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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 70. Luther and Henry VIII


Henricus VIII.: Adsertio VII. Sacram. adv. Luth. Lond. 1521. A German translation by Frick, 1522, in Walch, XIX., 158 sqq. Lutherus: Contra Henricum Regem. 1522. Also freely reproduced in German by Luther. His letter to Henry, Sept. 1, 1525. Auf des Königs in England Lästerschrift M. Luther’s Antwort. 1527. Afterwards also in Latin. See the documents in Walch, XIX. 153–521; Erl. ed., XXVIII. 343 sqq.; XXX. 1–14. Comp. also Luther’s letters of Feb. 4 and March 11, 1527, in De Wette III. 161 and 163.


With all his opposition to Ultra-Protestantism in church and state, Luther did not mean to yield an inch to the Romanists. This appears from two very personal controversies which took place during these disturbances,—the one with Henry VIII. concerning the sacraments; the other with Erasmus about predestination and free-will. In both he forgot the admirable lessons of moderation which he had enjoined from the pulpit in Wittenberg. He used again the club of Hercules.

Henry VIII. of England urged Charles V. to exterminate the Lutheran heresy by force, and wrote in 1521 (probably with the assistance of his chaplain, Edward Lee), a scholastic defence of the seven sacraments, against Luther’s "Babylonish Captivity." He dedicated the book to Pope Leo X. He treated the Reformer with the utmost contempt, as a blasphemer and servant of Satan. He used the old weapons of church authority against freedom. He adhered to the dogma of transubstantiation, even after his breach with Rome. Pope Clement VII. judged that this book was written with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and promised indulgence to all who read it. At the same time he gratified the ambition of the vain king by confirming the title "Defender of the Faith," which Leo had already conferred upon him.495495    Pallavicino and Hergenröther (III. 41) show that Leo conferred the title in a bull of Oct. 11, 1521, and that Clement confirmed it in a bull of March 5, 1523.

The Protestant successors of Henry have retained the title to this day, though with a very different view of its meaning. The British sovereigns are defenders of the Episcopal Church in England, and of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and in both characters enemies of the Church of Rome.

Luther read the King a lecture (in Latin and German) such as was rarely read to any crowned head. He called him "King Henry, of God’s disgrace (or wrath), King of England," and heaped upon him the most abusive epithets.496496    Especially in the German edition of his reply, where Henry is styled not only a gekrönter Esel (crowned donkey) and elender Narr (miserable fool), but even a verruchter Schurke, unverschämter Lügner, Gotteslästerer, etc ."I say it before all the world, that the King of England is a liar and no gentleman (ein Unbiedermann)." He makes fun of his title "Defender of Faith." The papists who deny Christ may need such a defender; but "the true church disdains a human patron, and sings, ’Dominus mihi adjutor’ (Ps. 9:10), and ’Nolite confidere in principibus’ (Ps. 118:8, 9)." In conclusion he apologizes for his violence, because he had to deal with "unvernünftigen wilden Ungeheuern." Card. Hergenröther (Kirchengesch. III. 41, 3d, 1886) says: "Luther antwortete in der gemeinsten und boshaftesten Weise, die Grobheit zur Classicität ausbildend." He incidentally hit other princes, saying that "King Henry helps to prove the proverb that there are no greater fools than kings and princes." Such a style of polemics can not be justified by the coarseness of the age, or the nature of the provocation, and did more harm to Luther than to Henry. His best friends regretted it; yet long afterwards he even surpassed the violence, if possible, in his savage and scurrilous attack upon Duke Henry of Brunswick.497497    Wider Hanswurst, 1541.

When there was a prospect of gaining Henry VIII. for the cause of the Reformation, Luther made the matter worse by a strange inconsistency. In a most humble letter of Sept. 1, 1525, be retracted (not his doctrine, but) all the personal abuse, asked his pardon, and offered to honor his name publicly. Henry in his reply refused the offer with royal pride and scorn, and said that he now despised him as heartily for his cowardice as he had formerly hated him for his heresy. He also charged him with violating a nun consecrated to God, and leading other monks into a breach of their vows and into eternal perdition. Emser published a German translation of Luther’s letter and the King’s answer (which was transmitted through Duke George of Saxony), and accompanied it with new vituperations and slanders (1527). All the Romanists regarded this controversy, and the similar correspondence with Duke George, as a great blow to the Reformation.

Luther now resumed his former sarcastic tone; but it was a painful effort, and did not improve the case. He suspected that the answer was written by Erasmus, who had "more skill and sense in his finger than the King with all his wiseacres." He emphatically denied that he had offered to retract any of his doctrines. "I say, No, no, no, as long as I breathe, no matter how it offend king, emperor, prince, or devil .... In short, my doctrine is the main thing of which I boast, not only against princes and kings, but also against all devils. The other thing, my life and person, I know well enough to be sinful, and nothing to boast of; I am a poor sinner, and let all my enemies be saints or angels. I am both proud and humble as St. Paul (Phil. 2:3)."

In December of the same year in which he wrote his first book against King Henry, Luther began his important treatise "On the Secular Power, and how far obedience is due to it." He defends here the divine right and authority of the secular magistrate, and the duty of passive obedience, on the ground of Matt. 5:39 and Rom. 13:1, but only in temporal affairs. While he forbade the use of carnal force, he never shrank from telling even his own prince the truth in the plainest manner. He exercised the freedom of speech and of the press to the fullest extent, both in favor of the Reformation and against political revolution. The Reformation elevated the state at the expense of the freedom of the church; while Romanism lowered the dignity of the state to the position of an obedient servant of the hierarchy.

One wrong does not justify another. Yet those Roman-Catholic historians who make capital of this humiliating conduct of the Reformer, against his cause, should remember that Cardinal Pole, whom they magnify as one of the greatest and purest men of that age, in his book on the Unity of the Church, abused King Henry as violently and more keenly, although he was his king and benefactor, and had not given him any personal provocation; while Luther wrote in self-defense only, and was with all his passionate temper a man of kind and generous feelings.

Melanchthon regretted the fierce attack on King Henry; and when the king began to favor the Reformation, he dedicated to him the revised edition of his theological Loci (1535). He was twice called to England, but declined.498498    He wrote in March: "Ego jam alteris literis in Angliam vocor" (Op. II 708).



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