Stephen Nichols (SN): On this episode, I’m with our good friend, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Dr. Godfrey, good to see you again.
Robert Godfrey (RG): Good to be here with you, Stephen.
SN: It’s always fun to talk about historical anniversaries with you because historians love anniversaries—we’ll celebrate just about anything. This year is the five-hundredth anniversary of a very important moment back in Luther’s life: the Leipzig Disputation in 1519. At Leipzig, a town in Germany, Martin Luther was pit against Johann Eck. Now, we know that Eck means corner. So, did Eck, the corner, back Martin Luther into a corner in Leipzig five hundred years ago?
RG: Great question. This is coming just as your listeners thought that maybe they were finally done with Luther for a little while having given so much attention to him two years ago, and here he’s back.
SN: He’s back.
RG: The truth is, of course, that we celebrated Luther in 1517 for his first public act to begin to challenge the old church. But, in 1517, I would argue that Luther wasn’t really a Protestant yet. He became a public figure. He began to get a lot of attention, but his theology was really developing. It had not reached any kind of settled conclusion.
But, because he’d become famous, he began to be invited places. And, because there was tension between the University of Leipzig and the University of Wittenberg, an invitation went to Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, Luther’s older colleague on the theological faculty, to come to Leipzig to debate.
Luther was really annoyed that he wasn’t invited. So, he was added to the invitation. They went to Leipzig and they were there for several days. A little bit of a side note is that at that time, there was a man by the name of Johann Tetzel dying in Leipzig. Tetzel had sold indulgences that sparked Luther’s action in 1517, and Luther communicated to Tetzel to try to offer him condolences and comfort on his death bed.
But, the disputation itself was formerly going to be between Eck and Luther on the matter of the Pope’s authority. But, as they debated that, and Luther tried to limit the Pope’s authority, Eck was able to quote all sorts of theologians and historical actions of the church to show that Luther was not in agreement with the great historic traditional teaching of the church.
Luther was then being painted into a corner, so that more and more, he was saying to Eck; “Well, history may say, and theologians may say. But, the Bible says, on the other hand.” And so, the corner that Eck really painted Luther into was forcing Luther to come to a recognition that tradition is one thing, and the Bible is another.
SN: So, what we have at Leipzig really is that we’re beginning to see the plank of sola scriptura—that crucial plank of Reformation of theology—being laid down, and Eck brought this out in Luther.
RG: Absolutely, because for Luther— as for most medievals up until that time— the assumption was that the Bible and tradition are agreed. But, at Leipzig, Luther was forced to recognize that sometimes the Bible and tradition diverged, and you had to decide who you’re going to trust. You’re either going to trust tradition, or you’re going to trust the Bible. And, that’s where Luther really came to a consciousness of sola scriptura.
SN: So, Luther was happy to be painted into the corner and happy to affirm his trust in God’s Word?
RG: Probably not so happy at the moment, but happy with the outcome to be sure. And, we’re all happy that he came to that consciousness.
SN: Well, we’ll leave it at that, then. So, happy five-hundredth anniversary of the Leipzig Disputation. Thank you Dr. Godfrey for being with us.