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MARTIN LUTHER AND HIS WORK
SIXTH PAPER: THE WIDENING OF THE BREACH
BY ARTHUR C. McGIFFERT
Professor of Church History in Union Theological Seminary, New York
HE summer of 1519 witnessed two events each in its way of cardinal importance for the career of Luther and the progress of the Reformation-the election of an emperor of Germany and the Leipsic disputation.
The Emperor Maximilian had died unexpectedly on the twelfth of January. The two most prominent candidates for the imperial throne were his grandson Charles, King of Spain and the Netherlands, and King Francis I of France. Maximilian had already been laying the wires for Charles's election, but the pope favored the candidacy of Francis. The election lay in the hands of three ecclesiastical and four secular princes, the archbishops of Treves, Mayence, and Cologne, the electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, the Count Palatinate, and the King of Bohemia. Large sums of money were spent by the candidates and their supporters in forwarding their interests, and Frederick the Wise was apparently the only one of the seven who was above accepting bribes. It looked for a time as if the prize would go to the highest bidder, but as the possibility of Francis's election became imminent, national feeling asserted itself, and demanded an emperor of German blood. Pressure proved too strong to be resisted, and when the supporters of Francis found it impossible to secure his election, they compromised on Frederick the Wise, easily the most influential and respected of German princes. Feeling his resources unequal to the task, Frederick declined the proffered crown and threw the weight of his influence upon the side of Charles, who was elected on the twenty-eighth of June.
Not for centuries had such power been lodged in the hands of a single man. Inheriting the crown of Spain and the Netherlands and large possessions in Italy from his Spanish mother, his Hapsburg father brought him Austria and Burgundy, and now the empire of Germany was added. Great things were expected of him by his new subjects, particularly by the members of the young German party. Their watchword was "Germany for the Germans," and they hoped for the creation of a strong and united nation, sufficient unto itself and independent of all foreign control. In Germany, as in many other parts of Europe, the new spirit of nationalism was running high, and everywhere it gave rise to a growing impatience with the papacy, for the latter's cosmopolitanism seemed to many the greatest obstacle to national development. The pope's support of the candidature of Francis only made matters worse and increased the hostility to his interference in German affairs.
The election of Charles was hailed with enthusiasm, and hope everywhere ran high. But those who expected much were doomed to disappointment. Instead of putting himself at the head of the national movement and devoting his energies to the building up of a strong and independent empire, he treated Germany only as an appendage of Spain, where alone his heart lay. Though German blood flowed in his veins, he was by temperament and training far more Spanish than German. He had little understanding of his Teutonic subjects, or sympathy with them, and to their new hopes and aspirations he was altogether blind. Germany was
permit both to flourish when he wished to bring the pope to terms. The Lutheran movement thus proved frequently of no little advantage to him, but of real sympathy with it he never showed a trace, and his general policy was hostile to it.
At the time of Charles's election, Luther shared the common mood, and his
long before he could bring himself to believe that he would disappoint the nation's hopes.
In the meantime, while the intrigues preceding the election were distracting the attention of the princes of Germany, Luther was preparing himself all unconsciously to fill the place of national leader
declined by Charles. As yet his work was almost exclusively religious and theological, and its wider implications were nowhere understood, but as the event proved the structure ultimately reared was the more permanent because of the solidity and depth of the foundations he was laying. His break with the papacy, a necessary step in his progress toward national leadership, was becoming more and more imminent during the early months of 1519, and was greatly hastened by the second of the two notable events of that year, the Leipsic disputation.
The ablest Catholic theologian of the day in Germany was Dr. John Eck of the University of Ingolstadt. Some three years younger than Luther, he took his master's degree at the University of Tübingen at the early age of fourteen, while Luther was still only an undergraduate. Interested in mathematics, geography, physics, philosophy, and law, as well as theology, he was a man of uncommon learning and extraordinary attainments in many fields. For a time he was generally reckoned a member of the growing humanistic party, and was on terms of intimacy with many of its leaders. Luther spoke of him with marked respect in some of his earlier letters, and frequently sent him greetings through common friends. But the appearance of the ninety-five theses led to a permanent break and the alinement of Eck upon the side of reaction. He criticized them severely in a paper intended for private circulation called "Obelisks." Outraged that a man he supposed his friend should attack him without giving him any warning, Luther replied with considerable asperity in a similar paper entitled "AsterThenceforth, although the forms of friendship were observed for a while, there was growing enmity between the two men.
In May, 1518, Luther's friend Carlstadt, who had some time before committed himself publicly and enthusiastically to the Augustinian theology of his younger colleague, assailed Eck in an extended series of theses, and the controversy, thus opened, was carried on vigorously for months. The Wittenberg faculty finally invited Eck, an experienced, one might almost say a professional, disputant, to meet Carlstadt in public debate, and after pro
tracted negotiations Leipsic was agreed upon as the scene of the disputation.
In the winter Eck published the theses he purposed to defend, and sent a copy of them to Luther. Instead of dealing with the matters in dispute between himself and Carlstadt, they had to do wholly with Luther's teachings, showing it was he whom Eck wished to meet. Indeed, in the letter accompanying the theses he said:
As Carlstadt is your champion, but you are the principal, who have disseminated throughout Germany dogmas which seem to my small and feeble judgment false and erroneous, it is fitting that you also should come and either defend your own positions or disprove mine. You see from the inclosed document that the propositions have been aimed not so much at Carlstadt as at your teachings.
Luther felt much aggrieved at this new and public attack, made as it was under cover of the approaching debate with Carlstadt and despite renewed protestations of friendship. In deference to Miltitz, he had maintained strict silence, and had even allowed a recent pamphlet of Prierias to pass unnoticed; but Eck's assault was too serious to be ignored. He was the first German theologian of any importance to come out in open opposition, and Luther felt that his own honor and the honor of the university required him to meet his antagonist in debate. Considering himself absolved from his promise of silence by what had happened, he decided to join Carlstadt in the approaching disputation, leaving to his colleague the defense of the Augustinian theology, and devoting himself to the points specifically impugned in Eck's theses.
He found considerable difficulty in getting Duke George's permission to take part. It seemed almost an affront to the papal see to allow him to appear in Leipsic and defend propositions that he had already been called upon to recant. But he was very eager, and wrote a number of urgent letters to the duke. Finally Carlstadt was authorized to bring with him such friends as he pleased, and under cover of this indirect permission, Luther appeared and bore his share in the debate.
Like Tetzel and Prierias, Eck was a believer in papal absolutism and infalli