October 31, 1518: A Point of No Return

David Owen Filson

Your church is having a Reformation Day celebration. Your pastor is tossing out candy to those who get the answers right in the Reformation trivia contest. "What did Luther do on October 31, 1517?" Everyone's hands go up, as they shout in unison, "He nailed the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg!" Next question? "What did Luther do on October 31, 1518? Anyone? Anyone?


On October 31, 1518, Martin Luther...wrote a letter. 

I had the privilege of participating in a handful of "Lutherpaloozas" last year. On both sides of the Atlantic in 2017, we just had to celebrate the 500th anniversary of that often-ostentatious Augustinian monk walking that mile, or so, from the University of Wittenberg, down to the Castle Church, mallet and message in hand. The door - that bulletin board in a secluded German town would actually alert the world that things would never be the same. We laud the 95 Theses. Luther was simply calling for discussion. We imagine that final hammer blow brought the town of Wittenberg to an awestruck standstill that fall day. Luther simply walked back home. Not much changed that day. Everything changed that day.

Yet, as important as October 31, 1517 was, is, and always will be, I can't help but imagine that October 31, 1518 weighed more heavily upon Luther. He was tired. So much had happened over the last year, and even now he had just returned from a long, very significant journey. He was somber and probably quite sober (despite his love for good German ale), for the wheels were now in motion for what would be a point of no return at the Diet of Worms in April 1519. There he would refuse to recant... for the second time.

Many are familiar with the tale of Luther's 95 Theses being taken down from the door of Castle Church, printed, thanks to that new high-tech from Gutenberg. Lest we think that this document, important to be sure, was some sort of Protestant manifesto, just shy of the eventual orthodoxy of the great Reformed confessions, the reality is that there was not a lot uniquely Reformed in the 95 Theses. Further, its impact must not be divorced from two other documents of the same time, equally impactful in their own right. You see, the 95 Theses is part of a triad of key documents.1 There are two other crucial pieces extending the impact of the Theses. Luther, a loyal son of the Church and servant of the Pope, knew that if Leo X had any idea of the insufferable abuses of the charlatan indulgence salesman, John Tetzel, he would swiftly shut him down. So, Luther did the obvious thing and sent an earnest letter to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenberg of Mainz (1490-1545). He could pass Luther's concerns along to the Pope. What Luther didn't know was that Albrect and Leo had an arrangement, shall we say. Indulgence sales in Germany would help the Archbishop with his debt situation to the Fugger bankers, who had funded his bid for the Archbishopric, and Leo would have a steady stream of funds flowing from Germany to Rome, in part for a little capital campaign related to the building of St. Peter's Basilica.

Albrecht alerted Rome. The Pope wanted simply to have this troublesome monk, too big for his cassock, contained and silenced. However, the moveable type of Guttenberg had generated enough curiosity over Luther's warnings about indulgences, that he had to craft the third document of the triad, A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace (March/April 1518). This made accessible the more scholarly nomenclature and concepts of the 95 Theses. Tetzel counter-punched, coming up with his own set of theses - 106, not to be outdone by Luther (curiously, no one has ever held celebrations over Tetzel's theses), and had been awarded a doctorate by his Dominican brethren. Tetzel meant to rid the earth of Luther.2

Meanwhile, the Augustinians were preparing to hold a meeting in Heidelberg in April 1518. Luther was to be there. They heard Luther out in what is known as the Heidelberg Disputation. He was well received. After all, they were Augustinians. They approved his teaching and encouraged him to write more. Interestingly, while the posting of the 95 Theses is the cause of celebration among Protestants, his real theological program, with its embryonic ideas of theologia crucis, the ultimate authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone, are found in two documents that "sandwich" the Theses - The Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518) and the earlier Disputation against Scholastic Theology (September 1517).3

Between Albrecht's complaining to Rome, Heidelberg's lack of restraint of Luther, and the general kerfuffle around Luther, the Pope ordered the Wittenberg theology professor to Rome in August. Around this time, the "Pope's Pitbull," a theologian, named Sylvester Mazzolini Prierias (1456/7-1527), published his Dialogue against the Presumptuous Conclusions of Martin Luther and was the first to officially take Luther on in writing, dismissing the Augustinian monk as an amateur theologian. Luther appealed to George Spalatin, secretary to Frederick the Wise, who was not keen on having his prize German professor carted off to Rome, of all places. As a German, Luther would be handled in Germany. Frederick would have it no other way. Conveniently enough, the Imperial Diet in Augsburg was scheduled for October 1518. There he would come face-to-face with none other than Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (1468/9-1534, born Jacopo de Vio of Gaeta, taking "Thomas" in honor of Aquinas and "Cajetan" in reference to his place of birth), an expert on Thomas Aquinas, and legate of the Pope in Augsburg.4 This was serious. So serious, that Luther was assured he would likely die, either coming or going to the Diet. His now infamous obsession with his digestion also gave him fits on the way.

