On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood, sweating from a fever, in a large hall in the German city of Worms.
Luther was on trial for heresy—for insisting that Scripture alone, sola Scriptura, was to be regarded as the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice. He argued that the traditions of men cannot supersede the authority of the Word of God. The penalty, should Luther be found guilty, was that he would be burned at the stake.
He stood before Charles V, the 21-year-old emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The hall was so densely packed people could hardly move. Everyone except the emperor was standing. The smoke from hundreds of candles had been rising for hours into a thick cloud. The air was stifling. Tempers were frayed. The future of the church and Luther’s life hung in the balance.
The big question before this gathering was one of authority. Two traditions were at war in Worms. Tradition 1 (first—3rd century A.D.) held that the Bible was the authoritative doctrinal norm for the church. The Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), yet neither the church nor the regula fidei were considered second, supplementary sources of revelation. The church was the interpreter of the divine revelation in Scripture, but only Scripture was the Word of God.
Whispers of a second tradition arose in the fourth century, when politics, power, and money had begun to gain increasing influence in the Roman church. Basil and Augustine suggested the idea for tradition (that is, the long-held interpretation of the church fathers) as a second source of revelation that supplements biblical revelation. It might be brought alongside, but it could not supersede the authority of Scripture. Still, “Tradition 2” was only an idea, not doctrine and it wasn’t widespread.
Tradition 1—the position of the early church—continued to hold sway throughout most of the Middle Ages.
The beginnings of a strong movement toward Tradition 2 did not begin in earnest until the twelfth century, and it wasn’t until the fourteenth century under William of Ockham, that the two-source view of revelation really gained traction.
From that point forward, Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 duked it out, all the way to the Reformation, which arguably began in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, challenging the abuses of Roman authority. By this time Tradition 2 had come to supersede (not simply to supplement) the authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice.
Truth is often the victim when money and politics come into play.
It wasn’t the authority Luther was challenging per se. It was the basis upon which the authority was exercised: the traditions of men vs. Scripture.
Thank God for Martin Luther and his unflagging loyalty to the Word of God as the supreme authority in matters of faith a practice.
“Here I stand,” he said to the emperor and all assembled. “I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
For more on Luther and the Reformation: my novel, Storm, recreates the events in Luther’s life from 1505—1525.