Trial By Fire: Martin Luther and the Exsurge Domine
Martin Luther was not a patient man, nor was he a reconciling one. He followed his own convictions with an iron will and refused to be intimidated, even with death on his tail. That is why, when the pope’s bull (charter) known as Exsurge Domine (Arise O Lord) was sent to Luther in 1520, Luther’s reaction was not exactly as the Catholic world had hoped.
First, a little background: Three years earlier, the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, had resounded with the hammer and nails of one of Luther’s most controversial works, the 95 Theses. I often imagine that at the time the event was probably ignored. There were no thunder-claps, no gasps of aha! People milled here and there and went about their business as some unknown monk placed a notice on the church door as people had been doing for decades. Same old, same old. Yet those 95 Theses triggered the Protestant Reformation and set off a chain reaction that would change the history of Christianity forever.
The Exsurge Domine was issued as a response of Luther’s 95 Theses and other “troublesome” things he had said and done. Though it was published in June, it did not reach Luther until October for a variety of reasons, first that communication in the 16th century was tenuous at best, and second that messengers Aleander, papal nuncio, and his assistants struggled to stay alive amid the throngs of Luther’s avid supporters. Receiving a condemning bull from the head of the Catholic Church would have daunted most people. Not Luther.
He knew what the objections would be and decided to meet them head-on. Never a man to mince words, he got down to business, proclaiming that he would not be intimidated by the Exsurge Domine or any other such decrees. He was a man on a mission. He wanted to free the Gospel for the whole world, starting in his own Germany, and no one was going to stop him. He laughed that his accusers could not decide exactly how they felt about his writings, saying: “My articles are called ‘respectively some heretical, some erroneous, some scandalous,’ which is as much to say, ‘We don’t know which are which.’”
|"Exsurge Domine," 1520|
On December 10, 1520, his disregard of the papal bull Exsurge Domine came to a head. In true Martin Luther fashion he refused to take his peril seriously, for though he understood very well what danger he courted, he was too strong and too resilient an academic to cower in fear. On that day he gave back measure for measure . . . his works had been committed to the flames on various occasions throughout Germany --- though many followed his doctrines and refused to allow it --- and now he burned the Exsurge Domine in the same way. This was, in effect, proclaiming that his spirit was captive to the will of God, not earthly institutions. He believed the Christian people needed a reformation. He was not going to listen to anyone, save God Himself, when it came to following the truths he held in his heart.
Recently I read parts of the Exsurge Domine for myself. The pope of the day certainly did not mince words. In the beginning of the bull he calls on Saint Peter to take revenge on behalf of the former popes that Martin Luther brought to task, “. . . he is not ashamed to assail them, to tear at them, and when he despairs of his cause, to stoop to insults. He is like the heretics ‘whose last defense,’ as Jerome says, ‘is to start spewing out a serpent’s venom with their tongue when they see that their causes are about to be condemned, and spring to insults when they see they are vanquished.’ For although you have said that there must be heresies to test the faithful, still they must be destroyed at their very birth by your intercession and help, so they do not grow or wax strong . . .”
There was something in the Protestant Reformation. Something strong. Something unshakable. Something so powerful that, if you look upon their portraits, you can see it in the eyes of many men and women who gave their lives for the faith. They were not afraid to die. The strength and power of truth was such that they remained unshakable and steadfast through every trial. It is gut-wrenchingly ironic that the Reformation was, in fact, confirmed by Luther’s burning of the Exsurge Domine, for in the decades to come it would be the people, countless Protestants of various denominations, who would have their souls cleaved from their bodies amid the flames.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved