Among the countless enemies of the Reformation, and therefore enemies of the gospel, two men hold a prominent place in the history of the Diet of Worms. One of them was used by God leading up to the Diet of Worms and the other used at the diet itself. Their names: Johannes Eck and Johannes von Eck. Johannes Eck was professor at Ingolstadt. He debated Luther at Leipzig, and actively opposed Luther’s doctrine in written works published prior to and following the Diet of Worms. The other, Johannes von Eck, was secretary to the Archbishop of Trier, and is best known for interrogating Luther at the Diet of Worms.
The first Johannes Eck studied at various German universities and began his teaching career at the University of Freiburg. In 1510 he was invited to the University of Ingolstadt, where he became chair of the theology department, from which position he carried on most of his attacks against Luther and the Reformation.1
When Eck and Luther were first introduced to one another, they were on somewhat good terms. In January of 1517, Eck received a letter from Christoph Scheurl, a professor of law at Wittenberg University, in which Scheurl praised Martin Luther for his explanation of Paul’s epistles “with wonderful genius.”2 Luther in turn referred to Eck as “learned and thoughtful” in recognition of Eck’s intellectual gifts.3
However, Eck’s friendly attitude toward Luther did not last long. When Luther published his Ninety-five Theses against the traffic of indulgences in October of 1517, Eck responded by writing a series of footnotes in a work called “Obelisks” (referring to the typographical marks that point to footnotes), in which he accused Luther of being a Hussite. Associating Luther with that movement was deadly serious because Hus had been. burned at the stake a mere one hundred years earlier (AD 1415), in part for his condemnation of the church’s sale of indulgences, the very thing Luther was attacking.
Luther could not possibly let Eck’s attacks go unanswered. In keeping with the disputation culture of the day, he responded to Eck’s footnotes by writing his own set of footnotes in a work called “Asterisks” (another reference to typographical marks). Already then, God was using Eck’s attacks to bring Luther further along his path toward the truth.
No doubt this exchange contributed to Eck’s animosity towards Luther and the doctrines of grace. But, even more than Luther’s response, it seems that the harsh attacks from Luther’s colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, finally provoked Eck to call for a public disputation. As the disputation approached, Luther realized that the twelve theses Eck had proposed for the debate were aimed not so much at Carlstadt’s teachings as his own. Luther therefore obtained permission for himself to attend the debate to be held in Leipzig in 1519.
What had been a private academic matter was now about to become much more explosive. In addition to the dispute about indulgences, Eck introduced the topics of free will, penance, purgatory, and the papacy. By pursuing these other topics, Eck managed to induce Luther to declare publicly his own opposition to the absolute authority of popes and councils in favor of Scripture alone. Eck thought this would give him the victory over Luther; but instead of backing down, Luther defended and promoted the truth all the more boldly. Luther would later write to a fellow professor, “Eck…opened my eyes as to the Pope’s sovereignty; for although at first I maintained his right to the human title, I now see that the Papacy is the kingdom of Babylon, and the tyranny of Nimrod, the mighty hunter.”4 Once again, God used Eck to lead Luther and others to a greater understanding of the truth.
As Eck’s enmity toward Luther intensified, he tried unsuccessfully to get Frederick III to burn Luther’s works. By the end of 1519, Eck had published eight manuscripts against Lutheran doctrine. He was able to get some of the universities to condemn Luther’s writings, but the German princes were not convinced. In July of 1520, after he had made his case to the pope that Luther should be condemned, Eck delivered Pope Leo’s pronouncement called Exurge Domine, which declared Luther’s writings to be “heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth.”5 The pronouncement condemned Luther’s writings in no less then forty-one points and called for his works to be publicly burned. Eck was called upon to deliver the papal bull to southern Germany including the cities of Saxony. But the bull did not lead to the unmixed condemnation of Luther that Eck desired. Eck even found himself escaping Saxony in fear of his life. On December 10 of 1520, the very day he was supposed to present himself in Rome, Luther defiantly burned the bull. The more Eck attacked, the more Luther’s eyes were opened. Not only did Eck fail to bring Luther back into the fold of the Roman church, he actually drove Luther away and at the same time caused the truth to spread like wild-fire.
Thus Eck’s opposition set the stage for the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521. One month into the meetings, on February 18, Eck wrote a letter to Charles V urging him to enforce the papal ban, which had been declared against Luther on January 3. Eck’s letter together with other pressures induced Charles V to summon Luther to appear at the diet. Once Luther had obtained the promise of safe conduct, he made his way from Wittenberg and appeared at the diet on the afternoon of April 17.
Johannes Eck continued to manifest himself as Luther’s implacable foe for years to come. He visited Rome to plan his attacks, wrote against Lutheran doctrines, and helped establish a court of inquisition against Luther’s teachings. He worked with other Roman Catholic theologians to refute the Lutheran Augsburg Confession and generally opposed the doctrine of the Reformers. If we could trace Eck’s opposition and its results, we would see that God sovereignly used this enemy of the truth to further the cause of His gospel.
Taking our leave from the first Eck, we come to the other Eck, Johannes von Eck. He obtained his doctorate in 1505 and became professor of law at the University of Trier about 1506. His general hostility to the truth can. be seen in his opposition to reformatory ideas in the Archdiocese of Trier.6 In keeping with this, the Roman Catholic Aleander reported that von Eck was “a learned, orthodox man who was extremely conscientious in executing the apostolic and imperial mandates, and who burned the heretical books so thoroughly in Trier that not one was left.”7 After serving at the University of Trier, von Eck became an advisor to Archbishop Richard von Greiffenklau, the Archbishop of Trier and in this capacity was asked to attend the Diet of Worms and serve as Luther’s interrogator.
At the diet, von Eck’s central question was whether Luther was willing to retract: “Do you acknowledge yourself the author of the writings published in your name, and which are here before me? and will you consent to retract certain of the doctrines therein inculcated?” 8
But, unless Luther was convicted of error by the testimony of the Scripture or by manifest evidence, he refused to retract anything contrary to his conscience.9 Thus we see how God used von Eck to bring Luther to stand on the sole authority of Scripture.
Von Eck tried meeting personally with Luther in the days after his appearance. But it was to no avail; Luther was more committed to the truth than ever before, and von Eck had been the unwilling instrument that helped Luther come to that conviction.
Johannes Eck and Johannes von Eck—both men were named ‘Johannes,’ which name has the meaning “Jehovah is gracious.” But far from being proponents of grace, both were in fact enemies of the gospel of grace, as we have seen. On the other hand, both men were named ‘Eck,’ which literally means “corner.” As enemies of the gospel of grace, both tried to bind the truth in a corner and keep it from spreading. But God was pleased to use them to the opposite effect, such that the gospel truth was in fact unleashed throughout the world. Thus they proved the truth of Psalm 76:10: “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.”
To God be the glory!
1 The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, “Eck, Johann,” in Vol. 4, 64-66. 2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, chap. 2, section 27 (Ages Digital Library). 3 “Letter to Christoph Scheurl” (September 11, 1517), in The Letters of Martin Luther (Ages Digital Library). 4 “Letter to Hermann Tulich, Professor in Wittenberg” (Oct. 6, 1520), in The Letters of Martin Luther (Ages Digital Library). 5 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (140) quoted in Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition), 456. 6 https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_von_Eck. 7 https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_von_Eck. 8 W. Carlos Martyn, The Life and Times of Martin Luther (The Ages Digital Library), 256. 9 Martyn, 261.