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Martin Luther, Part 5: The Reformer (continued)

The Leipzig Debate

Luther returned to Wittenberg and concentrated on his lectures and his study of God’s Word. He published nothing that related to his differences with the church. But his enemies did not keep silent. Before long, Luther found himself in a dispute that marked the parting of the ways between him and his followers and the Catholic Church. 

Dr. John Eck, professor at the University of Ingolstadt, broke the silence when he bitterly attacked Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Luther replied by writing a series of articles in which he strongly defended himself. Professor Carlstadt of the University of Wittenberg also came to Luther’s defense. Eck was very shrewd and was eager to engage Martin Luther in a public debate, but he could hardly challenge a man who had been declared a heretic. He therefore challenged Carlstadt. Carlstadt accepted the challenge and invited Luther to accompany him, which he was glad to do. Here at last Luther saw an opportunity to debate publicly the issues raised in the theses he had posted on October 31, 1517.

The debate took place in a large auditorium at the University of Leipzig. The meeting with Eck consisted of a series of discussions and disputes that lasted more than two weeks, from June 27 to July 15, 1519. Luther, Carlstadt, Amsdorf, and Melanchthon represented the University of Wittenberg.

Carlstadt and Eck argued for a week about free will and grace. Toward the end of the week it became evident that Carlstadt was no match for the shrewd Eck. On July 4 Luther took over for Carlstadt. The subject under discussion was the development of the papacy. Luther argued that the office of the pope was not based on Scripture, but was man-made. He pointed out that the Greek Catholic Church had never recognized the pope in Rome. Many other questions were raised and debated by the two men. They argued about the infallibility of the pope, purgatory, indulgences, penance, the Mass. Luther based his arguments on the Bible. Eck considered the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church the supreme authority in matters of faith. At one point in the debate Eck accused Luther of being a follower of Huss, who had been condemned by the church and burned at the  stake in 1415. To that Luther replied, “I hold that it is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is superior to others. I do not care whether this comes from Wycliffe or from Huss. . . . It is not in the power of the Roman pope to construct articles of faith. . . . By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture.” Eck shouted, “Luther, I command you to recant your false opinion and to vow faithfulness to the Church which alone has salvation!” When Eck got Luther to make the admission that he believed that church councils and popes can err and have erred, many people believed that the Leipzig debate was a victory for John Eck. In their opinion Eck had proved beyond a doubt that Luther was a false teacher and a heretic.

The debate with Eck was a turning point for Luther. It had clarified many things for him. He realized now that not certain individuals but the Catholic Church as such had placed the authority of man above the authority of God’s Word. He also was convinced that the church would not give up its false teachings and that a division was coming. This saddened him greatly.

The following may have been part of a conversation between Melanchthon and Luther as they journeyed back to Wittenberg:

Melanchthon: These meetings with Eck have shaken my faith in the teachings of the church. What are your thoughts, Martin?

Luther: My faith in the church is also shaken. Sinful man has replaced the holy Word of God with his own thoughts and words. God’s Word now stands second to man’s word in the church.

Melanchthon: Is there any hope that the church can be made to see her errors?

Luther: We have tried. Others have tried. I am afraid it is too late.

Melanchthon: What can be done? Thousands of souls are being misled by the church.

Luther: We can preach; we can teach; we can write; we can publish. We can expose the falsehoods and errors of the church and we’ll do so on the basis of God’s Word. God’s Word will be our weapon. With God and his Word on our side we shall gain the victory over the powers of darkness.

150376_featuredFrom The Life and Faith of Martin Luther, by Adolph F. Fehlauer. © 1981 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.