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Burning the Papal Bull, Dec 10, 1520

On this day 500 years ago Luther did one of the most consequential things in his lifetime. The following is an excerpt from my historical fiction yarn Luther In Love.

“I loved reading Luther in Love! I laughed, I wept—so much wisdom about biblical marriage! …a tender and insightful look into how the Father of the Reformation, and his beloved Katie, applied the theology of the Reformation to their marriage.” 

SUSAN HUNT, author, Spiritual Mothering; former Coordinator, Women’s Ministry (PCA)


(December 10, 1520)

The die is cast!” cried Luther. Holding the papal bull before his students, he deliberately crumpled it into a wad, packing it as if he were making a snowball, readying it for launching at an opponent.

“I despise alike Roman fury,” he continued, “and Roman favor.” Tossing the bull upward and catching it in his palm three or four times, he at last hurled the bull onto the floor of the hall. His students looked on, wide-eyed, with mouths agape.

“I will not be reconciled nor communicate with them. They damn and burn my books. Unless I am unable to get hold of fire, I will publicly burn the whole canon law!”

A cheer rose from the hall.

“Might not we commence, Herr Doctor,” said Pieter, rising to his feet, “with the bull?”

Luther reached down and picked up the wad of parchment. Unfolding the crumpled ball carefully, he laid it out on his lectern.

“Some call me too ferocious,” he said. “But if a lion is met with a wolf, the lion must rage with fury if he is to prevail. I am a violent physician for violent times. I often wish God had called another. Pieter, here, he could do it for me.” The students guffawed, slapping their classmate on the back. “But, alas, God has called me. I unsheathe my sword. We shall strike a blow at the wolf, this pestilent pontiff, who viciously preys on Christ’s flock!”

Amsdorf was dispatched to carry an invitation for all students and faculty to gather at the Elster Gate of the city.

As if the pied piper in the legend, Luther stepped into the street, and the people of Wittenberg, as if by supernatural compulsion, left their homes and shops. It was a cold and wet December day; wet snow had fallen in the night and was turning the muck in the streets into a foul slurry. Nevertheless, in ones and twos, and whole families, they crowded at Luther’s heels, shouting as they followed him to the eastern gate of the village where a column of smoke rose into the gray sky. The nearer they came, they could smell the burning and hear the crackling of the bonfire.

“All of Wittenberg is here,” said Melanchthon, blinking as smoke blew into his eyes.

“Amsdorf, just there, and many of our good colleagues at the university,” said Carlstadt. “And George Spalatin, the duke’s functionary.” Carlstadt nodded at a tall man dressed in the silken garments of the court. “I wonder, does he come to join us?”

“Or to bring an ill report of us back to his master,” said Melanchthon. “I do hope it is the former.”

Luther stepped onto an upturned barrel set in front of the fire. The heat was strong on his back as he looked out over the crowd. Though the wall of heat felt comforting on such a frigid winter day, it also made him tremble. Fire must be like the way of a man with a maiden, he mused; congenial and full of pleasure in its proper boundaries, but twisted and destructive outside of them.

He lifted a hand for silence. Over the crackling and fizzling of the conflagration, he began to speak.

“When on this same site the fire was ignited over Tetzel’s absurdities and extravagances, the fate his counter theses merited, I was not aware, nor did I wholly approve, of such action. I then, three years ago, thought that the pope would see sense, acknowledge his manifest errors, and commence reformation within the Church.” He paused, looking out over the flushed cheeks and eyes sparkling in the brightness of the bonfire.

“I was wrong!” he shouted. “The pope and his satellites call for the same to happen to me; chains, fire, and flames for Luther. I am called ignorant, stupid, and unlearned, a paltry imitator. They roar and rage in their vociferations against me. Against all of you. They declare Germans deplorables—heavy, drunken blockheads.

“What are we to say? How are we to respond to their juggling quips and craft? This odious despotism which blinds and keeps poor souls in chains must be stopped. Hence, I am compelled to answer geese in their own language.

“You see, when the dawn appears,” he continued, “Satan becomes impatient of the light; he resorts in a thousand ways to subterfuge, evasion and indirection; but everything turns out wrong, as inevitably happens when anyone tries to maintain and defend an open lie against the manifest truth.

“The pope and his lies will not prevail. It is impossible. Glory, power, victory, salvation and honor are worthy of the Lamb that was slain and rose again. All these are ours, together with him, the sole possession of everyone who believes that Christ was slain and rose again for them. Christ, on our behalf, will prevail!

“Yet do we doubt. What is it about our own miserable works and doings that makes us think we could please God more than the sacrifice of his own Son on our behalf? About this there is no doubt.”

Stepping off the barrel, Luther moved as close to the flames as he dared. “Since they have burned my books,” he shouted above the noise of the crowd and of the fire, “I burn theirs!” Holding the papal bull above him, now crumpled and torn, he hurled it into the flames.

A great cheer rose from the crowd. The flames leapt higher. More parchments were thrown on the fire, some loose pages borne up on the heat, suspended, hovering, then bursting into flame and hurtling into the inferno below. More joyful shouting, children with rosy cheeks clapping with glee. Lucas Cranach the painter squatted in a doorway, sketching the scene with a lump of charcoal.

Meanwhile, Luther’s students gathered more copies of canon law, and letters and pamphlets written against their teacher. Shouting in defiance, they pitched these onto the fire.

What happened next would have the profoundest impact on Luther. One of his students began singing. It was the Te Deum, and he sang the first stanza all alone and beautifully, his clear young voice echoing off the stone walls and close-packed houses forming a corridor along the street.

