Bishop John Fisher
Sermon Against the Pernicious Doctrine of Martin Luther
preached during the octave of Ascension (1521)
“When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send you, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” [John 15:26]. These words are the words of our Savior Christ Jesus in the gospel of John and read in the service of this present Sunday.
Very often, when the day is clear and the sun is shining bright, there rises in some quarter of the heaven a thick black cloud that darkens all the face of the heaven and shadows from us the clear light of the sun and stirs up a hideous tempest and makes great lightning and thunders terribly, so that weak souls and feeble hearts are made very fearful and almost desperate for lack of comfort.
In like manner it is in the church of Christ. When the light of faith, that shines from the spiritual sun, almighty God, has been clear and bright for a good season, there has arisen many a time some black cloud of heresy and stirred such a tempest and made such lightning and so terribly thundered that many a weak soul has come to grief thereby.
Such a cloud was Arius, who stirred up so great a tempest that for many years thereafter it vexed the church of Christ. And after him came many other similar clouds, such as Macedonius, Nestorius, Eutices, Elvidius, Donatus, Jovinian, Pelagius, John Wycliffe, and many more who severely buffeted the church like tempests, every one of them in his own time. Such heretics St. Jude in his letter calls “clouds without water which are blown about by the wind” [Jude 1:12], that is to say clouds without the moisture of grace, which are moved by the blast of wicked spirits.
And now such another cloud is raised aloft, one Martin Luther, a friar, who has stirred up a mighty storm and tempest in the church and has thrown a shadow over the clear light of many Scriptures of God. And he makes issue from him a perilous lightning, that is to say, a false light of wrong understanding of Scripture which does not come from the Spirit of truth but from the spirit of error and from the spirit of this tempest of this most perilous heresy. Furthermore he terribly thunders against the pope’s authority, against the general councils, against the traditions and ordinances left to us by the apostles, against the doctrine of the fathers and doctors of the church.
Our Savior Christ, therefore, foreseeing by his divine providence that many such pestilent clouds and tempests would arise to the great trouble and vexation of his church, out of the tender love and infinite charity which he bears for our mother, Holy Church, promised that after he had ascended to his Father he would send to her the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth, who would abide with her forever. He would assure her from time to time of every truth to which she and every child of hers, that is to say every true Christian, should give assured faith. Finally, he would be for her in all such storms a true comforter, according to the beginning of this gospel recounted above: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send you, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” This holy gospel graciously offers to us four excellent instructions against these dangerous tempests of heresies, whenever they happen to arise, but especially against this most pernicious tempest that Martin Luther has now stirred up.
The first three instructions, with God’s permission and the help of this Holy Spirit, shall undermine three great grounds upon which Martin founds his articles. The fourth shall answer to the defense that is made for him by his adherents, by which many a weak soul is in peril.
But before we begin the exposition of these instructions, we will make our prayer to this Holy Spirit of truth that, in this dangerous storm and perilous tempest, he will make our hearts firm with the testimony of his truth, so that we do not flounder in the Catholic doctrine of our mother, Holy Church, but firmly believe such teachings as have been handed down to us from our Savior Christ Jesus by his apostles and their successors, the holy bishops and fathers and doctors of the church. For this purpose and for the grace necessary for you and for me, every person should pray.
The first instruction is offered to us by these first words of the gospel: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send you, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father.” In these words we are promised the Spirit of truth to be our comfort in all doubtful opinions that may arise in Christ’s church.
With regard to this instruction, I wish to do three things. First I want to show that the instructions of this holy gospel pertain to the universal church of Christ. Secondly, that the head of the universal church, by divine right, is the pope. Thirdly, that Martin Luther, who is separating himself from this head, does not have in himself the Spirit of truth.
Concerning the first point, Martin Luther cannot deny that this promise is made to the universal church, and we shall hold him to this by his own reasoning. He says in the book “On the Babylonian Captivity”: “If we assert that any letter of Paul or any place of any letter does not pertain to the universal church, we take away all Paul’s authority.”
Now if this is true of the words of St. Paul, it is much more true of the gospels of Christ and of every place written in the same gospels. In the universal church, then, this Holy Spirit of truth dwells and will continue until the world’s end. He will abide in the universal church forever and will, in every doubt, teach us the truth.
