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§ 48. Luther burns the Pope’s bull, and forever breaks with Rome. Dec. 10, 1520.


Literature in § 47.


Luther was prepared for the bull of excommunication. He could see in it nothing but blasphemous presumption and pious hypocrisy. At first he pretended to treat it as a forgery of Eck.280280    "Ich höre auch sagen, Dr. Eck habe eine Bulle mit sich von Rom wider mich gebracht, die ihm so ähnlich sei, dass sie wohl möchte auch Dr. Eck heissen, so voll Lügen und Irrthum sie sein soll; und er gebe vor, den Leuten das Maul zu schmieren, sie sollen glauben, es sei des Papsts Werk, so es sein Lügenspiel ist. Ich lasse es geschehen, muss des Spiels in Gottes Namen warten; wer weiss, was göttlicher Rath beschlossen hat." Von den neuen Eckischen Bullen und Lügen. Then he wrote a Latin and German tract, "Against the bull of Antichrist,"281281    Widder die Bullen des Endchrists, Weimar ed. vol. VI. 613-629. called it a "cursed, impudent, devilish bull," took up the several charges of heresy, and turned the tables against the Pope, who was the heretic according to the standard of the sacred Scriptures. Hutten ridiculed the bull from the literary and patriotic standpoint with sarcastic notes and queries. Luther attacked its contents with red-hot anger and indignation bordering on frenzy. He thought the last day, the day of Antichrist, had come. He went so far as to say that nobody could be saved who adhered to the bull.282282    He wrote to Spalatin, Nov. 4 (in De Wette, I. 522): "Impossibile est salvos fieri, qui huic Bullae aut faverunt, aut non repugnaverunt." He told his students, Dec. 11: "Nisi toto corde dissentistis a regno papali, non potestis assequi vestrarum animarum salutem."

In deference to his friends, he renewed the useless appeal from the Pope to a free general council (Nov. 17, 1520), which he had made two years before (Nov. 28, 1518); and in his appeal he denounced the Pope as a hardened heretic, an antichristian suppresser of the Scriptures, a blasphemer and despiser of the holy Church and of a rightful council.283283    Walch, XV. 1909 sqq. Erl. ed., XXIV. 28-35; and Op. Lat., V. 119-131. The appeal was published in Latin and German.

At the same time he resolved upon a symbolic act which cut off the possibility of a retreat. The Pope had ordered his books, good and bad, without any distinction, to be burned; and they were actually burned in several places, at Cologne even in the presence of the Emperor. They were to be burned also at Leipzig. Luther wanted to show that he too could burn books, which was an old custom (Acts 19:19) and easy business. He returned fire for fire, curse for curse. He made no distinction between truth and error in the papal books, since the Pope had ordered his innocent books to be destroyed as well. He gave public notice of his intention.

On the tenth day of December, 1520, at nine o’clock in the morning, in the presence of a large number of professors and students, he solemnly committed the bull of excommunication, together with the papal decretals, the Canon law, and several writings of Eck and Emser, to the flames, with these words (borrowed from Joshua’s judgment of Achan the thief, Josh. 7:25): "As thou [the Pope] hast vexed the Holy One of the Lord, may the eternal fire vex thee!"284284    The "Holy One" refers to Christ, as in Mark 1:24; Acts 2:27; not to Luther, as ignorance and malignity have misinterpreted the word. Luther spoke in Latin: "Quia tu conturbasti Sanctum Domini, ideoque te conturbet ignis aeternus." The Vulgate translates Josh. 7:25: "Quia turbasti nos, exturbet te Dominus in die hac." In the Revised E. V., the whole passage reads: "Why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burnt them [in Hebrew ותָא] with fire after they had stoned them with stones."

The spot where this happened is still shown outside the Elster Gate at Wittenberg, under a sturdy oak surrounded by an iron railing.285285    A tablet contains the inscription: "Dr. Martin Luther verbrannte an dieser Stätte am 10 Dec. 1520 the päpstliche Bannbulle."

Several hundred students tarried at the fire, which had been kindled by a master of the university, some chanting the Te Deum, others singing funeral dirges on the papal laws; then they made a mock procession through the town, collected piles of scholastic and Romish books, and returning to the place of execution, threw them into the flames.

Luther, with Melanchthon, Carlstadt, and the other doctors and masters, returned home immediately after the act. He at first had trembled at the step, and prayed for light; but after the deed was done, he felt more cheerful than ever. He regarded his excommunication as an emancipation from all restraints of popery and monasticism. On the same day he calmly informed Spalatin of the event as a piece of news.286286    "Anno MDXX, decima Decembris, hora nona, exusti sunt Wittembergae ad orientalem portam, juxta S. Crucem, omnes libri Papae: Decretum, Decretales, Sext. Clement. Extravagant., et Bulla novissima Leonis X.: item summa Angelica [a work on casuistry by Angelus Carletus de Clavasio, or Chiavasso, d. 1495], Chrysoprasus [De praedestinatione centuriae sex, 1514] Eccii, et alia ijusdem autoris, Emseri, et quaedam alia, quo adjecta per alios sunt: ut videant incendiarii Papistae, non esse magnarum virium libros exurere, quos confutare non possunt. Haec erunt nova." De Wette, I. 532. Further details about the burning and the conduct of the students we learn from the report of an unnamed pupil of Luther: Excustionis antichristianarum decretalium Acta, In the Erl. ed. of Op. Lat., V. 250-256. On the next day he warned the students in the lecture-room against the Romish Antichrist, and told them that it was high time to burn the papal chair with all its teachers and abominations.287287    Ranke, i. 307; Köstlin, i. 407; Kolde, i. 290. He publicly announced his act in a Latin and German treatise, "Why the Books of the Pope and his Disciples were burned by Dr. Martin Luther." He justified it by his duties as a baptized Christian, as a sworn doctor of divinity, as a daily preacher, to root out all unchristian doctrines. He cites from the papal law-books thirty articles and errors in glorification of the papacy, which deserve to be burned; and calls the whole Canon-law "the abomination of desolation" (Matt. 24:15) and antichristian (2 Thess. 2:4), since the sum of its teaching was, that "the Pope is God on earth, above all things, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and temporal; all things belong to the Pope, and no one dare ask, What doest thou?" Simultaneously with this tract, he published an exhaustive defense of all his own articles which had been condemned by the Pope, and planted himself upon the rock of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.

