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  • Comment: Another QuincentennialTo the Christian Nobility of the German Nation—1520
  • Kurt K. Hendel

The year 1520 was pivotal for the emerging Lutheran reform movement. By this time it was absolutely clear that the leadership of the Roman church intended to discipline Luther, with the goal of silencing him and curbing the challenge of the church's theology and practices that he had initiated with the 95 Theses.1 Disciplinary procedures had begun shortly after the dissemination of the 95 Theses. They continued with greater urgency after Luther's meeting with Cardinal Tomas de Vio (Cajetan) (1469–1534) from October 12–14, 1518, in Augsburg and particularly after the Leipzig Debate.2 Luther refused to recant what he had written and taught, as Cardinal Cajetan demanded. Thus, from the perspective of Rome, Luther was unwilling to submit to the authority of the church. Furthermore, his heresy was confirmed when, in response to Johannes Eck's accusations in Leipzig, Luther admitted that some of his theological positions were similar to those of the Bohemian reformer and condemned heretic Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415). All further negotiations between Luther and Rome failed to result in the Reformer's submission to Rome. Pope Leo X (1475–1521) therefore issued the bull Exsurge Domine on June 15, 1520. The bull threatened Luther with excommunication unless he recanted his errors within sixty days. Some of the errors were noted in the bull. Luther responded by burning the bull on December 10, sixty days after he had received it, together with a copy of canon law. Pope Leo consequently issued the bull Decet Romanum pontificem on January 3, 1521, thereby declaring [End Page 188] Luther to be a heretic and excommunicating him. All those who continued to support and protect Luther were also placed under papal condemnation. Luther's future and the future of the reform movement that he had inspired were, therefore, uncertain in 1520.

Yet, Luther continued to gain support among the general populace and from fellow theologians and political leaders in spite of the ecclesiastical legal proceedings against him. The knights Ulrich von Hutten (1488–1523), Franz von Sickingen (1481–1523), and Sylvester von Schaumburg (c. 1466–1534) sided with Luther and pledged to defend him, if necessary. His prince, Elector Frederick III (1463–1525), who was commonly known as Frederick the Wise, continued to protect Luther, both because his supposed heresy had not been proven and because he was enhancing the reputation of the Elector's university. Luther also continued his labors with much vigor, particularly his production of writings that promoted his reforming agenda. After the Leipzig Debate, the Reformer published sixteen treatises in the remaining months of 1519.3 This literary productivity was quite remarkable, especially when one considers that the ecclesiastical disciplinary procedures, his extensive correspondence, his monastic duties, his continuing teaching responsibilities, and his regular preaching also required the Reformer's attention. Luther continued to publish regularly in 1520 as well, and five treatises, in particular, made significant contributions to the theological and practical reform of church and society. They were his On the Papacy of Rome,4 A Treatise on Good Works,5 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate,6 The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,7 and The Freedom of a Christian.8

To the Christian Nobility, which was the third of these 1520 treatises, is a programmatic statement of reform that is intentionally addressed to the political leaders of the German territories, with the encouragement that they foster the renewal of church and society. The treatise consists of three sections. The first is a theological exploration and explication of Luther's notions of the universal priesthood, of good order in the church, and of the doctrine of vocation. The second section focuses on three ecclesiastical abuses that should be remedied by a council, namely, the avarice of the papacy; the continuing proliferation of cardinals, which was inspired [End Page 189] by this avarice; and the expansion of the curia, which also drained Germany's fiscal resources. The third section is a list of twenty-seven reform proposals that address problems in both church and society...


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