Now for the second point, in which I said that the pope, by divine right, is the head of the universal church of Christ. When you see a tree standing upright upon the ground and its branches spread abroad, full of leaves and fruit, if the sun is shining brightly, this tree makes a shadow. By this shadow you may perceive a figure of the branches, of the leaves, and of the fruit. Every thing that is in the tree has something that corresponds to it in the shadow. And the reverse is true: every part of the shadow has something corresponding to it in the tree. A person’s eye may move from every part of the tree to every part of the shadow or from every part of the shadow to every part of the tree that corresponds to it. Every person may point to any particular part of the shadow and say that this is the shadow of such a branch, and this is the shadow of such a leaf, and this is the shadow of the trunk of the tree, and this is the shadow of the top of the tree.
And so it is that the Law of Moses and the governance of the synagogue of the Jews was only a shadow of the governance of the universal church of Christ. That is what St. Paul says: “The Law had a shadow of the good things to come” [Heb 10:1]. And to the Corinthians, he writes: “Everything happened to them as a figure” [1Cor 10:11].
Now then, to my purpose. In the governance, two heads were appointed, one under the other, Moses and Aaron, to lead that people through the desert to the country that was promised to them. We know that that people of the Jews was a shadow of the Christian people, and that their journey through the desert toward the country promised to them was a shadow of our journey through this wretched world to the country of heaven. But Moses and Aaron, who were the heads of that people, what are they a shadow of? Doubtless, they must be the shadow of Christ and of his vicar, St. Peter, who under Christ was also the head of the Christian people.
[Bishop Fisher digresses from his instruction to explain how Moses and Aaron both acted as mediators between God and the people. He backs up his interpretation of the Scripture by citing St. Augustine.] And here I am citing only one doctor, whose testimony in the scales of any true Christian’s heart I think should tip the balance against Martin Luther. [Fisher then cites St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, St. Jerome, and St. Cyprian to show that St. Peter is head of the apostles.]
All these are of the Latin church, holy fathers, all men of great learning, all men of singular holiness, whose virtuous lives are confirmed by miracles done both during their lifetimes and after their deaths. We may also turn to the Greek church. [Fisher cites St. John Chrysostom and Origen.]
For what possible reason could all these many testimonies, both Greeks and Latins, not outweigh one friar? I trust there is no true Christian who will not be moved by the testimony of all these, especially since they are grounded on so clear and evident a figure of the old Law and on so clear a light of the holy gospels. . ..
But now let us return to our instruction. Thus you understand that, in the universal church of Christ, the Spirit of truth remains forever and that the head of this church, the pope, is under Christ. In conclusion, it is evident that the Spirit of Christ is not in Martin Luther. The spirit of every natural body does not give life beyond the members and parts of the same body which is naturally joined to the head. And so likewise must it be in the mystical body of our mother, Holy Church. For since this wretched man has separated himself from the head of this body, namely the vicar of Christ, how can he have in him the Spirit of this body which is the Spirit of truth, especially since he has separated himself with such pride, arrogance and presumption, which is most hateful to this Holy Spirit, and so pitilessly, so presumptuously, so maliciously despised, rejected and torn to shreds the head of Christ’s church, to whom, as to his chief spiritual father, because he is a religious, he has vowed and promised obedience? How can this man have in him the Spirit of God, this Holy Spirit of truth?
“He will bear witness about me” [John 15:26]. What marvelous power, what wonderful energy is in the beams of the sun which, as we see this time of year, spread over the ground and quicken and bring to life many creatures which before appeared to be dead. Whoever saw in winter the trees when they were withered and their leaves shaken from them and all the moisture shrunk into the root and no beauty of greenness or of life appeared outwardly–if he had had no experience of this matter before, he would think it unlikely that the same trees should revive again and be so beautifully clad with leaves and flowers, as we now see them. And yet this is done by the subtle energy and secret working of the sun’s beams spread over the ground.
