a guide. Before daybreak, they slipped through a small gate and as rapidly as possible made their way away from Augsburg. Luther pressed his poor animal to gallop as fast as its strength would allow. He well remembered the supposed flight of Huss and the manner in which he was caught. At the time when Huss was committed to the flames, his adversaries asserted that by his flight he had forfeited the safe-conduct and that they had a right to burn him.

Surprised and angered at the news of Luther’s escape, the legate wrote Frederick, the elector of Saxony, bitterly denouncing Luther and demanding that Frederick send him to Rome or banish him from Saxony.

Though the elector had, as yet, little knowledge of Luther’s doctrine, he was greatly impressed by the force and clearness of his reasoning; and until he should be proved to be in error, Frederick resolved to stand as his protector. He wrote the legate: “‘Since Doctor Martin appeared before you at Augsburg, you ought to be satisfied. We did not expect that you would endeavor to make him retract without having convinced him of his errors. None of the learned men in our principality have informed me that Martin’s doctrine is impious, anti-Christian, or heretical.’ The prince refused, moreover, to send Luther to Rome or to expel him from his states.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 4, chapter 10.

The darkness seemed to thicken around Luther. Everywhere were ominous signs of a gathering storm. Just when the danger had reached its height, Emperor Maximilian died (January 12, 1519). Negotiations and intrigues were now set on foot for the election of a new emperor. The pope, who favored a particular candidate, found it necessary, in order to obtain his objective to court the favor of the elector Frederick, whose position as regent and whose reputation for wisdom gave him a potential voice in the electoral college. For the time being, it did not seem prudent to push the issue regarding Luther.

On July 4, 1519, a debate was held between Dr. Eck and Luther at Leipzig, relative to the primacy of the papacy. As the debate proceeded, Eck was constantly and consciously losing ground. Finally, on the second day of the debate, he sought to direct the course of discussion in such a way as to prejudice the audience against Luther, hoping to destroy the effect of his words. Addressing the council, he said, “From primitive times downward it was acknowledged by all good Christians that the Church of Rome holds its primacy of Jesus Christ Himself, and not of man. I must confess, however, that the Bohemians, while obstinately defending their errors, attacked this doctrine. The venerable father must pardon me if I am an enemy of the Bohemians, because they are the enemies of he Church, and if his present discussion has reminded me of these heretics; for . . . according to my weak judgment, . . . the conclusions to which the doctor has come, are all in favor of their errors. It is even affirmed that the Hussites loudly boast of this.” A. T. Jones, Ecclesiastical Empire, 729.

Luther well knew the peril in which Eck had placed him. He replied, “I love not a schism, and I never shall. Since the Bohemians, of their own authority, separated from our unity, they do wrong, even were divine authority decisive in favor of their doctrines; for at the head of all divine authority is charity and the union of the Spirit.” Ibid.

The debate was adjourned for dinner. During the interval, Luther’s conscience began to trouble him for speaking as he did about the Bohemian Christians and he determined to correct the false impression that he had left on the minds of the people.

Luther Rejects the Primacy of the Church

Luther saw the difficulty of his position. He had already repudiated the primacy of the pope and had appealed from the pope to a council. This decision involved the rejection of the Council of Constance, one of the greatest councils of the Church. For him to endorse the attitude of the Christian Bohemians was to declare that a Council had condemned what was, in fact, Christian—in short, of having erred—breaking from himself the last remaining bond of attachment with the papacy; and, doing so, opening all of the floodgates of papal opposition. Yet, in Luther’s mind it was becoming clear that the infallible authority of councils, as well as that of the pope, must be given up and that he must stand on the Word of God alone.

Duke George of Saxony

“Accordingly, as soon as the meeting had assembled in the afternoon session, Luther seized the first moment. He arose and, with the decision of conviction in his voice, said: ‘Certain of the tenets of John Huss and the Bohemians are perfectly orthodox. This much is certain. For instance, “That there is only one universal Church,” and again, “That it is not necessary to salvation to believe the Roman Church superior to others.” Whether Wycliffe or Huss said so, I care not. It is the truth.’” Ibid., 730.

Eck had, without realizing it, done both Luther and the Reformation a great service. The blow which he had anticipated would destroy Luther served, instead, to sever the last link in the chain that still bound the Reformer to Rome.

Luther’s statement produced a sensation. Several persons who had until that moment listened to him with favor, began to doubt his orthodoxy. The impression made upon Duke George was never effaced; and from that moment, he viewed the Reformer with an unfavorable eye.

When the Bohemian Christian heard the news of the discussion, they wrote to Luther: “What Huss was formerly in Bohemia, you, O Martin, are now in Saxony. Wherefore pray, and be strong in the Lord.” Ibid., 731.

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