Martin Luther and the diet of worms
Martin luther and the diet of worms
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Considered as one of the most pivotal figures of Western civilization, Martin Luther spurred a 16th century reformation that brought long-lasting impact in the world’s history - Martin Luther and the diet of worms introduction. Through his works and writings, he precipitated a movement which gave way to the birth of three major theological units of Christianity. It also anticipated modern times because the unity of the ecclesiastical structure was broken and the door was opened for a widespread diversity in religious expression with an eventual toleration of the variant forms. Furthermore, it also became a seedbed for social, economic, as well as political thought that remarkably outlived the man.
No matter how far-reaching all these may seem to be, such impacts were far from the thoughts or imaginations of the man who inspired it. Nor did it perhaps occur to him at the outset, how his actions would catapult him into the midst of fiery combat of an aggravated Roman Catholic Church papacy and clergy, as well as the king (Charles V). Consequently, he was judged in various ways, depending on one’s belief system it is spoken. The man therefore earned contradictory labels — rebel, reformer, preacher, heretic, or ‘theological politician’ (“Martin Luther and the Reformation”).
Even prior to his time, much controversy had surrounded the office of the papacy — corruption was rampant in the guise of religious policies and the soundness of the church’s teachings became highly questionable. Such external circumstances, coupled by the Luther’s internal moral conflict, propelled him to offer unsolicited recommendations to reform the Roman Catholic Church. The brevity of such an act defied the norm of his time, with the Roman Catholic Church existing as the absolute religious authority and therefore wielding incontestable power. This lead to Luther’s ‘trial’ before the Imperial Diet which was gathering at Worms, with an underlying threat that if he refused to recant — would cause his excommunication. Luther defended his refusal to do so as being moved by strong conviction of the Scriptures.
Luther is historically significant partly because of what he said and did, and partly because of what followed.
II. Martin Luther
To get a better understanding of these events, it is important to take a brief look into the life of the man and be aware that he had no intention of initiating the program outlined above. His concern at the outset was simply personal, to know how he, a sinner, could find a gracious God. This dilemma was precipitated into acute form by a sudden confrontation with death. He was at the time a student preparing for a career in law.
Such plans were suddenly obstructed by a sudden confrontation with death: when on his way to visit his parents, he was overtaken by a severe thunderstorm that knocked him to the ground. Fearing for his life, he called on the name of St. Anne to save his life and in return, made the vow to enter the monastery and serve as a monk. This was thoroughly a medieval reaction. It was a prevalent belief during those times that a man could do something to gain credit with God and that nothing was more efficacious than to renounce the world and enter a monastery. The vow of the monk was regarded as a second baptism washing away all sins since the first. A few weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. The blissful tranquility upon entering the monastery was shortened by a shuttering conviction by his sinfulness before a holy God. He looked for means and ways to find this gracious God. In looking for answers he found castigations of the flesh and attempting to confess of sins one by one, totally unsatisfying. Then he came to doubt about the goodness of God: if he predestines some to doom and some to bliss before they are ever born, then such a God is unjust.
A breakthrough came upon his teaching on the Scriptures at a university. Through his readings of the Psalms and especially on the epistles of Paul, his understanding was opened by the truth that there is absolutely no way in which man can gain credit with God and merit his favor. The only way provided for man to find a gracious God is by accepting what he has done for man in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The core of Luther’s teaching was the forgiveness of sins; that pardon could not be gained by merit —- it is the sheer act of the mercy of God. This laid the foundation of the doctrine of justification by faith. Salvation therefore, is received purely by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther’s “aha” experience defined not only the person but the subsequent events which ushered a revolution that spanned beyond its own nation and generation.
III. Events Prior to Being Summoned at the Diet of Worms
In order to get a better understanding of his trial and his defense, it is also important to make a partial lay out of the circumstances that occurred before Luther’s was being summoned at the Diet of Worms.
As the basis of his faith and relation with God was changed, so did Luther’s perception of the circumstances surrounding him. Religious practices sanctioned by the Roman Church and observed without question became object of his theological inquiry. Luther highly objected on the practice of indulgences. An indulgence was a remission of penalty (involving payment of money) imposed as satisfaction for sin.
At first the penalties forgiven were those imposed by the church on earth; Pope Sixtus IV later extended their authority in purgatory (“Luther”). Some indulgences were even claimed to grant remission of sins. Other extreme claims, of which included Luther’s parishioners promised that past sins would be forgiven and future sins would receive preferential treatment. Moreover, persons who secured indulgences for their relatives already in purgatory need not themselves be contrite. The theory was that some men are better than they need to be in order to be saved. Extra and mused merits are stored in “the treasury of the merits of the saints”, from which the pope could issue a draft of transfer to those whose accounts were in arrears. The recipient of the indulgence was expected to make money-contribution to the church.
