How Martin Luther was spared possible death after his excommunication in 1521

GORDON LUCY on crucial events in the history of the Protestant Reformation that unfolded 500 years ago

Monday, 19th April 2021, 8:30 am
Martin Luther was ‘kidnapped’ and taken to safety by Frederick the Wise after his excommunication and appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521

Two crucially important events occurred in the life of Martin Luther and the history of the Protestant Reformation in 1521.

In April Luther appeared before the Emperor Charles V at the Diet (the Imperial Assembly of the Holy Roman Empire) of Worms.

In 1521 he also embarked upon his translation of the New Testament into German, ‘the most important and useful work of his whole life’.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In 1517 Luther, Professor of Biblical Exegesis at the recently established University of Wittenberg, had nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in the Saxon town.

Luther’s theses were prompted by his indignation at the selling of papal indulgences by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, in order to raise money for the building of St Peter’s in Rome.

Tetzel claimed that ‘the moment the money tinkles in the collection box, a soul flies out of purgatory’.

Luther regarded this as a travesty of Biblical truth. His understanding of salvation was derived from his wrestling with the meaning of Romans 1:17 : ‘For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith’ (NIV).

For more than 30 years Luther had struggled with all his might to prove his righteousness through strict obedience to the laws of God.

He now realised that his efforts were futile because righteousness comes from Christ’s work on the cross, not human self-effort.

We cannot make peace with God, but God can make peace with us. This enabled Luther to see Scripture, faith and church in a wholly new light. He began to teach the liberating message of salvation by faith in Christ, not by works (or even purchasing papal indulgences).

Drafted in Latin, then the language of international scholarship, Luther’s theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed, making the controversy one of the first in history to be assisted by the printing press. Within two weeks, the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

Initially the Papacy ignored the controversy but eventually on June 15 1520 Pope Leo X threatened Luther with excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the 95 theses, within 60 days.

Luther responded on December 10 1520 by defiantly burning the Papal bull threatening excommunication at Wittenberg.

On January 3 1521 Luther was excommunicated and the Papacy would then have expected Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to have had Luther arrested and burned at the stake as a heretic.

Elector Frederick III of Saxony (later known as Frederick the Wise) secured a hearing for Luther at the Imperial Diet at Worms under the Emperor’s safe-conduct.

A precedent a century earlier was not reassuring. In 1415 Jan Hus, the proto-Protestant Czech reformer, received a similar promise of safe conduct from the Emperor Sigismund to attend the Council of Konstanz but it was not honoured and Hus was burned at the stake.

Charles V had only been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and because he owed his election almost entirely to Frederick, he looked very favourably on Frederick’s suggestions and requests.

At this stage Frederick, an enthusiastic collector of relics with no obvious Protestant sympathies, was simply motivated by his desire to ensure that Luther, as one of his subjects, should receive a fair hearing and to preserve the life of his most high-profile academic at the university he had founded in 1502.

The ideal scenario (for Charles V) would have been that Luther would acknowledge that he was the author of the books laid out before him and then recant. Luther readily acknowledged authorship but when asked to repudiate them and recant, he requested time to consider his answer. Charles V gave him 24 hours.

Luther returned the next day, having prayed and consulted friends, and delivered a thoughtful and dignified address, explaining:

‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by plain reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.’

According to tradition the closing words of Luther’s address to the Diet were allegedly: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. May God help me.’

In reply, Charles V said that Luther must be mistaken because it was inconceivable that he alone should be right and a thousand years of church tradition be wrong.

Luther might have suffered the fate of Jan Hus but for two reasons. First, to his great credit Charles V did not replicate the Emperor Sigismund’s treachery and honoured Luther’s safe conduct.

Secondly, Frederick the Wise, realising that Luther was still in grave danger, arranged for him to be ‘kidnapped’ and conveyed to Wartburg Castle where he would be safe. Although Frederick the Wise did not really embrace Luther’s theology until the very end of his life, the Elector protected Luther from his enemies at every turn.

Wartburg Castle is situated on a high precipice overlooking the town of Eisenach, Luther’s birthplace, and it was here in hiding Luther began translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German, completing the task in 10 weeks.

As Luther believed that the Bible was the divinely-inspired Word of God and the means by which God communicated with his people, it was therefore crucially important that Christians should have access to the Bible in their own language.

Published in 1522, Luther’s New Testament was a run-away success: 5,000 copies were sold within two months.

Luther and his collaborators completed their translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew in 1534, making the whole Bible available in German. He continued to refine the translation until his death in 1546.