A debate was scheduled between the Dominican friar (and well-respected scholar) Johann Eck and Andreas Carlstadt, a friend and colleague of Martin Luther. It would become known as the Leipzig Debate, having taken place in June and July of 1519 at Pleissenburg Castle in Leipzig, Germany. The public debate concerned the doctrines of free will and grace. At least, it was supposed to.
Eck had devoted his life to the defending of Catholic doctrine against heresy. Luther and Carlstadt should have known the accusations that would arise during the debate.
Eck invited Luther to join the debate and, when Luther arrived in July, he and Eck expanded the terms of the debate to include issues such as the existence of purgatory, the sale of indulgences (the original argument of the 95 Theses), the need for and practice of penance, and the extend and legitimacy of papal authority.
Eck was a brilliant debater and those skills allowed him to corner Luther into open admissions of what the Roman Catholic Church considered heresy. Luther declared that sola scriptura (scripture alone) was the basis of Christian belief and that the Pope had limited power since he was not mentioned in the Bible. He, of course, condemned the sale of indulgences to the laity to reduce their time in purgatory, as there was no mention of purgatory in the Bible.
For the very first time, Luther declared his belief that popes, theologians, the Curia, even Church Councils were all subject to error. Only Scripture could be counted on as the supreme authority in matters of faith and morals. This was the revolutionary moment. Sides were taken by theological faculties, priests, princes, monks and nuns.
Luther, however, continued to support the papacy as an institution ordained by God. He simply disagreed with the extent of the pope’s authority. That wouldn’t last long.
The debate led Pope Leo X di Medici to censor Luther, threatening him with excommunication from the Catholic Church in the June, 1520, papal declaration, Exsurge Domine, which banned Luther's views from being preached or written. It was a papal gag order. For Martin Luther, however, it was a declaration of theological war.
In 1520, Luther published three monumental works collectively known as The Three Treatises: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.
In The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, written in August of 1520, Luther outlined the doctrine of the “Priesthood of all believers” and denied the authority of the Pope to interpret, or confirm interpretation of, the Bible.
On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October, 1520) was a frontal assault on Pope Leo X and his interpretation of the sacraments of the Church. Luther stated that the Eucharistic cup should be restored to the laity. [The church of that era had only allowed the laity to take of the bread and not the cup] He further stated his opposition to the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the Eucharistic wine physically becomes the blood of Christ) called it a late addition to Church doctrine. [It was adopted at Lateran Council IV in 1215.]
On the Freedom of a Christian (November, 1520) further discussed the justification by faith alone. In it, Luther writes, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
Those Treatises fanned the firestorm. In January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in the papal document, Decet Romanum. Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, where he was famously defiant. For his refusal to retract his writings and recant his beliefs, Charles V declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
Fortunately for Luther, he was supported by powerful German princes. Frederick III, Elector Prince of Saxony, arranged a “kidnapping” of Luther and took Luther to the Wartburg Castle for his own safety. While at the Wartburg, Luther works on a translation of the Bible into German and publishes his New Testament translation in 1522. The Old Testament translation was published later in 1534. That document, the German New Testament, became the standard for what is now the Modern German language.
Luther expanded his teachings to include such revolutionary ideas as the mass being held in the vernacular of the people, the Bible in the language of the people, congregational singing, and a married clergy. In 1961, Pope John XXIII walked over to the Vatican windows and, throwing them open, is said to have declared, “It is time to let in some fresh air.” The next year, he convened Vatican Council II. The results of Vatican II included three out of four of Luther’s revolutionary ideas—all but the married clergy.
Sadly, Luther’s revolution was not limited to one new denomination. Even in Luther’s own lifetime, he witnessed the breakaway of the Swiss Reformers (like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin), Henry VIII’s “English Reformation” and, later, John Knox’s Scottish Reformation.
The fragmenting was like breaking glass. It continues today, causing many to declare that “Luther was the best thing to happen to the church and the worst thing.”