A Diet of Worms… (3) 500 years ago today (18th April 1521)

At four o’ clock in the afternoon on the 18th of April Luther again presented himself before the Emperor. Although he was not given attention until six o’ clock. With the assembly seated and Martin standing in their midst, the secretary then spoke confirming that Luther agreed the books were his and they were awaiting the answer to the second question, whether he wished to withdraw anything he had written. But before Luther would respond, the secretary would take a stab at Luther by implying he should have thought about his answers for some time and that he did not have the right for a longer period of deliberation. ‘Moreover’ the secretary continued, ‘it is generally agreed that the obligation of faith is so certain for all that anybody, whenever he is asked, should be able to give his certain and constant reasons, not least of all you, so great and so learned a professor of theology…’ Then the question came (in both Latin and German) ‘Do you wish to defend all your acknowledged books, or to retract some?

After a few pleasantries Luther commenced:

Most serene emperor, most illustrious princes, concerning those questions proposed to me yesterday on behalf of your serene majesty, whether I acknowledged as mine the books enumerated and published in my name and whether I wished to persevere in their defense or to retract them, I have given to the first question my full and complete answer, in which I still persist and shall persist forever. These books are mine…In replying to the second question, I ask that your most serene majesty and your lordships may deign to note that my books are not all of the same kind. For there are some in which I have discussed religious faith and morals simply and evangelically, so that even my enemies themselves are compelled to admit that these are useful, harmless, and clearly worthy to be read by Christians. Even the bull, although harsh and cruel, admits that some of my books are inoffensive, and yet allows these also to be condemned with a judgment which is utterly monstrous…Another group of my books attacks the papacy and the affairs of the papists as those who both by their doctrines and very wicked examples have laid waste the Christian world with evil that affects the spirit and the body. For no one can deny or conceal this fact, when the experience of all and the complaints of everyone witness that through the decrees of the pope and the doctrines of men the consciences of the faithful have been most miserably entangled, tortured, and torn to pieces…Therefore, I ask by the mercy of God, may your most serene majesty, most illustrious lordships, or anyone at all who is able, either high or low, bear witness, expose my errors, overthrowing them by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists. Once I have been taught I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire…

Once Luther had finished this response the Emperor said—as if in reproach—that he had not answered the question. Moreover, Luther should not call into question, ‘those things which had been condemned and defined in councils.’ What was wanted from Luther was not a ‘horned response, but a simple one’ whether or not Luther wished to retract. In Luther’s own words, he answered:

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: 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 I 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.

Unlike the Luther movie, there was no standing ovation at this point. Rather, the secretary accused Luther of answering impudently and not to the point. Moreover, they virtually accused him of being a Hussite, ‘But now you revive those [errors] which the general Council of Constance, composed of the whole German nation, has condemned, and you wish to be refuted by means of Scripture. In this you are completely mad…’ An argument then continued over the erring of church councils which Luther claimed he could prove but the Diet had no patience for that argument. ‘Lay aside your conscience, Martin; you must lay it aside because it is in error; and it will be safe and proper for you to recant. Although you say the councils have erred you will never be able to prove it, in matters of faith at least, and even in matters of morals I fancy it will be with much difficulty.’ Getting nowhere he exclaimed ‘God help me!’  

Luther was in Worms for another week attending a number of meetings as requested. The impasse was certain but Luther was assured of the Emperors protection for only a matter of weeks. However, with Jan Hus in mind, the Emperor’s uncle – and Luther’s protector – Frederick the Wise, had Luther ‘kidnapped’ and moved to Wartburg Castle where Luther would be kept safe, write many letters and translate the New Testament into German.

(See LW 32:103-133)

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