Luther came out with a blast in his objections against this and every other indulgence by writing a manifesto called the Ninety-five Theses which he nailed at the door of the church. The document consisted of 95 paragraphs for discussion which could be divided in three parts:
· The denunciation of papal venality
· The pope having no jurisdiction over purgatory
· The rejection of the theory of indulgence
Of the first part, all Germans subscribed to since the thoroughly traditional Catholics had complained for a hundred years of Roman exploitation. The second point, Luther recommended that if the pope truly has authority over souls in purgatory, then the pope should have emptied the place without exacting any price. Thirdly, on the teaching of indulgence that a transfer is made from the accumulated merits of the saints — of which Luther insisted that the true treasury of the church is the Gospel of Jesus Christ (“Luther, Martin”).
Through his writings, Luther presented reforms. This includes the reduction of papacy to a spiritual institution, stripped of pomp, power and wealth; administration of finances should be delegated to national churches; that the clergy should be allowed to marry; and the most ominous of all was his allegory of the papacy with the demonic figure of the Antichrist.
Expectedly, the Ninety-five Theses, his reform program, and the burning of the papal bull together with a copy of the Canon Law annoyed and roused Rome’s condemnation with the assertion that anyone who goes contrary to what the church actually does would be considered a heretic and in danger not only of excommunication but execution.
However, the church did not have the power to inflict the penalty of death. Luther had to be tried before a secular tribunal, the Diet of the Empire in 1521. The pope, through his representative, wanted to have him outlawed at once. Frederick the Wise insisted that he be given a fair hearing. The examiner offered Luther a way to escape by renouncing his books or his teachings.
IV. Luther’s Appearance and Confrontation Before the Diet of Worms
Luther was called to appear before the council purportedly for a chance of deliberation upon his ideas. Despite the issuance of a court order securing his safety, those who approved of his teachings nevertheless got apprehensive. They tried to persuade him out of it. Amidst all the warnings, Luther went and stood before the Imperial Diet at Worms. It must be taken into consideration that the support that Luther was getting has considerably expanded, therefore making him as a major source of threat to the Roman Catholic Church.
It would seem considerably outlandish, especially on those days that by one man, could bring about such havoc (to the Roman Catholic Church) and institutional transformation. Indeed, it was, if not for the political changes that were also taking place before he finally attended at the Diet of Worms. The pope’s power and the church’s influence were great even amongst the highest level of hierarchy in the state. They could have easily snuffed him out to oblivion. However, the tide of changes was falling on Luther’s side.
Even long before the trial at Worms, Luther was already convicted and was counted worthy of death by the religious officers of Rome. In light of this event, the hearing was conducted, which was not meant for a fair discussion of Luther’s teachings. For those incensed against him, the meeting was but a means to trap him. Such a scheme was utterly made plain by the method of which it was conducted. Upon standing before the Diet, Luther was asked to answer only two questions:
· Whether he was responsible for the authorship of the books presented and
· Whether he was disposed to recant any part
This manner of approach clearly did not leave much for an open discussion, much less for debate. It is simply given as a clear ploy to implicate himself as a heretic. Luther realized that the Diet at Worms was not held for an exchange of ideas but an inquisition. When Luther bided for time before making his response, this brings a strong possibility that Luther was caught off-guard. Despite the many warnings given him and the circumstances surrounding the meeting, perhaps he did strongly believed in his heart that he and his teachings was truly being given a fair chance of being heard. Luther was granted to return the following day and resume his appearance. On the following afternoon, in a much larger hall, and before an even more crowded assembly, Luther stood to make his historic defense.
This time no one can deter him from making a long speech. Luther acknowledged that he penned the books in question laid before him. However, this time, he made a distinction between his writings: for the works of edification he need not and should not recant, for the violence of his polemic in attacking the papacy as well as the individuals who fortified their oppression, he would apologize.
It can be argued that Luther’s refusal to recant was totally guided by a defiant behavior, boosted perhaps by the support of peasants and some nobility. Yet it is arguably out of character. At the outset of this paper, upon discussion of Luther’s background, his actions were clearly moved by strong convictions. As such, before his opponents, Luther announced that he would only reverse his stand if guided by the same conviction, especially of the Scriptures or by evident reason. Luther challenged his accusers that he would accede for a retraction of his teachings if they would demonstrate to him the area by which he has erred through the illumination of the same Holy Scripture. In his speech, it was traditionally accepted that he spoke this famous line, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen” (“Obedient Rebel”).
