Luther Before the Pope's Legate
Upon arriving at Augsburg, Luther immediately informed the pope's legate that he was in the city. The legate heard the news with joy. He felt assured that the troublesome heretic who was setting the whole world astir was now in his power, and determined that he should not leave Augsburg as he had entered.
The legate's attendant, an Italian courtier of insinuating manners, flattered himself that it would be an easy matter to bring the Reformer to a proper position. He therefore called upon him with professions of great friendship, and gravely gave him instruction in etiquette, thinking thus to inspire him with awe for the great man before whom he was to appear. He urged Luther to accompany him immediately to the presence of the legate; but Luther calmly stated that he must first obtain his safe-conduct.
Irritated at his ill success, the wily Italian exclaimed, "When all men forsake you, where will you take refuge?" "Under Heaven," answered the Reformer, looking reverently upward.
Luther soon received his safe-conduct, and prepared to appear before the legate. On receiving information of the fact, this dignitary was somewhat perplexed to decide what course to pursue with a man of so determined character, and he consulted his friends in regard to the matter. One was decided in the opinion that he should be made to retract; another, that he be arrested and imprisoned. A third boldly advised that he be put out of the way, while a fourth recommended that an attempt be made to win him over by gentleness. It was decided to adopt the last advice as the safest.
At his first interview with the Reformer, the legate was reserved, but civil. He expected Luther to yield every point without argument or question, and waited in silence for him to begin his recantation.
Luther stated that he appeared before the legate in response to the summons of the pope, and at the desire of the Elector of Saxony, and declared himself a humble and obedient son of the holy Christian church. Then he proceeded to the point at issue: "I acknowledge that it was I who published the propositions and theses that are the subject of inquiry. I am ready to listen with all submission to the charges brought against me, and if I am in error, to be instructed in the truth."
The legate commended Luther's humility, and at once made known what was expected of him: "First, you must return to your duty. You must acknowledge your faults, and retract your errors, your propositions, and sermons. Secondly, you must promise to abstain from propagating your opinions. And thirdly, you must engage to be more discreet, and avoid everything that may grieve or disturb the church."
Luther asked to see the credentials of the cardinal, showing his authority to settle the matter. He was refused, and was told that he had only to renounce his errors, and the cardinal would make all right with the church.
Luther then asked to be informed wherein he had erred. With an air of condescension, the cardinal made answer: "Two propositions are put forward by you that you must, before all, retract. First, the treasure of indulgences does not consist of the merits and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, the man who receives the holy sacrament must have faith in the grace offered to him." If generally received, these propositions would be fatal to the commerce of Rome, overturning the tables of the money-changers, and driving out of the temple those who made merchandise of the grace of salvation.
The legate had promised to abide by the testimony of the Scripture; but notwithstanding this he applied to the constitution of the popes in favor of indulgences. Luther declared that he could not accept such constitutions as sufficient proofs on subjects so important; "for they wrest the Holy Scriptures, and never quote them to the purpose." The legate retorted, "The pope has authority and power over all things." "Save the Scriptures," answered Luther earnestly. "Save the Scriptures!" echoed the legate in derision, and he asserted that the pope was higher than councils, and that all who dared to question his authority would receive their deserts.
Concerning the second proposition, which affirmed the necessity of faith in order to grace, Luther stated that to yield that point would be to deny Christ. Said he, "I cannot, therefore, and I will not yield that point, and, by God's help, I will hold it to the end."
The legate replied angrily, "Whether you will or not, you must this very day retract that article, or else, for that article alone, I will proceed to reject and condemn all your doctrines."
Luther answered, "I have no will but the Lord's. He will do with me what seemeth good in his sight. But had I a hundred heads, I would rather lose them all than retract the testimony I have borne to the holy Christian faith."
"I am not come here to argue with you," answered the prelate. "Retract, or prepare to endure the punishment you have deserved." Thus ended the first interview.
The second conference was held on the following day, and attended by many persons of high position. Before this assembly, Luther read a declaration expressing his regard for the church, his desire for the truth, his readiness to answer all objections to what he had taught, and to submit his doctrines to the decision of certain leading universities. At the same time he protested against the cardinal's course in requiring him to retract, without having proved him in error.
The legate's response was, "Recant, recant." He overwhelmed Luther with a perpetual torrent of words, giving him no opportunity to reply. The Reformer therefore begged that he might present in writing his answer to the two charges, the one touching indulgences, and the other respecting faith. The request was reluctantly granted.
In the third interview, Luther submitted his answer, in which he showed that his position was sustained by the Scriptures, and firmly declared that he could not renounce the truth. The legate treated Luther's declaration with little short of contempt. He scolded and thundered on incessantly, leaving Luther, as at the preceding interview, no opportunity for reply. With vehement assertions and repeated reference to the papal constitution, he continued to maintain the doctrine of indulgences and to call on Luther to retract:
The Reformer at last declared that if the principle which was claimed as the very foundation of the doctrine of indulgences, could be proved from the papal constitution itself, he would retract. All were startled at this proposition. The friends of Luther were alarmed and embarrassed. The legate and his sustainers could hardly contain their joy. But their rejoicing was quickly turned to confusion. Luther met the cardinal on his own ground, and triumphed completely.
When the wily prelate saw that Luther's reasoning was unanswerable, he lost all self-control, and in a rage cried out: "Retract, or I will send you to Rome, there to appear before the judges commissioned to take cognizance of your case. I will excommunicate you and all your partisans, and all who shall at any time countenance you, and will cast them out of the church. Full power has been given me for this purpose by the holy apostolic see. Think you that your protectors will stop me? Do you imagine that the pope can fear Germany? The pope's little finger is stronger than all Germany put together."
"Condescend," replied Luther, "to forward the written answer I have given you to Pope Leo X., with my most humble prayers." In a haughty and angry tone, the cardinal replied, "Retract, or return no more."
Luther bowed, and retired with his friends, leaving the cardinal and his supporters to look at one another in utter confusion at the unexpected result of the discussion. The cardinal and the Reformer never met again.
Luther's efforts on this occasion were not without good results. The large assembly present at the conference had opportunity to compare the two men, and to judge for themselves of the spirit manifested by them, as well as of the strength and truthfulness of their position. How marked the contrast! Luther, simple, upright, firm, stood up in the strength of God, having truth on his side; the pope's representative, self-important, overbearing, haughty, and unreasonable, was without a single argument from the word of God, yet vehemently crying, "Retract, or be sent to Rome for punishment." Yet the legate was deeply impressed by his interviews with the Reformer, and he afterward changed his own views, and himself retracted his errors.
Luther remained in Augsburg but a few days after his last meeting with the cardinal. Before leaving the city, however, he drew up a respectful letter to the legate, stating that it was useless for him to prolong his stay, as he had been denied a further hearing unless he should retract. "Thus I again set out in the name of the Lord, desiring to find some place where I may live in peace." He closes by stating that he had committed no crime, and ought therefore to have nothing to fear. This letter was intrusted to his friends, who after his departure delivered it to the legate.
Luther set out from Augsburg at night, on horseback, and accompanied only by a guide furnished him by the magistrate. With many forebodings he secretly made his way through the dark and silent streets of the city. Enemies, vigilant and cruel, were plotting his destruction. Would he escape the snares prepared for him? Those were moments of anxiety and earnest prayer. He reached a small gate in the wall of the city. It was opened for him, and with his guide he passed through without hindrance. Now they were beyond the limits, and putting their horses to a full gallop, they soon left the city far behind them. Satan and his emissaries were defeated. The man whom they had thought in their power was gone, escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowler.