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On Theology and the Christian Life

The Reformation: A Brief History — The Leipzig Debate, by Martin Luther (1545)


October 12, 2018

We last heard from Luther that “gradually contempt of excommunication or papal thunderbolts” were beginning to rise against him in response to what he had written about papal indulgences between 1517 and 1519.

Before Luther’s excommunication from the Roman Church in 1520, a condemnatory bull, issued against Luther, was brought to his prince — Frederick the Wise — by a former friend, John Eck. A papal bull was a public decree. In this case, the decree was the condemnation of Luther and those things he had written at that time. Thankfully for Luther, Frederick was sympathetic to this German priest and what he had taught. Thus, Frederick “was most indignant” toward Eck who delivered the bull. The hope of Rome was that Frederick would agree with the condemnation of Luther and so bring his subject under threat of punishment.

“The Romanists were forced to despair of their attempts,” says Luther, “so the gospel advanced happily under the shadow of that prince and was widely propagated.”

“That same year the Leipzig debate was held,” writes Luther, continuing the story of the early years of the Reformation. In July 1519 John Eck, Martin Luther and Luther’s colleague Andreas von Karlstadt — along with other theologians and political figures — met at the University of Leipzig to debate several theological issues. In our own day debate and argumentation is not exactly a well-thought-of Christian activity. Such should not be the case, really, and it certainly was not at this point in the history of Christendom. Even Eck’s prince, Duke George the Bearded—“later to become Luther’s most implacable opponent” — felt a debate or disputation was appropriate in order to sort through the issues Luther had raised.

“Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity,” Duke George remarked. “What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss,” (Roldand H. Bainton, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther,” 98).

And so the debate was held at which Eck argued with Karlstadt concerning the depravity of man (original sin) and with Luther over papal indulgences, among other things. However, the main topic under debate was “the antiquity of the papal and the Roman primacy, together with the question whether it was of human or divine institution.” In other words, they argued whether or not the papal pontiff in Rome was head of the church and if so, whether or not this was instituted by God or a man-made arrangement. Needless to say, Eck argued for papal supremacy on the basis that it was commanded and instituted by God. Luther, of course, argued against it because he did not find Scriptural or historical evidence that would legitimize such a claim. Eck and Luther debated for 18 days—a real long-winded affair, you might say.

Luther asserted that “the very feeble decrees of the Roman pontiffs which have appeared in the last four hundred years prove that the Roman Church is superior to all others. Against them stand the history of eleven hundred years, the text of divine Scripture, and the decree of the Council of Nicaea, the most sacred of all councils,” (American Edition of Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p.318). In other words, Luther asserted that the notion of Roman papal supremacy was (1) novel so far as the historical record is concerned, (2) anti-Scriptural, and (3) opposed to the decree of the Council of Nicaea, which “determined that the bishop of Alexandria would preside over the churches in the East and that the Bishop of Rome would have charge over those churches in the Roman provinces in the west” — in other words, the Bishop of Rome did not have supremacy in the earliest centuries of Church history.

By his rejection of papal supremacy, some have suggested that Luther simply despised authority and advocated for disorder in the church. However, he wrote to the contrary, “Let it be understood that when I say the authority of the Roman pontiff rests on a human decree I am not counseling disobedience. But we cannot admit that all the sheep of Christ were committed to Peter. What, then, was given to Paul?” (Bainton, 97). His concern was fidelity to Christ and his holy Word.

“(At this time) I had also acquired the beginning of the knowledge of Christ and faith in him,” Luther also wrote, “i.e., not by works but by faith in Christ are we made righteous and saved.” Remember that in 1517 the Ninety-Five-Theses-nailing Luther had yet to understand this most central teaching of our Christian faith. By 1519, however, he had been brought to see and so teach that a sinner is forgiven by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Luther will have more to say on this on the final Friday of October. For now, he ends his discussion of the Leipzig Debate and speaks of Pope Leo X’s 1520 bull of excommunication Exsurge Domine. Luther will recount how the pope “condemned me unheard and raged with his bulls.” For now, however, it is here, dear Christian reader, we must conclude.


Pastor Marcus Williams

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Havre

Zion Lutheran Church, Chinook


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