Luther’s testimony before the Diet [of Worms, 1521] is an event of world-historical importance and far-reaching effect. It opened an intellectual conflict which is still going on in the civilized world. He stood there as the fearless champion of the supremacy of the word of God over the traditions of men, and of the liberty of conscience over the tyranny of authority.
For this liberty, all Protestant Christians, who enjoy the fruit of his courage, owe him a debt of gratitude. His recantation could not, any more than his martyrdom, have stopped the Reformation; but it would have retarded its progress, and indefinitely prolonged the oppressive rule of popery.
When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death.
At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history. This consideration furnishes the key for the proper appreciation of Luther’s determined stand at this historical crisis.
Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.
This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.
Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four oecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one oecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.
Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.
One man with the truth on his side is stronger than a majority in error, and will conquer in the end. Christ was right against the whole Jewish hierarchy, against Herod and Pilate, who conspired in condemning him to the cross. St. Paul was right against Judaism and heathenism combined, "unus versus mundum;" St. Athanasius, "the father of orthodoxy," was right against dominant Arianism; Galileo Galilei was right against the Inquisition and the common opinion of his age on the motion of the earth; Döllinger was right against the Vatican Council when, "as a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he protested against the new dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.
That Luther was right in refusing to recant, and that he uttered the will of Providence in hearing testimony to the supremacy of the word of God and the freedom of conscience, has been made manifest by the verdict of history.
-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: The German Reformation 1517-1530; Chapter III, Section 56.