Nevertheless not every beam of the sun has this power. It is true that the beams of the sun in winter are as bright as they are during this time of year, but that light is so faint and feeble that it gives no life. Otherwise we would have grass and trees growing as well in winter as they do this time of year. The cause of this weakness is that the sun courses so low to the ground that its beams slant over the ground and do not rebound nor double back upon themselves again toward the sun. And this is the cause of this weakness. You see that when a ball is thrown at a slant against a wall, it flies forward and does not rebound backward directly again to the thrower. But when it is thrown directly against a wall with great force, then it directly rebounds again. It is the same with the sun’s beams: the closer the sun draws to us now during this time of year, the more directly its beams beat upon the ground and the more directly they rebound and return again toward the sun. And because of the nearness of beam to beam, a greater strength arises in the beam and a fuller light, because every power that is gathered together is stronger.
A single thread is not nearly as strong as a double, nor is a single beam of the sun nearly as mighty as when it is doubled back upon itself by rebounding and reflection. Furthermore, from these two [i.e. the beam from the sun and its reflection] arises a heat and warmth which is the principal worker of life in every creature. Yet we are not sure that any tree is alive until we see it putting forth buds or leaves.
This example, if you perceive it, may lead us to conceive how wonderfully the spiritual sun, almighty God, works by the spiritual and invisible beams of his light spread over the soul of a human being or over the church, both of which are called in Scripture a spiritual earth. “The Lord will give his graciousness, and our earth will yield its fruit” [Ps 84:13]. The beams of almighty God, spread over our souls, quicken them and cause this life in us and the fruit of good works. First they cause the light of faith, but this is a very thin light without the rebounding of hope and the heat of charity. Faith without hope is a thin beam with little power. But join to it hope which rebounds up to God again “to what is not seen” [2Cor 4:18], then it is much stronger than it was before. For now this is doubled back upon itself and gathered more closely into itself and made stronger and mightier than it was before. Before it was like the faith that St. Peter had when Christ bade him come to him upon the water. He believed his Maker, but he had no truly firm hope that he might walk there. He was not strong in his faith, and therefore our Savior said to him: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” [Matt 14:31]. But about the strong faith that has confidence and hope joined to it he says elsewhere: “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mountain, Go from here, and it would go” [Matt 17:19]. A mustard seed is very small, but it has a great power compact and guarded within it.
So when the beams of faith and hope are joined together in one point, then it has great power. The beams of the sun, when by reflection of a magnifying glass, are gathered together, they are so strong that they will set tinder or cloth on fire. And that is the way it is when the beams of faith and hope are compactly joined and united together. If a person had such a faith and confidence, then he might command a great mountain to move. Nevertheless, if a person had such a faith, yet did not have the heat of charity, he would be just a dead tree. For St. Paul says: “If I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have charity, I am nothing” [1Cor 13:2]. And therefore St. James says: “Faith without works is dead” [James 2:26].
For this reason, our instruction says: “He will bear witness about me.” Of whom? Of Christ. What is Christ? “The true light which enlightens every human being coming into the world” [John 1:9]. Who will bear witness or give evidence about this light? The Spirit of God: “Because the charity of God is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” [Rom 5:5]. The heat of charity gives evidence that the light is alive. No matter how much light a person has, unless he also has this heat of charity stirring his soul and bringing forth works that are alive, he is only a dead stick and like a tree without life. For as I said, no matter how brightly the natural sun shines upon a tree, if that tree has no greenness in it and does not put forth buds and leaves, that tree is not alive. So when the beams of the spiritual sun are spread over our souls, if we do not feel the heat stirring us to fruitful works, our souls are dead.
But now, what purpose does this instruction serve? It undermines one great ground of Martin Luther, which is that faith alone without works justifies a sinner. Upon this ground he builds many other erroneous articles, especially that the sacraments of Christ’s church do not justify; only faith does. This is a dangerous article, which can undermine the whole order of the church.
[Bishop Fisher refers his hearers to King Henry VIII’s work which rebuts Luther’s teaching on the sacraments.]
To support this ground, Luther cites St. Paul in various places saying that a person is justified by his faith without works. Nevertheless St. Augustine says that St. Paul’s words were misunderstood in the beginning of the church; that is why, as he says, the other apostles in their letters emphasized the contrary position. But some people here think that Martin Luther has little regard for St. Augustine. And that is true, yet it is foul presumption. Let him at least believe the other apostles whom without manifest heresy he cannot deny. St. James says: “By deeds a person is justified and not by faith alone” [James 2:24]. St. James not only says this but proves it in various ways. One is this: “The demons believe and tremble” [James 2:19]. No one may say that the demons are justified by their faith. How many people there are who live in horrible sin but who have the faith of Christ Jesus and would rather die than renounce their faith. Despite that, they will not be justified. But if faith alone justified both, then they and the demons would be justified.
