The Origin of Protestantism: The Protest of the Princes
If the imperial party displayed such contempt, it was not without a cause. They felt that weakness was on the side of the Reformation, and strength with Charles and the pope. But the weak have also their strength; and of this the evangelical princes were aware. As Ferdinand paid no attention to their complaints, they ought to pay none to his absence, to appeal from the report of the diet to the Word of God, and from the Emperor Charles to Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
They resolved upon this step. A declaration was drawn up to that effect, and this was the famous Protest that henceforward gave the name of Protestant to the renovated Church. The elector and his allies having returned to the common hall of the diet, thus addressed the assembled states:—
“Dear Lords, Cousins, Uncles, and Friends! Having repaired to this diet at the summons of his majesty, and for the common good of the empire and of Christendom, we have heard and learnt that the decision of the last diet concerning our holy Christian faith are to be repealed, and that it is proposed to substitute for them certain restrictive and onerous resolutions.
King Ferdinand and the other imperial commissaries, by affixing their seals to the last Recess of Spires, had promised, however, in the name of the emperor, to carry out sincerely and inviolably all that it contained, and to permit nothing that was contrary to it. In like manner, also, you and we, electors, princes, prelates, lords, and deputies of the empire, bound ourselves to maintain always and with our whole might every article of that decree. We cannot therefore consent to its repeal:— Firstly, because we believe that his imperial majesty (as well as you and we), is called to maintain firmly what has been unanimously and solemnly resolved.
Secondly, because it concerns the glory of God and the salvation of our souls, and that in such matters we ought to have regard, above all, to the commandment of God, who is King of kings and Lord of lords; each of us rendering him account for himself, without caring the least in the world about majority or minority.
“We form no judgment on that which concerns you, most dear lords; and we are content to pray God daily that he will bring us all to unity of faith, in truth, charity, and holiness through Jesus Christ, our throne of grace and our only mediator. But in what concerns ourselves, adhesion to your resolution (and let every honest man be judge!) would be acting against our conscience, condemning a doctrine that we maintain to be christian, and pronouncing that it ought to be abolished in our states, if we could do so without trouble. This would be to deny our Lord Jesus Christ, to reject his holy Word, and thus give him just reason to deny us in turn before his Father, as he had threatened.
“What! we ratify this edict! We assert that when Almighty God calls a man to His knowledge, this man cannot however receive the knowledge of God! Oh! of what deadly backslidings should we not thus become the accomplices, not only among our own subjects, but also among yours!
For this reason we reject the yoke that is imposed on us. And although it is universally known that in our states the holy sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord is becoming administered, we cannot adhere to what the edict proposes against the sacramentarians, seeing that the imperial edict did not speak of them, that they have not been heard, and that we cannot resolve upon such important points before the next council.
Moreover”—and this is the essential part of the protest—“the new edict declaring the ministers shall preach the Gospel, explaining it according to the writings accepted by the holy Christian Church; we think that, for this regulation to have any value, we should first agree on what is meant by the true and holy Church. Now, seeing that there is great diversity of opinion in this respect; that there is no sure doctrine but such as is conformable to the Word of God;
Melancthon had returned to Wittenberg on the 6th of May, persuaded that the two parties were about to draw the sword. His friends were alarmed at seeing him agitated, exhausted, and like one dead. “It is a great event that has just taken place at Spires,” said he; “an event pregnant with dangers, not only to the empire, but to religion itself. All the pains of hell oppress me.”
It was Melancthon’s greatest affliction, that these evils were attributed to him, as indeed he ascribed them himself. “One single thing has injured us,” said he; “our not having approved, as was required of us, the edict against the Zwinglians.” Luther did not take this gloomy view of affairs; but he was far from comprehending the force of the protest. “The diet,” said he, “has come to an end almost without results, except that those who scourge Jesus Christ have not been able to satisfy their fury.”
Posterity has not ratified this decision, and, on the contrary, dating from this epoch the definitive formation of Protestantism, it has hailed in the Protest of Spires one of the greatest movements recorded in history.
Let us see to whom the chief glory of this act belongs. The part taken by the princes, and especially by the Elector of Saxony, in the German Reformation, must strike every impartial observer. These are the true reformers—the true martyrs. The Holy Ghost, that bloweth where it listeth, had inspired them with the courage of the ancient confessors of the Church; and the God of election was glorified in them. Somewhat later, perhaps, this great part played by the princes may have produced deplorable consequences: there is no grace of God that man cannot pervert. But nothing should prevent us from rendering honor to whom honor is due, and from adoring the work of the eternal Spirit in these eminent men who, under God, were in the sixteenth century the liberators of Christendom.
The Reformation had taken a bodily form. It was Luther alone who had said No at the Diet of Worms: but churches and ministers, princes and people, said No at the Diet of Spires.
In no country had superstition, scholasticism, hierarchy, and popery, been so powerful as among the Germanic nations. These simple and candid people had humbly bent their neck to the yoke that came from the banks of the Tiber. But there was in them a depth, a life, a need of interior liberty, which, sanctified by the Word of God, might render them the most energetic organs of christian truth. It was from them that was destined to emanate the reaction against that material, external, and legal system, which had taken the place of Christianity; it was they who were called to shatter in pieces the skeleton which had been substituted for the spirit and the life, and restore to the heart of Christendom, ossified by the hierarchy, the generous beatings of which it had been deprived for so many ages. The universal Church will never forget the debt it owes to the princes of Spires and to Luther.
From History from the Reformation, pp. 523-524