We picture Martin Luther on October 31, 1517, hammering his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church as the moment the Reformation launched. But arguably the more decisive event took place nearly four years later on April 18, 1521, when Luther stood at the Diet of Worms. When pressed if he would retract his writings, Luther replied:
If, then, I am not convinced by testimonies of Scriptures, or by clear rational arguments—for I do not believe in the pope or in councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted each other—I am bound by the Bible texts that I quoted. And as long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot nor do I want to retract anything when things become doubtful. Salvation will be threatened if you go against your conscience. May God help me. Amen.
With the 500th anniversary of this momentous occasion, I turned to three Reformation scholars—Michael Haykin, Herman Selderhuis, and Carl Trueman—and asked them to explain, in 500 words or less, the significance and legacy of Luther’s stand for the church today.
Solo Sancto Spiritu
On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther experienced what was probably the most dangerous moment of his life. He had been asked to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, the Spaniard Charles V, at the imperial parliament (diet) that had been called to meet at Worms, which was situated on the Upper Rhine, about 40 miles south of Frankfurt.
Luther’s brave stand at Worms, face to face most likely with a fiery death, sealed the break with Rome of those who came to be called Protestants. It also decisively determined that the movement following in his train—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and even Anabaptist—would be biblicistic and a spirituality of the Word would shape its piety.
And though the reformers did not realize it in their day, Luther standing before the most powerful prince in Europe with the Scriptures as his only armament set the tone for the church in the far future, when she cast the support of princes to the four winds and relied solely upon the Holy Spirit—solo Sancto Spiritu.
No Hero, No Book, No Nonsense
The danger is to see Luther standing before the emperor as a hero. He was not. He even asked for permission to sleep on the decision of whether to recant. If we would focus on Luther we would do what he rejected. I do not believe in the pope or councils, Luther said. No heroes, no Christian leaders, no tradition, no Luther, Calvin, or whatever great theologians were before or came after. Only Scripture.
“I am bound by the Bible texts that I quoted.” That is the lasting message for the church and for every Christian. It can cause a split in the church, as we saw in the Reformation. It can cause theological isolation, it can cause loss of money, prestige, and career. It can even cause loss of life.
It is important to see that Luther was not bound by just a sacred book. At Worms he speaks about “the testimonies of the Scriptures” and about “the Word of God.” We are not bound by a book but by God who speaks to us through his Word. Luther at Worms warns us against liberal theology that sees the Bible as just a book, but also against a theology in which the Bible becomes an impersonal book of divine texts. Luther warns against losing God through defending the Bible.
There is another relevant lesson in Luther’s witness at Worms when he says that he also wants to be convinced by clear rational arguments. The church today faces many intellectual and theological challenges, and we may not flee from them. We need solid theology that works with rational arguments in order to defend the faith. Luther at Worms encourages us to profound theological education, for academic theology, for training theologians who are able to discuss rationally with unbelief and who are able to discern and attack heresy.
Most essential is that Luther made clear at Worms that Scripture is about salvation and that the Reformation is about salvation. Luther had no choice. He could not retract because salvation was at stake. We discuss a lot in church, but do we still see that salvation is essential? Is the goal of our preaching to please or to save? Is my concern as a Christian my temporal or my eternal well-being?
Luther at Worms reminds us that we received God’s Word as the means to save people from eternal loss. The “testimonies of Scriptures” testify that outside of Christ there is damnation. Luther appeals in Worms to his conscience. Well, this should be constantly on the conscience of the church and of every believer, that everyone needs to be saved.
No Hero of Individualism
The Diet of Worms, rather like the nailing of the Ninety-five Theses, looms large in the Protestant imagination, although with rather more justification. For high drama, a trial before the Holy Roman Emperor surely far surpasses the posting of an advertisement for a university debate.
And if one moment stands out, it is surely the (probably apocryphal) moment when Luther declares “Here I stand!” By the conclusion of that fateful day, it was surely clear that the problem of Luther was not going to disappear or be solved by an amicable compromise between the various imperial factions.
Yet the moment has far more significance than being a point of no return in the relationship between Electoral Saxony and Charles V on the Luther question. It has also come to symbolize the rights of individual conscience over the claims of the church. In his speech, Luther essentially called upon his opponents to justify their criticisms of him. That the church claimed something as true counted as nothing unless it could be warranted by the teaching of Scripture and reason—not, of course, the independent reason of later generations but the reason represented by faith seeking understanding.
There is a danger here. As we who have grown up in a world where the individual is king and where personal conscience is generally synonymous with personal preference, Luther’s stand at Worms can provide any troublemaker who wants to present himself as a Mr. Valiant for Truth with a supporting—and reassuringly flattering—historical analog. To put it rather bluntly, such people conjure the spirit of the past to give their novel assertion of their authority and wisdom a heroic veneer.
Yet the background to Worms is not really that of “one man with a Bible” or of someone out to smash a corrupt establishment. It is that of a man steeped in theological learning, in the biblical languages, in the theological writings of the great thinkers of the past, and deeply immersed in the day-to-day life of the church in her proclamation of the gospel in word and sacrament. It is also of a man in the grip of the truth. Luther’s stand was not a career move, nor was it an attempt to draw attention to himself. It was the only response he could give, knowing all that he knew, in a situation in which he would not have chosen to place himself.
There is a lesson here, particularly in a day when Facebook and Twitter provide platforms for myriad wannabe Luthers without any of the thoughtful learning, earnest churchmanship, or personal cost or risk involved in the Diet of Worms. In our free society everyone has the right to speak. But at Worms, Luther—the learned, devoted churchman and pastor—also had the right to be heard, unlike so many since who conjure his spirit to sanctify their outbursts.