"It seems to me that if the Romanists are so mad the only remedy remaining is for the emperor, the kings, the princes to gird themselves with force of arms to attack these pests of all the world and fight them, not with words, but with steel. If we punish thieves with the yoke, highwaymen with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not rather assault these monsters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and the whole swarm of the Roman Sodom, who corrupt youth and the Church of God? Why do we not rather assault them with arms and wash our hands in their blood?"- Martin Luther June 25, 1520
Previously, I looked briefly at the bibliographic way this Luther quote has been documented. Then I pointed out the numerous interpretations given to this quote. What needs to be addressed of course, is exactly which way I would explain this historical bit of information.
As was noted in part one of my review, this quote comes from the document entitled, Epitoma Responsionis ad Marinum Lutherum. It was originally a book published by one of Luther's Catholic opponents, Sylvester Prierias. As a response to it, Luther republished it with his own annotations, introduction and conclusion. The quote in question comes from Luther's conclusion.
In the conclusion, Luther notes Priarias was unwilling to concede a council should be called to address his concerns. Priarias had argued for the primacy of the Pope, and only a pope could call a council. In fact, the position held by Priarias was papal absolutism. The Pope had absolute power, not only over the Roman church, but all churches worldwide, and his power was absolute over non-Christians as well. All those within the church that held an office derived their power from him (rather than the apostles). He saw the Pope as the "sole arbiter and infallible judge of the truth in matters regarding faith and morals" (Epitoma, WA 6:330.16.-18).
One needs to consider what it would mean to be faced with such an argument of papal absolutism, particularly if the papacy was unwilling to even consider the charges Luther was concerned with. In the indulgence controversy, the Roman papacy simply ordered Luther to recant, despite the fact that the entire scope of exactly what indulgences meant was not dogmatically defined. Thus, Luther was being forced to recant of "heretical" positions without dialog, council, or even a Romanist dogma by which to judge his opinions against.
Priarias was a high official in the Church. He charged Luther with offending the Pope's majesty in questioning indulgence preaching, because this was akin to questioning the authority of the one who granted indulgence preaching (the Pope). This may seem obvious, but the battle over indulgences quickly moved to Luther questioning the very office of the Papacy, and exactly what extent of power such an office held, because Catholic controversialists like Priarias responded that the Papacy had naked authority to silence criticisms like Luther was putting forth.
Luther argues in his conclusion to the Epitoma this type of position on papal authority held by Priarias is unbiblical. It goes against Matthew 18:15-17, for the Pope, according to the position held by Priarias, could never fall under its order of discipline. If the Pope refused to listen, he should be treated as a heathen and a publican.
The entire tone of Priarias's work provoked Luther, particularly since Priarias was such a high ranking official. Against this position of papal absolutism Luther declares:
"If these opinions and this teaching prevail at Rome, with the knowledge of the Pope and the Cardinals, I pronounce that Antichrist sits in the temple of God, and that the Roman Court is the synagogue of Satan. If the Pope and the Cardinals do not demand a retraction of these opinions,I declare that I dissent from the Roman Church, and cast it off as the abomination standing in the holy place."
"When the Romanists see that they cannot prevent a Council, they feign that the Pope is above a Council, is the infallible rule of truth, and the author of all understanding of Scripture. There is no remedy, save that Emperor, Kings, and Princes should attack these pests and settle the matter, not by words but by the sword. If we punish thieves by the gallows, and heretics by fire, why not attack Pope, Cardinals, and the brood of the Roman Sodom with arms, and wash our hands in their blood?"
Read with this background, one should be able to understand Luther's anger and frustration. To cite the quote without explaining why Luther would've been provoked to such a violent outburst is to ignore history. It is to ignore the historical polemic context in which Luther found himself- in heated dialogue with high ranking Catholic apologists that could influence his very life or death. He was in a battle against those who simply declared and defended the power of the Pope. How could one engage in a life threatening situation against an absolute power that refused to even admit its wrongdoings and abuses with indulgences? Luther responds harshly that the Emperor, kings, and princes should treat such an abuse of power in the same way thieves and heretics are treated by the state. Keep in mind, the Catholic contoversialists would have no problem likewise having Luther fall into the hands of the state to be punished with the same severity.