The same example that St. Paul uses for the Romans to prove that faith justifies a sinner without works is used by St. James to the contrary. I am referring to the example of Abraham which appears in the same place [in James’ letter]. But you will say: Sir, are these apostles contrary to each other? To this, St. Augustine says: No, not at all. St. James is contradicting only what might be misconstrued and misinterpreted in St. Paul. For St. Paul means the works that come before faith, and St. James means the works that follow after faith. St. Paul means that the work of circumcision or other works of the Law did not have to go before Abraham’s faith in order that he be justified; his faith without works justified him. St. James means the fruitful works that follow after faith and which give evidence of a living faith. These works justify a person, and he says if Abraham had not had these, he would not have been justified. If Abraham had not been ready to offer up his son Isaac at God’s command, he would not have been justified. But because he was ready, he says: “Abraham was justified by works” [James 2:21].
Hence, St. James is not speaking against St. Paul but against the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of him. About this misinterpretation, St. Peter also speaks in his letter, saying: “In the letters of our dear brother Paul are some matters which are difficult to understand and which ignorant and unstable people twist, just as they do the other Scriptures, to their own ruin” [2Peter 3:16]. Thus you may see that various other people have misinterpreted St. Paul before this, as now Martin Luther does, to his own peril and damnation.
But on this point I marvel greatly about Martin Luther, especially that he says that in all Scripture there is no more testimony against him but this one place of St. James. Doubtless many more may be cited. First, our Savior in the gospel of Luke says: “Give alms and everything will be clean for you” [Luke 11:41]. What is this cleanness but the justifying of our souls which is promised for the work of almsgiving? No matter how much I believe, if I do not relieve the poor in their need, I will not attain this cleanness.
Furthermore in the gospel of Matthew it say: “If you forgive people their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive people their offenses, your Father will not forgive you yours” [Matt 6:14]. Beyond this, he says in the same gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father” [Matt 7:21]. Besides these, it says in the same gospel: “Unless your justice is more abundant than that of the scribes and pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matt 5:20]. In addition, he says: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a stupid man who built a house on sand” [Matt 7:26]. And St. Paul also says: “It is not hearers of the law but doers who will be justified” [Rom 2:13]. And St. James says: “Be doers of the word and not only hearers who deceive yourselves” [James 1:22]. And St. Paul says again: “If you live according to the flesh, you will die. If, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live” [Rom 8:13]. And finally, St. Paul sums up his own case and says: “Faith which works through love” [Gal 5:6]. In accordance with this, St. James says: “You see that faith was at work in all his works; his faith was made perfect by his works” [James 2:22].
By all these testimonies, you may plainly see that not only faith by itself does not suffice, but love too and works are required for our souls to be justified.
Concerning the third instruction, it follows in the gospel: “You will bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning” [John 15:27]. To whom will they bear witness but to the universal church of Christ? Their witness, then, must be allowed of every true Christian.
Concerning these words and the others repeated above, it shall become clear that more testimony than only what is written in the Bible must be admitted in order that authority be sufficient. If we may establish this one thing, it will cast down a great number of Martin Luther’s articles.
But for this we must consider the three Persons of whom this gospel has made mention. Though all their works be undivided and be not severed from one another and are joined to one another, yet Scripture assigns three different times to these three Persons, in which they have instructed human beings about the truth which must be believed. First, almighty God the Father instructed our elders by his prophets, as St. Paul says: “In many and various ways God once spoke to our forebears by the prophets” [Heb 1:1]. St. Paul means here by “our forebears” the Jews, from whom we are spiritually descended. For Abraham who was their carnal father is also our spiritual father. Now almighty God the Father taught them by his prophets. Even though their prophesies were written in Scripture, yet there were many more things which they spoke which were not written down and which were of as great authority as what was written. The Jewish master calls these matters “cabala,” which is handed down from person to person by mouth only and not by writing.
