The universal Church, said Prierio, is a congregation of all believers for worship. In other words the universal church is the Roman Church. It is represented by the College of Cardinals and hence by the supreme Pontiff, who is the head of the Church - but in a different sense from Christ.
Further he maintained that, as the Church universal cannot err in determining questions pertaining to faith and morals, the councils edicts and bulls through which the Church elaborates and expresses its decisions cannot be in error. This means in practice that, for ordinary Christians, "Whoever does not rely on the teaching of the Roman Church and of the Roman Pontiff, as the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their strength and their authority, is a heretic."
God or the Church?
It is most noteworthy that already, in this first exchange of arguments between Protestantism and the Papacy, the controversy was at once narrowed down to this one great question: Whom is man to believe, God or the Church? That is to say have we a Divine or a human foundation for our faith?
The Bible is the sole infallible authority, said the men of Wittenberg. No!, said this voice from the Vatican, the sole infallible authority is the Church. The Bible is a dead letter. Not a line of it can men understand. The true sense of it is utterly beyond the apprehension of ordinary men and women. In the Church - that is in effect , in the priests alone - is lodged the power of infallibly perceiving the true sense of Scripture, and of subsequently revealing it to Christians.
Thus there are two Bibles. Here is the one - a book, a dead letter, a body without living spirit or living voice and practically of no use. Here is the other, a living organisation, in which dwells the Holy Spirit. The one is a written Bible and the other is a developed Bible. The written Bible was completed and finished in sub apostolic times. The other has been growing with the ages, continually assuming a greater being through the decisions of Councils, the rules of canonists, and the edicts of Popes. Councils have discussed and deliberated. Interpreters and canonists have toiled. Popes have legislated, speaking as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. And as the product of all these minds and of all these ages, you have now the Bible - the deposit of the faith - the sole infallible authority to which men are to listen, Rome.
The written book was but solely an original seed; but the Church - that is, the hierarchy - is the stem and branch sprung from it. The Bible as a book is now a dead husk. The living tree which has grown out of it alone is that with which we now have to do. The fully rounded and completely developed body of doctrine, now before the world in the (Roman) Church is the only really useful and authoritative revelation of God. This alone is the one infallible rule by which men should walk.
The Master of the Sacred Palace deposited the germ of this line of argument. Subsequent Popish polemics have more fully developed the argument, and given it the form into which we have thrown it. Prierio's doctrine was orthodox beyond challenge at the Vatican. At Wittenberg, away from Rome, his tractate actually read like a bitter satire on the Papacy.
Initially Luther even thought, or generously pretended to think, that an enemy had written it, an enemy who was mischievously imparting this extravagant loftiness in order to throw ridicule and contempt over the prerogatives of the Papal See. He said that he recognised in this affair the hand of Ulrich von Hutten, a knight, whose manner it was to make war on Rome with the shafts of wit and raillery.
But Luther soon saw that he must admit the real authorship, and answer this attack from the foot of the Papal throne. The doctor of Wittenberg placed the Bible of the living God over against the so called Bible of Prierio, as the foundation of men's faith. The fundamental position taken in Luther's answer was expressed in the words of Holy Writ: "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed". Prierio had centred all the faith, obedience, and hopes of men in the Pope. Luther places them on that Rock which is Christ.
Prierio, who deemed it impossible that a Master of the Sacred Palace could be vanquished by a German monk, wrote a reply. This second performance was even more indiscreet than his first. He aimed at exalting the Pope's prerogative to an even higher pitch than before; and he was so ill-advised as to found it on that very extraordinary part of the canon law which forbids any one to stop the Pope, or to admit the possibility of his erring, though he should be found on the high road to perdition, and dragging the whole world after him.
The Pope, finding that Prierio‘s s replies were formidable only to the Papacy, enjoined silence upon the too zealous champion of Peter's See. As regarding Leo himself, he took the matter more coolly than the master of his palace. There had been noisy monks in all ages, he reflected; the Papacy had not therefore fallen. Moreover, it was but a feeble echo of the strife that reached him in the midst of his statues, gardens, courtiers, and courtesans. He even praised the genius of brother Martin, for Leo could pardon that spoken wittily and gracefully. But subsequently thinking that he had bestowed too much praise on the Germans, he hinted that the wine-cup may have quickened the wit of the monk, and that his pen would be found less vigorous when the fumes of the liquor had subsided, as they would soon do.
Scarcely had Prierio been disposed of, when another combatant started up. This was Hochstraten, an inquisitor at Cologne. This disputant belonged to an order unhappily more familiar with the torch than with the pen; and it was not long till Hochstraten showed that his fingers, unused to the one, itched to grasp the other. He lost his temper at the very outset, and called for a scaffold. Luther nothing daunted by this threat replied, "If it is the faggot that is to decide the controversy, the sooner I am burned the better otherwise the monks may have cause to rue it".
Then quickly another opponent appears! The first antagonist of Luther came from the Roman Curia, the second from amongst the monks, and now the third is the representative of the schools. This was Dr. Eck, Professor of Scholastic Theology at Ingolstadt. He rose up in the fullness of his erudition and of his fame to extinguish the monk of Wittenberg, although he had but recently contracted a friendship with him, cemented by an interchange of letters. Though a scholar, Professor Eck did not account it beneath him to employ abuse, and resort to insinuation. "It is the Bohemian poison which you are circulating," said he to Luther, hoping to awaken against him the old prejudice which still animated the Germans against Huss and the Reformers of Bohemia.
So far as Eck condescended to argue, his weapons, taken from the Aristotelian armoury, were adapted for a scholastic tournament only. They were useless in a real battle, like that in which he was now engaged. They were speedily shivered in his hand. "Would you not hold it impudence to maintain as a part of the philosophy of Aristotle, what one found it impossible to prove Aristotle had ever taught? You grant it. Therefore is it not the most impudent of all impudence to affirm that to be a part of Christianity which Christ never taught.?" The doctor of Ingolstadt sank into silence.
One after another the opponents of the Reformer retire from Luther's presence discomfited. First, the Master of the Sacred Palace advances against the monk, confident of crushing him by the weight of the Pope's authority. "The Pope is but a man, and may err," says Luther, as with quiet touch he demolishes the mock infallibility: "God is truth, and cannot err." Next comes the Inquisitor, with his sinister hints that there is such an institution as the "Holy Office" [Inquisition] for convincing those whom nothing else can. Luther laughs these threats to scorn. Last of all appears the doctor, clad in the armour of the schools, who shares the fate of his predecessors. The secret of Luther's strength they do not know. But it is clear that all their efforts to overcome it can but advertise to men that Roman infallibility is a quicksand, and that the hopes of the human heart can repose in safety nowhere, save on the Eternal Rock.
Footnote from Dr Gillis
The annals of the Glorious Reformation are under threat. Rome is still on the attack today. Prierio is so important that Professor Michael Tavuzzi of the Pontifical University of St Thomas (the Dominican Inquisitors University) in Rome has recently laboured long to produce the world's first ever authoritative study of Prierio, published by the prestigious Dukes University in the USA and highly commended by Professor John O‘Malley of Weston Jesuit School of Theology.
Wylie rightly points to the incompetence of Prierio that caused the pope to silence him. Yet with scholarship which will dominate the discussion for years to come Tavuzzi has strained every nerve to demonstrate that Prierio‘s "approach was not entirely without impact" and that Luther by his own admission was "seriously shaken" by Prierio's "first attack".
Truth will be lost if Protestantism fails to remain familiar with its history.