by Rev. Donavon Riley

As more people of power and influence called for action against Martin Luther, the more those in authority in Rome turned their attention toward Wittenberg. It was the Dominican Order who were the most excited about calling Luther to account for his teachings. John Tetzel, Luther’s primary opponent during the Indulgence Controversy, was a Dominican too, so the order’s prejudice against Luther had already been established.

That’s why, when the principal of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, Herman Rab, attended the order’s annual meeting in Rome one of his first actions was to award Tetzel a special doctor’s degree authorized by the Pope himself. Now, with this public honor, the Dominican Order had announced they stood firm behind Tetzel and what he’d taught during the Indulgence Controversy.

Rab also used his time in Rome to explain what was happening in Germany because of Luther’s teaching. Rab talked first to friends who served the Pope. In this way, he was put into contact with Sylvester Prierias, the papal watchdog for all doctrinal matters. When Rab presented Luther’s 95 Theses to Prierias, the latter agreed that the young monk was in error. More than that, because Prierias spoke for the Pope, that meant Luther’s teachings against indulgences was an attack on the Church and an assault on the will of God and therefore heresy.

After his conversation with Rab, Prierias set to work writing his “Dialogues.” These were published in June of 1518. The papal lawyers then used the dialogues as an outline as they drew up formal charges against Martin. The legal document was passed on to Cardinal Cajetan, the head of the Dominican Order and a papal lawyer appointed to serve at the upcoming Imperial Diet in Augsburg. Lastly, Luther received his copy of the documents on August 7.

When Luther read them he knew he had a problem. This wasn’t a pointed attack launched by Eck or Tetzel. This was a papal decree. The author had the Pope’s ear. Prierias’ judgments carried the weight of God’s authority. And, worst of all for Luther, he was being summoned to Rome, not for an academic debate, but to defend himself against charges of heresy.

The next day Martin wrote to his friend, Spalatin, who served at the court of Elector Frederick. In the letter Luther begged his friend to speak to Frederick, to urge the elector to do something to get the trial moved from Rome to Germany. The young professor knew that if something wasn’t done he’d be executed as soon as he stepped foot in Rome. Only Frederick could now save Luther from a horrible death.

Next week we will examine what happened next with the trial of Martin Luther, and his defense of his teachings against charges of heresy.

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.

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