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.
How would you respond if someone accused you of heresy? Odds are, you would be angry, frustrated, possibly even embarrassed. If cooler heads prevailed, though, it might prove beneficial for you. Let’s say you actually were wrong about something, maybe even something of vital importance to the faith. This would allow you an opportunity to study the topic more closely, to learn from those who know more about the topic, to identify where you went wrong and how you went wrong. Not only would you correct your error, but you may even correct certain tendencies in your thinking that led to the problem in the first place (maybe an overreliance upon church history, like certain church fathers, or overconfidence in your Greek or Hebrew skills). But let’s assume you were not wrong—because, let’s be honest, this is what we envision in our mind’s eye—and you had a chance to prove your case. In this situation, your accuser or others supporting the accusation would have a chance to correct their thinking and to learn from you, while you would have the opportunity to clarify your thinking and substantiate your arguments better. There is no loser in these scenarios: we are all better for it, not because we are right, but because we have been corrected where we were wrong or forced to be more clear where we were right. Error is avoided, truth is defended, consciences are clean, and brothers are reconciled.
In an ideal world, that is what should have happened when Martin Luther was accused of heresy in the sixteenth century. It should have been an opportunity to talk about important, but divisive and unclear topics like justification, the sacraments, biblical authority, and church authority, among others. It should have produced greater clarity and agreement on areas where unity is necessary, and maybe greater charity in areas where freedom is necessary. That, of course, is not what happened. Literally within weeks of Luther’s “95 Theses” being printed, translated into German from Latin, and distributed widely, critics had already proceeded against him. University theology faculties condemned his teachings, his regional bishops reported him to Rome, and the authorities in Rome dismissed his complaints. Luther called for a debate over disputable teachings, but the debate never happened. Before he could defend himself, legal proceedings against him had begun. The authorities presumed Luther guilty, not innocent, and offered him no opportunity for debate or explanation. He defended his theses on indulgences in print, clarified his points in sermons for the general populace, sought to explain his positions when Cardinal Cajetan only demanded that he renounce them (“Revoco!”), and appealed to popes and councils for a fair hearing. Yet none of this worked. Luther’s opponents never granted his points, allowed for disagreement, or sought to reconcile with the Mendicant Friar from Wittenberg.
After many twists and turns over the course of three years, Rome finally excommunicated Luther. First, it published a bull of condemnation in summer 1520, which was later announced in Wittenberg in October, thereby giving Luther 60 days to renounce his teachings or face excommunication. The bull, “Exsurge Domine,” allowed little wiggle room for Luther. It condemned him and his teaching, not to mention all those who taught as he did, or supported his right to teach what he did. “Exsurge Domine” specifically listed 41 errors of Luther, some taken from his writings, some taken from his public disputations, some taken from reports of what he wrote or said, and many—if not most—taken out of context in order to exaggerate Luther’s points and make his positions even more controversial. This then led to the final act of excommunication, when in January 1521 the bull “Decet Romanum Pontificem” declared Luther a heretic duly excommunicated from the church. There would be no way forward. Luther stood condemned and excommunicated, partly for teaching against established doctrines of the church, but mostly for refusing to submit to church authority when it rejected his opinions, despite the fact that it may have never quite understood his opinions, let alone given them a fair hearing.
That is where we stand in March 1521, just one month prior to his appearance at the Diet of Worms, where Luther famously declared: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear 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 retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.” (LW 32:112). But could things have been otherwise? In the months since “Exsurge Domine” was pronounced, Luther had written a series of tracts against it—two in Latin, two in German. His latest attempt, March 1521’s “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” addressed each and every one of the 41 articles of error listed in the bull. Some responses are more useful than others. At times, he engages biblically or theologically with the alleged errors. Other times, he dismisses them curtly. In most cases, he criticizes the pope—whether the pope had anything to do with the condemned article or not. By this time, Luther’s excommunication and, with it, the splintering of Western Christianity, was a foregone conclusion.
