This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
On December 10, 1520, Martin Luther and a group of students burned the papal bull “Exsurge Domine.” The bull (a term referring to the seal placed upon an official letter) had threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not recant of the errors listed in it. He had sixty days upon receiving the bull to comply or be excommunicated. On that sixtieth day, he joined students and faculty from the university in Wittenberg as they gathered at the Chapel of the Holy Cross around 9:00 in the morning. Luther planned this theatrical display as a response to a burning of his books in Leipzig that never happened. First on the pile were books of canon law and later papal decrees, then the books of many other medieval theologians or critics of Luther. (Strangely enough, no one could part with the writings of Thomas Aquinas—they remained.) Luther placed Exsurge Domine on the flaming pile last. Afterwards, the students staged a funeral rite for canon law, complete with a procession, more book burnings, and even accompanying songs. Canon law, so to speak, was dead to the earliest Lutherans that day. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, of why Luther and his students rejected canon law, nor how we as Lutherans have come to replace canon law with something that serves the same function even to this day.
For modern Lutherans, canon law might as well be a lost planet. We don’t know much about it. You won’t hear anything about it outside of a church history class, and even then it is usually referred to in a pejorative fashion. At the time of the Reformation, though, canon law was an umbrella term for several different things. The first was the so-called “Decretum Gratiani” (also known as “The Concordance of Discordant Canons”), collated by a twelfth century monk and professor, Gratian of Bologna. In it, Gratian organized many of the disciplinary canons included in early church councils and synods that sought to regulate life amongst the clergy. By comparing and contrasting them, he synthesized the various rules in such a way that the clergy of his day would have a clearer understanding of how the church and its ministries should function. The second, and more problematic to Luther’s mind, were the books of papal decretals. There were at least six of these, ranging from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. While Gratian’s Decretum brought together mostly ancient canons, these papal decretals were pronouncements of sitting popes in the most recent centuries, meaning they were not only fairly new, but also published by popes at the height of their power and influence. What we find in the debate over Luther’s view of indulgences from 1517 to 1521 is that his opponents primarily used these later papal decretals rather than the earlier canons to denounce Luther’s positions, and they did so on the basis of papal authority rather than the canons and councils of the early church.
We have to understand Luther’s criticism—and ultimate rejection—of canon law in this light. In the early days of the Reformation, Luther repeatedly defended his right to criticize indulgences due to the fact that no council had officially recognized them. His opponents, in turn, responded that various papal pronouncements collected in the later decretals of canon law, as well as other subsequent papal decrees, had promulgated indulgences and that those popes had the right to do so because of their office. In order to better understand these arguments, Luther began to study canon law more closely and this led him to assert famously that papal authority had been built not upon Scripture, ancient councils, or the first eleven centuries of church history, but rather upon the decrees of popes in the preceding four-hundred years. At the Leipzig Debate in 1519, he dismissed the notion that canon law, popes, or even councils were infallible, claiming that Scripture alone was beyond human error. As a doctor of theology responsible for teaching and preaching Holy Scripture, Luther believed the clear doctrine of the Bible could not be overturned by fallible human authority, including papal decretals of recent vintage.
Yet, there Luther stood in December 1520, with his teachings condemned by a papal bull behind the authority of canon law. Exsurge Domine, completed in June 1520 after nearly six months of negotiations, listed 41 specific errors of Luther (mostly supplied by his debate opponent at Leipzig, John Eck). It condemns Luther’s teaching and those who espouse his teaching. It prohibits any and all use of Luther’s writings. It gives Luther—and all those associated with him—sixty days to provide legal documentation that they recant of their errors, or simply to present themselves in Rome as a sign of repentance. Rome handed John Eck the responsibility of delivering the bull to Wittenberg, but Eck sent a courier to do so on October 3. Luther officially received it on October 10, thereby starting the sixty-day clock that expired when Luther tossed the letter on the bonfire of canon law. Because of his resistance, the bull “Decet Romanum Pontificem” officially excommunicated him in January 1521.
