Luther and Pope Leo X

Luther’s work began to gain traction and spread rapidly across Europe, creating a situation that called for the Roman church to act swiftly and decisively but on the contrary, its response was slow and bungling. The reason for this was the skepticism of Pope Leo X, who being head of the most powerful ecclesiastical authority on the Earth, didn’t really believe in Christianity. But where Leo failed the Emperor Maximilian sat up and took notice, identifying the inherent dangers of the movement gaining momentum at Wittenberg, he immediately wrote letters to the Pope and to Diet of the Empire at Augsburg, bringing to their attention the crisis facing the authority and influence of the church and calling them to take immediate action.  

His efforts paid off and both Pope Leo and the diet moved to stifle the new movement in its infancy, calling for Luther to appear in Rome to answer to the charge of heresy within 60 days of receiving notice. Luther knew that to go to Rome was the equivalent of attending his own funeral but to refuse to go was no better. Pope Leo, not only had the power to excommunicate him but to crush him as previous popes had crushed out the likes of the Hussite movement

Augusburg, Germany

In his time of need, God raised up a friend for Luther in the person of Frederick, Elector of Saxony, who advocated on his behalf, pleading that he be tried on German soil, thus giving him a better opportunity at escaping, at the very least, with his life. Frederick had been an important political ally to Leo in the past and his friendship would be useful for future endeavors, therefore, eager to strengthen his political ties,Pope Leo agreed to give Luther a hearing on German soil and dispatched his legate, Cardinal Cajetan to hear the case in Augsburg. Cajetan was an ardent defender of the Pope and Papal doctrine, suave and calculating, he was one of the most valuable assets of the College of Cardinals. Cajetan was not really interested in anything Luther had to say, the purpose of the hearing was not to have an open debate with the wayward monk on the finer points of doctrine or scriptural authority. 

Leo X Papal Bull

Cajetan was only interested in squeezing a single word out of Luther’s lips; revocco, I recant. Luther would find himself warring against an institution whose single goal was that of gaining absolute submission, either by means of spiritual manipulation or, failing which, duress. Days before his departure for Augsburg, God brought to Luther one of the most valuable treasures he would acquire during his lifetime; his friendship with Philip Melancthon.

In August of 1518, which is when they met, Luther was 34 years old and Melancthon 21. Melancthon had been called to the chair of Greek at the University and what he lacked in physical stature and years he more than made up for in intellectual genius. Speaking of their friendship the Historian Wylie writes “He (Luther) needed a companion and God placed Melancthon by his side. These two were the complement the one of the other, united they formed a complete reformer”

Luther, Leo X, Papal Bull

When Luther appeared before Cajetan in October of 1518 he soon realized that the Pope was not interested in truth, justice or the authority of scripture. He was only interested in one thing; submission, and if Luther was not willing to bow his knee to the authority of the Pope at Rome the consequences would be dire.

Once the hearing was over Luther left Augsburg at night on horseback and returned to Wittenberg. The revolution that was to shake Christendom to its very foundations was here to stay. Following this, on the 24th of March 1521, Luther received an imperial edict summoning him to appear before the Diet of the Empire, then in session at Worms

The truth is Rome was only interested in one thing; total domination, an end they were willing to gain at any cost and by any means. Luther’s stand for truth is deeply significant because it is an example of resistance against tyranny and oppression. He would not be bullied or manipulated into submission and for this reason, they hated him. Jesus said “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. (John 15:20). Remember Martin Luther, because history repeats itself.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Rise of Nations –  Professor Andrew C. Fix (Lafayette College)