This is the fourth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 is one of the most dramatic (and dramatized) events in Reformation church history. Summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther was supposed to repudiate his writings and terminate the Reformation movement once and for all. At his first appearance, Luther fearfully hesitated. He was granted a day’s reprieve. On April 18, he appeared with a fresh measure of boldness. He owned his writings and allowed that in some of them perhaps he had written too rashly. But in other books and pamphlets, he had spoken of faith and piety in such a manner that even his critics had to grant there was some value. Still in other writings, he had critiqued the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Church. If he would recant these, he said, he would “add strength to tyranny.” He insisted that unless he was convinced by Scripture or by plain reason, he would not back down, his conscience being held captive to the Word of God.
It’s the conclusion of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms that bears some extra attention. In most portrayals, literary, cinematic and otherwise, we hear Luther saying something like this: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” But did Luther really say this?
The official transcript of the Diet of Worms would suggest that he did not. This is how the record reads:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
Notice how the ending is quite different from the commonly accepted version. There is no “Here I stand.” Where did the extra words come from?
They appeared in the version Luther’s supporters published shortly thereafter in Wittenberg. This was the version that became embedded in the popular mind. As Lyndal Roper comments in her biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the words “certainly encapsulated the spirit of his appearance” (p.183). But did Luther actually say it? We have no way of knowing for sure. Perhaps eyewitnesses brought this aspect of the account back to Wittenberg, or perhaps Luther himself reported what he said. As for the discrepancy with the official record, Roland Bainton suggests this explanation: “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Here I Stand, p.185). But it could also be that the official record is correct and Luther’s supporters (intentionally or not) embellished his words.
Whether or not Luther said these exact words, it is eminently biblical to take this sort of uncompromising stance when the gospel is at stake. Luther was motivated by a desire to bring the church back to the Scriptures, back to the Christ of the Scriptures. He saw how things had gone off track and how things needed to be reformed. The church had to get back to the gospel — there was no other way. Luther’s position was Pauline. Paul wrote of those who would preach another gospel. Even if it would be angel from heaven, he said that such a one should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9). In Luther’s mind, the Roman Church had been corrupted by the preaching of another gospel. How could he, at the Diet of Worms, then compromise and recant? Would he not then share in Rome’s accursedness? He had no choice but to stand firm.
Luther is a legendary figure in church history and, as with all legendary figures, there are legends surrounding him — some with less truth than others. One thing is certain, however: God worked through him to recover the gospel in a dark era. God gave him the boldness to stand fast on the cardinal truths of Scripture and for this all Protestants ought to be eternally grateful.