1521 The Diet of Worms

by Eric W. Gritsch

Was the wayward Luther free to dissent? A German council rendered a judgment.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 28 in 1990 ]

A COMPLEX CONSTELLATION OF EVENTS and circumstances dominated Europe in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. The rediscovery and study of Christian and Roman culture, known as “renaissance” and “humanism,” called into question much of the contemporary Christian culture. Discovery and exploration of a new, nonEuropean world expanded trade and led to what was later called “capitalism.” The Holy Roman Empire, a symbiotic relationship between spiritual and temporal rulers—pope and emperor—was being threatened by a massive invasion of Muslims led by Turkish sultans. Moreover, the unity of Christendom was being imperiled by the fast-growing reform movement started by Martin Luther. In this turbulent era, the diet (assembly) held at Worms in 1521 was one attempt to preserve that unity.

Pressures for the Diet

Politics and religion had become strange bedfellows in Germany. The “Golden Bull” of 1356 had provided for the election of an emperor by majority vote of four secular and three ecclesiastical princes. Two years before the Diet of Worms, the elector Frederick “the Wise” cast the deciding vote in favor of Charles I of Spain to become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Luther was Frederick’s subject; thus, when the papacy moved to silence him, Frederick insisted that his professor—a growing attraction at the University of Wittenberg, newly founded by Frederick—be heard on German soil and treated fairly.

As a result, Luther had a hearing before a cardinal in Augsburg in 1518, and he could debate the issue of papal authority at a well-publicized event at the University of Leipzig in 1519. He was also free, in 1520, to publish his ideas on church reform through bestselling treatises such as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (a stinging critique of the hierarchical system of sacraments) and The Freedom of the Christian (the exposition of a Christian stance liberated from bondage to a church claiming to have an inerrant structure).

In 1520, Rome threatened to excommunicate Luther unless he recanted, but the Wittenberg professor refused to do so. The letter threatening excommunication was burned in a festive bonfire staged by faculty and students in December. Luther’s actual excommunication by papal bull in January 1521 only fueled the opposition to Rome. Under pressure from Elector Frederick and other princes, Emperor Charles V agreed to hear Luther at a German diet scheduled to meet in Worms in the spring of 1521.

Proceedings of the Diet

Rome hoped that the diet would reject Luther’s cause, thus easing the task of a general council of bishops, chaired by the pope, who would be dealing with the religious issues raised. Virtually all of Germany was supporting Luther. As the official papal representative to the diet, Jerome Meander, put it in his secret message to Rome, “Nine-tenths of the people are shouting ‘Luther!’ and the other tenth are crying ‘Death to the Roman Court!’ “

Luther appeared before the diet on April 17 at 4:00 P.M., after a triumphant journey from Wittenberg. Silence descended on the room where the diet was meeting. A representative of the emperor asked Luther to respond to two questions: Did he acknowledge the authorship of books that had been brought to the diet and bore his name? Would he stand by them or retract anything in them?

Luther asked for time to reflect before answering, and he was granted twenty-four hours. On April 18, 6:00 P.M., he gave his now-famous answer:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason (for I trust neither pope nor council alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since to act against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me.”

The next day, the 19-year-old emperor called Luther “a notorious heretic” who would have to be silenced. A rump session of the diet approved a condemnation edict on May 26. The edict called Luther a criminal who had committed high treason; it demanded the capture of Luther and his disciples; and it condemned the “demon in the appearance of a man” as the leader of a notorious heresy that must be exterminated.

In short, Luther was condemned to death, albeit in absentia, for he had been persuaded to leave Worms earlier. Elector Frederick arranged a “kidnapping” of the homeward-bound Luther and hid him at Wartburg, his castle in Thuringia. Luther stayed there until March 1522 when unrest drove him to return to Wittenberg.

Practical Consequences of the Diet

The Diet of Worms revealed two radically differing world views: Charles V, armed with the powerful weapons of ecclesiastical ban and imperial edict, embodied institutional authority; Luther stood for the Word of God as revealed in Holy Scripture, which promised freedom from all human bondage, including death. Luther summarized his view in two seemingly contradictory propositions: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” For Luther, faith in Christ frees humans from their human righteousness by binding them to the righteousness of Christ. Believers are subject to no human powers, although they are to serve neighbors in need as if they were slaves.

Luther’s dissent at Worms was a testimony to Christian freedom. Subsequent dissent has often been grounded in notions of human rights like freedom of speech. Luther might or might not have agreed with these notions. It is clear, however, that he clung to the ancient biblical mandate to honor no power other than the power of the Word of God.

Dr. Eric W. Gritsch is Maryland Synod Professor of Church History and director of the Institute for Luther Studies at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

comments powered by Disqus