by Rev. Donavon Riley
While friends, colleagues, and supporters of Martin Luther worked to secure him safe passage to Augsburg, and the freedom to move about the city once there, he was visited by representatives of Cardinal Cajetan. They encouraged Luther to repent of his teaching, then everything would be forgiven and forgotten. Luther was even asked if his motives were less than serious, and whether he intended to turn the meeting into a sporting event.
Cajetan, for his part, took Luther’s teaching deadly serious. He had read numerous published works by Luther, and had written lengthy responses to the pillars of Luther’s teaching. This was no small thing, especially for Rome, since the cardinal was widely considered to be one of the greatest minds of his generation. That Cajetan criticizing the young German professor meant Luther’s theology was a threat to the church that was not to be taken lightly. He attacked Luther’s positions on whether a Christian can build up merits to earn his way into heaven, whether one had to have true faith to be justified and receive grace, and whether the Pope had the authority to grant indulgences.
Cajetan had been charged by his superiors in Rome not to debate with Luther, but to secure a one word answer from the monk: “I recant.” That is, Luther was to repent of his teaching and return to the papal fold. Ironically, the meeting between Cajetan and Luther happened in the Fuggar house, who was the primary banking family in Europe who money had been a large part of the Indulgence Controversy.
When they finally met, Cajetan said, “First, repent of your errors and recant them. Second, promise never to teach them again. Finally, do not again do anything to upset the peace of the church.” Luther asked, “which errors?” Cajetan answered Luther specifically and this was the mistake in judgement that undid the meeting altogether. Cajetan had been ordered not to debate Luther, but it seems the greatest theologian of his generation could not resist taking Luther’s bait.
The two men went back and forth at each other from across the table, even though the exchange was calm and cordial. By the end of the day the discussion had settled on the authority of the Pope. They agreed to come back the next day to continue their discussion. Cajetan demanded Luther acknowledge that the Pope had the God-given authority to issue indulgences. Martin asked if he could have time to think and formulate a written answer. The cardinal said, “I will be pleased to hear what you have to say…”
The third time, then, that Luther appeared before Cajetan, written response in hand, he was also shadowed on his left and right hand by two of Elector Fredrick’s lawyers. Cajetan read Luther’s lengthy answer to the question of papal authority. He read it, then said, “Now, it’s time for you to recant.” And that’s when a full-blown debate erupted between them so violent that by the end, Cajetan threatened to have Luther dragged away in chains to Rome and that he would excommunicate anyone who had anything to do with Luther. Finally, Cajetan yelled at Luther, “Get out, and don’t appear before me again unless you are ready to recant.”
After he had left the house Luther rejoiced and laughed at his good fortune. He said to his friends, Spalatin and Cajetan, that he had shattered Cajetan’s confidence. He concluded saying, “I will not become a heretic by denying the understanding through which I have been made a Christian.”
Next week we will examine how Luther’s debate with Cajetan and other events in Augsburg served to put Luther in even greater danger.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.