On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood for the second day before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. There in that small town of Worms located in southwestern Germany by the Rhine River, with a population of about 7,000, an imperial diet had been convened that brought 10,000 visitors into town. At stake before the diet was the ultimate control and authority of Charles V and the peace of his empire, which was being threatened by Luther and his teachings.
The diet was waiting to hear Luther answer two questions that had been put to him the day before. Was he the author of the twenty-five works that had been shown to him there? And was he going to recant of the (allegedly) false teachings that were found in them? Luther readily acknowledged that he was the author of those twenty-five works. But while Luther tried to steer clear from giving a direct answer to the second question and instead tried to engage in a discussion of the identity of those false teachings, the diet would have none of that. Luther then delivered one of the most important speeches in church history. While we do not have a record of the full text of his speech, what we do know is this: With astounding courage before all the authorities gathered before him, Luther took a clear stand for all his teachings, boldly declaring that they all stood on the ground of Scripture, to which his conscience was bound. We also know that a majority of the rulers and dignitaries present, including Charles V, did not appreciate his bold stand and answer, because what brought the diet to its conclusion was the Edict of Worms.
Concisely, the Edict of Worms pronounced four main things in relation to Luther and his teachings: 1) it declared Luther “a limb cut off from the Church of God” and “manifest heretic”; 2) banned and ordered the destruction of all of Luther’s works; 3) prohibited anyone from giving him food or shelter; 4) and, finally, called for his arrest. Without a doubt, the clear and singular purpose of the edict was to crush the Reformation movement born in the heart of Luther four years earlier when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to a church door at Wittenberg.
What follows in the rest of this article is an overview of the Edict and an assessment of its effectiveness.
An overview of the edict
The Edict of Worms is a thirty-page document, originally written in Latin and German, approved by many and varied church leaders and rulers of the Holy Roman Empire participating at the diet, and finally endorsed by the young Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V. It brought the meeting at Worms, which spanned a period of about five months, to its conclusion. From the outset, the purpose of the document, which was to stop the Reformation movement from spreading in Germany and other European nations within the Holy Roman Empire, is communicated clearly:
Certain heresies have sprung up in the German nation within the last three years, which were formerly condemned by the holy councils and papal decrees, with the consent of the whole Church, and are now drawn anew from hell…. Since now without doubt it is plain to you all how far these errors and heresies depart from the Christian way, which a certain Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order, has sought violently and virulently to introduce and disseminate within the Christian religion and its established order especially in the German nation, which is renowned as a perpetual destroyer of all unbelief and heresy; so that, unless it is speedily prevented, the whole German nation, and later all nations, will be infected by this same disorder, and mighty dissolution and pitiable downfall of good morals, and of the peace and of the Christian faith, will result….1
In setting forth its purpose, note that the edict also, and very importantly, reveals the ground and authority it uses to determine what “the Christian religion” and the “Christian way” are and, therefore, also what “heresies” against this religion and way are. Notably, the sole ground and authority of the edict (and the church at the time of its writing) is “the holy councils and papal decrees,” not the inspired, infallible Word of God. Rome’s foundation was not the Bible, which was the sole ground and authority on which Luther stood.
The edict then proceeds to identify precisely the harmful heresies that Luther taught and defiantly maintained, and which were beginning to spread in Germany and beyond:
…he destroys, overturns and abuses the number, arrangement and use of the seven sacraments, received and held for so many centuries by the holy Church… shamefully pollutes the indissoluble bonds of holy matrimony…says also that holy unction is a mere invention…holds the priestly office and order in contempt…uses scurrilous and shameful words against the chief priest of our Christian faith, the successor of St. Peter and true vicar of Christ on earth, and pursues him with manifold and unprecedented attacks and invectives.… And he writes that the mass confers no benefit for whom it is celebrated. Moreover he overthrows the custom of fasting and prayer established by the holy Church and hitherto maintained…especially does he impugn the authority of the holy fathers [and] would destroy obedience and authority of every kind…. He does not blush to speak publicly against holy councils, and to abuse and insult them at will.
Here the edict not only spells out exactly the heresies that Luther taught, but also sets forth the boldness of Luther in opposing the teachings of the Romish church, which were based on the traditions of man and not the inspired Word of God.
