On 18 April 1521 Martin Luther stood before civil and ecclesiastical authorities at the Diet (Riechstag) of Worms. Heiko Oberman translated Luther’s famous speech thus:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
You will notice that perhaps the most famous bit, “Here I stand. I can do no other” (Hier stehe Ich, kann nicht anders) is missing. Reformation scholars have doubted the authenticity of these words for about 50 years. They appeared in the first printed transcript but are thought to have been added. CT has a short account here.
Regardless of the authenticity of the words, “Here I Stand, I can do no other,” they certainly capture the spirit of Luther’s speech. Nevertheless, in our modern, egalitarian culture, these words (and especially the phrase “plain reason”) are liable to misunderstanding. He was not setting himself up as the final authority nor was he anticipating the Enlightenment assertion of human autonomy. He was asserting the essential clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture against the medieval and Roman view that Scripture must be subordinated to the authority of the church. Luther stood, despite his doubts and trembling, because the Word of God is intended to be heard (and read) and understood. What needs to be known for the Christian faith and life can be known. This is why Scripture is the unique (sola) authority for the Christian faith and life. Even ecclesiastical authorities must be subject to and corrected by it.
For Luther, reason had a function in the Christian faith and life. He did not counsel irrationalism (the denial of reason). Neither, however, did he counsel rationalism (the supremacy of reason). As David Bagchi has shown, in his essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, Luther was quite willing both to denounce that “whore, reason” and to invoke it in defense of his views depending upon the circumstances. The principle was that reason is always a servant (minister) and never a master (magister). To place reason (or feelings or anything) ahead of Scripture is to indulge in what Luther called the “theology of glory” (theologia gloriae). He taught a theology of the cross (theologia crucis). What we think or wish to be true must be submitted to the judgment of Holy Scripture.
We typically celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, remembering the Ninety-Five Theses but we would do better perhaps to celebrate April 18 as Reformation Day. Looking back on the Ninety-Five Theses years later Luther said that, in 1517, he was still a “right frantic and roaring papist.” Arguably, by 1521, Luther had recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), according to Scripture alone (sola Scripture). He had articulated a theological and hermeneutical (i.e., a way of reading Scripture) distinction between the law (or works) and gospel (or grace or promise). By this date in 1521 the basic building blocks of the Reformation were all in place and even though he did not fully understand their implications and would not understand them for several years, everything necessary for a thorough Reformation of the church was at hand.
They are just as needed and useful today as they were 490 years ago. Here we must stand. We can do no other. God help us.
Originally published June, 2013.