During this period, Luther wrote numerous responses to the bull, but none more notable than his December tract, “Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned,” drafted in the two weeks after the event. First, Luther lays out several reasons why the books were burned. His principal contention is that as a “sworn doctor of Holy Scripture” with a responsibility to “destroy, or at least to ward off false, corrupt, unchristian doctrine,” he could not abide by misleading teachings imposed on the faithful by the authority of popes (LW 31:383). The bull and other writings of Rome had contradicted the Scriptures, and thus, he was “duty-bound” (31:384) to point out those errors and protect others from their seduction. Then, in much the same fashion as Exsurge Domine had listed his 41 alleged errors, Luther proceeded to note thirty errors of canon law and papal decrees “on account of which they are rightly to be burned and shunned” (31:385). Nearly all were taken directly from either Gratian’s Decretum or the later collections of decretals. In some cases, he made no comment; in others, a brief note. But in several instances, he offered an extended rationale for why that particular statement was wrong. Luther’s point, however, was not to debate the merits of canon law or to get into the weeds of canon law interpretation. On the contrary, he sought to point out an underlying problem, no better said than in his final identification of canon law’s errors: “The pope does not derive authentic existence, strength, and dignity from Scripture, but Scripture from him, which is one of the main articles” (31:392). The problem was that papal authority—and the canon law supporting it—had overtaken Scripture as the principal doctrinal authority in the church.
Luther denounced canon law, burned the papal bull, refused to recant of his teaching, and accepted excommunication because the truths of Scripture had been traded for alternate truths established strictly by the fiat of popes. It is exceptionally important to bear in mind that Luther had no interest in rejecting church authority. As a graduated doctor of theology teaching at a university chartered by the pope, he was part of that church authority. He pledged to teach, preach, and uphold the doctrine of the church. Yet where that stated doctrine contradicted Holy Scripture, he was conscience-bound to speak against it. For Luther, this is not a question of accepting or rejecting church authority; it is a question of accepting or rejecting Scriptural truth. Where church authority upholds the teachings of Holy Scripture, then the church is well within its right to exercise its authority in defense of that doctrine and to maintain order and discipline within its membership. Where Scripture does not speak, then the church may establish and even enforce certain things by human right, that is, according to its best judgment. Yet it may not and should not impose human opinion as if it were biblical truth, and it absolutely must not reject biblical truth in favor of human opinion.
But our problem as Lutherans isn’t church authority, human opinion, or even canon law. The problem comes when those things are passed off as divinely revealed truth or, worse still, when they contradict or replace Scripture. That’s when the bonfire gets started (metaphorically speaking, of course). In and of themselves, though, church authority, human opinion, and canon law are fine, useful instruments that can be of great benefit to us. Lutherans intuitively understood this in ages past. During Luther’s own lifetime, Lutherans drafted legally enforceable church orders for use in territories adopting the Reformation, and they did so in order that the churches there might have some basic guidance in how to conduct their worship, instruct their young, marry their people, and provide for those in need. Later Lutherans developed “church laws” (Kirchenrechten) to regulate all ecclesiastical and civil matters in Protestant lands. When nineteenth-century Lutherans in America began to form synods, like our own, they did so by drafting constitutions, which stipulated what their people believed and how they were to be organized. When they finally incorporated under state law, they expanded those constitutions to include bylaws governing how they were to operate denominationally. No one accused them of imposing a new canon law or enforcing human opinion or using coercive authority. On the contrary, everyone recognized that this was the necessary, left-handed exercise of reason in support of the church by helping it to function practically, neatly, efficiently, and—yes—legally.
When it comes to participating in our denomination today, however, many seem unwilling to grant that. We deprecatingly refer to Synod as merely advisory and to our synodical constitution and bylaws as canon law—and that’s true, in a sense. But it also isn’t a bad thing. Since the foundation of our denomination, Synod has only ever claimed for itself the power of the Word of God and the power of persuasion. The first of these is the true authority in the church; the second is how we deal with one another when there is no direct word of Scripture. This persuasion happens through theological publications, collegial conversation, circuit forums, district convocations, and synodical conventions before making its way into constitutions and bylaws—our version of canon law. The end-result is a fundamentally good thing. It helps us do what we are called to do as the church “decently and in good order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). In no way, shape, or form does that mean doing things this way is necessary, let alone necessary for salvation. The way we have chosen to operate and carry out our business should never be a burden on consciences, nor may it ever replace, contradict, or reject Holy Scripture. When it does, then it becomes “antichrist” in the broad sense of the term and must be rejected.
Constitutions and bylaws, canon law, and church authority do not make the church what it is; faith wrought by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament does. Nevertheless, they serve a useful function: they enable us to organize ourselves in a way that is consistent with what Scripture says yet takes advantage of the best resources our left-handed human reason can offer. When they replace, contradict, or reject Scripture, then we must replace, contradict, or reject them. We can even burn them, as Luther did, if we wish. Where they are consistent with and supportive of Scripture, though, where they help us organize ourselves “decently and good order,” where they facilitate harmony and peace, where they enable us to engage in civil yet meaningful dialogue, they should be embraced as created gifts to be used in service to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.