After this, the second Person, the Son of God, our Savior Christ Jesus, was sent by his Father into this world to instruct human beings both by himself and by his apostles who were with him (as the gospel says here) from the beginning. These blessed apostles left to us also many things by word of mouth which are not written in the Bible. St. Paul, who came after them and was not present when Christ said these words to them, makes this clear in the second letter to the Thessalonians: “Stand fast and hold onto the traditions which you have learned, either through word of mouth or through a letter of ours” [2Thes 2:15]. If St. Paul (who came after the other apostles to whom Christ spoke these words) wants to have his traditions observed and kept, both those which he told them by word of mouth as well as those which he wrote with his pen, why shall not likewise the traditions of all the other apostles be of similar strength to bring about faith and to bear witness to the truth?
Here you may see by the explicit writing of St. Paul that we are bound to believe many more things than are written and put in the Bible. [Bishop Fisher then quotes the church father, Origen, who says that certain prayer postures and gestures, certain sacramental rites and formulae were handed down by “the great pontiff Christ and by his children, the apostles.”]
Thirdly, the third Person in the Trinity, that is to say the Holy Spirit of truth, was sent from the other Two to abide with us forever. He was sent to be like a comforter continually in Christ’s church when the storms and tempests of heresies arise, and against all wavering doubtfulness he was sent to teach us the certain truth in which we should dwell. After the apostles departed from us, the Holy Spirit did and does remain and will remain with us unto the world’s end. By whom, I ask you, does he speak to us? By whom does he teach us any truth? By whom else than by the fathers and doctors of the church; by their mouths this Holy Spirit teaches us every truth: “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you” [Matt 10:20]. When St. Basil was baptized, a wonderful light was seen around him which doubtless was a sensible token of the Holy Spirit. And likewise St. Ambrose, while he was interpreting the 43rd psalm, a light was seen above his head that looked like a shield which, little by little, entered into his mouth as a token of the Spirit of God. Hence it is not to be doubted that in such holy bishops and doctors of the church the Holy Spirit speaks.
But this is even more true of councils, when many of them were assembled together. For whenever the storms and tempests of heresies arose, they were at length suppressed and convicted by this Holy Spirit speaking in the mouths of the fathers and doctors of the church, sometimes by general councils and assemblies of many bishops together.
In the council of Nicea were 309 bishops in whom the Holy Spirit spoke to confute a heresy that had been troubling the church. After that, in the council of Constantinople were assembled 150 bishops, and in them the Holy Spirit spoke to destroy another heresy that had arisen in the church. In the council held in Ephesus were assembled 300 bishops in whom the Holy Spirit spoke to confound another heresy that had arisen. And so continually from time to time, whenever these clouds arose and made great tempests and began to flash lightning and show a false light of misinterpretation of the Scriptures, this Holy Spirit was ready by these fathers to inform the universal church about the certain truth.
See then, I say, what we have to confirm those things that are taught us by the church. First, the prophets who were instructed by almighty God the Father, and also their cabala, that is to say, their secret teachings not written in the Bible. Secondly, the apostles, who were instructed by our Savior Christ Jesus, and also their traditions not written in the Bible. Thirdly, the holy fathers and doctors of the church, who were informed by the Holy Spirit of truth, in their expositions of Scripture as well as by their general assemblies and councils held up to now.
If there were a fourth person in this Trinity or another Spirit to be sent to us from almighty God, we might yet be in some doubt whether Martin Luther had met with this Spirit along the road and taken him away from us. But we are assured that there are no more than three Persons in the Godhead of whom this gospel makes mention, and that every one of them has done his best to instruct us about the truth. And furthermore, there is no other Holy Spirit except the Spirit of truth who will abide with us forever and make us certain about every truth.
We may be sure that Martin Luther does not have this Spirit, since he teaches us against the truth that has been taught us by this Spirit. For he cuts away the traditions of the apostles and refuses the general councils and condemns the doctrine of the holy fathers and doctors of the church and labors to subvert all the ordinances of the church, namely the seven sacraments, and takes away the freedom of human will and affirms that everything happens by necessity, contrary to all the doctrine of Christ’s church.
We may be sure, therefore, that he has some other wretched spirit, some spirit of error and not the Spirit of truth. St. Paul says: “In the last times some people will depart from the faith and pay attention to spirits of error and to the doctrines of demons” [1Tim 4:1]. Note this word, “depart,” for St. Paul says in another place: “The departure will come first” [2Thes 2:3], that is to say, before the coming of the Antichrist there will be a conspicuous departing from the faith of the church. And it is not unlikely to be caused at this very time by this most dangerous heretic.
