Here I Stand…

This Reformation Day (10/31/2017) marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This event is the traditional beginning of the Protestant Reformation, though rumblings of dissent within the Roman Catholic Church began long before.

Martin Luther appears before Diet of Worms

On the other hand, others would push the actual start of the Reformation to a few years later, when Luther, an Augustinian monk, gave his famous speech before the Imperial Diet of Worms (April 1521). This assembly in a modest-sized German city included various lords, princes, and Church dignitaries, with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V himself presiding. Luther was called in to answer charges and to recant from certain “heretical” teachings and accusations against the Church, as evidenced in his many books and several of the infamous “theses”.

After being granted an additional day to consider how he would answer, Luther returned to the assembly with a renewed sense of confidence in Scripture, the conviction of his cause, and in God’s purpose being worked through him. I couldn’t find the full text of his stirring speech online, so I have transcribed it from Max McLean’s audio performance of the Diet’s events….

“Most serene Emperor, illustrious Princes, gracious lords:

In obedience to your commands given me yesterday, I stand here beseeching you, as God is merciful, to deign mercifully to listen to this cause, which is as I believe the cause of justice and of truth. And if through inexperience I should fail to apply to any his proper title or offend in any way against the manners of courts, I entreat you to pardon me as one not conversant with courts but rather with the cells of monks, and claiming no other merit than that of having spoken and written with that simplicity of mind which regards nothing but the glory of God and the pure instruction of Christ’s faithful people.

Two questions have been proposed to me: whether I acknowledge the books which are published in my name, and whether I am determined to defend or disposed to recall them. To the first of these, I have given a direct answer, in which I shall ever persist that those books are mine and published by me, except so far as they may have been altered or interpolated by the craft of rivals. To the other, I am now about to reply.

I must first entreat Your Majesty and your highnesses to consider that my books are not all of the same scription. For there are some in which I have treated the piety of faith and morals with simplicity so evangelical that my very adversaries confess them to be profitable, harmless, and deserving to be read of a Christian. Even the Pope’s bull, fierce and cruel as it is, admits some of my books to be innocent. Though, with a monstrous perversity of judgment, these same books are included in the same sentence! If then I should think of retracting these books, should I not stand alone in my condemnation of the truth therein, which is acknowledged by the unanimous confession of all, be it friends or foes?

The second species of my publications is that in which I have inveighed against the papacy and the doctrine of the papists — men who by their iniquitous tenets and examples have desolated the Christian world both with spiritual and temporal calamities. No man can deny this! The sufferings and complaints of all mankind are my witnesses that through the laws of the Pope and the doctrines of men, the consciences of the faithful have been ensnared, tortured, and torn in pieces, while at the same time their properties and substance have been devoured by an incredible tyranny and are still devoured without end and by degrading means and that, too, most of all in this noble nation of Germany. Yet, canon law states that the laws and doctrines of the Pope be judged erroneous and reprobate when they are contrary to the Gospel and the opinions of the Fathers. If then I shall retract these books, I shall do no other than add strength to tyranny and throw open doors to this great impiety, which will then stride forth more widely and licentiously than it has dared hitherto, so that the reign of iniquity will proceed with impunity and, notwithstanding its intolerable oppression upon the suffering poor, be still further fortified and established, especially when it shall be proclaimed that I have been driven to this act by the authority of Your Serene Majesty and the whole Roman Empire! What a cloak, blessed Lord, should I then become for wickedness and despotism!

Luther statue in Worms

In the third description of my writings are those which I have published against individuals, against the defenders of the Roman tyranny and the subverters of the piety taught by men. Against these I do freely confess that I have written with more bitterness than was becoming either my religion or my profession. For, indeed, I lay no claim to any especial sanctity and argue not respecting my own life but respecting the doctrine of Christ. Yet, even these writings it is impossible for me to retract, seeing that through such retraction despotism and impiety would reign under my patronage and rage with more than their former ferocity against the people of God. Yet, since I am but man and not God, it would not become me to go further in defense of my tracts than my Lord Jesus went in defense of His doctrine, who, when He was interrogated before Annas and received a blow from one of the officers, answered, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil. But, if well, why smitest thou me?” If, then, the Lord Himself, who knew His own infallibility, did not disdain to require arguments against His doctrine even from a person of low condition, how much rather ought I whom am the dregs of the earth and the very slave of error to inquire in search if there be any to bear witness against my doctrine? Wherefore, I entreat you by the mercies of God that, if there be anyone of any condition who has the ability, let him overpower me by the sacred writings, prophetical and evangelical. And, for my own part, as soon as I shall be better instructed, I will retract my errors and be the first to cast my books into the flames!

It must now, I think, be manifest that I have sufficiently examined and weighed not only the dangers but the parties and dissensions excited in the world by means of my doctrine of which yesterday I was so gravely admonished. But, I must avow that to me it is of all others the most delightful spectacle to see parties and dissensions growing up on account of the Word of God. For such is the progress of God’s Word; such its ends and object. “Think not I am come to send peace on Earth. I came not to send peace but a sword.” I could show more abundantly by references to scriptural examples — to those of Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, the kings of Israel — that they have brought about their own destruction by those very councils of worldly wisdom which seemed to promise them peace and stability. Yet, I say not these things as if the great personages here present stood at all in need of my admonitions but only because it was a service which I owed to my native Germany, and it was my duty to discharge it.

And, thus, I commend myself to Your Serene Majesty and all the Princes, humbly beseeching you not to allow the malice of my enemies to render me odious to you without a cause. I am done. Since Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer, without horns and without teeth:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and by plain reason (I do not accept the authority of the Popes and Councils, for they have frequently erred and contradicted themselves), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

[Note: You may come across minor differences in wording elsewhere, which is due to translators’ choices, of course. I should also point out that the authenticity of the famous sentence “Here I stand; I can do no other.” (alternatively, “…I cannot do otherwise.”) is contested, since it is not included in either official transcripts of the Diet (though it has been inserted in some copies) or in eyewitness accounts.]

While Luther retreated under the protection of his benefactor, Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, the assembly conferred. On May 26, 1521, Charles V issued the Edict of Worms, which declared:

“For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”

Martin Luther

Pope Leo X had already labeled Luther a heretic the year before, but the monk was now an outlaw and, for his own safety, forced to stay under Frederick’s protection at Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. However, not only was Luther’s popularity growing among the German people, but he had powerful friends (Frederick primary among them), which helped to dissuade the authorities or any enterprising individuals from arresting him, and he was able to return to Wittenberg 10 months later. Luther put this time of “exile” and excommunication to good use, though. He wrote many more works of doctrine and polemics — e.g., a “Refutation of the Argument of Latomus”, wherein he explained the principle of justification — and a new translation of the New Testament into vernacular German (1522). (It wasn’t until 1534 that he and a few associates completed their German translation of the Old Testament.)

Whether or not he actually said (the German equivalent of), “Here I stand; I can do no other,” we can thank Martin Luther for taking a courageous and principled stand on some very important matters of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy (and at great risk to his own life and livelihood), thereby kicking the Protestant Reformation into high gear.

Happy Reformation Day!


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