“We reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.
“We deny that any creed,
council or individual
may bind a Christian’s conscience, that the Holy
Spirit speaks independently
of or contrary to what is
set forth in the Bible, or
that personal spiritual experience can ever be a
vehicle of revelation.”
Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible
One of the best courses I took in college was Reformation history—and this was not at a Christian school, but a secular university. I was assigned more books for that class than for any other, and it is one of only two undergraduate courses for which I still have the texts!
Our professor’s enthusiasm brought us into the time, and into the heart of the conflict and the courage of Martin Luther. Innumerable debates occurred during that period and could last for weeks. A favorite book of mine is Great Debates of the Reformation, edited by Donald J. Ziegler. This book is an English translation of the text of ten debates; most of the text is the verbatim words of the speakers, and the drama reverberates in their voices.
The first chapter contains part of the Leipzig Disputation from July 4th to July 6th in 1519: exchanges between John Eck and Martin Luther.
“A public debate was about to begin on a vital issue, the question of papal supremacy within the universal church. Did the dominant position of the church of Rome and its bishop rest on divine decree? Or, in the words of one of the two men, was it based on “utterly worthless decrees issued by Roman popes over the past four hundred years”? Was it, as he alleged, “contradicted by the history of eleven hundred years, the text of Divine Scripture, and the decree of the Council of Nicea, the most sacred of all councils”?
“The words were asserted by Martin Luther in “thesis number thirteen” against his opponent in the castle hall—John Eck, well-known lecturer and debater from the University of Ingolstadt.”
The issue at stake was authority.
Eck: “I come therefore to the principal issue, to prove that the primacy of the Roman church is based on divine law and the institution of Christ, that Peter was established by Christ as the single ruler of the church, together with his successors….”
He quotes Matthew 16:17, and later, various church writings to support his position. Eck’s strategy is to push to link Luther’s writings and words to those of John Wycliffe of England and John Huss of Bohemia. In 1415, the Council of Constance had condemned Huss and burned him at the stake. Wycliffe, although deceased, was also condemned and the Council ordered his remains to be exhumed and burned.
Eck: “Among the many dangerous errors for which John Wycliffe was condemned was his assertion that belief in the supremacy of the Roman church is not required for salvation. So, too, among the pernicious errors of John Huss was his belief that Peter was never head of the holy catholic church.”
Luther was prepared for debate, and brings up the history of the church, beginning with its earliest days as he points out the existence of Christians who were never under the Roman church. He shoots back:
“For even if all the admirers of the Roman pontiff were out of their minds, they could not deny that the church of Christ was established for twenty years over a large part of the world before the Roman church was identified with Peter.”
Luther differs with Eck’s interpretation of Matthew 11:16, stating that the church fathers agree with him more than Eck: the rock is Christ, and Luther also cites 1 Corinthians 3:11 and 1 Peter 2:4ff for support.
A recess is called, and Roland Bainton writes that Luther spent time reading the acts of the Council of Constance. When they reassemble, Luther resumes:
“At the end of the previous discussion the excellent doctor mentioned the articles of Wycliffe and John Huss that were condemned and Boniface VIII who condemned them.”
And then Luther utters words that shock the listeners:
“…many of the articles of John Huss or the Bohemians were fully Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn…”
By stating that the Roman church had erred and was fallible in its condemnation of Huss, Luther lays the groundwork for the standard of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura. “The only source and norm of all Christian knowledge is the Holy Scripture.” The Scriptures alone are the infallible rule of faith and practice. Luther continues:
“…It is not essential to salvation to believe that the Roman church is above the others. Whether this is from Wycliffe or Huss, I do not care…Neither the Roman pontiff nor the inquisitors of heresy are empowered to establish new articles of faith. They are to judge according to the established ones….
“We are prohibited by divine law from believing anything that has not been proved either by Divine Scripture or by manifest revelation…”
Almost two years later, at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Eck and Luther face each other again. Eck tells Luther to speak plainly: will he or will he not repudiate his writings. Luther replies,
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
Roland Bainton writes that the earliest printed copies of Luther’ speech included these words:
“Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”
Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, April 20, 1996, Thesis One: Sola Scriptura.
Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible: Public Domain via Wikipedia.
Donald J. Ziegler, Great Debates of the Reformation, 1969, pp. 3, 14-16, 18.
Heinrich Heppe quoted by R. C. Sproul, Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism.
A. A. Hodge, Sola Scriptura.
Roland Bainton, Martin Luther: Here I Stand, 1950.
Martin Luther, Wikipedia.