Leo X., after the expiration of the one hundred and twenty days of grace allowed to Luther by the terms of the bull, proceeded to the last step, and on the third day of January, 1521, pronounced the ban against the Reformer, and his followers, and an interdict on the places where they should be harbored. But Luther had deprived the new bull of its effect.

The burning of the Pope’s bull was the boldest and most eventful act of Luther. Viewed in itself, it might indeed have been only an act of fanaticism and folly, and proved a brutum fulmen. But it was preceded and followed by heroic acts of faith in pulling down an old church, and building up a new one. It defied the greatest power on earth, before which emperors, kings, and princes, and all the nations of Europe bowed in reverence and awe. It was the fiery signal of absolute and final separation from Rome, and destroyed the effect of future papal bulls upon one-half of Western Christendom. It emancipated Luther and the entire Protestant world from that authority, which, from a wholesome school of discipline for young nations, had become a fearful and intolerable tyranny over the intellect and conscience of men.

Luther developed his theology before the eyes of the public; while Calvin, at a later period, appeared fully matured, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter. "I am one of those," he says, "among whom St. Augustin classed himself, who have gradually advanced by writing and teaching; not of those who at a single bound spring to perfection out of nothing.

He called the Pope the most holy and the most hellish father of Christendom. He began in 1517 as a devout papist and monk, with full faith in the Roman Church and its divinely appointed head, protesting merely against certain abuses; in 1519, at the Leipzig disputation, he denied the divine right, and shortly afterwards also the human right, of the papacy; a year later he became fully convinced that the papacy was that antichristian power predicted in the Scriptures, and must be renounced at the risk of a man’s salvation.

There is no doubt that in all these stages he was equally sincere, earnest, and conscientious.

Luther adhered to the position taken in the act of Dec. 10, 1520, with unchanging firmness. He never regretted it for a moment. He had burned the ship behind him; he could not, and he would not, return. To the end of his life he regarded and treated the Pope of Rome in his official capacity as the very Antichrist, and expected that he soon would be destroyed by spiritual force at the second coming of Christ. At Schmalkalden in 1537 he prayed that God might fill all Protestants with hatred of the Pope. One of his last and most violent books is directed "Against the Papacy at Rome, founded by the Devil." Wittenberg, 1545.288288    Wider das Papstthum zu Rom, tom Teufel gestiftet (in the Erl. ed., XXVI. 108-228). A rude wood-cut on the title-page represents the Pope with long donkey-ears going into the jaws of hell, while demons are punching and jeering at him. Luther calls the Pope (p. 228) "Papstesel mit langen Eselsohren und verdammtem Lügenmaul." The book was provoked by two most presumptuous letters of Pope Paul III. to the Emperor Charles V., rebuking him for giving rest to the Protestants at the Diet of Speier, 1544, till the meeting of a general council, and reminding him of the terrible end of those who dare to violate the priestly prerogatives. King Ferdinand, the Emperor’s brother, read the book through, and remarked, "Wenn die bösen Worte heraus wären, so hätte der Luther nicht übel geschrieben." But not a few sincere friends of Luther thought at the time that he did more harm than good to his own cause by this book. He calls Paul III. the "Most hellish Father," and addresses him as "Your Hellishness." instead of "Your Holiness." He promises at the close to do still better in another book, and prays that in case of his death, God may raise another one "a thousandfold more severe; for the devilish papacy is the last evil on earth, and the worst which all the devils with all their power could contrive. God help us. Amen." Thus he wrote, not under the inspiration of liquor or madness, as Roman historians have suggested, but in sober earnest. His dying words, as reported by Ratzeburger, his physician, were a prediction of the approaching death of the papacy: —


"Pestis eram vivus, moriens tua mors ero Papa."

From the standpoint of his age, Luther regarded the Pope and the Turk as "the two arch-enemies of Christ and his Church," and embodied this view in a hymn which begins, —

"Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort

Und steur’ des Papst’s und Türken Mord."289289    It appeared in Klug’s Gesangbuch, Wittenberg, 1543, under the title: "Ein Kinderlied zu singen, wider die zween Ertzfeinde Christi und seiner heiligen Kirchen, den Papst und Türken."

This line, like the famous eightieth question of the Heidelberg Catechism which denounces the popish mass as an "accursed idolatry," gave much trouble in mixed communities, and in some it was forbidden by Roman-Catholic magistrates. Modern German hymn-books wisely substitute "all enemies," or "enemies of Christ," for the Pope and the Turk.

In order to form a just estimate of Luther’s views on the papacy, it must not be forgotten that they were uttered in the furnace-heat of controversy, and with all the violence of his violent temper. They have no more weight than his equally sweeping condemnation of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.



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