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Martin Luther, Part 7: The Accused

Luther knew that he had spoken the truth, but he knew that Rome very likely would condemn him and do everything possible to destroy him. A showdown had to come between him and the pope and between him and the emperor. The church was the first to act.

The Papal Bull

In November 1519 the Curia met in Rome to discuss the steps that should be taken to stop Luther. Eck urged that the pope should act immediately to silence once and for all “that beast of Wittenberg,” as he called Luther. The Curia decided, however, to make another attempt to get the Elector Frederick to surrender Luther to Rome. Frederick replied that arrangements had already been made for a meeting between Luther and Miltitz. At that meeting the archbishop of Trier was to serve as judge. The meeting with the archbishop, however, did not take place; but that, he said, was through no fault of his own. Frederick also made it quite clear that he had no intention of surrendering Luther to Rome. He was determined that his famous university professor should have a fair trial, and he knew that he would not get that in Rome. So the elector informed Luther that it was his plan to take him along to the diet at Worms,  where his case could be heard.

In March 1520 the pope appointed a commission of four with Eck as chairman. This commission was ordered to draw up a bull of excommunication against Luther. On June 1st the bull, or papal pronouncement, was unanimously accepted by the cardinals. On June 15, 1520, the pope signed the bull and affixed the papal seal. It was ready for printing and for distribution throughout the church.

The bull was a lengthy document that listed and condemned forty-one of Luther’s writings. In it the pope lamented that anything so wicked could have taken place among the Germans for whom he always had a special affection. He called God to witness that he had done everything possible to bring Luther back to the fold of the church. The bull stated that Luther’s attacks on the papacy and his false teaching dare not be tolerated. It then condemned Luther as a heretic and stated that he would be excommunicated unless he recanted within sixty days. Excommunication meant that he could not partake of the sacraments of the church, his property would be taken away from him, and all his writings would be burned. After his excommunication he would be in great danger of being put under the ban of the state, cruelly punished, and possibly put to death.

In July the pope ordered John Eck and Jerome Aleander to publish and display the bull in Germany. Eck was to distribute it throughout Saxony, Luther’s state, but he found it very difficult to carry out his assignment. He found that Luther’s writings were being read by thousands. Many of them believed that God had at last sent them a deliverer from the tyranny of the papacy. These people were not about to join in the condemnation of a man who had not even been granted a fair trial. When Eck tried to post and distribute the document in Leipzig, the university students almost caused a riot. He had to find safety in the Dominican monastery. Aleander didn’t fare much better. When he built a fire in Louvain to burn Luther’s writings, the students began throwing official Catholic writings into his fire. When the archbishop finally forbade the burning of Luther’s books, the citizens walked around the city chanting slogans that supported Luther.

Luther’s Reaction to the Bull

The papal bull did not reach Luther until October. He immediately wrote a sharp reply which he called “Against the Evil Bull of the Antichrist.” He wrote in part: “I protest before God, our Lord Jesus, his sacred angels, and the whole world that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse it as a sacrilege. If the pope does not retract and condemn the bull and  punish Dr. Eck, then no one is to doubt that he is God’s enemy, Christ’s persecutor, Christendom’s destroyer, and the true Antichrist. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.”

On December 10 the sixty days were up, but Luther had no thought of recanting. In fact, he had spent very little time discussing the bull and his excommunication with anyone. He kept on with his lectures at the university. His classes had always been well attended, but now even more students flocked to his classroom to hear him.

Luther’s excommunication was now officially in effect. He was out of the Catholic Church, and all his writings were to be burned. But Luther and Melanchthon had a different book-burning in mind. Early on the morning of December 10 Melanchthon posted this notice on the castle church and university bulletin boards: “The spiteful books of the papal theology will be given to the flames, even as the enemies of the gospel have burned the scriptural  writings of Luther. All interested in this event meet at the east gate of the city.” By nine o’clock a large number of townspeople and students had gathered outside the Elster Gate to see what would happen. A wood fire was started by some students. Then from the university came a procession of students and professors led by Martin Luther. As the flames leaped up, the students and professors threw Roman Catholic books and pamphlets and copies of the canon law into the fire. Suddenly, Luther stepped forward with the papal bull in his hand. He held it up for everyone to see, and then as he threw it into the flames he said, “Because you angered the Holy One of God, let the Lord consume you in these flames!” In this dramatic way Martin Luther broke forever his ties with the Roman Catholic Church. Later, he said, “I, Martin Luther, make known hereby to everyone that by my wish, advice, and act the books of the pope of Rome were burned.”

After the gathering had sung the Te Deum (“We Praise Thee, O God”), the professors left, but the students were not yet ready to return to the university. For some time they stood around the fire singing funeral songs in honor of the burnt papal bull. Then they marched through the streets of Wittenberg shouting and singing.

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