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§ 43. Luther’s Crusade against Popery. 1520.


After the disputation at Leipzig, Luther lost all hope of a reformation from Rome, which was preparing a bull of excommunication.

Here begins his storm and pressure period,233233    Sturm- und Drangperiode is an expressive German phrase. which culminated in the burning of the Pope’s bull, and the protest at the Diet of Worms.

Under severe mental anguish he was driven to the conviction that the papacy, as it existed in his day, was an anti-christian power, and the chief source and support of abuses in the Church. Prierias, Eck, Emser, and Alveld defended the most extravagant claims of the papacy with much learning, but without any discrimination between fact and fiction. Luther learned from the book of Laurentius Valla, as republished by Ulrich von Hutten, that the Donation of Constantine, by which this emperor conferred on Pope Sylvester and his successors the temporal sovereignty not only over the Lateran Palace, but also over Rome, Italy, and all the West, was a baseless forgery of the dark ages. He saw through the "devilish lies," as he called them, of the Canon law and the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. "It must have been a plague sent by God," he says (in his "Address to the German Nobility"), "that induced so many people to accept such lies, though they are so gross and clumsy that one would think a drunken boor could lie more skillfully." Genuine Catholic scholars of a later period have exposed with irrefragable arguments this falsification of history. His view of the Church expanded beyond the limits of the papacy, and took in the Oriental Christians, and even such men as Hus, who was burned by an oecumenical council for doctrines derived from St. Paul and St. Augustin. Instead of confining the Church, like the Romanists, to an external visible communion under the Pope, he regarded it now as a spiritual communion of all believers under Christ the only Head. All the powers of indignation and hatred of Roman oppression and corruption gathered in his breast. "I can hardly doubt," he wrote to Spalatin, Feb. 23, 1520, "that the Pope is the Antichrist." In the same year, Oct. 11, he went so far as to write to Leo X. that the papal dignity was fit only for traitors like Judas Iscariot whom God had cast out.234234    In the midst of a Latin letter to Spalatin, from the beginning of June, 1520 (De Wette, I. 453), he gives vent to his wrath against popery in these German words:"Ich meine, sie sind zu Rom alle toll, thöricht, wüthend, unsinnig, Narren, Stock, Stein, Hölle, und Teufel geworden." In the same letter he mentions his intention to publish a book"ad Carolum et totius Germaniae nobilitatem adversus Romanae curiaetyrannidem et nequitiam."

Luther was much confirmed in his new convictions by Melanchthon, who had independently by calm study arrived at the same conclusion. In the controversy with Eck, August, 1519, Melanchthon laid down the far-reaching principle that the Scriptures are the supreme rule of faith, and that we must not explain the Scriptures by the Fathers, but explain and judge the Fathers by the Scriptures. He discovered that even Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustin had often erred in their exegesis. A little later (September, 1519), he raised the same charge against the Councils, and maintained that a Catholic Christian could not be required to believe any thing that was not warranted by the Scriptures. He expressed doubts about transubstantiation and the whole fabric of the mass. His estimate of the supreme value of the Scriptures, especially of Paul, rose higher and higher, and made him stronger and bolder in the conflict with mediaeval tradition.

Thus fortified by the learning of Melanchthon, encouraged by the patriotic zeal of Hutten and Sickingen, goaded by the fury of his enemies, and impelled, as it were, by a preternatural impulse, Luther attacked the papal power as the very stronghold of Satan. Without personal ill-will against anybody, he had a burning indignation against the system, and transcended all bounds of moderation.235235    See the remarkable passage in his letter to Conrad Pellicanus, January or February, 1521 (De Wette, I. 555): "Recte mones modestiae me: sentio et ipse, sed compos mei non sum; rapior nescio quo spiritu, cum nemini me male velle conscius sim: verum urgent etiam illi furiosissime, ut Satanam non satis observem." He felt the inspiration of a prophet, and had the courage of a martyr ready to die at any moment for his conviction.

He issued in rapid succession from July till October, 1520, his three most effective reformatory works: the, "Address to the German Nobility," the "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," and the, "Freedom of a Christian Man."236236    L. Lemme: Die drei grossen Reformationsschriften Luthers vom Jahre 1520. Gotha, 1875, 2d ed., 1884. Wace and Bucheim: First Principles of the Reformation, London, 1883. The first two are trumpets of war, and the hardest blows ever dealt by human pen to the system of popery; while the third is peaceful, and shines like a rainbow above the thunderclouds. A strange contrast! Luther was the most conservative of radicals, and the most radical of conservatives. He had all the violence of a revolutionary orator, and at the same time the pious spirit of a contemplative mystic.

The sixteenth century was the age of practical soteriology. It had to settle the relation of man to God, to bring the believer into direct communion with Christ, and to secure to him the personal benefits of the gospel salvation. What was heretofore regarded as the exclusive privilege of the priest was to become the common privilege of every Christian. To this end, it was necessary to break down the walls which separated the clergy from the laity, and obstructed the approach to God. This was most effectually done by Luther’s anti-papal writings. On the relation of man to God rests the relation of man to his fellow-men; this is the sociological problem which forms one of the great tasks of the nineteenth century.



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