I’ve been re-reading Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. The depiction of Luther defying pope and emperor before the “Diet of Worms” (pp. 140–144) is one of my favorite literary passages of all time:
The scene lends itself to dramatic portrayal. Here was Charles, heir of a long line of Catholic sovereigns, symbol of the medieval unities, incarnation of a glorious if vanishing heritage; and here before him a simple monk, a miner’s son, with nothing to sustain him save his own faith in the Word of God. Here the past and the future were met. Luther himself was sensible of it in a measure. He was well aware that he had not been reared as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, but what overpowered him was not so much that he stood in the presence of the emperor as this, that he and the emperor alike were called upon to answer before Almighty God.
Luther was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, Eck by name. Luther was confronted with a pile of his books and asked whether they were his. In a voice barely audible he answered, “The books are all mine, and I have written more.”
The door was closed, but Eck opened it again. “Do you defend them all, or do you care to reject a part?”
Luther responded, this time his voice ringing: “Most serene emperor, most illustrious princes, most clement lords, if I have not given some of you your proper titles I beg you to forgive me. I am not a courtier, but a monk. You ask me whether I would repudiate them. . . . I confess I have been more caustic than comports with my profession, but I am being judged, not on my life, but for the teaching of Christ, and I cannot renounce these works without increasing tyranny and impiety.
“When Christ stood before Anas, he said, ‘Produce witnesses.’ If our Lord, who could not err, made this demand, why may not a worm like me ask to be convicted of error from the prophets and the Gospels? If I am shown my error, I will be the first to throw my books into the fire. I have been reminded of the dissensions which my teaching engenders. I can answer only in the words of the Lord, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword.’ . . . Take warning from the examples of Pharaoh, the king of Babylon, and the kings of Israel. God it is who confounds the wise. I must walk in the fear of the Lord. I say this not to chide but because I cannot escape my duty to my Germans. I commend myself to Your Majesty. May you not suffer my adversaries to make you ill disposed to me without cause. I have spoken.”
Eck replied: “Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Hus. How will the Jews, how will the Turks, exult to hear Christians discussing whether they have been wrong all these years! Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us an inheritance, and which we are forbidden by the pope and the emperor to discuss lest there be no end of debate. I ask you, Martin – answer candidly and without horns – do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”
Luther replied, “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
The earliest printed version added the words: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write.
Luther had spoken in German. He was asked to repeat in Latin. He was sweating. A friend called out, “If you can’t do it, Doctor, you have done enough.” Luther made again his affirmation in Latin, threw up his arms in the gesture of a victorious knight, and slipped out of the darkened hall, amid the hisses of the Spaniards, and went to this lodging.