Updated: May 26, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Luther did not have a run-in with the Catholic hierarchy over his teachings until 1517. Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X had offered an indulgence for the good work of giving alms to the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica. This would be funding the materials, architects, builders, and painters like Michelangelo and Raphael. However, those who were sent out to tell the people about this indulgence were to receive a portion of the money for their labors. They became greedy and twisted the truth so that the people would give more money. The person who preached in Luther's town was a man named Johann Tetzel, and he told the people that as soon as the money landed into his chest of collections, a soul in Purgatory would be freed. It appeared that the Catholic populus had to pay money to receive salvation. This was a horrific and incredibly flawed theology, and Luther criticized it. To voice his frustrations, he wrote out ninety-five theses or topics to debate, particularly emphasizing the flaws of these indulgence preachers. He also sent a copy to his bishop. This began his troubles with the Church.
Much of the ninety-five theses were actually good points by Martin Luther. For instance, his condemnation of the preachers of the Papal indulgence was needed, and the Pope actually wrote out a letter to reform indulgence preaching shortly thereafter. Other points by Luther indicated his flawed theology, and he needed to be corrected.
Martin probably did not intend for the ninety-five theses to make their way into the populace, but due to the invention of the printing press in the previous century, everyone started reading them. When Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the bishop, Albert of Mainz, with a defence of them, he had hoped that Albert would see the abuse of indulgences and correct the issue. Instead, Albert sent them to the pope to be investigated for heresy. When Rome received Albert’s request for Luther to be investigated for heresy, the Pope was unconcerned. University professors were known for their squabbles with the Church. From 1518-1519, the Pope simply responded to Albert by sending men to Germany to try and calm the little monk down.
The theses were supposed to be topics for debate, which is what many university professors utilized in their classes. A debate was what he received. The University of Heidelberg was to host a debate between Martin Luther and opposing university professor, Johann Eck. In the debate, Martin’s views regarding salvation and the authority of Scripture over the pope began to develop. Faith alone, according to Martin, saved a man. This interpretation of Scripture was over that of the Pope’s, according to Luther.
When Martin was pressed on the matter of faith alone in his debate with Johann Eck, he revealed his doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Such a teaching was seen as heretical, for the Catholic Church taught salvation by faith and works. So, Eck responded to this by declaring that Luther was a heretical Hussite.
To be a Hussite meant that one was a follower of the heretic Jan Hus, who only a few years prior had been condemned by the Pope for his views on Scripture. Hus questioned the authority of the Church with respect to the interpretation of Scripture. According to Eck, Luther was following in Hus’ steps and was claiming the same thing. Through a private interpretation of Scripture against the Pope’s, Luther reached his teaching of “faith alone” for salvation. Now the Pope, Leo X, believed that Martin was misinterpreting Scripture, and was implying to the world that any Christian could privately interpret Scripture and disagree with the Church. So, recognizing the implications for such a teaching, the Pope sent out the chief theologian of the papal palace, Sylvester Prierias, who then called Luther a heretic for questioning the Pope's authority. Cardinal Cajetan was sent along with him as well. Cajetan and Pope Leo urged Frederick the Wise, prince over the region of Germany, to send Luther to Rome.
Frederick, although a Catholic, had a strong German nationalism in his mind and did not want to listen to the Pope. He resented Pope Leo X demanding a German citizen travel to Rome, so he told Cardinal Cajetan to meet with Luther on German soil. When Cajetan agreed, they arranged to meet in Augsburg. When Cajetan met with Luther in Augsburg, zero agreement was reached. Instead, a sort of shouting match occurred over the authority of the Pope.
In the meantime, Pope Leo clarified indulgences with his document Cum Postquam. In it, he corrected what Luther pointed out: that the indulgence abuses which were occurring from the greedy preachers had to stop. This answered much of Luther’s problems, but Luther was entrenched in his views on salvation and the interpretation of Scripture.
Because Luther understood salvation differently than the pope, and Luther’s interpretation of Scripture led him to this conclusion, Martin lost respect for the authority of the pope. Not to recognize the authority of the papacy was heretical, and would not be without consequences. Thus, after the meeting in Augsburg, Cardinal Cajetan requested that the authorities arrest Luther. For heresy was a capital crime. The authorities attempted but were ultimately unsuccessful in capturing Luther, as he escaped in the night.
Luther escaped the authorities, but in 1519-20 he engaged in another debate with Johann Eck and his fellow professors at Leipzig. This was the second time the two theologians had debated and it became known as the “Leipzig Disputation.” They debated free will, biblical interpretation, and papal authority. Eck backed Luther into a corner by getting him to admit that the Pope and Church Councils could be wrong. This was what Jan Hus had claimed in the 14th century. Such a belief had gotten Hus burned at the stake for heresy. This was a scary corner to be in, yet nevertheless, Luther admitted to being a Hussite. This prompted the Pope to issue a letter to Martin called, Exurge Domine. Written in June of 1520, Luther was asked to respond to forty points of contention between himself and Rome, or be declared a heretic.
This would be the tipping point for Luther. Either he could recant his teachings and remain in Catholicism, or he could continue in his teachings and be declared yet another heretic in the history of the Church. Check out the next article to see what happened next.