Here Martin Luther, because of his shrewd brain, will say some distorted thing against us. He will say that the councils sometimes err and that the doctors very often disagree. And since they err and disagree at one time or in one place, so may they do in another, and therefore he says he is bound to believe none of them at all. To this may be answered that this is not a compelling argument, as we shall see.
The prophets, when left to themselves, deviated from the truth, “for the spirit of prophesy does not always illumine the minds of the prophets.” Take the example of King David who intended to build the temple to almighty God. He asked the advice of the prophet Nathan, whether he should carry out his intent or not. And the prophet Nathan told him to go ahead with it and to do all that he intended in his heart. Yet Nathan was deceived; it was not as he had said. Shall we now, because of this mistake, trust no other thing that this prophet Nathan said before this? God forbid! Likewise of the apostles: St. Peter, when he said to Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matt 16:16], spoke this by revelation. Here our Savior praised him and said: “Blessed are you Peter, son of Jona” [Matt 16:17]. But a little while later he tried to deter our Savior from undergoing his passion and said: “Far be it from you, Lord” [Matt 16:22], and in this he spoke wrongly. Shall we now, because he spoke wrongly this second time, not believe his first statement? That would not be reasonable.
Almighty God allowed the prophets and the apostles to err sometimes so that we might know that they were only human beings. When they spoke the truth, we should know that they had it from God, and when they spoke otherwise than truthfully, that it was coming from themselves. And so likewise I say about the doctors: though they sometimes erred, so that we might know that they were only human beings and that then they were left to themselves, we shall not therefore deny them generally. And the councils also, though some one of the latest councils which perhaps was not assembled in that gentleness and charity which was expedient, and though one of them (something which I will not affirm) was permitted in some article to be mistaken, should we therefore damn all the rest? That would not be reasonable.
The fourth and the final instruction takes away the defense that may be laid for Martin Luther by his adherents, which defense also may soon overthrow weak souls when they hear it. Their defense is made up of three points.
First they say that Martin Luther is a man deeply learned in the Scriptures, grounding all his opinions upon them, and that he is a man of religious life and someone who, because of his learning and virtue, has many adherents.
Secondly they say that he has a mind fixed in God and is kept by no one’s authority from speaking the truth. So much so that he has excommunicated the pope, because he thinks in his own conscience that those who do not follow his doctrine do not belong to the Catholic Church.
Thirdly, he has a marvelously fervent zeal for God, because of which he labors to convert all the world to his opinion, thinking assuredly that he renders God a special sacrifice and pleasure thereby.
When a weak soul hears this, he or she is immediately in danger of putting faith in it and of mistrusting the doctrine of the church. For who may not think that such a man is on the right path? But the rest of the Gospel that follows answers clearly: “These things I have told you beforehand, so that you may not quail in your faith, for they will put you out of their synagogues, and the time will come that everyone who murders you will think that he is doing great service to God thereby” [John 16:1-2]. Some people may teach that these words pertain only to the time of the Jews, who expelled the apostles out of their synagogues, or to the time of the tyrants, who slew many Christian people in the beginning of the church. But if that were true, then these words would be no general instruction for the universal church, something which we concluded against Luther at the beginning of our sermon.
Wherefore these words pertain much more to the time of the heretics. First because this persecution continued longer than the other two, since the persecution by the Jews was soon at an end, and the persecutions by the tyrants ran its course in a season. But the heretics have persecuted the church since Christ’s ascension and will do so until the coming of the Antichrist. Furthermore, the persecution by the heretics is and was much more perilous. The Jews and the tyrants were manifest enemies of Christ and abhorred his Scriptures, but these heretics pretend a special favor toward Christ and color all their heresies with his Scriptures. The Jews and the tyrants slew the bodies of Christians, yet they sent these Christians’ souls to everlasting glory. But the heretics, by misconstruing the Scriptures of God by their false doctrine and erroneous opinions and pestilential heresies, slay the souls of Christian people and send them to everlasting damnation. Wherefore these words must be understood of the persecution that was made by the heretics.
