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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 33. The Theses-Controversy. 1518.


Luther’s Sermon vom Ablass und Gnade, printed in February, 1518 (Weimar ed. I. 239–246; and in Latin, 317–324); Kurze Erklärung der Zehn Gebote, 1518 (I. 248–256, in Latin under the title Instructio pro Confessione peccatorum, p. 257–265); Asterisci adversus Obeliscos Eckii, March, 1518 (I. 278–316); Freiheit des Sermons päpstlichen Ablass und Gnade belangend, June, 1518, against Tetzel (I. 380–393); Resolutiones disputationum de indulgentiarum virtute, August, 1518, dedicated to the Pope (I. 522–628). Letters of Luther to Archbishop Albrecht, Spalatin, and others, in De Wette, I. 67 sqq.

Tetzel’s Anti-Theses, 2 series, one of 106, the other of 50 sentences, are printed in Löscher’s Ref. Acta, I. 505–514, and 518–523. Eck’s Obelisci, ibid. III. 333.

On the details of the controversy, see Jürgens (III. 479 sqq.), Köstlin (I. 175 sqq.), Kolde (I. 126 sqq.), Bratke, and Dieckhoff, as quoted in § 31.


The Theses of Luther were a tract for the times. They sounded the trumpet of the Reformation. They found a hearty response with liberal scholars and enemies of monastic obscurantism, with German patriots longing for emancipation from Italian control, and with thousands of plain Christians waiting for the man of Providence who should give utterance to their feelings of indignation against existing abuses, and to their desire for a pure, scriptural, and spiritual religion. "Ho, ho! "exclaimed Dr. Fleck, "the man has come who will do the thing." Reuchlin thanked God that "the monks have now found a man who will give them such full employment that they will be glad to let me spend my old age in peace."197197    The prophetic dream of the Elector, so often told, is a poetic fiction. Köstlin discredits it, I. 786 sq. The Elector Frederick dreamed, in the night before Luther affixed the Theses, that God sent him a monk, a true son of the Apostle Paul, and that this monk wrote something on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg with a pen which reached even to Rome, pierced the head and ears of a lion (Leo), and shook the triple crown of the Pope. Merle d’Aubigné relates the dream at great length as being, "beyond reasonable doubt, true in the essential parts." He appeals to an original MS., written from the dictation of Spalatin, in the archives of Weimar, which was published in 1817. But that MS., according to the testimony of Dr. Burkhardt, the librarian, is only a copy of the eighteenth century. No trace of such a dream can be found before 1591. Spalatin, in his own writings and his letters to Luther and Melanchthon, nowhere refers to it.

But, on the other hand, the Theses were strongly assailed and condemned by the episcopal and clerical hierarchy, the monastic orders, especially the Dominicans, and the universities, in fact, by all the champions of scholastic theology and traditional orthodoxy. Luther himself, then a poor, emaciated monk, was at first frightened by the unexpected effect, and many of his friends trembled. One of them told him, "You tell the truth, good brother, but you will accomplish nothing; go to your cell, and say, God have mercy upon me."198198    Albert Krantz of Hamburg, who died Dec. 7, 1517. Köstlin, I. 177.

The chief writers against Luther were Tetzel of Leipzig, Conrad Wimpina of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and the more learned and formidable John Eck of Ingolstadt, who was at first a friend of Luther, but now became his irreconcilable enemy. These opponents represented three universities and the ruling scholastic theology of the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas. But they injured their cause in public estimation by the weakness of their defence. They could produce no arguments for the doctrine and practice of indulgences from the Word of God, or even from the Greek and Latin fathers, and had to resort to extravagant views on the authority of the Pope. They even advocated papal infallibility, although this was as yet an open question in the Roman Church, and remained so till the Vatican decree of 1870.