By the time Luther arrived on October 7, the Diet of Augsburg had largely run its course. Cajetan had not been particularly successful in many of the larger political and administrative objectives. Perhaps, he would at least be able to reign in this drunken monk. If he could not, he would hand the heretic over to Rome. Cajetan, a formidable theologian in his own right, nonetheless had no interest in debating Luther. This was not an occasion for matching wits, but for unqualified submission to papal authority on the part of this misguided and overreaching Wittenberg monk. Luther appeared before Cajetan across three days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, October 12-14, 1518). The first meeting saw Luther sprawled prostrate on the floor, face-down before the majesty of Cajetan. Gently, the Cardinal raised Luther from the floor and explained to him that the whole uncomfortable affair would be over with one word: revoco - "I recant." Luther responded that he was simply desirous of learning how he had erred, how he had veered from Scripture. This portended poorly for the remainder of their meetings. Cajetan, with little interest in a debate, assumed he could refer to a document with which Luther would likely be unfamiliar, and settle things. Cajetan took to the central issue. The Pope Clement's 1343 bull Unigenitus had clearly established Christ's merits as a treasury of indulgences. To Cajetan's surprise, Luther was quite familiar with the text, which, to Cajetan's chagrin, did not say that Christ's merits are a treasure of indulgences, but that Christ acquired a treasury of merits. In short, as Luther's colorful letter, dated October 14, 1518, to George Spalatin records, a shouting match between the Cardinal and monk ensued.5 That Christ acquired a treasury of merits, rather than the merits of Christ are a treasury, which is clearly what the bulls, Unigenitus and Extravagante taught, actually supported Luther's contention in 95 Theses 58 and 60, that Christ has entrusted the keys of the kingdom to the Church, not to the Pope qua Pope. Lyndal Roper elucidates:

This may look like semantics; the underlying issue, however, was the relationship between Church and sinner, and the nature of forgiveness. If the merits of Christ - and those of the saints, that is, their virtuous works - constituted a treasure stewarded by the Pope, the Church was just a gigantic bank. On this view, because the treasure which had been built up by Christ and the saints exceeded what was needed to 'pay' for their own salvation, the 'excess' could be sold off as indulgences to the repentant sinner. But if the   merits of Christ were not the same as the treasury, then the way was open to rethink the theology of repentance, and to relate Christ's sacrifice on the Cross to the believer through the concept of grace, as Luther was beginning to do.6

It must have been quite the scene. Luther referred to the Cardinal as a "wretched worm," and later remarked that Cajetan was "no more fitted to handle the case than an ass to play the harp."7 Their conference concludes with Cajetan shouting that he never wanted to see Luther again, until revoco was on his lips. For Luther, this would not happen apart from proper trial and refutation of his views from Scripture. In the end, Cajetan failed to win the debate, failed to reconcile Luther to the Church, yet also failed to prove the monk a heretic.

Fearful he would be kidnapped and hauled off to Rome, Luther the night of October 20/21 darted back to Wittenberg.8 However, he was not the same man who had left for Augsburg just weeks earlier. For, Luther's dear Father Confessor and superior, Johan von Staupitz (c.1460-1524), unable to persuade Luther to accommodate Cajetan's demand to recant, released his monk from his vows to the Augustinian order before he fled Augsburg.9

A year to the day after he posted his 95 Theses, Luther penned another letter to George Spalatin, dated October 31, 1518. He informed Spalatin that he arrived that day from Augsburg. He was worried that he might not be able to remain in Wittenberg, as his refusal to recant before Cajetan would result in excommunication, which would require the secular authorities to deliver him to his ecclesial superiors. He did not know how Frederick the Wise would respond. In this letter, Luther recounts how he had stopped in Nurnberg on his way back from Augusburg. There he saw a "diabolic breve" - orders from Pope Leo X to Cajetan that Luther should be arrested by any means possible. Luther couldn't believe such a "monstrosity" of a breve would come from the Pope.10 He informs Spalatin that he can now only prepare his replies to Cajetan's arguments at Augsburg with theological notes and his appeal for publication. Frederick the Wise was involved in political negotiations with Cajetan regarding Luther. He did not want Luther's appeal published, as he believed it would sabotage his efforts with the Cardinal. The Acta Augustana (Proceedings at Augusburg) appeared in November 25, 1518, before Frederick could do anything to stop it.

