Have you ever wondered what Luther’s stand looked like on the ground? Here is a glimpse, starting with the moment when Luther’s covered wagon rolled into town.
Mid morning of Tuesday April 16, while town residents were approaching lunch, a herald wearing an eagle upon his cloak trumpeted Luther’s imminent appearance. Within moments a flood of citizens and nobleman nearing 2000 persons crowded around the wagon, so much that the wheels could roll forward at only a snail’s pace. The long journey had finally concluded, but the turning of history was about to begin.
Luther understood what was at stake. He mentioned to a friend in advance, “Unless I am restrained by force or the emperor rescinds his invitation, I will enter Worms under the banner of Christ against the gates of hell….I have had my Palm Sunday. Is all this pomp merely a temptation or is it also a sign of the passion to come?”
In just over 24 hours Luther would receive the answer to his question.
Shortly after arriving, Luther was informed that he would appear before the emperor at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17. At the appointed time he was personally escorted to the Bishop’s Court where he was required to wait for two hours before he was summoned into the emperor’s presence.
Two questions were directed at Luther. Since the Emperor didn’t speak German, they were first spoken in Latin. Pointing to about 20 volumes, Dr. Johann von der Ecken asked, “Do you acknowledge [having written] these books lying here?” and “Are you prepared to retract them as a whole or in part?”
Before Luther could respond, his lawyer Hieronymus Schurff objected: “Let the titles of the books be read!”
Luther was taken aback. He had come expecting a debate, but now realized that his judges had made their decision and were depriving him of the opportunity to make his case. Luther’s response was barely audible: “The books are all mine and I have written more.”
All eyes of the grand assembly then fixed upon him in a moment of hushed silence to hear if he would go so far as to recant. It appeared that Luther’s confidence had wavered; he couldn’t offer a clear reply. In tones so subdued that they could hardly be heard, he asked for time to consider the matter. After a brief consultation the assembly reluctantly granted his request. He would have a day to consider the question with the provision that he give a direct answer.
That evening Luther remained in his quarters alone weighed down by anxiety and doubt. He wrote, “So long as Christ is merciful, I will not recant a single jot or tittle.”
With nothing but the word of God to sustain him, the dark night of Luther’s soul was underway.
The next day Luther returned to a larger and more crowded hall. Civil business at the Diet pushed the timing back so that it was nightfall when Luther was eventually summoned. At such a late hour the auditorium was dark, illumined only by candles and smoking torches.
He was asked the same questions as the preceding day: did he acknowledge authorship of these books? And would he recant the errors which they contained?
Luther’s examiner began with a harsh rebuke:
His Imperial Majesty has assigned this time to you, Martin Luther, to answer for the books which you yesterday openly acknowledged to be yours. You asked time to deliberate on the question whether you would take back part of what you had said or would stand by all of it. You did not deserve this respite, which has now come to an end, for you knew long before why you were summoned. And every one – especially a professor of theology – ought to be so certain of his faith that whenever questioned about it he can give a sure and positive answer. Now at last reply to the demand of his Majesty, whose clemency you have experienced in obtaining time to deliberate. Do you wish to defend all of your books or to retract part of them?
Unlike the previous occasion, Luther’s response was clear and bold. He opened by apologizing in case he failed to address dignitaries by their proper titles, since his life had been spent in a monk’s residence and not in royal courts. He then offered a lengthy speech in which he separated his writings into different categories. When the examiner realized that Luther was trying to create a debate and was not answering the questions directly, he interjected with an aggravated demand:
Luther, you have not answered to the point. You ought not to call in question what has been decided and condemned by councils. Therefore I beg you to give a simple, unsophisticated answer without horns (that is, without deception). Will you recant or not?
Luther’s confidence did not fail him. To this direct command Luther offered his famous reply (in Latin):
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 Scripture 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. [He then added in German] Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.
Despite the clarity of Luther’s answer, Johann von der Ecken pressed further: “Abandon your conscience, Martin, for your conscience errs. You will never be able to prove that the councils have erred in questions of faith; at most they have erred in questions of discipline.” Luther rejoined, “I can prove it.” But before discussion went further the angered emperor gestured for Luther to be removed from the imperial court. Some thought that Luther was being arrested. Spanish soldiers shouted, “Al fuego, al fuego!”
(Into the fire!) Upon exiting Luther was greeted by throngs of jubilant citizens celebrating much as they would the victory of a tournament. Their voices rang with cheer as Luther raised his hands and exclaimed. “I made it through! I made it through!”
Charles V was unimpressed with Luther (to put it mildly), and pronounced him an outlaw. About his infamous German renegade the Emperor said, “This devil in the habit of a monk…has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle, and has invented new ones.”
Although Luther’s stand marked the climax of his defense before Charles V, it was by no means the end of the drama.
Not even Hollywood could produce a more colorful conclusion to Luther’s story. As he and two companions rolled along a wooded path, their wagon was ambushed. “Armed horsemen fell upon the party and with much cursing and show of violence dragged Luther to the ground. The one companion, privy to the ruse, played his part and roundly berated the abductors. They placed Luther upon a horse and led him for a whole day by circuitous roads through the woods until at dusk loomed up against the sky the massive contours of Wartburg Castle. At eleven o’clock in the night the party reined up before the gates.”
It was all a secret plot concocted by Fredrick III, Elector of Luther’s home, Saxony. As a supporter of Luther, Frederick decided to hide him away giving strict orders to those involved not to divulge the details. The plan was so strategically arranged and perfectly executed that many of Luther’s close friends thought that they’d heard the last of their old friend Martin. When the horses of Luther and his newfound abductor friends clattered across the drawbridge of Frederick’s castle, Luther entered the ancient fortress to find smiling faces and a warm welcome.
It was critical for Luther to remain incognito. He lodged in a room with a retractable ladder. The need to stay out of sight was especially urgent until his hair and beard grew long enough to disguise his face. In exchange for his monk’s habit, he dressed as a noble knight. In this environment he would remain for ten months. To everyone in the castle and around town he was known as “Sir George.”
Before being snatched from his wagon, Luther managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. Without the aid of a dictionary, he studied them carefully, and in a feat to flabbergast the most precocious Bible student, Luther translated the entire New Testament into German from the Greek text. In this act, Luther followed the footsteps of John Wycliffe who over a century before had promoted the translation of Scripture into English (even though Wycliffe operated from the Latin Vulgate and not the original languages of Hebrew and Greek). Luther’s translation of the New Testament highlights the fundamental issue with which both men wrestled—the need for God’s people to have God’s word. Oxford scholar Alister McGrath sheds light on this issue:
At its heart, the emergence and growth of Protestantism concerned one of the most fundamental questions that can confront any religion: Who has the authority to define its faith? Institutions or individuals? Who has the right to interpret its foundational document, the Bible?
Protestantism took its stand on the right of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to ‘official’ interpretations handed down by popes or other centralized religious authorities. For Martin Luther, perhaps the most significant of the first generation of Protestant leaders, the traditional authority of clerical institutions had led to the degradation and distortion of the Christian faith. Renewal and reformation were urgently needed. And if the medieval church would not put its own house in order, reform would have to come from its grass roots – from the laity.