Leipzig

On January 1, 1538, Martin Luther wrote of the German city of Leipzig: “Leipzig is so immersed in greed that forty-five florins are taken annually from every one hundred florins under the pretense of piety. For it is deemed charity to lend a person one hundred florins and justice to take forty-five florins from them.” Luther, never short on sarcasm, continues: “In ten years, one hundred florins will yield one thousand florins. Isn’t this Epicureanism? Leipzig is submerged only fifteen cubits under the waves but Leipzig lies fifteen miles under the waves of avarice. All the others are the same, alas, bad times are yet to come. Our Epicureans are worse than the Italian cardinals who say, ‘Let the others be godly, we don’t want to.’”

Now that is classic Luther. He’s taking a stab not only at greed and avarice but also at the Roman Catholic Church. And he’s talking about the city of Leipzig. Leipzig is probably not one of the top five cities that we would identify with the life of Martin Luther. But it played a very crucial role in Luther’s story and in the Reformation itself. So let’s visit Leipzig.

Leipzig is an ancient town established back in the early middle ages. In 1519, it was the site of a very significant debate between Martin Luther and Johann Eck. This was a debate that would solidify the Reformation position of sola Scriptura. We know what happened in 1517 when Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, and we known what happened in 1518 when Luther gave his twenty-eight theses for disputation to his Augustinian brothers at Heidelberg. But what Luther wanted, what he wanted from the very beginning when he posted those Ninety-Five Theses, was a debate. And he never really got one until Leipzig in 1519.

At the Leipzig Debate, Luther withstood Eck, considered the greatest debater in Germany. Luther thundered the position of sola Scriptura, that the church’s only position of authority is not tradition nor Scripture as understood through tradition, but only Scripture itself. It was in fact the debate at Leipzig that would lead to the Diet of Worms, to Luther’s excommunication, and to Luther’s becoming an outlaw for a time.

During the Reformation, there were many converts to the gospel, to the Evangelische, the gospel church, in Leipzig. And in 1533, this came to a head as the city officials, who were committed to Roman Catholicism, expelled about eighty members of the town for supporting the administration of communion of two kinds. In other words, these townspeople believed that the laity should partake of both the cup and the bread, not just of the bread, as was Roman Catholic practice. And so they were expelled from the city.

A few years later, in 1539, a new official was in authority, and he was favorable to Luther’s views and to the Reformation. So in 1539, Leipzig became a Reformation city. Near the end of his life, in 1545, Luther visited Leipzig for the last time. He dedicated a church and preached a sermon there and again thundered the authority of Scripture in the city of Leipzig, as he had more than two decades before.

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