Concerned enough to post his disquiet, October 31, 1517 on the Castel Church door in Wittenberg, he is resolved a year to the day later that he must appeal to Rome to prove him wrong. Luther's letter of October 31, 1518, although he doesn't realize it, shows him at a point of no return and sets in motion a series of events that would lead from Augusburg, to Leipzig and a debate with the formidable Johann Eck (June-July 1519). This resulted in Pope Leo X branding Luther a heretic in the bull Exsurge, Domine (June 15, 1520). Luther followed this up with triad of treatises that fall, which only exacerbated the conflict with Rome. Next stop - the Diet of Worms, where upon April 18, 1521, Luther stood. He could do no other. His unwillingness to utter revoco at his famous stand in April 1521 cannot be separated from his unwillingness to recant before Cardinal Cajetan in October 1518. 

On account of this, we would not be unjustified in observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation again this year. For, Luther's refusal to revoco, was his refusal to let go of the truths we hold dear, namely, that on the authority of Scripture alone, we are justified through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Let the grateful 501st celebration begin!

A song sung by a child so small,
From the other side of garden wall.
A lightning strike laid Luther sprawl,
One lone monk who heard God's call.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Just one hammer and a door so tall.
He stood against the night to watch it fall.
Thought by some a man of gall,
yet Martin, Satan could not stall.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Grace he saw when he read Paul;
by faith he found his all in all.
"Will you recant?" said tyranny.
"Here I stand," said liberty.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!

Augustine heard take up and read
and Luther set God's people free.
A poem from an amateur like me,
as we look at redemptive history.
Post Tenebras Lux
After Darkness, Light!11

1. There are two triads of key documents in this unfolding story. The second triad consists of Luther's 1520's writings, Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

2. Tetzel's Dominican brethren were more than happy to undermine Luther. 1518 is also anecdotally rich, as Luther, full of beer at a party in Dresden, pontificated about Aquinas and Aristotle. A Dominican eavesdropping and note-taking, made sure the transcript of the lubricated Luther's liquored loquaciousness was available for public consumption.

3. Luther did not simply drop out of the sky, Theses in hand, ready to denounce 1,500 years of Church History and theology. In fact, that high tech down in Guttenberg had given him access to Augustine and the later Medieval tradition. He had read Aristotle. It is crucial to nuance things, here. The theological trajectories leading to and from Luther must be viewed properly, let we simplistically assume the things we have heard about him are accurate. While he didn't want Aristotle corrupting the message, there was room for him methodologically. Aristotle could help delineate categories; Scripture alone could define concepts. Luther's reformational program owed more to certain Medieval trajectories, than later Reformers' more humanistic backgrounds.

4. Of Cajetan, William Paul Haas observes:

In his own time, Cajetan was considered a Thomist second only to Thomas Aquinas himself; he was an               ecclesiastical trouble-shooter and a ready controversialist, a meticulous scholar, and a biblical exegete. He also held a reputation as a man of simple candor and surprising endurance. Yet from within the Church and from outside, he is often blamed for not preventing the Lutheran Reformation and for failing to guide the Vatican in its most desperate crisis.

See, William Paul Haas, "Hands Respectful and Clean: Cajetan and the Reformation," https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1000&context=comm_scholar_pubs, 48. Accessed 10-27-18.

5. See, Gottfried G. Krodel, trans. and ed., Luther's Works, Volume 48, Letters I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 84-87.

6. Lydal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (London: The Bodley Head, 2016), 117.

7. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokebury Press, 1950), 96. Lutheran cartoonists would later depict the Pope as an ass playing bagpipes.

8. Fearing the truth of his case would not be accurately relayed by Cajetan, Luther prepared an appeal to the Pope. Luther's friar friend, Leonard Beier showed this to Cajetan. It was nailed to the cathedral door in Augsburg as a public notice.

9. No. 225: Luther "Excommunicated" Three Times Between April 7 and 15, 1532

"Three times have I been excommunicated. The first time was by Dr. Staupitz, who absolved me from the observance and rule of the Augustinian Order so that, if the pope pressed him to imprison me or command me to be silent, he could excuse himself on the ground that I was not under his obedience. The second time was by the pope and the third time was by the emperor. Consequently I cannot be accused of laying aside my habit, and I am now silent by divine authority alone."

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 54: Table Talk, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 54 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 30.

10. Luther actually indicated in his Acta Augustana that he believed that Biship Jerome of Ascoli and Cajetan had crafted the orders to have him arrested.

11. Poem by David Owen Filson.