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§ 56. Reflections on Luther’s Testimony at Worms.
Luther’s testimony before the Diet is an event of world-historical importance and far-reaching effect. It opened an intellectual conflict which is still going on in the civilized world. He stood there as the fearless champion of the supremacy of the word of God over the traditions of men, and of the liberty of conscience over the tyranny of authority.
For this liberty, all Protestant Christians, who enjoy the fruit of his courage, owe him a debt of gratitude. His recantation could not, any more than his martyrdom, have stopped the Reformation; but it would have retarded its progress, and indefinitely prolonged the oppressive rule of popery.
When tradition becomes a wall against freedom,
when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned
into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death.375375 The Devil sometimes tells the truth. So
Mephistopheles, in Goethe’s Faust, when he
excuses the aversion of the student to the study of jurisprudence, and
says with a wicked purpose:—
"Es erben sich Gesetz’ und Rechte
Wie eine ew’ge Krankheit fort;
Sie schleppen von Geschlecht sich zum Geschlechte
Und schleichen sacht von Ort zu Ort.
Vernunft wird Unsinn, Wohlthat Plage;
Weh dir, dass du ein Enkel bist!
Vom Rechte, das mit uns geboren ist,
Von dem ist, leider! nie die Frage." At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history. This consideration furnishes the key for the proper appreciation of Luther’s determined stand at this historical crisis.
Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.376376 Dr. (Bishop) Hefele discusses this case at length from the Roman Catholic standpoint, in his Conciliengeschichte, vol. VII. (1869), pp. 218 sqq. He defends Sigismund and the Council of Constance on the ground that a salvus conductus protects only against illegal violence, but not against the legal course of justice and deserved punishment, and that its validity for the return of Hus to Bohemia depended on his recantation. But no such condition was expressed in the letter of safe-conduct (as given by Hefele, p. 221), which grants Hus freedom to come, stay, and return (transire, morari et redire libere). Sigismund had expressly promised him "ut salvus ad Bohemiam redirem " (p. 226). Such a promise would have been quite unnecessary in case of his recantation.
This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.
Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four oecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one oecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.377377 See my Church Hist., vol. IV. 500 sqq.; and Creeds of Christendom, vol. I. 169 sqq.
Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.
One man with the truth on his side is stronger than a majority in error, and will conquer in the end. Christ was right against the whole Jewish hierarchy, against Herod and Pilate, who conspired in condemning him to the cross. St. Paul was right against Judaism and heathenism combined, "unus versus mundum;" St. Athanasius, "the father of orthodoxy," was right against dominant Arianism; Galileo Galilei was right against the Inquisition and the common opinion of his age on the motion of the earth; Döllinger was right against the Vatican Council when, "as a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he protested against the new dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.378378 Döllinger’s declaration of March 28, 1871, for which he was excommunicated, April 17, 1871, notwithstanding his eminent services to the Roman Catholic Church as her most learned historian, bears some resemblance to Luther’s declaration at Worms. See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 195 sqq.
That Luther was right in refusing to recant, and that he uttered the will of Providence in hearing testimony to the supremacy of the word of God and the freedom of conscience, has been made manifest by the verdict of history.
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