The Leipzig Debate in the summer of 1519 proved to be a watershed moment in the history of the Reformation in that it pushed the indulgence controversy beyond the question of penance and indulgences to the question of authority in the church.
Johann Eck, a scholastic theologian teaching at Ingolstadt, had engaged Luther in private correspondence on the issue of indulgences, but that correspondence was published against Luther’s own wishes. In defense of his Wittenberg colleague, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt wrote an extensive repudiation of Eck’s treatise, including well over 300 theses addressing questions of grace, free will, and penance. Eck replied in kind with another set of theses. The written controversy led to demand for a debate, initially restricted to Eck and Karlstadt, but later including Luther. It was to be held at Leipzig under the patronage of Duke George of Saxony.
On 24 June 1519, it was a rare sight that met the eyes of the guards at the impressive Pleissenberg Castle.
A menacing mob was making its way over the river bridge and up to the castle gate, accompanying two carts, and armed with battleaxes. Those who carry the battleaxes are students from Wittenberg University. Two hundred of them. In the centre of them, riding in the carts, is Martin Luther, plus Philip Melancthon and Andreas Carlstadt.
In the course of this Leipzig discussion, Eck was clever. He carefully chose not to take on Luther on the issue of what the Bible says; rather he accused Luther of promoting the opinions of John Hus. Hus had been condemned by the Catholic Church 100 years before at the Council of Constance and burned at the stake. So Eck was saying that Luther was ‘lining himself up alongside someone whom the Church had already condemned as a heretic.‘ Therefore he made the whole debate a matter of Church authority.
Luther kept protesting that he was not like Hus. But Eck insisted ... .
When lunch break came, Luther made his way to the university library to read up on 'the Hus.' He examined the record of the Council and discovered, to his surprise, that Eck was right – he was advocating the same position as Hus! He agreed with Hus on the major issues, such as:
- the corrupting influence of indulgences,
- the need for the authority of Christ rather than the pope,
- and the supremacy of Scripture.
“We are all Hussites without knowing it,” he mused.
At the beginning of the afternoon session, in typical Luther style (he never shied away from a bit of melodrama), he made this dramatic admission: “Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical which the universal Church cannot condemn.”
Luther had started out by trying to reform the Catholic Church from the inside – but Eck had shown that Luther was promoting a position which the Church had condemned (i.e. irreformable). The situation was that the authority of the Church and the authority of the Scriptures were in direct competition.
Luther had to choose between them. He did. He chose Scripture!
Luther argued that:
- church councils do not have the authority to establish new articles of faith, and that they have contradicted each other;
- the popes can err, and he questioned how the church could possibly teach the infallibility of the Pope based on Christ’s words to Peter (Matthew 16:18), “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Then he dropped this bombshell: “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it. ... For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.”
Eck kept probing, continually bringing Luther back to the question of authority: was it the Scriptures or the pope? “Are you the only one who knows anything? Except for you is all the Church in error?”, he asked.
With a further flourish, Luther cut to the chase in this Leipzig debate: “I am a Christian theologian, and I am bound, not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of no one, whether council, university, or pope.”
Luther left Leipzig through a hole in the wall, where a horse was waiting for him, then rode for several hours back to Wittenberg. Eck travelled back to Rome to tell the pope that Luther admitted to being a Hussite. Luther was threatened with death, but he refused to back down.
This public disputation had served the purpose of solidifying Luther’s breach with the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was now totally convinced that the Scriptures alone were the supreme authority. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, Luther’s conviction concerning this truth caused ripples that became wider as they spread out from this controversial theologian in Wittenberg.
This pebble thrown into the pond came to be known by a Latin label, sola Scriptura – “Scripture alone,” which would become one of the key slogans of the Protestant Reformation and the rock under which the Roman Catholic Church would be crushed.
At the heart of this slogan is this reality: when we have to choose, there is only one choice we can make – Scripture alone is our ultimate authority! And in particular it is the supreme authority in contrast to the authority of the church and its traditions.