Why Luther Claimed to be a Heretic

 
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It was the summer of 1519 at Leipzig, in debate with John Eck, where Martin Luther said those fateful words, “Ja, Ich bin ein Hussite”—I am a Hussite. With this, the gallery exploded with murmurs and shouts of dispute. But why?

One hundred and two years before Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Jan Hus, the Rector of what is now Charles University and the preacher of Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, was burned at the stake for his supposed heresies. What was it that Hus was teaching that got him into so much trouble?

To understand Hus’ errors, one must consider the politically turbulent times. There was at this time a Pope in Rome and a Pope in France. The question of who was the legitimate Pope was raging. So to fix the problem, a Pope in Pisa was elected. Instead of bringing the other two popes on board, there were now three popes. To complicate these matters, King Sigismund and Emperor Wenceslaus were locked in a struggle for the position of Holy Roman Emperor. And that's not all—in Prague, at the University, even though the majority of the students were Bohemians and the majority of the funding from Bohemia, the Germans controlled the faculty. Hus led the charge to unseat the Germans and to install the Bohemians in the seats of academic leadership at the University of Prague (now Charles University). This, of course, earned Hus many enemies.

Hus, a slightly-more-than-tepid follower of Wycliffe, was in many ways following the same path as Luther.

Hus believed that the Lord’s Supper should be distributed to the people as Christ gave it to His disciples. It had become Romanist practice to give communion to the masses in the bread only, the rationalization being that you cannot have a body without blood.

Hus held that Christ alone grants salvation and that popes do not.
— Craig Donofrio

Hus held that The Bible alone is the authority for the doctrine of the church and not popes or councils. Thus he held to a form of Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone.

Hus believed that the church had become entirely corrupt and that the Priestly class should be held to the same if not higher legal and moral standards than the people that they serve. Much like how Luther had become horrified seeing the excesses in Rome, Hus likewise was deeply troubled by the ruling class of priests.

Hus held that Christ alone grants salvation and that popes do not. He did recognize the authority of the Papacy, but it seems in a more administrative capacity.

Among many other things, Hus believed that the sale of indulgences was abusive and immoral. He argued that if the Pope has access to this “Treasury of Merits” and he has the power over purgatory and hell, why would the Pope not simply give away that forgiveness for free, even as Jesus did? After all, if the Pope is the “Vicar of Christ,” or the one who acts vicariously for Christ, who is he to charge others for the forgiveness given freely? This belief, along with Hus’ growing number of enemies, led to his eventual persecution and death. Although King Sigismund had granted safe conduct to Hus, under political pressure, Sigismund reneged, allowed Hus to be arrested and turned his back to a kangaroo court that would not allow the Pastor to defend himself.

An eyewitness, Peter from Mladonovic, wrote that as Hus was led to his death, he called out with a loud voice for God to have mercy on those who have wronged him. When tied to the stake and there the fires lit, he sang in a loud voice, “Christ, Thou Son of God, have mercy upon us, Christ... Thou Son of God, have mercy upon me...Thou who are born of the Virgin Mary” and as his voice failed, his lips were said to be mouthing the Lord’s Prayer in his final moments.

Fast forward one hundred and four years from Hus’ martyrdom and imagine the state of the Holy Roman Empire. The Muslim caliphate is closing in on the gates of Vienne, and thus the Empire needs all of the German nobility on their side to fight for the existence of Christendom. In Leipzig, the Catholic Scholastic John Eck debates the renegade monk, Martin Luther. After Eck accuses Luther of being a Hussite, Luther reads Hus work and then makes this statement, “Ja, Ich bin ein Hussite.” I am a Hussite!

How the blood of the Roman Catholics must have run cold. They could not afford to forgo the support of the German nobility in this war, and this monk’s writings were spreading like wildfire. There is a chance that not only might the Saxons turn on Rome, but large parts of Northern and Central Europe.

John Eck had made over 400 allegations of heresies against Luther and his followers. In 1530, Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V called together the Lutheran princes to learn why these leaders were allowing the teachings of Luther. Philip Melanchthon composed a defense of Lutheran teaching, showing how and why they are truly part of the church catholic.

In June of 1530, seven German princes and two Mayors stood firm in their confession of the Gospel in the “Augsburg Confession.” They offered their heads, rather than renounce the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Charles V could not forgo their armies much less could he afford to fight a war against these territories while he needed their troops to fight off the Turkish invasions. Charles was stalemated, and the princes and mayors had won the day, pledging their fidelity to the Empire and yet maintaining their freedom of the Gospel.

Was the shot fired over Eck’s bow intentional by Luther when he said, “I am a Hussite?” It is hard to tell, but it was indeed a shot heard around the world that has echoed for five hundred years.

Craig Donofrio is currently serving as the Pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, in Cleveland Ohio. Craig Donofrio is the husband of Paula, master of Rufus, a Pastor,  Radio Professional, Author, former Missionary, and Communications Director for the Eurasia Region of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s International Missions. He holds a Bachelor of Business Management from Christ College Irvine and an MDiv. from Concordia Seminary St. Louis.