Early on the day after Luther's arrival in Augsberg an Italian courtier, Urban of Serra Longa, a creature of the cardinal's, arrived uninvited at Luther's lodging . His overtures and advice was in a word "Submit".
"If I am convinced out of the Sacred Scriptures that I have erred, I shall be but too glad to retract," replied Luther. Urban retorted, "The Pope can by a single nod change or suppress articles of faith," and hinted Luther's career and indeed his person would be well safeguarded by retraction.
"I shall still have heaven," answered Luther realising this was the legate Cajetan`s emissary. Alerted, Luther then wisely asked for a safe conduct to appear. At length a safe-conduct was obtained. The 11th of October was fixed for Luther's appearance before Cajetan. Dr. Link, of Nuremberg, and some other friends, accompanied him to the palace of the legate. The crowd well expected Luther's early compliance before the Roman purple.
Luther stands his ground
Customary ceremonies finally concluded leaving monk and cardinal eyeing each other in silence. The new age stood face to face with the old. Behind Cajetan was seen a long vista of receding centuries, with their traditions, their edicts, and their Popes. Behind Luther came a future, as yet a "sealed book," ripe to be opened.
Luther spoke: "Most worthy Father, in obedience to the summons of his Papal Holiness, and in compliance with the orders of my gracious Lord the Elector of Saxony, I appear before you as a submissive and dutiful son of the Holy Christian Church, and acknowledge that I have published the propositions and theses ascribed to me. I am ready to listen most obediently to my accusation, and if I have erred, to submit to instruction in the truth."
The Reformation appeared for the first time before the bar. Cajetan, assuming submission was near, affected a gracious air. In condescending tones he had only three things to ask of his dear son. First, that he would retract his errors, second that he abstain in future from promulgating his opinions, and third that he in future he would avoid anything that might disturb the peace of the Church. In other words ,"Retract".
Luther then demanded the Papal brief might be read to confirm Cajetan‘s authority to treat the matter. The cardinal, concealing his anger, intimated with a wave of his hand that this request could not be granted. "Then deign, most reverend Father, to point out to me wherein I have erred, " asked Luther. The legate took up Luther's "Theses". "Observe," said he, "In the seventh proposition you deny that the Sacrament can profit one unless he has faith and in your fifty-eighth proposition you deny that the merits of Christ form part of that treasure from which the Pope grants indulgences to the faithful."
These both were heinous errors in the estimation of Rome. The power of regenerating men by the opus operatum, the simple giving of the Sacrament to them, irrespective of the recipient's state empowered the priests. By granting or withholding, they held men in thrall. And likewise with indulgences Popes have a treasury of infinite merit on which he can draw at the price of his fixing to bestow on whom he may. Explode these two dogmas and the papacy collapses. Luther's "Theses" had broken the spell which opened to Rome the wealth of Europe. Little wonder, speaking through Cajetan, the Pope demanded of Luther, "You must revoke both these errors and embrace the true doctrine of the Church."
"That the man who receives the holy Sacrament must have faith in the grace offered him," said Luther, "is a truth I never can and never will revoke."
"Whether you will or no," returned the legate, getting angry, "I must have your recantation this very day, or for this one error I shall condemn all your propositions."
"But," replied the professor of Wittenberg, with equal decision, though with great courteousness, "I demand proof from Scripture that I am wrong; it is on Scripture that my views rest."
"Do you not know," rejoined De Vio, "that the Pope has authority and power over these things?"
"Save Scripture," said Luther eagerly.
"Scripture!" said the cardinal derisively, "the Pope is above Scripture, and above Councils.
Glad, perhaps, to escape for the present from a controversy which was not so manageable as he had hoped to find it, he offered to give the doctor of Wittenberg a day for deliberation, but intimated at the same time that he would accept of nothing but a retraction. So ended the first interview.
On returning to his convent his delight was great to find his valued friend Staupitz, the Vicar-General of the Augustines. He had followed him to Augsburg to assist him at this crisis. On the morning when Luther returned to his second interview with the cardinal, the Vicar-General and four imperial councillors accompanied him, along with many other friends, a notary, and witnesses. He offered to submit his "Theses" to the judgment of the Imperial Universities. The legate evidently had some difficulty in knowing what to reply to these reasonable and manly proposals. He tried to conceal his embarrassment under an affected pity for the monk. "Leave off," he said, in accents of great mildness, "these senseless counsels, and return to your sound mind. Retract, my son, retract." Luther once more appealed to the authority of Scripture. Cajetan was plainly becoming somewhat ruffled, so the conference ended after Staupitz had craved and obtained leave for Luther to put his views in writing.
At the third and last interview, the doctor of Wittenberg read a full statement of his views on all the points which had been under consideration. He maintained all his former positions, largely fortifying them by quotations from Augustine and other early Fathers, but more especially from Holy Writ. The cardinal could not help, even on the judgment-seat, displaying his irritation and chagrin. Drawing himself up in his robes, he received the "declaration" with a look of contempt, and pronounced it "mere words ... a long phylactery". Nevertheless he promised that he would send the paper to Rome.
Meanwhile the legate threatened him with the penalties enacted by the Pope unless he retracted. He offered Luther, somewhat earnestly, a safe-conduct, if he would go to Rome and there be judged. The Reformer knew what this meant. It was a safe-conduct to a dungeon somewhere in the precincts of the Vatican. The proffered favour was declined, much to the annoyance of Cajetan, who no doubt thought that this was the best way of terminating an affair which had tarnished the Roman purple, but had bolstered Luther's reputation.
Luther will not concede
This was a great crisis in the history of Protestantism, and we breathe more freely when we find it safely passed. Luther had not yet sounded the Papal dogmas to the bottom. He had not as yet those clear and well-defined views to which fuller investigation conducted him. He still believed the office of Pope to be of Divine appointment, and while condemning the errors of the man, was disposed to bow to the authority of his office. There was risk of concessions which would have hampered him in his future course, or have totally wrecked his cause. From this he was saved, partly by his loyalty to his own convictions, partly also by the perception on the part of the theologians of Rome that the element of "faith" on which Luther so strenuously insisted, constituted an essential and eternal difference between his system and theirs. It substituted a Divine for a human agency, the operation of the Holy Spirit for the opus operatum. On such a point there could be no reconcilement on the basis of mutual concession, and this led them to insist on absolute and unconditional retractation.
Luther used to say that he "did not learn all his divinity at once, but was constrained to sink deeper and deeper. The Pope says that though Christ be the Head of the Church, yet notwithstanding there must be a visible and corporeal head of the Church on earth. With this I could have been well content, in case he had but taught the Gospel purely and clearly, and had not brought forward human inventions and lies instead thereof."
So ended the first conflict between the old and the new powers . The victory remained with the Reformation. This was no small gain. Besides, the two men had been able to take each the measure of the other. Luther had looked through and through Cajetan. He was astonished to find how weak a polemic and how flimsy a theologian was the champion to whom Rome had committed her battle. "One may guess from this," wrote Luther to Spalatin, "what is the calibre of those of ten times or a hundred times lower rank." The Reformer went forth ever after to meet Rome's mighty men with less anxiety touching the issue. But the cardinal had formed no contemptuous opinion of the monk, although he could find none but contemptuous epithets in which to speak of him. "I will have no more disputing with that beast," said he, when Staupitz pressed him to debate the matter once more with the doctor of Wittenberg, "for he has deep eyes and wonderful speculation in his head."
All taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis