by Rev. Donavon Riley
As the written attacks against Luther increased, the Wittenberger was also confronted with the very real possibility that Elector Frederick would capitulate to Rome’s demands to drag his star professor before the Pope in chains. And yet, despite his anxiety, Luther wrote to his friend, Spalatin, that he was prepared to receive his chains if need be because, “like Abraham I know not where, nay, most certainly, where, because God is everywhere.”
However, rather than sit passively, awaiting his fate, Martin wrote a letter to Frederick arguing his case. He referred to himself as “a shabby little monk” and begged Frederick to allow him to plead his case to the Elector. He included a blow by blow account of what occurred between himself and Cajetan at Ausburg. At that time, he explained, “Cajetan was not able to produce even a syllable from the Scriptures against me.” Finally, Luther wrote, “Truly excellent Prince… concerning my response [to Cajetan], let whatever will be, be; if it false… if it is damnable or to be recanted, then I will do all this if it should be so.” After this, if Frederick would not receive his appeal, then Luther was prepared to accept whatever judgment was laid on him.
When Frederick read Luther’s letter he was moved to continue his protection of the shabby little monk in spite of pressure from Rome. The Elector wrote to Cajetan on December 7, 1518 that “we have fulfilled our promise to you” by delivering Luther to Augsburg. Likewise, “there are now many learned people in our principalities and lands, both in the universities and elsewhere, but in fact to this very moment we are unable to become firmly and unquestionably any more certain that the learning of Martin is impious and not Christian but heretical…” Finally, unless Luther was convicted of heresy, Frederick would not turn him over to the papists.
Unfortunately for Martin, he did not know about the Elector’s letter to Cajetan. Therefore, he was already, on December 20, planning to flee to France. “Pray for me,” he wrote to Spalatin, because “I am in the hands of God and my friends.” In response, Spalatin urged Luther to come to Salzburg instead, that they “may live and die together.”
But, by the time his friend’s letter arrived, Luther had learned about Frederick’s decision. “Good God,” Luther wrote to Spalatin, “with what joy I read and reread” the letter that declared the Elector’s decision about me. “He is the sort of man whose grasp extends to politics and learning at the same time.”
Next time, we will examine the fallout from Frederick’s decision to defend Luther.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.