Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521

By Martin Brecht; James L. Schaaf | Go to book overview

VII

The First Phases of
Luther's Canonical Trial
to the Summer of 1519

In the summer of 1518 Luther's trial was officially opened in Rome. It dragged on through various stages, complications, and interludes before reaching a definite conclusion with Luther's expulsion from the Roman church by the bull of excommunication on 3 January 1521 and with his virtually simultaneous break with the Roman church by burning the canon law and the bull which threatened to excommunicate him. It is very difficult to keep track of the trial not merely because of its long duration, but also because of the external political factors that impinged upon it. Electors, the emperor, knights, bishops, universities, cities, and other individuals and institutions, along with the pope, took part in it. The locations of the action and the levels of the hearings were continually changing. But the matter had to do not only with complaints, charges, and defenses on a legal or political level; Luther's own ideas continued to develop further during the trial. He certainly was not in the first place fighting principally for himself and his own person, but for the cause committed to him. In these years he was not merely a defendant, but also a professor, theologian, preacher, pastor (Seelsorger), publicist, and writer. During the conflict he developed alternative and far-reaching, but realizable, proposals for reforming, for example, theology and theological education; the church's administrative and judicial structure, the mediation of salvation, worship, and the sacraments; the political, social, and economic order; and Christian ethics and the ordering of life. Only with difficulty can the externals of the conflicts and alternative proposals be separated, and with respect to their substance usually not at all. Alternatives were often discovered in the course of the controversy, and these then became causes of new fundamental criticisms. It is precisely this which determines the importance of the matter. Luther was calling the norms and authorities of the Christianity of the day more and more into question in a revolutionary way. Not only did he dispute them, however, but he also proposed reasoned alternatives in their place, and to that extent he did not content himself with protest, but offered new constructive pos-

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