Given just a surface reading and understanding of the historical context, the quote isn't even all that outrageous. But in actuality, Luther explained not to long afterward exactly what he meant in response to another Catholic controversialist. Luther's violent words were cited by Jerome Emser: "Luther has heretofore, in his other books, exhorted the common people most diligently to wash their hands in the blood of the priests" (Works of Martin Luther III, p. 343). Let's let Luther explain what he meant. In response to Jerome Emser, In LW 39: 172-174, Luther states:
Emser’s second lie is that I wanted the hands of the laymen washed in the blood of the priests. His holy priesthood and Christian love seek nothing but fire. If I were dead he could spread such lies as truth, just as happened to Huss. This is the way I have written against Sylvester, “in contrast,” as this noble poet and rhetorician well knows: if heretics are burned, why should we not much rather attack the pope and his sects with the sword and wash our hands in their blood, if he teaches what Sylvester writes, namely, that Holy Scripture has its power from the pope. But since I dislike burning heretics, or killing even a single Christian, and since I know full well it is against the gospel, I merely indicated what they deserve if heretics deserve the fire. Nor is it necessary to attack you with the sword. The nobility and worldly powers, if they just despise your tyrannical shamming and false ban, can certainly advise you womanish and childish people with a single letter and command. They can say to you, “This is the way it must be,” and you have no choice but to obey. The way you react to it, with burning, banning, raging, and raving against the clear truth, it seems you would really like to have a Bohemian example made of yourselves and fulfil the prophecy which says that the priests should be slain. If this should happen to you, you cannot blame me. Just continue as you are, you are on the right track! Where advice is not possible, help is not possible. You will very soon find out if you can end the game in that way, even if it rains and snows nothing but bishops, Emsers, Ecks, and popes. I trust you have foreseen that no one will destroy the pope but you yourselves, his own creatures, as the prophet says.
But tell me, dear Emser, if you may write that it is necessary and right to burn heretics and think you do not thereby soil your hands with Christian blood, why should it not also be right to strangle you, Sylvester, the pope, and all your sects in the most scandalous way? For not only do you write in the manner of a heretic and of the Antichrist, but you also say what all the devils are not allowed to say, namely, that the gospel is confirmed by the pope, its power is dependent on the pope’s power, and the church has done what the pope does? What heretic has ever so completely condemned and destroyed God’s word in one stroke? That is why I still say, “If heretics have deserved the fire, you and the pope should be killed a thousand times.” Still I do not want it to happen. Your judge is not far off. He will find you in good health and nimble. Do not get bored in the meantime. Yet I would prefer you to come before him with remorse and penance. God help you to do this, Amen. Nevertheless, I would like the Roman courtiers to be repelled with force just like other thieves and robbers, if they cannot be stopped in any other way.
So that I may not be ridiculed along with you I shall ignore your babbling that I put the priesthood to shame and your claim that St. Paul was consecrated by the apostles and St. Peter had a tonsure; I shall also ignore all the useless talk you spew forth about consecration and priestly estate and the threefold meaning of “spiritual”-spirituale, ecclesiasticum, religiosum-and that not all Christians are spiritual, spirituales. You probably also would like to say that the laying on of hands on the head meant more than consecration. Who can stop you if you intend to do nothing but lie and preach, as some do, that St. Bartholomew prayed the rosary and the psalter of our dear lady? I do not need any logic here: I call spiritual spirituales, devout Christians ecclesiasticum, and do not know religiosum in this context. I thought that for once the naked sword would strike me with the blade, but neither sheath nor sword nor man is at hand. You also lie that I have made all laymen bishops, priests, and spiritual in such a way that they may exercise the office without a call. But, as godly as you are, you conceal the fact that I added that no one should undertake this office without a call unless it be an extreme emergency. And what shall I say, since there is almost one lie after another in your book? I am afraid you will lie, blaspheme, hate, and rave yourself to death. In previous times it was easy to write against heretics. For even though they erred, as honest people they did not need to lie and stuck to the heart of the matter. My persecutors let the matter drop and, like knaves, rely solely upon lies. But to keep you from being displeased at hearing nothing but your lies, let us deal again with something good-the Spirit and the letter, which is the main theme of your book.