Such boldness and opposition by Luther undoubtedly angered those who crafted and approved of the edict. Therefore, without surprise, the edict did not content itself with a mere identification of the harmful heresies that Luther taught; it also proceeded to destroy the very character of the Reformer. This the edict does in the strongest way imaginable:
He teaches a loose, self-willed life, severed from all laws, and wholly brutish and he is a loose, self-willed man, who condemns and rejects all laws…. And he has fallen into such madness of spirit as to boast that if Hus were a heretic, then he is ten times a heretic…. This fellow appears to be not so much a man as the wicked demon in the form of a man and under a monk’s cowl.
As a final point leading up to the decretal declarations of the edict against Luther, it stated that Luther was even given safe conduct to come to the Diet of Worms, and there was given a fair examination and final opportunity to acknowledge what he had written and recant of all that he taught. However, “as soon as these books [bearing his teachings and being written by him] were enumerated, he [Luther] acknowledged them as his own, and moreover declared that he would never deny them.”
Accordingly, it was deemed necessary that the edict declare Luther to be “a limb cut off from the Church of God, an obstinate schismatic and manifest heretic” and that the following draconian measures be decreed to punish Luther decisively and stop his teachings from spreading:
We strictly order [that] you shall refuse to give the aforesaid Martin Luther hospitality, lodging, food or drink; neither shall anyone by word or deed, secretly or openly, succour or assist him by counsel or help; but in whatever place you meet him, you shall proceed against him; if you have sufficient force, you shall take him prisoner and keep him in close custody; and you shall deliver him, or cause him to be delivered, to us or at least let us know where he may be captured…. And for such holy and pious work we will indemnify you for your trouble and expense…. In like manner you shall proceed against his friends, adherents, patrons, maintainers, abettors, sympathizers, emulators and followers…. Consequently we command you that henceforth no one shall dare to buy, sell, read, preserve, copy, print or cause to be copied or printed, any books of the aforesaid Martin Luther…neither shall any dare to approve his opinions, nor to proclaim, defend or assert them, in any other way that human ingenuity can invent, notwithstanding he may have put some good in them to deceive the simple man.
Thus, by document’s end, Luther’s teachings were roundly condemned as heresies, and Luther a heretic condemned to death by the diet and by the Holy Roman Emperor.
Assessing and analyzing the effectiveness of the edict
And yet, as we all know, Luther did not die as a result of the edict and his teachings did not stop spreading. Therefore, when assessing the effectiveness of the edict, we have to say that the edict was not successful. In fact, it failed miserably! Immediately after Luther departed from Worms, he was whisked away to a remote castle in Wartburg and given protection there by the Duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. There, Luther spent his time working on a very important work: a German translation of the Bible from the original languages.
Through Luther and many other Reformers, the fiery flames of the sixteenth-century Reformation continued to spread in Germany and well beyond Germany into Europe in its day. And five hundred years later, we and many throughout the world stand as grateful beneficiaries and confessors of the very same Reformation teachings of Luther’s day.
What explains the failure of the Edict of Worms to stop the spread of the Reformation? First and foremost, four years had gone by since Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Since then, Luther’s teachings had begun to spread and, very importantly, won support with influential and powerful men such as Frederick the Wise. Second, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize that the seeds for the Reformation, planted a hundred years earlier by pre-Reformers such as John Hus and John Wycliffe, were now beginning to bear significant fruit. Third, by Luther’s time, the printing press had been invented and a new age and movement of learning, the Renaissance, had taken hold of Europe, making this learning and the propagation of the Bible and its teachings easier than ever before. All these historic factors and conditions undoubtedly accounted for the edict’s failure.
But most of all and at bottom; the explanation was God and His work. The sovereign God of grace who loves His people in Jesus Christ! The God who gave His holy, inspired Word as the sole and infallible authority for His people! The God who would not let His Word fall to the ground and His church on earth be destroyed! The triumph of Luther and his bold stand for the Bible over against the vain traditions of man represented at the Diet of Worms and its edict were the result of God at work in putting all of the diet’s historic factors and conditions together. It was He who was pleased to raise up Luther and others, giving them faithfulness and astounding boldness in time of need, and equipping them for the weighty and necessary task of reforming His church on earth, and thereby thwarted the efforts of the enemy to stop the Reformation.
To Him alone be the glory!
1 All quotations of the Edict of Worms in English are taken from Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation in Its Own Words, New York: Harper & Row, 1964