Lutherans mark the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (Mural by Hermann Wislicenus, 1880).

WORLD – April 18, 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s testimony before the Diet of Worms, with Lutherans around the world observing the event in different ways.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (Iglesia Evangelical Luterana Argentina – IELA), for example, held an online conference April 16-18, 2021 to mark the event, featuring three lectures by faculty members of the IELA’s seminary in Buenos Aires. Professor Antonio R. Schimpf spoke on reflection on the Word of God in relation to the anniversary, Professor José A. Pfafenzeller discussed the historical context of the Diet of Worms, and Professor Sergio R. Schelske addressed the event’s continued significance for the church today.

These lectures (in Spanish) are available to watch online at the IELA’s website here.

In the United States, meanwhile, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) officially designated April 18 “Here I Stand Sunday.” The LCMS made a number of materials available to mark the date on its website, including a Bible Study and bulletin insert.

The church also released several videos highlighting the anniversary. LCMS President Matthew Harrison, for example, highlighted how the faith which inspired Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms also led in time to the founding of the LCMS, which will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2022. “It’s quite impossible to imagine the existence of the Missouri Synod or any Lutheran churches in the world without the events of this week 500 years ago,” he explained. “500 years later the church is increasingly called to confess before the world and even political authorities. We stand firm with the confession of Luther. We believe in the Scriptures, and our conscience is bound to those Scriptures, which teach us the free forgiveness of Christ in His cross and resurrection.”

President Harrison also conducted an interview with Rev. Dr. Cameron MacKenzie to discuss the history of Luther’s confession at the Diet of Worms. Dr. MacKenzie is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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Martin Luther at the Imperial Diet at Worms

Luther at the Diet of Worms: Anton von Werner, 1877. (State Gallery in Stuttgart).

500 years ago from April 17-18, 1521, Martin Luther appeared before the imperial assembly in Worms, a major event in the history of the church. Dr. Andrea Grünhagen, in charge of the church and theology division at the Hannover headquarters of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche), explains the significance of this event:

by Andrea Grünhagen 

Dr. Andrea Grünhagen

Luther in Worms! It’s easy to imagine this image in your mind’s eye, the lowly monk standing up to the emperor and the assembled leaders. And in general, the life of the Reformer does seem like a series of impressive scenes, each of which seems to serve as an example to be emulated, depending on one’s personal predilection. In humour, one could observe: some think that Lutherans should be able to sing like Luther; or get married like Luther. Others say we should take a firm stand like Luther, always ready to oppose injustice.

But originally it was not a question of opposition, as if Luther was intent to really give the emperor a piece of his mind. It was the other way around. The young Emperor Charles V had opened the imperial assembly in January of 1521. Various problems were to be dealt with concerning the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. At the outset the dispute about Luther was not on the agenda. Only at the insistence of Luther’s ruler, Frederick the Wise, did this become a topic to be discussed. And Luther thought he’d be given the opportunity to defend himself and his teachings before the assembly. He had been promised safe conduct. But appearing before this august gathering on April 17, the only question to be dealt with was whether he was willing to recant his writings. No discussion. Yes or No.

After a day of consideration he made the famous statement that ended with these words: “If I am not overcome by the witness of Holy Scripture or on the basis of clear reasoning—for I neither believe the pope nor the church councils alone, since it is evident that they have often been shown to be in error and have contradicted themselves—I therefore remain convinced by my quotations from the Scriptures and with my conscience being captive to God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither certain nor salutary to act against your conscience. God help me. Amen.”

That’s what he said. The famous phrase “Here I Stand” is a rather free summary of his remarks. But the point at hand is not why someone might be convinced that he cannot do otherwise; the point is the conscience that is bound by the Word of God! Everyone must for himself hear and follow this admonition not to act against the conscience that is bound by the Word of God—just as Luther had to struggle with this before the emperor and the nation.

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