On this day, Dec. 10, in 1520, a monumental act of defiance took place in Germany. In the city of Wittenberg, Martin Luther burned a formal proclamation, issued by Pope Leo X, which threatened his excommunication if he would not recant the offensive, heretical views that the Pope condemned.
Behind Luther lay his formative and reforming discovery that no human works but only the grace of God could save human beings.
In his theological attack on indulgences-remissions of penalties for sin - and their abuse for economic gain, he had already confronted contemporary church practice, expressing his dissent in 95 pithy theses for debate.
Subsequently, Luther refined his theological criticism and, in a famous debate held at Leipzig with the Bavarian theologian Johann Eck, extended it to the institution of the papacy.
As a prolific writer, Luther had sharpened his new understanding of the sacraments and the ethical consequences of his reforming ideas in three important books.
In one of them, "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation," he had gone over the heads of the church and the theologians and appealed directly to the ruling class. There was therefore plenty of written material on which a condemnation of Luther's ideas could be based.
For the church, tiptoeing around Luther's protector - Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony - was no longer necessary once a new emperor had been elected in the summer of 1519.
Luther had raised the stakes in the Leipzig debate by calling the whole institution of the papacy into question.
Johann Eck, Luther's opponent at Leipzig, later advised the Pope in drafting the document of condemnation. In the debate, Eck had associated Luther with Jan Hus, a heretic already condemned, and the papal document referred to Hus while listing 41 objectionable statements from Luther's writings.
Notably Luther's criticism of the doctrine of penance and his attacks on indulgences and the power of the papacy came under censure.
The condemnation (popularly called a "bull" because of the bulla or leaden papal authentication) declared Luther's writings heretical, offensive for the faithful, and demanded equal rejection by all believers and church authorities.
The bull gave Luther and his supporters 60 days to recant. If Luther would not reject the statements in question, religious authorities were directed to announce publicly his excommunication, then have him captured and conveyed to Rome.
Act of defiance
At the end of 60 days, Luther did not recant. Instead, his friend and colleague Philipp Melanchthon invited people to meet at a symbolic place outside the city, where rotting animals were cast aside.
A fellow reformer, Johann Agricola, presided over the event and likely arranged the bonfire into which Luther tossed the papal bull, several editions of canon or church law, a manual advising priests taking confessions, and assorted writings by Luther's declared enemies.
As he threw the papal bull into the fire, tradition has Luther allude to Psalm 21: "Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!"
This symbolic burning of the papal bull and canon law followed the burning of Luther's own writings by his opponents in several German cities. In a pamphlet explaining himself, Luther writes that his actions responded to the burning of his own books.
Luther believed that his writings contained nothing but biblically based truths. He saw in the previous burnings an attack on the gospel by people who had placed their trust in the wrong authority -namely, the church's law.
Martin Brecht, among the most thorough of Luther's biographers, whose reconstruction of events I am following, writes that although criticism of church law existed already before Luther, what was new in his symbolic defiance "was the critical examination of church law on a biblical basis."
According to Brecht, "Luther intended to do nothing less than eliminate canon law from the church."
While today we may understand the motivations of both Luther and the Pope, we may question whether burning books is ever an appropriate response to an intellectual and religious challenge.
Among both Catholics and Protestants, such fiery retaliation did not stop with books ,but would also include human beings whose opinions authorities abhorred.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University.
Published December 10, 2011