After their much publicized meeting, Luther’s failure to make an oath of submission—and rejection of his call for reform and a council to address the indulgence question—left the papal representative Cardinal Cajetan with nothing to present to Pope Leo X in terms of quelling Luther’s writings and speaking, which thanks to the printing press, were available and often well received by readers across Western European society. The next inevitable step would be a papal pronouncement of excommunication. Upon its declaration, Luther would become subject to arrest, deportation to Rome, imprisonment, probably torture, and summary excommunication by fire.
From his own writings it seems clear that by the time of the meeting with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518, Luther had come to peace with the possibility that his calls for reform might very well lead to his martyrdom. But by the end of the Augsburg meeting, Luther was no longer a “voice crying in the wilderness.” Throughout Germany and much of Europe, thanks to the printing press, Luther had admirers as well as enemies. Some of these were German princes chafing under the taxes of the Holy Roman Empire. Others genuinely worried for the Church and appreciated the reform spirit of the Augustinian monk. At some stage along the way Luther’s pastoral instincts came into play: his mission was not simply to save his own soul, even with a glorious martyrdom. He was now responsible for an outline of a purified Church.
The encounter with Cajetan jarred Luther in the sense that he came to see more clearly the heart of we call today “the Reformation.” In the heat of debate with Cajetan, the Cardinal cited several papal pronouncements on indulgences from centuries past. He banked on Luther’s lack of historical familiarity with previous papal documents on the subject. [Looking back, Cajetan’s was an odd strategy given that indulgences had been the issue that roused Luther in the first place.] Luther knew the passages quite well, in fact, and used counterarguments to fluster Cajetan to the degree that the latter became quite flustered and to object of amusement to the audience.
With Luther piling up debate points, Cajetan resorted to consistent demands that Luther recant and submit to the pope, regardless of what Scripture did or didn’t say. As Eric Metaxas records, “And yet in all of this, Luther’s greatest fears were realized. He saw that the cardinal cared not a fig for the Holy Scriptures, and quite seriously maintained that church decrees superseded them…that the greatest minds of the church were genuinely unaware of having become unmoored from the rock of the Scriptures and were even indifferent to this.” [p. 150] Luther, of course, had found in the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans the understanding of justification and a new hope he would be saved; he could not understand how the Church would deny the saving words of the Bible in favor of erroneous teachings of churchmen, even the pope.
From our vantage point, we can see the errors of both sides of the question. Luther did not appreciate the origins of sacred scripture, how sacred books were written by members of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how the Church fathers selected which books embodied the full message of salvation, a gradual process that lasted at least till 300 A.D. This selection process produced a canon or collection we know today as the New Testament. [For a deeper study of how the New Testament came to be written and determined, F.F. Bruce’s venerable 1990 book, The Canon of Scripture, is still a valuable source.] Four centuries of research stand between Luther’s era and today; he would not have had access to the research detailing the development of the Gospels, Epistles, etc. While it is true that God is the author of sacred scripture, it is the Spirit working in the Church that makes our bibles what they are today, the “words of life.”
The New Testament lays the groundwork for a “petrine ministry,” a position of leadership we attribute today to the pope. However, it is very reasonable to expect that (1) anyone holding the office preaches the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Church in interpreting the sacred Word, and (2) exercises his office with vigilance for reform in capite et membris, i.e., in head and members. The bane of many popes in the medieval and Renaissance era was hubris and worldliness. Luther would have been correct in his assertion that the pope cannot govern exclusive of the Bible, since the petrine ministry is derived from the Bible, i.e., the Holy Spirit through the Church. In 1518 Luther’s advocacy of the Bible created a conundrum of bible vs. papacy.
Several of Luther’s “guardians” realized his need for protection, even if Luther was a bit naïve of the full danger. Even in his home region, he was vulnerable to seizure by papal agents; the separation of church and state was a long time in the future, and the German states were members of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, those who harbored him or gave him comfort could become liable to a charge of heresy themselves. It is even more remarkable, then, that Luther’s Augustinian Superior released him from his vow of obedience so that Rome could not order the superior to silence him. Luther could continue to preach, write, and present his case as events unfolded.
Finally realizing his danger, Luther decided to leave Augsburg and return to his home turf, Wittenberg. On October 20, 1518, he fled the city, though all the gates of the town were locked, presumably to keep Luther within arm’s reach for arrest. It is unclear precisely how he escaped, but a horse and guide were ready for him on the other side of the wall. Luther rode 44 miles that night, and 45 the next, and he soon reached Wittenberg safely, though he would be saddle sore for days after. Luther had left none too soon. Cardinal Cajetan wrote to the Elector Frederick, Luther’s strongest civil protector, demanding that Luther be turned over to Rome.
Metaxas observes that Frederick’s protection of Luther is hard to fathom, given that the Elector was a well-known trafficker in relics and indulgences. The best guess is that his university theologians, supporters of Luther, encouraged Frederick to protect him. But Luther was wise enough to know that his continuing public presence in Wittenberg was creating problems for Frederick, and that he would need to go into hiding, to protect himself and more importantly, to write the foundational texts for a reform of Western Christendom.