Skip to content

Luther on Trial—1518-1520


In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther.

The posting of the Ninety-Five Theses started a series of events which can only be described as a trial. Luther published and distributed the theses to many of his friends. But soon someone had translated them into German and had them widely distributed. At least two Latin editions were also published.

No reply at all

Luther immediately sent a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz along with a letter, urging him to greatly modify the instructions he had given to Tetzel concerning the sale of indulgences. This letter was sent on to Rome, but Luther himself received no reply.

The first reaction of Pope Leo X was indifference. This, he said, was just “a monkish squabble.” But soon he saw it in a more serious light, and began to take legal actions against the troublesome monk. First, he sought to silence Luther through his superiors in the Augustinian order. Next, he asked a Dominican friar called Prierias to draft a formal response to the theses. This was then sent to Luther, accompanied by a summons requiring Luther to come to Rome for interrogation.

But Frederick, the Elector of Saxony and Luther’s prince, insisted that the venue be changed to German soil to ensure a fair hearing. Since Frederick would soon be influential in choosing the next emperor (indeed was thought to be a candidate himself), Leo could not easily afford to refuse, and a meeting was arranged in Augsburg. While traveling to this meeting, Luther preached to the emperor and his court, but Frederick declined to meet with Luther personally, and made a point of being absent from Augsburg so as not to become enmeshed in the proceedings.

There will be no debate.

Instead Cardinal Cajetan was sent to preside, with instructions not to debate with Luther; he was simply to insist that Luther recant. For three days Luther refused to meet him, until an official safe conduct arrived from Emperor Maximillian.

Cajetan was a cultured and intelligent man and very able to debate. He tried to convince Luther that the matter was not of such importance that he should resist. For three days they sparred, but he could not grant what Luther most wanted: engagement in the issues on the basis of Scripture.

Cajetan was not personally ill-disposed toward Luther. He saw sincerity in him rather than simple stubborn arrogance. In his report to Rome he admitted that Luther ought to have been allowed to debate his theses and found nothing to condemn in the theses themselves, but only in statements Luther had made more recently.

Grace, free will, and faith

Luther had recently composed and debated another set of theses at Heidelberg, not on indulgences, but on the topics of grace, free will, and faith. This brought out his differences with Rome more clearly, specifically in regard to the role that faith plays in a person’s salvation.

Fearing arrest, Luther left Augsburg early one morning, using a side gate to avoid notice, and returned to Wittenberg to resume teaching. But there was now an uneasiness in the air. He expected excommunication at any time, and made preparations to leave Wittenberg and the Empire and go to Paris, where he would be out the reach of the emperor and in territory in which there was more resistance to papal power. Staupitz released him from his monastic vows, freeing him to go. Luther wrote to Frederick offering to resign from the university. This was accepted. As he was eating his last meal with his colleagues, however, word arrived that he would be permitted to stay after all.

Luther’s fears proved justified. Though delayed for more than a year, a papal edict was finally sent. It condemned Martin Luther in strongest terms, calling him “a wild boar” that had invaded God’s vineyard.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.