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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Martin Luther

Luther’s Return To Wittenberg

Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

Two days had passed since the legate had bidden Luther "be gone, and see his face no more, unless he changed his mind".

After leaving the cardinal's presence, Luther wrote him a letter in which, although he retracted nothing, he expressed great respect and submission. The cardinal returned no answer to this.

What did his silence mean? "It bodes no good," said Luther's friends; "he is concocting some plot with the emperor; we must be beforehand with him." Luther departs silently at dawn on 20th October 1518.

On arriving at Nuremberg, he read for the first time the papal brief from Rome to Cajetan. It revealed that should Luther fail to submit, Cajetan was to seize the person of Luther, and keep him in safe custody, that he might be sent to Rome. If, notwithstanding, Luther should escape, he was to proscribe him in every part of Germany, and lay under interdict all those princes, communities, universities, and potentates, with their cities, towns, countries, and villages, which should offer him an asylum, or in any way befriend him. Clearly the angel of the Lord had encamped round about him and delivered him.

Luther appeals to the Pope

Luther had not left Augsburg without leaving behind him something that would speak for him when he was gone; and not in Augsburg only, but in all Christendom. He penned an appeal to Rome. In that document he recapitulated the arguments with which he had combated indulgences, and characterized the cardinal's procedure as unreasonable, in insisting on a retraction without deigning to show him wherein he had erred.

He had not yet renounced the authority of the Pope: he still reverenced the chair of Peter, though disgraced by mal-administrations, and therefore he closed his appeal in the following terms: - "I appeal from the Most Holy Father the Pope, ill-informed, to the Most Holy Father the Pope Leo X., by the grace of God to be better-informed." This appeal was to be handed to the legate only when the writer was at a safe distance. But the question was, who should bell the cat? Cajetan was sore that he had failed to compel the retraction of the monk. Rome had been foiled and that by a German. Cajetan fearing for his reputation at Rome was hardly likely to receive an appeal graciously.

Luther re-entered Wittenberg on 30th October 1518 , the anniversary of the posting up his "Theses". The 1st of November was All Saints' Day. The absence of the annual influx to visit the relics and purchase indulgences was striking. So much for the blow Luther had clearly struck Rome's trade. Conversely student numbers at the University had greatly increased with Luther's growing renown. Elector Frederick was delighted with Wittemberg University's growing prestige and this drew him into the Reformation camp although he ill understood its doctrines.

On November the 19th Frederick of Saxony received a letter from Cardinal Cajetan, giving his version of the interviews at Augsburg. and imploring the elector to cease from protecting a heretic, whom the tribunals of Rome were prosecuting, The elector, deserving the epithet ‘wise', had no sooner received the legate's letter than, desirous of hearing both sides, he sent it to Luther. The latter gave Frederick his account of the affair, dwelling on Cajetan's promise, which he had not kept, to convince him out of Scripture. Frederick resolved not to abandon Luther. He knew his virtues, though he did not understand his doctrines. He also knew the grievances that Germany groaned under Italian pride and Papal greed. Frederick's reply echoed that of Luther "Prove the errors which you allege."

Power of the printing press

The elector had requested Luther to withhold publication of his account of affairs. But the following day the eagerness of the public and the cupidity of the printers overreached his caution. The printing-house was besieged by a crowd of all ranks and ages, clamouring for copies. The sheets were handed out wet from the press, and as each sheet was produced a dozen hands were stretched out to clutch it. The author was the last person to see his own production. In a few days the pamphlet was spread far and near.

Luther had become not the doctor of Wittenberg only, but of all Germany. The whole nation had been drawn into the study of theology. Through the printing-press Luther's voice reached every hearth and every individual in the Fatherland. "Our university," wrote Luther, "glows with industry like an ant-hill". Ever more youths arrived in Wittenberg to receive the seed of a reformed life later to bear it over regions remote. Great attention was given to the study of Hebrew and Greek. The elector's secretary, Spalatin, in his correspondence with Luther, was perpetually asking and receiving expositions of Scripture, and it was believed that behind the secretary's shadow sat the elector himself, quietly but earnestly prosecuting that line of inquiry which was ultimately to place him by the side of Luther.

The tidings of Cajetan's "victory" had reached Rome. Serra Longa had blundered, Cajetan had blundered, and now we see Leo X. blundering worst of all. On November 9 the Pontiff issued a new decretal. It ran "That the Roman Church, the mother of all Churches, had handed down by tradition that the Roman Pontiff, the successor of St. Peter, by the power of the keys - that is, by removing the guilt and punishment due for actual sins by indulgence - can for reasonable causes grant to the faithful of Christ, whether in this life or in purgatory, indulgences out of the superabundance of the merits of Christ and the saints; can confer the indulgence by absolution, or transfer it by suffrage. And all those who have acquired indulgences, whether alive or dead, are released from so much temporal punishment for their actual sins as is the equivalent of the acquired indulgence. This doctrine is to be held and preached by all, under penalty of excommunication, from which only the Pope can absolve, save at the point of death."

The papal bull

This bull was sent to Cajetan, who was then living at Linz, in Upper Austria, whence copies were despatched by him to all the bishops of Germany, with injunctions to have it published. The Pope had exonerated Tetzel, but it was at the expense of taking the whole of this immense scandal upon himself and his system. The chief priest of Christendom presented himself before the world holding the bag with as covetous a grip as any friar of them all.

‘The pope is antichrist'

Furthermore Rome's reaction compelled Luther to consider the Papacy and its foundations in even greater depth.. What Luther had considered the doctrine of Tetzel he now saw was the doctrine of Leo of Rome. Leo had endorsed Tetzel's and Cajetan's interpretation of the matter. Luther's mind is known from a letter of this time to his friend Wenceslaus Link at Nuremberg: "The conviction is daily growing upon me that the Pope is Antichrist."

This conclusion was in due time reached. The Reformer drew up another appeal, and on Sunday, the 28th of November, he read it aloud in Corpus Christi Chapel, in the presence of a notary and witnesses. "I appeal," he said, "from the Pontiff, as a man liable to error, sin, falsehood, vanity, and other human infirmities - not above Scripture, but under Scripture - to a future Council to be legitimately convened in a safe place, so that a proctor deputed by me may have safe access." This appeal marks a new stage in Luther's enlightenment. The Pope is, in fact, abjured: Luther no longer appeals  to Leo but from Leo to the authority of a General Council.

So closed the year 1518. Papal anathemas he knew were being prepared at Rome; they were not, improbably, at this moment on their way to Germany. Not because he feared for himself, but because he did not wish to compromise the Elector Frederick, he held himself ready at a day's notice to quit Saxony. His thoughts turned often to France. The air seemed clearer there, and the doctors of the Sorbonne spoke their thoughts with a freedom unknown to other countries. Had Luther been actually compelled to flee, most probably he would have gone to that country.

And now the die was cast as it seemed. The elector sent a message to him, intimating his wishes that he should quit his dominions. He will obey, but before going forth he will solace himself, most probably for the last time, in the company of his friends. While seated with them at supper, a messenger arrives from the elector. Frederick wishes to know why Luther delays his departure. What a pang does this message send to his heart . What a sense of desolation ! On earth he has no protector. There is not for him refuge below the skies. The beloved friends assembled round him - Jonas, Pomeranus, Carlstadt, Amsdorf, the jurist Schurff, and, dearest of all, Melancthon - are drowned in grief, almost in despair, as they behold the light of their university on the point of being quenched, and the great movement which promises a new life to the world on the brink of overthrow. So closed the year 1518.

To be continued.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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