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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 37. The Leipzig Disputation. June 27-July 15, 1519.


I. Löscher, III. 203–819. Luther’s Works, Walch, XV. 954 sqq.; Weim. ed. II. 153–435 (see the literary notices of Knaake, p. 156). Luther’s letters to Spalatin and the Elector, in De Wette:, I. 284–324.

II. Joh. K. Seidemann: Die Leipziger Disputation im Jahre 1519. Dresden and Leipzig, 1843 (pp. 161). With important documents (pp. 93 sqq.) The best book on the subject. Monographs on Carlstadt by Jäger (Stuttgart, 1856), on Eck by Wiedemann (Regensburg, 1865), and the relevant sections in Marheineke, Kahnis (I. 251–285), Köstlin, Kolde, and the general histories of the Reformation. The account by Ranke (I. 277–285) is very good. On the Roman side, see Janssen, II. 83–88 (incomplete).


The agreement between Miltitz and Luther was only a short truce. The Reformation was too deeply rooted in the wants of the age to be suppressed by the diplomacy of ecclesiastical politicians. Even if the movement had been arrested in one place, it would have broken out in another; indeed, it had already begun independently in Switzerland. Luther was no more his own master, but the organ of a higher power. "Man proposes, God disposes."

Before the controversy could be settled by a German bishop, it was revived, not without a violation of promise on both sides,211211    Eck was the chief originator of the disputation, and not Luther (as Janssen endeavors to show). Seidemann, who gives a full and authentic account of the preliminary correspondence, says (p. 21): "Es ist entschieden, dass Eck die Disputation antrug, und zwar zunächst nur mit Karlstadt. Aber auch Luther’s Absehen war auf eine Disputation gerichtet." in the disputation held in the large hall of the Castle of Pleissenburg at Leipzig, under the sanction of Duke George of Saxony, between Eck, Carlstadt, and Luther, on the doctrines of the papal primacy, free-will, good works, purgatory, and indulgences. It was one of the great intellectual battles; it lasted nearly three weeks, and excited universal attention in that deeply religious and theological age. The vital doctrines of salvation were at stake. The debate was in Latin, but Luther broke out occasionally in his more vigorous German.

The disputation began with the solemnities of a mass, a procession, an oration of Peter Mosellanus, De ratione disputandi, and the singing of Veni, Creator Spiritus. It ended with a eulogistic oration by the Leipzig professor John Lange, and the Te Deum.

The first act was the disputation between Eck and Carlstadt, on the freedom of the human will, which the former maintained, and the latter denied. The second and more important act began July 4, between Eck and Luther, chiefly on the subject of the papacy.

Dr. Eck (Johann Mair), professor of theology at Ingolstadt in Bavaria, was the champion of Romanism, a man of great learning, well-stored memory, dialectical skill, ready speech, and stentorian voice, but overconfident, conceited, and boisterous. He looked more like a butcher or soldier than a theologian. Many regarded him as a mere charlatan, and expressed their contempt for his audacity and vanity by the nicknames Keck (pert) and Geck (fop), which date from this dispute.212212    As he complained twenty years later: see Seidemann, p. 80.

Carlstadt (Andreas von Bodenstein), Luther’s impetuous and ill-balanced friend and colleague, was an unfortunate debater.213213    Luther calls him an infelicissimus disputator. He had a poor memory, depended on his notes, got embarrassed and confused, and furnished an easy victory to Eck. It was ominous, that, on entering Leipzig, his wagon broke down, and he fell into the mud.

Luther was inferior to Eck in historical learning and flowing Latinity, but surpassed him in knowledge of the Bible, independent judgment, originality, and depth of thought, and had the law of progress on his side. While Eck looked to the fathers, Luther went back to the grandfathers; he ascended from the stream of church history to the fountain of God’s Word; yet from the normative beginning of the apostolic age he looked hopefully into the future. Though pale and emaciated, he was cheerful, wore a little silver ring, and carried a bunch of flowers in his hand. Peter Mosellanus, a famous Latinist, who presided over the disputation, thus describes his personal appearance at that time:214214    In a letter to Julius Pflug, a young Saxon nobleman. Mosellanus describes also Carlstadt and Eck, and the whole disputation. See Löscher, III. 242-251 (especially p. 247); Walch, XV. 1422; Seidemann, 51 and 56. I find the description also in an appendix to Melanchthon’s Vita Lutheri, Göttingen, 1741, pp. 32-44.