Based on the brevity of the consequences of refusal for a recant, Luther’s response could only be taken as guided by a basic belief that man is justified (made right before God) not through the performance of good deeds but by faith in Christ’s works on his behalf. Luther’s actions, although he did fear for his life (as shown by his compliance to hiding), proved that his (reverential) fear of God far outweighed his fear of man. His defiance for a recant and the authority of the papacy and the council displayed great courage stirred by his faith in God. Even his faith or complete trust in God can be questioned. Why was he given to bouts of depression, after the days of his “trial” at Worms if he truly trusted God? The Holy Scripture reveals that it is not unusual that even great men of God, can be given to times of weaknesses. The prophet Elijah, in confrontation before the prophets of Baal brought a great victory in the name of the Lord of Israel. After a great display of boldness, Elijah was seen fleeing for his life in the wilderness.
Although the Diet of Worms can easily be considered a mockery of trial, the examiner nevertheless did offer Luther a last chance to save himself and escape the consequences of condemnation by repudiating some of his books or at least some of his teachings. It can be said that Luther’s defense was not based on plain human reasoning. In fact, his defense solely could not possibly be considered as a defense, in the strictest legal terms. He believed that the Scriptures themselves had proven that he was right — that man’s faith should only be rooted on the grace of God and not of merit (“P. McIntyre. “Martin Luther’s Defense at Worms”).
In further examination of his motives by which he continued his unwavering stance against the fundamental teachings of the Roman Catholicism, was Luther guided by pure altruism? With the event following his response in the Diet of Worms, Luther had much to lose. He went to hiding, and the council declared the Edict of Worms which convicted Luther as a criminal and heretic. The edict demanded that Luther be captured. He became dependent on Frederick the Wise for protection for some time and restricted his travels. These impediments could have easily crushed him down. Though it would seem that he had much to lose, the spiritual freedom by which he gained for himself and others was more than enough to compensate for the losses.
His actions demonstrated the power of God’s Word to perform on the life of those who are willing to receive it. The Word of God is alive and active and powerful. It exacts a response of the hearers: obedience for those who believe no matter what it would entail or rage for the unrepentant (those who turn a deaf ear to the Word’s convicting power).
V. Outcome of Luther’s Writings and Actions
Luther was able to carry on despite the fact that he was under the ban of the church and the empire. Given the way his followers moved, without his direction or consent, the Reformation continued in more radical ways than he envisaged.
Luther’s later life was fraught with controversies with the Catholics and with the radicals in his won camp. He grew harsher toward Papists, Jews, and ‘fanatics’. But the tracks in which he railed at his opponents were few in comparison with his magnificent biblical expositions, which never lost their amazing vigor and profundity. The major contributions of Luther were his Biblical commentaries, catechisms, sermons, tracts, and hymns together with their music. He composed the famous A Mighty Fortress is Our God. His Biblical expositions were rich, vivid, vital, scholarly, and experiential.
As a theologian, Luther was no systematizer. Yet theologians testify of the width, coherence, and delicate balance of his teachings. The basis of his teachings was the Holy Scripture. Augustine’s work had been found to have influenced his way of thinking and works. The doctrine of salvation was of prime importance for him. His often subtle doctrine about civil obedience was not always understood by his later followers. Non-theological factors of German history perpetuated and, to a certain extent, even perverted this misunderstanding. His doctrine of Christian vocation in this world and the importance of human life in the world became part of the general Protestant inheritance.
What he had inspired brought major changes: he brought freedom to his nation from the secular and spiritual control and oppression of Rome.
Although the Protestants were greatly defeated in the Smalkaldic War, the spiritual revolution of the Reformation continued and spread beyond its borders and opened the door of a New Era in the world’s history. By the movement of the Reformation, men had been liberated, able to exercise choice as free agents. For this reason, both theologians and historians join agreement in hailing the man and the movement as one of the best occurrences in the course of man’s history (“The Political Course of the Reformation in Germany: 1517-1546”).
Luther was a titan in an age of giants.
1. “Martin Luther and the Reformation”.
2. “Luther”. The New Encyclopedia Britannica. vol. 23. 1991.
3. “Luther, Martin”. The Encyclopedia Americana. vol. 17. 1994
4. “Obedient Rebel”.
5. McIntyre, P. “Martin Luther’s Defense at Worms”.
6. “The Political Course of the Reformation in Germany: 1517-1546”.