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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:
1/4/2010


The Leipzig Disputation


Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

We re-enter Pleisenberg hall in central Leipzig. Eck's stentorian voice and animated gestures as he repudiates reformed doctrine at the one end of the hall contrasts with the fight for salvation by grace - grace to the entire exclusion of human merit at the other. The controversy came to rage around this one point - Has the human will the power to choose and to do what is spiritually good? This, they said, was the whole controversy between Romanism and Protestantism. All the lines of argument on both sides flowed out of, or ran up into, this one point. It was the greatest point of all in theology viewed on the side of man; and according as it was to be decided, Romanism is true and Protestantism is false, or Protestantism is true and Romanism is false. Carlstadt took up Eck upon man's first impulse to conversion. Carlstadt insisted this consent or act of will comes entirely from God; he it is who creates it in the man.

Eck's anger

Offended at a doctrine which so completely took away from man all cause of glorifying, Eck, feigning astonishment and anger, exclaimed, "Your doctrine converts a man into a stone or log, incapable of any action."

"A log or a stone!" Carlstadt answered from the other end of the hall. "Does our doctrine make man such? Does it reduce him to the level of an irrational animal? By no means. Can man not meditate and reflect, compare and choose? Can he not read and understand the statements of Scripture declaring to him in what state he is sunk, that he is "without strength," and bidding him ask the aid of the Spirit of God? If he ask, will not that Spirit be given? will not the light of truth be made to shine into his understanding? and by the instrumentality of the truth, will not his heart be renewed by the Spirit, his moral bias against holiness taken away, and he become able to love and obey God? In man's capacity to become the subject of such a change, in his possessing such a framework of powers and faculties as, when touched by the Spirit, can be set in motion in the direction of good, is there not, said the Reformers, sufficient to distinguish man from a log, a stone, or an irrational animal? Carlstadt although not a Luther strove to demonstrate that which Popish divines on this head have ignored -a distinction on which Protestant theologians have always and justly laid great stress- the distinction between the rational and the spiritual powers of man.

Enter Luther

On the 4th of July, Luther stepped down into the arena. He had obtained permission to be present on condition of being simply a spectator; but, at the earnest solicitations of both sides, Duke George withdrew the restriction, and now he and Eck are about to join battle. At seven o'clock in the morning the two champions appeared in their respective pulpits, around which were grouped the friends and allies of each. Eck wore a courageous and triumphant air, claiming to have borne off the palm from Carlstadt, and it was generally allowed that he had proved himself the abler disputant. Luther appeared with a nosegay in his hand, and a face still bearing traces of the terrible storms through which he had passed. The former discussion had thinned the hall; it was too abstruse and metaphysical for the spectators to appreciate its importance. Now came mightier champions, and more palpable issues. A crowd filled the Pleisenberg hall, and looked on while the two giants contended.

Luther's eyes opened

It was understood that the question of the Pope's primacy was to be discussed between Luther and Eck. The Reformer's emancipation from this as from other parts of the Romish system had been gradual. When he began the war against the indulgence-mongers, he never doubted that so soon as the matter should come to the knowledge of the Pope and the other dignitaries, they would be as forward as himself to condemn the monstrous abuse. To his astonishment, he found them throwing their shield over it, and arguing from Scripture in a way that convinced him that the men whom he had imagined as sitting in a region of serene light, were in reality immersed in darkness. This led him to investigate the basis of the Roman primacy, and soon he came to the conclusion that it had no foundation whatever in either the early Church or in the Word of God. By the advent of Leipzig Luther denied that the Pope was head of the Church by Divine right, though he was still willing to grant that he was head of the Church by the consent of the nations.

Thou art Peter

Eck opened the discussion by affirming that the Pope's supremacy was of Divine appointment. His main proof, as it is that of Romanists to this hour, was the well-known passage, "Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build my church." Luther replied, as Protestants at this day reply, that it is an unnatural interpretation of the words to make Peter the rock; that their natural and obvious sense is, that the truth Peter had just confessed - in other words Christ himself - is the rock;. It is unnecessary to go into the details of the disputation. The line of argument, so often traversed since that day, has become very familiar to Protestants. Luther in this disputation laboured under the disadvantage of having to confront numerous quotations from the false decretals. It is essential we realise that that gigantic forgery, which forms so large a part of the basis of the Roman primacy, had not then been laid bare. Nevertheless, Luther looking simply at the internal evidence, in the exercise of his intuitive sagacity, boldly pronounced the evidence produced against him from this source spurious. He retreated to his stronghold, the early centuries of Christian history, and especially the Bible, in neither of which was proof or trace of the Pope's supremacy to be discovered.

When Eck found that despite his practised logic, vast reading, and ready eloquence, he was winning no victory, and that all his arts were met and repelled by the simple massive strength, knowledge of Scripture, and familiarity with the Fathers which the monk of Wittenberg displayed, he was not above a discreditable ruse. He essayed to raise a prejudice against Luther by charging him with being "a patron of the heresies of Wicliffe and Huss." The terrors of such an accusation, we in this age can but faintly realise. The doctrines of Huss and Jerome still lay under great odium in the West; and Eck hoped to overwhelm Luther by branding him with the stigma of Bohemianism. (The Bohemian Christians had taken interest in this debate and a few attended - Dr Gillis) The excitement in the hall was immense when the charge was hurled against him; and Duke George and many of the audience half rose from their seats, eager to catch the reply.

Luther in danger

Luther well knew the peril in which Eck had placed him, but he was faithful to his convictions. He admitted from what he then knew that the Bohemians were schismatics and he abhorred schism. But he insisted among the articles of John Huss condemned by the Council of Constance, that "some are plainly most Christian and evangelical, which the universal Church cannot condemn." Eck had unwittingly done both Luther and the Reformation a service. The blow which he meant should be a mortal one had severed the last link in the Reformer's chain. Luther had formerly repudiated the primacy of the Pope, and appealed from the Pope to a Council. Now he publicly accuses a Council of having condemned what was "Christian" - in short, of having erred. It was clear that the infallible authority of Councils, as well as that of the Pope, must be given up. Henceforward Luther stands upon the authority of Scripture alone.

Duke George takes fright

The gain to the Protestant movement from the Leipzig discussion was great. Duke George, frightened by the charge of Bohemianism, was henceforward its bitter enemy. There were others who were incurably prejudiced against it. But these losses were more than balanced by manifold and substantial gains. The views of Luther were henceforward clearer. The cause got a broader and firmer foot-hold.

The Reformers strove at Leipzig to establish that GOD and not man with supplemental grace is the sole Author of man's salvation and secondly that CHRIST entirely without the papal primacy is the sole Monarch of the Church. When Luther returned from Leipzig he was a freer, a nobler, and a more courageous man. Despite Eck's efforts the fetters of Papalism were rent . Back at Wittenberg, Luther's work resumed. Professors and students were deriving new impetus from his expanded views and particularly Luther and Melancthon were now united as one to great advantage of the Reformation.

Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis

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