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Introduction

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!

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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