Luther and the Lessons of Losing

by Peter Sandstrom

One of my favorite stories to come out of the Reformation concerns an event from the its very early days, after the posting of the ninety-five theses at Wittenberg, but before Luther's "Here I stand" performance before the Emperor at Worms. It was first told to me by an unexpected source, a Scottish Presbyterian, Dr. William Charne, who was my professor of ecclesiastical history at New College of the University of Minburgh. It is special to me because it shows Luther not in the midst of a grandiose gesture or tour de force but, rather, at a time when things were not going at all his way, a time when he in fact lost, but a time when he also learned something vied about himself in the process.

Luther in the ninety-five theses and in following statements had questioned the church's authority in regard to the selling of indulgences. One of those who publicly disputed Luther's critique was Johannes Eck. In 1518 a fellow Luther's faculty member, Andreas Karlstadt, had claimed the scriptures to be greater in authority than the church and was promptly challenged by Eck to a debate. Karlstadt accepted. The debate was set for June of the following year in Leipzig. Th ere was a general assumption that Luther would not be able to resist proved to be correct. Luther, however, was late in arriving. By the time he got to Leipzig the debate was well under way and Karlstadt was foundering badly. the snare that Eck had been setting around Karlstadt, a snare Eck had intended for Luther.

Late in the morning session, Eck proposed that Luther's views on church authority and scripture bore a startling resemblance to those of Jon Hus, who one hundred years earlier had been condemned as a heretic, and declared as such by the much-esteemed Council of Constance. This was an unexpected assault because Luther had assumed all along that his position, while in conflict to some extent with papal authority, was, nonetheless, consistent with the church councils and their doctrinal traditions. So convinced was Luther that his perspective was essentially traditional that up through this point in time he had been surprised by the amount of uproar his statements were causing.

Being caught so off guard by this tactic of Eck, Luther stalled until he could be literally saved by the bell of the noon-hour adjournment. As soon as the lunch break began, Luther scrambled over to the library to see what he could do to counter Eck's accusation. After pouring for a long time through the documents, Luther came to the astounding realization that Eck was right! Luther's views were the same as those of Hus and they were in direct conflict with the councils. Luther was amazed! He went back to the afternoon session a shaken man. He muddled through his defense and was soundly defeated by Eck. Luther had lost the debate, yet something else of incredible importance had happened: Luther realized how far he had come. He was no longer, as he genuinely thought he had been, within the main-stream tradition of his church and its teachings. While Luther had been profoundly influenced by the church fathers and by a long line of Catholic mystics, his own interpretation of scripture and church authority was not in keeping with the orthodoxy of his day. Luther had left home and could no longer have any reasonable expectations of being considered in the family household.

One thing I like about this particular story is that it can be told simplest without any judgement on the orthodoxy of 1519 or on Luther. At its simplest it is just a matter of social geography: Luther and his thinking were no longer within the circle of the larger group. Using the language Phil Johnson uses in his article this issue, Luther had taken a journey outside the boundaries of his kin and had experienced change. Yet, more personally, or to say again, as I first heard the tale from Prof. Charne, Luther for the first time realized just how far he had really come.

It is hard to overstate the importance of such a realization for Luther. After returning to Wittenberg and letting it all sink in for a few months, Luther made his realization his resolution. He went on in the following year to write and publish the three major treatises which would be the critical signposts of the Reformation: The Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Bablylonian Captivity of the Church, and On Christian Liberty.