This was never the outcome Luther sought. He wanted theological clarity, biblical accuracy, faithfulness to the gospel, and pastoral accountability for souls burdened by incorrect preaching or teaching. He had hoped to achieve this, first, with rigorous academic debate and theological writing. Reform had to start with those teaching error, principally at universities founded by the church, and only then could it stand a chance of spreading more widely, influencing church leaders, parish priests, monastic orders, and finally infiltrating local churches and lay people through improved preaching, teaching, worship, and sacramental practice. That would have taken time and patience on his part, but also the willingness of those who disagreed with him to listen and debate him, sympathetically, fairly, perhaps with open minds. He hoped that his positions would persuade those who disagreed. For instance, in the discussions following his stance at the Diet of Worms, Luther cited the case of Gamaliel in Acts 5: “For if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:28b-39a, ESV). He then admitted that if his work “were not from God, within three years, or even two, it would perish of its own accord” (LW 31:121). Luther simply wanted an opportunity to make his case, to convince others with his arguments, and to let the Spirit convict the hearts and minds of the faithful about the truth of Holy Scripture. Yet Luther was never given an opportunity for the kind of honest, open debate he requested.
We are more fortunate today. We have structures established precisely to provide such a means for conversation when disagreements arise, though we sadly think of them as bureaucratic limitations rather than the discussion facilitators they are meant to be. As a denomination, we submit ourselves unequivocally to Holy Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions as the accurate interpretation of those Scriptures. Likewise, our clergy agree to teach in accordance with what the denomination has officially affirmed in its convention resolutions, including various doctrinal statements affirmed throughout the history of the Missouri Synod. Yet, as thinkers wrestling with new and different intellectual and cultural challenges, we may find ourselves questioning certain theological tenets. When that does happen, we are not dismissed out of hand or automatically excommunicated. On the contrary, we have constitutional processes like dissent and dispute resolution intended to facilitate the sort of conversation and debate Luther himself was denied. The process of dissent, for instance, allows someone to raise questions about our doctrinal position, first privately in the context of one’s own pastoral peers, then with theologians responsible for assessing that position, and finally through an overture to a Synod convention. This multi-layered process does not seek to prohibit disagreement, but to further understanding through conversation—with brother pastors, theologians, and convention floor committees and delegates. What may seem like bureaucracy to some is actually intended as a forum for productive disagreement, conversation, and correction.
How different might Luther’s case have gone if he had structures like ours in place? What might his cause have looked like if debate were allowed and discussion promoted? What if Luther had received a fair trial (as was customary for a university professor accused of heresy) and had not been cited, condemned, and excommunicated without a legitimate hearing of his views? That, in fact, is Luther’s basic contention at the Diet of Worms, when he called for the authorities to persuade him by Scripture and clear reason, or that he would otherwise cling to his conscience because it is captive to God’s Word. What he wanted at Worms is what he had been deprived of all along—conversation, debate, discussion, and, Lord willing, constructive resolution.
For more on what happened at Worms, please join us on April 17-18, 2021, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Ridgewood, NJ, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms. With lectures on Saturday and a celebratory hymn festival on Sunday, we will reflect on what led to Worms, what happened after it, and what we might learn from it today. What we may learn is that Luther’s case would have been benefited from having just the sort of structures in place that we have today. That alone may be a reason to embrace them and be thankful for them rather than deriding them as bureaucratic red tape or a Lutheran version of the Inquisition.
So, then, back to us: how would you respond if accused of heresy? What could you possibly be afraid of? You could do worse than modeling yourselves after Luther. Like Luther, if you are wrong, then you would hope for an opportunity to discuss your positions and be open to correction. If you are right, however, also like Luther you would want an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues fairly and openly, in the spirit of fraternal love. In either case, though, what you should desire—what Luther desired and never received—is the chance for conversation about these important ideas we believe, teach, and confess together, precisely so that we can articulate them correctly and clearly. You realize that these ideas we believe, teach, and confess actually do matter, that they shape the trust people place in their Lord and the way people conduct their lives. You realize that as a sinner whose very nature has been corrupted by sin (Formula of Concord 1) and whose mind needs to be renewed (Romans 12:2), you can and have been wrong, and that at times you need correction. Finally, you realize that the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” (Smalcald Articles III/4), can be of great benefit not just personally, but even theologically, as iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17). We need not fear correction. It can only help. It can only help make us more theologically thoughtful, more exegetically patient, more pastorally responsible with the task entrusted to us, more personally sensitive to the things we say and do and the affect they may have. Who wouldn’t want that?