Now then, O Christian, when you hear that Martin Luther is a man of great learning and is expert in the Scriptures and has a reputation for virtuous living and has many great adherents, think that there have been many such people before him in the church of Christ who by their learning and misinterpretation of the Scriptures have caused great tempests in the church before this time.
How did one great heretic, Arius, tempt the church of Christ with his heresy! How many souls did he murder! Was he not a man of great learning, of singular eloquence, of virtuous life in outward appearance? Were not all his opinions grounded upon Scripture? Did he not in this way deceive many a soul? St. Jerome says: “Arius was a spark in Alexandria, but because it was not quickly extinguished, its flame raged through the whole world.” For a long time it vexed the church of Christ and overthrew innumerable souls until finally, by the Holy Spirit of truth, which is the comforter of Christ’s church speaking in the mouths of the fathers and doctors of the church, this heresy was convicted and plainly put aside. [Bishop Fisher then recalls other heresies, which had buffeted the church.]
And every one of these heretics grounded his heresy upon Scripture. And many of them were men of keen intelligence and deep learning, of mighty reason and of pretended virtue; they knew just how to twist and distort the Scriptures to make them support their erroneous opinions. Finally their life, learning, and treatment of the Scriptures were such that they had many great adherents and supporters, among the bishops as well as the emperors, and among other Christian princes too, whom they led astray.
Therefore it was necessary that our Savior Christ Jesus, because of his great, inestimable goodness and because of the tender love that he has for his church, should leave instruction and warning to all Christian people and to his universal church about this persecution. That is what he did when he said: “These things I have told you beforehand, so that you may not quail in your faith.” What has he told us beforehand? This: that the Spirit of truth will remain in the church forever and that in all such storms and tempests he will be a comforter for us.
O Christians, hear this gracious warning of our Savior Christ. Mark well what he says: I have warned you about these things beforehand, so that when they happen, you will not be overthrown in your souls. It is as though he said: When you see the storms arise, when you behold the thick black clouds overhead that darken the whole face of heaven and shadow over the clear light of the sun and show a false glittering light that issues out of the cloud, from the spirit of the tempest, and when you hear the terrible threats of their thundering, then be confident in your faith; believe as does your mother, Holy Church, with a living faith, and put your trust in the Spirit of truth who will be your comforter until the world’s end.
Secondly, when you, O Christian, hear that Martin Luther has a mind fixed on God and is kept by no one’s authority from speaking the truth and thinks that all those who do not follow his doctrine are separated from the Catholic Church, so much so that he has excommunicated the pope–what astounding presumption! what intolerable madness!–then know this for certain, that all the other heretics did the same thing. They thought that they and their adherents were the only ones who belonged to the Catholic Church, and they thought that all others who did not follow their opinions were separated from the church. [Fisher gives other examples.]
Nevertheless the church of Christ is but one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. This church is one, having one head, the pope, who is the Vicar of Christ, because of whom it is called “one.” And even though there be many sinners in this church, yet because of the holy sacraments that renew and repair sinners daily, and because of the Holy Spirit, who continually remains in it, it is called “holy.” And because it is not limited to any one nation but is common to all nations, it is called “catholic,” that is to say universal. And finally, because it is derived from the apostles, and especially from the prince of the apostles, Saint Peter, it is called “apostolic.”
Only this church is the spouse of Christ; all other things that resemble it that are not of this church are synagogues of Satan and councils of the devil. And therefore Christians should not be surprised that they excommunicate and separate true Christians from their synagogues. For our Savior has given us warning of it beforehand, as it says next in the Gospel: “They will excommunicate you from their synagogues” [John 16:2].
Thirdly, O Christian, when you hear that Martin Luther has so great a zeal for God and thinks in his conscience that he is bound to do what he does and thinks that in so doing he is pleasing God and is doing a special service to God and that he is recommitting to almighty God all the souls, which by his false doctrine he is slaying and murdering–yet nevertheless be strong in your faith and see that in this point our Savior has also warned the church, saying: “But the time is coming when everyone who kills you will think that he is offering service to God” [John 16:2].
