Luther: Here I Stand

The year is 1521 and Martin Luther the German reformer and theologian was brought before twenty-one-year-old Emperor Charles V and a secular tribunal of princes and officials. He was told to recant his position and writings, or he would be condemned for heresy. Martin Luther was by all accounts was a bold man who even himself recognized that at times he had gone too far in his criticisms. In Lend Me Your Ears by William Safire, Safire says Luther was “unswayed by a condemnation from Rome” and burned the papal bull that was issued against him in 1520.[1] Luther it would seem was determined to have this meeting where he would defend his works against any who would listen.

The first day of the trial he admitted that he was the author of the books in question and asked for a second day to think through his position. It was on the second day, April 17, that Martin Luther gave his response to the tribunal, one can almost picture the quiet courtroom as Martin Luther stands, takes a breath and begins to speak. It can be assumed he knew his words would not win many fans in this room. He knew that to be condemned a heretic meant not only possible death but worse the work he has done will be discarded and burned.[2] His work, his labor, his love for God will all be questioned.

It was with that understanding that Luther spoke. Luther carefully responded saying that he could not revoke all his writings because they were three-fold. In the first group were writings that “discussed faith and good works” which even the Pope acknowledged, the second dealt with popery, and a third group where he wrote against individuals who defend Rome on the points he spoke against.[3] He then moved on to agreeing to recant his works if he could be shown where he was wrong carefully adding in that the nature of the Gospel causes division such as this. Finally, in the closing section Luther proclaims that he must be convinced he is wrong by Scripture and reason before recanting. If not, he would not and could not recant.

Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms has always been one of my favorite speeches because of Luther’s willingness to stand for what he believed in the even in the face of death. I cannot help but hear a hint of Justin Martyr in Luther’s opening lines. Luther echoed Martyr’s sentiment that a “lover of truth” must do and say the right thing regardless of the consequences.[4] Luther in his words implored those he spoke with to listen and that he would defend his cause which he “assured was just and right.”[5]

Luther moves from his opening to explain that the books he has written fall into different categories. Because of the way he addresses the categories it suggests that he is attempting to show the absurdity of being asked to recant all his works. Not all of Luther’s writings were considered heretical by the church so to recant all his writings would be to say the Pope disagreed with approved church teaching. This was a clever play by Luther and no doubt encouraged his supporters.

What I value are Luther’s quick wit and honesty. He comes across as honest in his attempt to have a conversation about the topics he wants to address. His remarks should invite such a conversation but because the crowd he is speaking to is generally only there to condemn a discussion is not something to be found. The conversation was had but those who should have been involved were no longer a part of it. We know from history that his supporters liked his message and the movement went on to grow.

Maybe that was the point and maybe that is the bigger lesson here from Luther. The purpose of a speech to win minds and change hearts is not only about the immediate audience but the secondary audience as well. The secondary audience is those who hear of ideas that were conveyed by the speech. Luther in addressing the absurdity of being asked to recant sound church doctrine shows is a thinking man. His willingness to admit he may have been more aggressive in his attack on the defenders of the Pope than necessary shows that he is a passionate man. This helps others who hear of his words be swayed that he may have valid points.

Was Luther successful? Seeing as we recently celebrated the 500-year anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses I would say so. Had Luther not been clever and calm in his speech and had he not taken the time to prepare his response we might only speak of him as a footnote. Instead however many know him to be a man possessed by the desire to share the faith entrusted to the Apostles. Because Luther was successful we can like him say in the face of danger “here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me.”[6]

[1] William Safire, Lend me Your Ears Great Speeches in History, (W.W. Norton and Co: New York, 2004) 344.

[2] Britannica, Diet of Worms, https://www.britannica.com/event/Diet-of-Worms-Germany-1521, accessed November 7, 2017.

[3] Safire, 345.

[4] Justin Martry, Justice Demanded, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Apple iBook, 3.

[5] Safire, 344.

[6] Ibid 346.

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