Te deum laudamus te dominum…

All in Latin. On the second stanza and throughout the remainder of the ancient Trinitarian hymn Luther’s students and many of his colleagues joined in singing. In Latin.

Luther too joined in, heartily singing the ancient text, his voice deep and resonating, his heart swelling with wonder:

The holy Church throughout the world, O Lord, confesses thee, that thou Eternal Father art, of boundless majesty.

Thine honored, true, and only Son; and Holy Ghost, the Spring of never-ceasing joy: O Christ, of glory thou art King.

When the final strains of the hymn fell silent, thrilling as the moment had been, Luther realized that something was missing. Something was deeply wrong. He scanned the faces of the crowd. Only his students and colleagues had sung. The townsfolk had not been able to sing, “The holy Church throughout the world, O Lord, confesses thee.”

They did not understand the Latin. They had fallen dumb. Silent and awkward, they stood detached, listening to beautiful music but not understanding its meaning, disenfranchised, cut off, not invited or able to join in.

That realization struck Luther like another bolt of lightning. And like that first lightning bolt, he felt he would never be the same thereafter.

As the villagers returned to their various callings, his students parading a copy of the papal bull impaled on a sword through the streets, Luther walked slowly back to the Augustinian cloister and his tower study.

“Doctor Luther,” called a voice from behind him.

Luther turned. “Herr Spalatin, George, it is good to have friends in high places.”

Spalatin lifted his caplet and nodded in an abbreviated bow. “You do not always make things easy for His Excellency the duke.”

“No, I suppose I do not,” replied Luther, “for which I am truly sorry. I wish I could fulfill my calling without so many bits and pieces of imperial debris falling about his head.”

“There are times,” said Spalatin, shaking his head in wonder, “perhaps today is one of these, when it feels more like you have been the cause of fire and brimstone raining down upon the great duke. Yet, without wholly declaring himself so, he remains your defender. I am instructed to convey His Excellency’s own words to you, ‘Luther ought not to be condemned unheard, nor ought his books to be burned.’ So speaks the great duke.”

“I am honored by His Excellency’s continued patronage—and his patience. I realize I have been a trial to him at times.”

Spalatin cleared his throat in his fist. “At times?” Eyebrows arched, he smiled. “Nevertheless, anticipating today’s activity at the bonfire—word does travel so very fast in Wittenberg—he has written a letter to the emperor, to the effect, ‘If now Martin Luther has given tit for tat by burning the papal bull, I hope that His Imperial Majesty will graciously overlook it.’ So wrote the great duke, that is to say, so I penned on his behalf. His message is sealed and en route to the emperor as we speak.”

“His words or yours, George? I sometimes wonder about the secretaries of great men.”

Spalatin waved a hand in protest. “Entirely His Excellency’s words, and my honor to deliver on his behalf.”

“But why so?” said Luther. “I believe he has spoken fewer than twenty words to my face.”

“Do not take it as an insult,” said Spalatin. “Quite the contrary. He says you are ‘the finger of God. That you teach not as the scribes and Pharisees, but as the direct mouth and organ of Almighty Power.’ Yet, keeping his immediate distance from you is essential to the elector’s scheme.”

Grasping Luther’s hand in his own, Spalatin grew sober. “There’s a time coming when the duke can do no more. You have reckoned with this fact?”

Luther nodded slowly. Spalatin gripped his hand more tightly. For an instant he looked at Luther as if admiring a Cranach painting or a woodcut masterpiece of Albrecht Durer. “May God protect you.” The elector’s servant bowed and turned to go.

Luther watched the retreating figure of Spalatin; hunkered into his cloak against the cold, the ducal secretary, dodging a mud puddle, picked his way back to the castle.

Once back in his study, Melanchthon and Carlstadt following, Luther lowered himself into his chair and said, “I was wrong.”

“Wrong?” said Carlstadt. “Wrong about not approving the burning of Tetzel’s counter theses? You already confessed that.”

Luther gave a short laugh. “I am only getting started, my friends. Recall, I once tried the patience of my confessor for six hours. Yet do I have more to confess. Herein, I do so: I once said that indulgences were the pious defrauding of the faithful.”

“That was wrong?” said Melanchthon, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, and I recant of it,” said Luther, crossing his arms in the sleeves of his habit and eyeing his friends.

Carlstadt groaned. “He’s up to something.”

“Recanting the former,” continued Luther, ignoring him, “I now declare that indulgences are the most impious fraud and imposters of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the goods of the faithful.”

Carlstadt frowned. “That is recanting of nothing.”

“O, it is recanting of a sort,” said Melanchthon. “You, Herr Doctor, did not state it as strongly or completely as you now know it to be. Am I right?”

Luther smiled. “Ah, my friends, there is more,” he said, spreading his arms wide. “I was wrong about another matter, for which I now recant. I misspoke regarding the articles of John Hus. Not merely some but all of Hus’s articles are most Christian and evangelical. And if Pope Leo X stood beside us at the conflagration on which we burned his bull today, I would say it to his face. And add for good measure that his articles come from the synagogue of Satan and are downright impious and diabolical!”

It was Carlstadt’s turn to hold a hand near the flames. “You are determined to end up like the bull—consumed by the flames. Do bear in mind, it will be us with you.”

Luther shook his head. “I have a great aversion to fire. Fire and lightning bolts—neither are my favorite things. But it is clear to me now. So far I have merely fooled with this business of the pope.”

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