[Fisher recounts how the Arians and Donatists killed not only souls but also bodies.] Did not the disciples of Wycliffe do the same, even though for fear of the temporal laws they did not dare to slay anyone? Yet they introduced a bill of articles to the temporal lords in the parliament, urging them to slay their adversaries who resisted them. And what do you suppose Martin Luther and his adherents would do if he had his Holiness, the pope, and his supporters, whom he so often in derision called papistas papastros and papanos and papenses? I fear that he would treat them with no more courtesy than he did their books, that is to say, their decretals which he burned. And so likewise, I fear that he would burn them or any other Christian whom he thought might prevent his opinions from going forward. And yet in so doing he would think that he was doing a great service for God.
Thus may you see that these heretics, even though they were expert in the Scriptures and were people of keen intelligence and profound reason, and also had pretence of virtuous life and had great zeal, thinking in their conscience that they were bound to do as much as they did, yet they were deceived, and they were convicted of erroneous opinions by the holy councils and the fathers of the church.
And why may not likewise Martin Luther be deceived, as they all were before him, especially since he lacks the Spirit of truth, which they all lacked? For if they had the Spirit of truth, they would not have erred in misinterpreting the Scriptures. I attest that they were expert in the Scriptures and could turn the Scriptures around marvelously to suit their purpose and frame them cursedly to their opinions. But for lack of the Spirit of truth, they misconstrued these Scriptures. As St. Peter says, they perverted, or as St. Paul says, inverted, that is, turned the Scriptures wrong side out, following their own brain and imagination, led by the spirit of error and ignorance, as it says next: “They will do all these things to you because they have not known either the Father or me” [John 16:3]. If they had had the Spirit of truth, this Spirit would have led them to the true knowledge of the Father and of the Son, that is to say, to the true knowledge of the prophets by whom almighty God the Father spoke, and to the true knowledge also of the apostles, by whom the Son, our Savior Christ Jesus, spoke. But because they did not have this Spirit of truth which was sent from the Father and from the Son, they were ignorant of them both, and by that ignorance they fell into these errors. And so likewise has Martin Luther now done.
Now then, here I make an end. I have reminded you, as I promised, of four instructions that are offered to us in this gospel. The first instruction showed that the Holy Spirit, who is the third Person in the divinity, was sent from the Father almighty God and from his Son, our Savior Christ Jesus, to be the Spirit of truth, residing forever in the church of Christ, and to be as a comforter from time to time against all storms and tempests of heresies, making us certain, in time of doubt, about the truth to which we are to hold fast.
By this instruction, I showed three things. First, that this instruction and the whole Gospel pertains to the universal church of Christ, something I proved by Luther’s own words. Second, that the head of this universal church is the pope under Christ, which one point takes away one great basis of Martin Luther and shakes severely many of his erroneous articles. Third, that Martin Luther, by separating himself from the head of this body, cannot have in him this Spirit of truth.
In the second instruction, I showed that the heat of charity spread in our hearts by the Holy Spirit of God gives evidence of the lively light of faith shining upon our souls from our Savior Christ. By this instruction, another great ground of Martin Luther was undermined, namely that only faith justifies a sinner, without works.
In the third instruction I showed that the teachings left to the church by the holy apostles transmit to us testimony of the faith of Christ and what things we are to believe in his church. This instruction also dissolved another ground of Martin Luther, who admits of no other testimony than what is written in Scripture. Against him, I proved that he must receive, besides the written Scriptures, also the unwritten traditions of the apostles, in addition the general councils, in which the Holy Spirit spoke, and the interpretations of Scripture made by the holy bishops and doctors of the church, by whose mouths the third Person in the Godhead, the Spirit of truth, spoke and speaks, informing the church for this time as did the Father almighty God by his prophets before and as did the Son, the second Person, by his apostles.
In the fourth instruction I showed you that the defense which is made for Martin Luther by his adherents, whereby many weak souls are overthrown, is clearly taken away by the most loving and most gracious forewarning of our Savior Christ, as you have heard at the end of the gospel. And yet again, in his most excellent charity, he warns all his Christian people, saying and repeating: “These things I have told you, so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you them” [John 16:4]. Anyone who is thus often warned and yet gives faith to Martin Luther or any other such heretic rather than to Christ Jesus and to the Spirit of truth who stays with the church of Christ unto the world’s end, with the special purpose of informing us of the truth, such a person goes far off the straight way and will surely never enter into the port of everlasting rest, which we all desire and long to come into. To this port may he bring us, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, God, for ever and ever. Amen.