Martin Luther Defies the Pope: December 10, 1520

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.


Martin Luther did not intend to destroy the Catholic Church, nor did he intend to start a separate church. Luther wanted to reform the Church, to bring it back to what it was meant to be — the pure Bride of Christ.


Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk

Luther was not alone in wanting to reform the Church. Catholic humanists like Desiderius Erasmus of Holland, Thomas More of England, and the Cardinal Francisco Jiménez of Castile protested as loudly as Luther did against the problems in the Church. Even Cardinal Cajetan, who confronted Luther at Augsburg in 1518, carried on the same fight in the Roman curia. Unlike Luther, however, these reformers did not promote teachings that directly undermined the teaching authority of the Church.


Luther advocated several doctrines that were contrary to the Catholic Faith. His foremost idea was that salvation comes by faith only (sola fide) and not by any good works. Against the Catholic teaching that human nature, though fallen, is essentially good, Luther taught that human nature is wholly corrupt because of Original Sin. Since human nature is corrupt, only by God’s Grace (sola gratia), working through faith, can one be saved from eternal punishment. For Luther, however, Grace does not remove human sinfulness but only covers a person’s sins.


Martin Luther in 1520

Luther rejected the Church’s teaching that what God has revealed to us can be known in two ways—Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. For Luther, Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the source of divine revelation. Since Luther also rejected the authority of the pope and Church councils, he said that every Christian has the ability (by God’s Grace) to understand Scripture. Even the simplest believer, said Luther, has as much divine help to interpret Scripture as any pope or council.


These three ideas—sola fide, “by faith alone”; sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone”; and sola gratia, “by Grace alone”—were the foundations of Luther’s teaching. But they were not all he taught.


Like Wycliffe, Luther threw out the Catholic teaching on the Mass. Luther defended the real presence of Christ in Communion, but he rejected transubstantiation. The bread and wine, he said, do not change their nature to become the Body and Blood of Christ. Believers, he said, receive the Body and Blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread and the wine. Furthermore, Luther taught that the Mass is only a banquet, not a sacrifice—and since it is not a sacrifice, there is no need for a special priesthood. All believers are equally priests, declared Luther.



Pope Leo X, with his first cousins, both cardinals. The cardinal to the left is Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII

Luther taught that such things as sacramentals, pilgrimages, private devotions, sacrifices, and almsgiving do not bring Grace to the soul. This led him to conclude that religious life in monasteries and convents is opposed to the Gospel, and that all believers are to live as laity. In the parts of Germany that ultimately followed Luther, monasteries and convents were closed and ransacked, and the monks and nuns were turned out into the streets. Luther himself eventually ceased to live like an Augustinian and later married a former nun who, hidden in a herring barrel, had escaped from her convent.


After his debate with Eck, Luther’s attacks on the pope became more and more violent. Luther had a powerful and moving prose style, and he used it to his advantage. In 1520, he published in German a revolutionary treatise, called An Appeal to the German Nobility, in which he used a popular style that was charged with eloquence. In this Appeal, Luther called on the German princes to reform the German Church. They did not have to wait on the clergy, said Luther, since all Christians are priests—not just the pope and the bishops. On account of the printing press, the Appeal and the many other tracts written by Luther spread quickly throughout Germany, and many Germans began to see in Luther the great reformer and German patriot they had been waiting for.


Pope Leo X’s Bull “Against the Errors of Martin Luther”

It was not until the summer of 1520 that Pope Leo X took any action against Luther. In June, the pope issued the bull Exsurge Domine (“Rise, O Lord”), condemning many of Luther’s teachings and giving him 60 days after he received the bull to recant his errors or face excommunication. Luther received a copy of the bull on October 10. Would he recant? He gave his answer two months later.


On December 10, 1520, the deadline for Luther’s recantation, students and professors of the University of Wittenberg gathered around Luther at a city gate. Because Luther’s books had been burned in other cities, Luther and his friends built a fire into which they cast works of scholastic theology. Finally, Luther took the pope’s bull and threw it into the flames. This was his answer to Leo. Luther would not recant.

Music from Luther’s Time


The film that follows depicts Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora (the herring-barrrel nun whom he married in 1525) performing pieces from the period in which they lived. The performance tells a story. In the first scene, Katharina von Bora and Luther enter, swathed in cloaks, reminiscent of monastic robes (she had been a nun), and they perform Arnolt Schlick’s 1512 hymn to Mary, Maria Zart. The second scene depicts Luther and Katharina’s married life, and here the music is decidedly secular in character. The third scene features a performance of Luther’s great Reformation hymn, Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”); and while the music is sacred, the painting of Mary with the Christ child and the infant John the Baptist has given way to the rather profane Cupid Complains to Venus, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. What does it all mean? We shall let you, the viewer and listener, decide.



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