Was Luther Guilty of Splitting the Church?


It is common to hear Martin Luther pegged as the man who divided Western Christianity. For example, in speaking to this question, Bishop Bob Barron recently asserted, “I think Luther was too polemical, and I think he fell into opposition [too] quickly with the Catholic Church.”[1] Barron proceeded to say that if Luther were only more patient and cooperative, his Reformation might have been avoided and a Lutheran order of monks may have found a place in the Roman Church. Say what?

A Coin in the Coffer Rings

In late 1517, Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, wrote to Pope Leo X concerning Martin Luther’s opposition to indulgence preaching. Upon receiving the letter, Leo employed the expertise of his court theologian, Sylvester Mazzolini Prierias, who in turn examined Luther’s Ninety-five Theses as an initial step in the canonical process against one accused of heresy.

Despite being a seasoned theologian, the sixty-two year-old Prierias responded without nuance or sympathy. Composing his so-called “Opinion” of Luther’s Theses in just three days, Prierias simply repudiated Luther’s concerns wherever they conflicted with his Thomistic theology. Luther’s Theses were dismissed as “erroneous,” “false,” and “heretical.”

Luther had no desire to attack the papacy. Statements such as the fiftieth thesis suggest that Luther believed Leo would curb the church’s indulgence abuses after having them brought to his attention. Unfortunately, this would not be so. From Prierias’ perspective, the infallible character of the universal church subsisted in the Roman Church, and was personified by the pope. Prierias asserted that “the Roman church is representatively the college of cardinals, and moreover is virtually the supreme pontiff,” and that “he who says that the Roman church cannot do what it actually does regarding indulgences is a heretic.”[2]

Evidently eager to demonstrate his superior theological acumen to the Wittenberg professor, about whom untold numbers were beginning to talk, Prierias turned his “Opinion” into a polemical tract full of bitter acrimony, his so-called Dialogus, printed in Rome that June. He then drafted the official citation, which commanded Luther to appear in Rome within sixty days.

The Infallible Rule of Faith

It was immediately obvious to Luther that to obey the papal summons would likely lead to a martyr’s stake. But before that dilemma was faced, Luther was able to appear before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire in Augsburg. Over three days, Luther sought to discuss indulgences with another papal representative, Cardinal Cajetan. Surely now Luther’s concerns would get the consideration they warranted? But no such opportunity was granted him. The message to Luther was clear: Recant and submit. Faithful ministers of the church do not question the pope.

In his written response to Prierias, Luther asserted that the church and council are capable of error; Holy Scripture alone, as St. Augustine affirmed, is truly infallible. Therefore, Luther argued, it is surely appropriate to employ Scripture as a basis for theological disputation about a matter such as indulgences, which had yet to be dogmatically defined. But before the ink was dry on these sentences, Rome had already reached the conclusion that Luther was guilty of heresy.

It is important to recognize that the doctrine of papal infallibility was never officially sanctioned during the Middle Ages, even though its champions such as Prierias upheld the idea. In his words, “The supreme pontiff cannot err when giving a decision as pontiff, i.e., when speaking officially [ex officio]”; and also, “Whoever does not rest upon the teaching of the Roman church and the supreme pontiff as an infallible rule of faith, from which even Holy Scripture draws its vigor and authority, is a heretic.” In his Epitome—a summary of statements against LutherPrierias had said, “Even though the pope as an individual [singularis persona] can do wrong and hold a wrong faith, nevertheless as pope he cannot give a wrong decision.”[3]

These statements were disturbing enough to Luther, but Prierias pushed him over the edge by taking his position a step further. “An undoubtedly legitimate pope cannot be lawfully deposed or judged by either a council or the entire world, even if he be so scandalous as to lead people with him en masse into the possession of the devil in hell.”[4] Such a diabolical defense of the papacy at all costs led Luther to conclude that Rome had become nothing less than antichrist.

Extraordinarily, Prierias had found this statement in the pages of canon law. Upon reading it, Luther concluded that Rome had lost its mind and its soul. He called Prierias’ citation a “hellish manifesto.”[5] In Luther’s view, the villain was not the person of Leo X but the papal office, which marginalized Christ’s word in favor of its own power, even to the point of claiming the prerogative to lead God’s people into the netherworld.

A Line in the Sand

On June 15, 1520, the papal bull Exurge Domine was promulgated, condemning forty-one errors from Luther’s writings and sermons. If, after sixty days, Luther did not recant, he was to be apprehended and brought to the fires of holy recompense. Luther would recognize the pope’s authority, or face the consequences. What did Luther do? He did what was natural to him. He wrote:

Farewell, thou unhappy, lost, sacrilegious city! Let us hand this Babel over to the servants of Mammon, the unbelievers, apostates, pederasts, devotees of Priapus, robbers, simonists, and all the other wild prodigies with which this pantheon of godlessness is filled to the brim. Let it become a dwelling place of dragons, lemures, vampires, and ghosts, and, in keeping with its name, become an everlasting chaos.[6]

Despite his bravado, this farewell was painful for Luther, as he himself said. But the die was cast. Luther and Rome would proceed along divergent paths. Despite his attempts to dialogue with superiors about church abuses surrounding indulgences, Luther had been summarily rejected and informed that the pope whom he questioned was above questioning.

This is the historical context in which Luther took his stand against the Roman church of his day. Did Luther ever provoke his interlocutors? Undoubtedly. His indiscretions are well documented. But was it Luther’s decision to split the church or was he pushed out? The evidence seems to support the latter.



[1] This statement appears in the recently released documentary, “This Changed Everything: 500 Years of Reformation” by the Christian History Institute.

[2] B. J. Kidd, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford, 1911; reprint, 1970), 31-32.

[3] Luther’s Works, volume 44, p. 133.

[4] Timothy J. Wengert. The Annotated Luther. Vol 1. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 386.

[5] Paul R. Waibel. Martin Luther: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005), 51.

[6] Heinrich Boehmer, Road To Reformation: Martin Luther to the Year 1521 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 320.


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