Luther's famous biographer, Roland Bainton states in Here I Stand,
In one unguarded outburst he incited to violence. A new attack by Prierias lashed Luther to rage. In a printed reply he declared:
"It seems to me that if the Romanists are so mad the only remedy remaining is for the emperor, the kings, and princes to gird themselves with force of arms to attack these pests of all the world and fight them, not with words, but with steel. If we punish thieves with the yoke, highwaymen with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not rather assault these monsters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and the whole swarm of the Roman Sodom, who corrupt youth and the Church of God? Why do we not rather assault them with arms and wash our hands in their blood?"
Luther explained afterwards that he really did not mean what the words imply.
I wrote "If we burn heretics, why do we not rather attack the pope and his followers with the sword and wash our hands in their blood?" Since I do not approve of burning heretics nor of killing any Christian this I well know does not accord with the gospel I have shown what they deserve if heretics deserve fire. There is no need to attack you with the sword.
Despite this disclaimer Luther was never suffered to forget his incendiary blast. It was quoted against him in the Edict of the Diet of Worms.
The disavowal was genuine. His prevailing mood was expressed in a letter of October to a minister who was prompted to leave his post. Luther wrote:
Our warfare is not with flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore. If God is for us, who can be against us?
You are dismayed because Eck is publishing a most severe bull against Luther, his books, and his followers. Whatever may happen, I am not moved, because nothing can happen save in accord with the will of him who sits upon the heaven directing all. Let not your hearts be troubled. Your Father knows your need before you ask him. Not a leaf from a tree falls to the ground without his knowledge. How much less can any of us fall unless it be his will.
If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. Fare well in the Lord Jesus, who comforts and sustains mind and spirit. Amen.
Bainton helpfully points out that Luther's words were cited against him in the Edict of the Diet of Worms. This document states:
Item. As for the holy order of the priesthood (through which the precious body and blood of our Lord is consecrated) and the power and authority of the keys of our Holy Mother Church: not only does Luther despise them by saying that they are common to all men, children, and women, but in addition, he provokes the seculars to wash their hands in the blood of the priests.
The Edict was issued on May 25, 1521. Luther's explanation to Emser was in print by the end of March 1521. It may be the case that Luther's explanation was not consulted in the drafting of the Edict- but at least it should be clear Luther's explanation to Emser was not motivated by fear of, or embarrassment of the statement in the Edict of the Diet of Worms. What the Edict does show though is the way in which Catholics read Luther. Luther's arguments were taken to be words written to incite the people to violence against the Church. David Bagchi has pointed out that many of the Catholics responding to Luther early on,
"...displayed an attitude toward the people that revealed not simply disdain of social inferiors but also a deep fear of a potential source of violent revolution. For a religious and a priest to take the complaints of lay people seriously and on this basis to criticize a practice of the church (in the medieval sense of the 'clergy') was to commit class treason. It is well known that in years to come Luther was to use inflammatory language urging the laity to 'reform' the cardinals with cold steel; it is not so well known that his Catholic opponents first put these words into his mouth" (Luther's Earliest Opponents, p. 42).
Later Bagchi explains that it was Luther's early opponents that first kept bringing up the possibility that Luther's arguments first against indulgences, and then (by forced implication) the power and validity of the Papacy, that were eventually going to lead to revolution. It was their continued counter-argument against him. Rather than call a church council to discuss and define indulgences, the early Catholic apologists sought to silence him for fear of revolt! Bagchi concludes it was Luther's opponents that eventually "gave him the idea of a reformation conducted by the laity." "The Catholic fear of insurrection indicated to Luther the vast reservoir of power, and it was through this power that he now saw a way of bringing about that reformation of the church he felt so necessary if God's teachings were to prevail against men's" (pp. 259-260).