October 10, 2017


Stephen Nichols


The city of Worms, Germany, is known as the site of Martin Luther’s courageous stand against the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman emperor. At the imperial diet on April 17, 1521, Luther was ordered to recant his writings. After asking a day’s leave to pray, he reappeared before the diet and famously responded: “Your serene emperor and you illustrious princes and gracious lords, you demand a clear and direct answer; here it is, plain and unvarnished—I cannot and I will not recant. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

A monument in Worms commemorates that event. Atop the monument is, of course, Luther, towering high above and reminding us of his prominence as the one who started the Protestant Reformation. But there are four figures at the four corners of the monument, and these figures are crucial. They were forerunners to the Reformation.

We start in the back with Peter Waldo. He lived in France in the twelfth century. Waldo wanted the people of France to understand the Word of God, so he took the Latin New Testament and translated it into French. He also did away with the clerical garb. And he also began to challenge the doctrine of justification by works.

We also have Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola was a forerunner to the Reformation in Italy. He, too, stressed the authority of Scripture over against the ecclesiastical hierarchy structure of papal authority, and he, too, was condemned as a heretic.

Next to Savonarola is Jan Hus, the great pre-Reformer from Bohemia, in what is today the Czech Republic. It was Hus who, when he was martyred, said, “You can kill the goose”—the Czech word hus is the word for “goose”—“but a hundred years after me will come a swan and you cannot kill the swan.” It was almost a hundred years to the day after Hus uttered those words that Luther took his Ninety-Five Theses in one hand and a mallet in the other and he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

Before Luther came to Worms in 1521, he had a debate in Leipzig with Johann Eck, the great theologian of the Roman Catholic Church and probably one of the sharpest debaters in all of Germany. As Luther made the case for Scripture’s authority as opposed to that of the pope and the church hierarchy, Eck accused him of being a Hussite, and Luther said, “Yes, I am a Hussite.” And that was all Eck needed. As Hus was condemned as a heretic, so Luther was guilty by association. After the Leipzig Disputation, the pope was able to condemn Luther as a heretic, and that’s why Luther was brought before the Diet of Worms.

There’s one more person at the foundation of this statue and that’s John Wycliffe, known as the Morning Star of the Reformation. Wycliffe is famous for three books. The first is, of course, the Bible, which he translated into English. He also wrote a book that challenged papal authority and another book that challenged the Holy Roman emperor’s authority over the king of England. In the fall of 1520, Luther wrote three treatises, one of which challenged papal authority and one of which challenged the authority of the Holy Roman emperor over Germany—just like Wycliffe’s two books. After Luther was condemned as a heretic at Worms, he went to Wartburg Castle, where he worked over the course of eight months on a translation of the Bible from the Greek into his people’s language, just as Wycliffe did.

And that is the foundation of the Reformation that Luther built on.