Luther mustered courage. In all his weakness he was strong. He felt that he had begun this business in the name and for the glory of God, and was ready to sacrifice life itself for his honest conviction. He took comfort from the counsel of Gamaliel. In several letters of this period he subscribed himself Martinus Eleutherios (Freeman), but added, vielmehr Knecht (rather, Servant): he felt free of men, but bound in Christ. When his friend Schurf told him, "They will not bear it;" he replied, "But what, if they have to bear it?" He answered all his opponents, directly and indirectly, in Latin and German, from the pulpit and the chair, and through the press. He began now to develop his formidable polemical power, especially in his German writings. He had full command over the vocabulary of common sense, wit, irony, vituperation, and abuse. Unfortunately, he often resorted to coarse and vulgar expressions which, even in that semi-barbarous age, offended men of culture and taste, and which set a bad example for his admirers in the fierce theological wars within the Lutheran Church.199199    He said of Tetzel, that he dealt with the Bible "wie die Sau mit dem Habersack" (as the hog with the meal-bag); of the learned Cardinal Cajetan, that he knew as little of spiritual theology as "the donkey of the harp;" he called Alveld, professor of theology at Leipzig, "a most asinine ass," and Dr. Eck "Dreck:" for which he was in turn styled luteus, lutra, etc. Such vulgarities were common in that age, but Luther was the roughest of the rough, as he was the strongest of the strong. His bark, however, was much worse than his bite, and beneath his abusive tongue and temper dwelt a kind and generous heart. His most violent writings are those against Emser (An den Emserschen Steinbock), King Henry VIII., Duke Henry of Brunswick (Wider Hans Wurst), and his last attack upon popery as "instituted by the Devil" (1545), of which Döllinger says (Luther, p. 48), that it must have been written "im Zustande der Erhitzung durch berauschende Getränke."

The discussion forced him into a conflict with the papal authority, on which the theory and traffic of indulgences were ultimately made to rest. The controversy resolved itself into the question whether that authority was infallible and final, or subject to correction by the Scriptures and a general Council. Luther defended the latter view; yet he protested that he was no heretic, and that he taught nothing contrary to the Scriptures, the ancient fathers, the oecumenical Councils, and the decrees of the Popes. He still hoped for a favorable hearing from Leo X., whom he personally respected. He even ventured to dedicate to him his Resolutiones, a defence of the Theses (May 30, 1518), with a letter of abject humility, promising to obey his voice as the very voice of Christ.200200    "Beatissime Pater," he says in the dedication, "prostratum me pedibus tuae Beatitudinis offero cum omnibus, quae sum et habeo. Vivifica, occide, roca, revoca, approba, reproba, ut placuerit: vocem tuam vocem Christi in te praesidentis et loquentis agnoscam. Si mortem merui, mori non recusabo. Dominienim est terra et plenitudo ejus, qui est benedictus in saecula, Amen, qui et te servet in aceternum, Amen. Anno MDXVIII."Works (Weimar ed.), I. 529; also in De Wette, Briefe, I. 119-122.

Such an anomalous and contradictory position could not last long.

In the midst of this controversy, in April, 1518, Luther was sent as a delegate to a meeting of the Augustinian monks at Heidelberg, and had an opportunity to defend, in public debate, forty conclusions, or, "theological paradoxes," drawn from St. Paul and St. Augustin, concerning natural depravity, the slavery of the will, regenerating grace, faith, and good works. He advocates the theologia crucis against the theologia gloriae, and contrasts the law and the gospel. "The law says, ’Do this,’  and never does it: the gospel says, ’Believe in Christ,’ and all is done." The last twelve theses are directed against the Aristotelian philosophy.201201    Weim. ed., I. 350-376. Comp. Köstlin, I. 185 sqq.

He found considerable response, and sowed the seed of the Reformation in the Palatinate. Among his youthful hearers were Bucer (Butzer) and Brentz, who afterwards became distinguished reformers, the one in Strassburg and England, the other in the duchy (now kingdom) of Würtemberg.



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