"Luther is of middle stature; his body thin, and so wasted by care and study that nearly all his bones may be counted.215215    "Ut omnia pene ossa liceat dinumerare." But in later years Luther grew stout and fleshy. He is in the prime of life. His voice is clear and melodious. His learning, and his knowledge of Scripture are so extraordinary that he has nearly every thing at his fingers’ ends. Greek and Hebrew he understands sufficiently well to give his judgment on interpretations. For conversation, he has a rich store of subjects at his command; a vast forest (silva ingens) of thoughts and words is at his disposal. He is polite and clever. There is nothing stoical, nothing supercilious, about him; and he understands how to adapt himself to different persons and times. In society he is lively and agreeable. He is always fresh, cheerful, and at his ease, and has a pleasant countenance, however hard his enemies may threaten him, so that one cannot but believe that Heaven is with him in his great undertaking.216216    "Ut haud facile credas, hominem tam ardua sine numine Divûm moliri." Most people, however, reproach him with want of moderation in polemics, and with being rather imprudent and more cutting than befits a theologian and a reformer."

The chief interest in the disputation turned on the subject of the authority of the Pope and the infallibility of the Church. Eck maintained that the Pope is the successor of Peter, and the vicar of Christ by divine right; Luther, that this claim is contrary to the Scriptures, to the ancient church, to the Council of Nicaea,—the most sacred of all Councils,—and rests only on the frigid decrees of the Roman pontiffs.

But during the debate he changed his opinion on the authority of Councils, and thereby injured his cause in the estimation of the audience. Being charged by Eck with holding the heresy of Hus, he at first repudiated him and all schismatic tendencies; but on mature reflection he declared that Hus held some scriptural truths, and was unjustly condemned and burnt by the Council of Constance; that a general council as well as a Pope may err, and had no right to impose any article of faith not founded in the Scriptures. When Duke George, a sturdy upholder of the Catholic creed, heard Luther express sympathy with the Bohemian heresy, he shook his head, and, putting both arms in his sides, exclaimed, so that it could be heard throughout the hall, "A plague upon it!"217217    "Das walt’ die Sucht!"

From this time dates Luther’s connection with the Bohemian Brethren.

Luther concluded his argument with these words: "I am sorry that the learned doctor only dips into the Scripture as the water-spider into the water-nay, that he seems to flee from it as the Devil from the Cross. I prefer, with all deference to the Fathers, the authority of the Scripture, which I herewith recommend to the arbiters of our cause."

Both parties, as usual, claimed the victory. Eck was rewarded with honors and favors by Duke George, and followed up his fancied triumph by efforts to ruin Luther, and to gain a cardinal’s hat; but he was also severely attacked and ridiculed, especially by Willibald Pirkheimer, the famous humanist and patrician of Nürnberg, in his stinging satire, "The Polished Corner."218218    "Der algehobelte Eck." The book appeared first anonymously in Latin, Eccius dedolatus, at Erfurt, March, 1520. Hagen, in his Der Geist der Reformation (Erlangen, 1843), I. p. 60 sqq., gives a good summary of this witty book. Luther sent it to Spalatin, March 2, 1520 (De Wette, I. 426), but expressed his dissatisfaction with this "mode of raging against Eck," and preferred an open attack to a "bite from behind the fence." The theological faculties of Cologne, Louvain, and afterwards (1521) also that of Paris, condemned the Reformer.

Luther himself was greatly dissatisfied, and regarded the disputation as a mere waste of time. He made, however, a deep impression upon younger men, and many students left Leipzig for Wittenberg. After all, he was more benefited by the disputation and the controversies growing out of it, than his opponents.

The importance of this theological tournament lies in this: that it marks a progress in Luther’s emancipation from the papal system. Here for the first time he denied the divine right and origin of the papacy, and the infallibility of a general council. Henceforward he had nothing left but the divine Scriptures, his private judgment, and his faith in God who guides the course of history by his own Spirit, through all obstructions by human errors, to a glorious end. The ship of the Reformation was cut from its moorings, and had to fight with the winds and waves of the open sea.

From this time Luther entered upon a revolutionary crusade against the Roman Church until the anarchical dissensions in his own party drove him back into a conservative and even reactionary position.

Before we proceed with the development of the Reformation, we must make the acquaintance of Melanchthon, who had accompanied Luther to the Leipzig disputation as a spectator, suggesting to him and Carlstadt occasional arguments,219219    This excited the anger of Eck, who broke out, "Tace tu, Philippe, ac tua studia cura, ne me perturba." and hereafter stood by him as his faithful colleague and friend.



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