A Diet of Worms ?

Of all the interesting (and sometimes oddball) things that Lutherans have in their heritage, the Diet of Worms hands-down receives the prize for sounding the yuckiest!   But never fear!  If you participate in a Lutheran pot-luck, you needn’t worry about invertebrates in the hot dish (that’s probably macaroni).

In politics, the word diet refers to a legislative body similar to a parliament.   The Diet of Worms was a special assembly convened by the Emperor Charles V in 1521 in the German city of Worms (pronounced ‘varms’), about 40 miles from Frankfurt.  The purpose of the Diet was to deal with the trouble being caused by Martin Luther, the “upstart” Priest and Doctor of Theology who was challenging the authority of the Pope to dispense salvation as his personal prerogative.  The teaching of the Good News of God’s freely-given grace had been badly corrupted at this time by the teaching that “good works” as prescribed by the church were both necessary and sufficient to earn salvation.  Luther had become particularly incensed when the Pope authorized the selling of indulgences – essentially a “get out of jail free card” that promised forgiveness of sins, past, present, and planned.  That led him to write his famous Ninety Five Theses which protested this and other abuses of Papal power.   Since the Pope was able to excommunicate anyone who displeased him, thus presuming to damn that person or group to eternal hell-fire, he exercised ultimate authority over kings and commoners alike, affecting every area of life.  So when Luther posted his theses on October 31, 1517 (by tradition nailing them to the door of the university church in Wittenberg) he shook the foundation of the entire medieval power structure.

Thanks to the recent invention of the moveable-type printing press, Luther’s theses were quickly published and spread like wildfire, within two weeks throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe, threatening the stability of the entire Holy Roman Empire.  Luther quickly became a celebrity and his subsequent writings fanned the flames of growing discontent against the arbitrary power wielded by the church.  Thus, when Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms to explain and defend his views, everyone knew that the real purpose was to force him to repudiate the reform movement that was forming around him – or else face the same fate as Jan Hus who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his reform attempt.  Luther, who at this point was still hoping to achieve restoration of the pure Gospel in the Catholic Church of which he was part, was ordered to recant his writings and, after sleeping and praying on it for a night, gave this ringing reply:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, … I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me.  Amen.”

The aftermath of the Diet was predictable, the Emperor issuing the Edict of Worms which declared Luther to be a “notorious heretic” whom no one should associate with, and offering a reward for his capture.  This edict served to effect the permanent splitting off of Luther and his followers from the Catholic Church.  The Diet of Worms can thus be understood as the critical moment of the Protestant Reformation, leading to revolutionary changes in not only the Christian church, but also the political, economic, and intellectual life of the entire Western world which have reverberated down to the present.

Fortunately, in recent times there has been considerable healing of hostilities between Lutherans and Catholics, and though there are still significant things that divide us, we today also find much that unites us in our common commitment to our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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