Careening Toward Division

As recounted in From Conflict to Communion, jointly produced by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Reformation was an academic dispute that careened into a division of the church.

Apart from the first four theses, Luther’s 95 Theses did not state his views but proposed statements for debate. He “was surprised by the reaction to his theses, as he had not planned a public event but rather an academic disputation. He feared that the theses would be easily misunderstood if read by a wider audience.”

He intended to offer “questions for disputation and put forward arguments. He and the public, informed through many pamphlets and publications about his position and the ongoing process, expected an exchange of arguments. Luther was promised a fair trial. Nevertheless, although he was assured that he would be heard, he repeatedly received the message that he either had to recant or be proclaimed a heretic.” Through it all, “there was only one disputation, in 1519, in Leipzig between Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt and Luther on the one side, and Johannes Eck, on the other.”

Luther encountered one of the great Catholic theologians of the time, Cardinal Cajetan, at Augsburg in 1518, but their theologies were too different and the pressures too great to make headway: “Cajetan interpreted Luther within his own conceptual framework and thus misunderstood him on the assurance of faith, even while correctly representing the details of his position. For his part, Luther was not familiar with the cardinal’s theology, and the interrogation, which allowed only for limited discussion, pressured Luther to recant.”

The Catholic response to Luther was imperious. The Papal bull Exsurge Domine, issued on June 15, 1520, “condemned forty-one propositions drawn from various publications by Luther. Although they can all be found in Luther’s writings and are quoted correctly, they are taken out of their respective contexts. Exsurge Domine describes these propositions as ‘heretical or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or dangerous to simple minds, or subversive to catholic truth,’ without specifying which qualification applies to which proposition.”

Pope Leo gave Luther sixty days to recant or be excommunicated. When Catholics burned some of Luther’s books, Wittenberg theologians started a bonfire of their own, including Exsurge Domine, and “Luther was excommunicated by the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem on 3 January 1521.”

It’s hard to read this without thinking what might have been. . . . if everyone had stopped, quieted, breathed, listened, talked, disputed, clarified, taken a decade off to sort through the issues. What then?

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