by Rev. Donavon Riley
After his Heidelberg Theses, Luther, more than ever, was under scrutiny from friends and opponents. Colleagues, like Andreas Karlstadt who was a colleague of Luther’s, wrote his own theses arguing for the authority of Scripture in matters of faith over all human opinions, even the Early Church Fathers.
On the other hand, John Tetzel, Luther’s sworn enemy since the indulgence controversy, preached a sermon entitled: “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace,” which was a direct attack on Luther’s teaching about indulgences. When he received word about this Martin said that Tetzel’s sermon treated the Bible “like a sow pushes about a sack of grain.” But, for Luther’s adversaries Tetzel’s argument had traction they could use. Tetzel asserted that the Pope had complete and ultimate authority in all matters in heaven and on earth. That meant that anyone who challenged the Pope’s word was a heretic because the Pope’s decisions, since he was the vicar of Christ, were to be heard as God’s own word.
Eck also took aim at Luther again after Heidelberg. But unlike Tetzel, Eck was a theologian of the church and his criticism held substantially more weight for Luther as a consequence. Even though he decided to say nothing, and “swallow this dose of hell” as Martin put it, colleagues pushed him to write a response to Eck. But Luther said he would not do it. He felt it would not be of any help to Christians to witness such an angry and provocative debate between theologians happening in public.
If the controversy Luther had stirred up remained amongst theologians and academics, and stayed locked behind the closed doors of the monastery and academia, perhaps Luther would have become a footnote in church history. A charismatic, if not controversial figure, on the same level as John Wycliffe or Jan Hus. However, once politically powerful, influential men jumped into the fray the stakes shifted for Luther and everyone else. Now, Luther could not protect himself simply by not responding to the criticism of theologians. Now he would have to find a benefactor to defend him from being arrested and executed.
And yet, as he wrote to a friend at the time, “The more they threaten me, the more confident I become… I know that whoever wants to bring the Word of Christ into the world must, like the apostles, leave behind and renounce everything, and expect death at any moment. If any other situation prevailed, it would not be the Word of Christ.”
Next week we will examine what was happening in Rome at this time and how the papacy decided to deal with Luther once and for all.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.