You´re on camera with “Worms 1521”

Yesterday was a long movie shoot. At least from my perspective. Last week I had mentioned Liu Yi from Insight Studios (Hong Kong). She had inquired about the Old Latin School, looked around and bought some books – like “The Reformation” by Professor Cameron A. MacKenzie (Ft.Wayne, IN). Now she turned up with her camera team and after finishing off piles of Pizza in our common room, the work began.

“Luther in Worms” by Anton von Werner (1877)

Three stations were allocated for shooting. The first was on the stairway in front of Anton von Werner´s heroic depiction of the Diet at Worms in May 1521 painted in 1877. Heroic because it draws Dr. Luther as a tall fellow in the center of attraction. Now ideologically that might be true, but the reformer was but a shortish guy, who fitted neatly into the small pulpit now on display in the “Luther House” and although the papal nuncio Aleander did not manage to side-line the monk from Wittenberg as he had bargained for with the emperor, Luther probably was standing more to the back of the packed courtroom, which did not leave much space for breathing even. And the historic accounts don´t depict Luther as the audacious Hercules, but rather as a pale, thin and rather non-descript academic in the black dress of his Augustinian order.  The alter ego was the young emperor Charles V – just about 20 years old. That´s frightfully young on the political stage and Heinz Schilling has done a marvelous job of contrasting these two historic figures, who both were for concrete reform of the church – but in very different ways and paradigms. I am looking forward to read his recent publication concentrating on the emperor.

It is one of the many tragedies in the church, that these two figureheads did not come together in a common drive for the Reformation – although Dr. Martin Luther tried his best to convince this political agent at the very top of the empire. Right from the word “go” – the emperor was determined to force the German professor into the mold of his conceptions. It is claimed that when Luther entered the courtroom, the emperor had proclaimed to his surrounding entourage: “This monk is not going to make me a heretic!” For him the battle lines were clear.  However, Luther was no push-over. He wanted to convince the emperor of the validity of his stand, but he would not to be shoved into any foreign template, which contradicted his understanding of God´s Word as revealed to him in biblical studies of St. Paul´s letter to the Romans, the Psalms and Prophets of old, but also through his intensive search for guidance in previous publications of church councils, synods and resolutions. These studies had proven beyond doubt, that the church and its papal and episcopal leadership had failed far too often to be an absolute guide to truth in delicate matters – not just in Konstanz against Johann Huss. That´s why Luther like the prophets of old holds loud and clear: It is dangerous to follow the fickle and opportunistic whims of church politics and power, just as it is risky to follow the quirks and fads of our own heart and mind. The only gold standard and absolute norm in matters of truth and salvation is God´s revealed and written Word, which remains forever. That´s where we should focus our attention and that´s where we should expect help in all trouble and redemption for our iniquity, and finally release from our malaise.

It´s not just Luther and the emperor at Worms, but also the nobility as representatives of the German estates plus the church authorities in all their finery and fashionable reds and precious fabrics, who were trying to push the papal agenda despite this being a political conference of the stake holders in the empire. The old fox Frederick the Wise is seated next to the young and eager Phillip of Hesse. The picture is well arranged – and carries an important message: Luther at center stage – where we his supporters would like him to be. The representatives of the old order – papal authorities and the emperor are on the far left – whereas the German estates are in the background, some backing Luther, others still hesitant and waiting for the things to come. Some, like George of Saxony were fiercely determined to rot out the new heresy once and for all since the dispute in Leipzig: “Es walt die Sucht!” (“That´s the plague ruling!”)

Although the emperor wants to deal with this matter quickly, Dr. Luther is not to be rushed. Even when the political authorities push him to summarily recant his works, he does not comply. Mainly, because he was under the impression, that he would be challenged in a theological dispute concerning the veracity and validity of his writings. However, the opposition was in no way up to such a challenge. They wanted to push through their agenda by force and have Luther give in. Well, he was not that sort of guy. And in that way, he really was a hero. When he is pushed to recant, he asks for leave to consider his position and his writings. This is not cheap opportunism, but rather the workings sensitive penitent, who is well aware of his many own shortcomings, failings and even sins, but also the enormity of the task at hand to reform the corrupted church in Babylonian captivity. He knows full well that the enemies of the church would just love to see him fail and ruin God´s good work in the vineyard. That is why he asks for leave and some time for contemplation and consideration. Luther is very much alone in this. He does have theological supporters yes. He does have serious political backers too. However, they are all caught up in the old system – and don´t really know, how to get out. Luther is really on his own, but very much caught and bound in God´s Word and truth – and as such liberated to the true freedom of a Christian. And that´s why he goes on and takes his stand – on the firm foundation of God´s Holy Word. That´s where he finds his strength, his guidance, his armor and defense, his weaponry, faith and hope.   

On the next day Luther (The liberated one!) acknowledges the books on the table as his own. He is well aware that many have added, subtracted and changed his writings. Warning of such devious practices, he however, admits having written these copies and authorized the writings in question. He then divides his theological output in three piles. The first one includes those writings, which even the papal and other ecclesial and academic authorities value as good stuff. It goes without saying, that he won´t deny those, nor can anyone honestly expect him to recant those. They are too good for that. This was a clever move and proved to the assembly, that Luther was in no position to just simply recant all his works in toto. It was a much more complicated than that, mainly because his works were too differentiated for that – a truly mixed bag of beans, which had to be sorted first. First round goes to Luther – in my view.

Second pile are those writings, in which Luther criticizes negative issues in church and society. These are corruptions, mistakes and stinking stuff which most people of good will want addressed, removed and improved. Here Luther speaks out for the German estates and the broad spectrum of Humanists, who were fed up with high taxes, foreign interference, ecclesial mismanagement and other traditional handicaps. He can also take that argument as one won and another feather in his cap, because hardly anyone would dare to openly defend the obvious corruption etc.

Luther finally admits, that he has sometimes locked in battle overstepped the mark of decency and brotherly discourse. However, he asks for leniency and begs for understanding and to accept his apologies. After all, he did not do this for his own sake, but rather because of the high stakes involved. In the end, it is about God´s veracity and faithfulness and that is not child’s play, but really serious stuff concerning life and death. Therefore, Luther finally puts the third pile of contentious books at disposal with the offer, that he would gladly repent his possible mistakes and retract certain books, if and only if somebody would step up to the plate and show, where exactly he had gone wrong and missed the mark. If this could be demonstrated with clear biblical proofs, then he would gladly step back in honor of the truth:  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason – for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves -, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

This last and final argument also goes to Luther – and it is probably fair to say, that although he was still banned and the charges of heresy weren´t ever withdrawn, he carried the day and those of the catholic empire were running out. Whereas here in Worms he still stood pretty much alone – despite growing support! – a decade later in Augsburg (1530), Luther was still banned, but the Lutheran reformation was now the cause of many cities, estates, bishops, academics and common men.

That word above all earthly powers
No thanks to them—abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.”

It´s not easy to just speak off the cuff and then about such serious issues to total strangers, but it worked ok this time around. Probably, because my Chinese counterpart was so interested and all ears during the entire recording. Let´s see, what comes of it.

The other filming stages were in the chapel to discuss the movement of the Lutheran confessions from Wittenberg to the ends of the world  and finally in the bookshop and looking at some of the precious books for sale there – “The Reformation” (C.A. MacKenzie), “Law and Gospel” (C.F.W. Walther) and “The Lutheran Service Book” (LCMS)…  

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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