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Johann Eck

Theologian and principal adversary of Luther, b. Nov. 15, 1486, d. Feb. 10, 1543

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Eck (Ecklus), JOHANN, theologian and principal adversary of Luther, b. November 15, 1486, at Eck in Swabia; d. February 10, 1543, at Ingolstadt. His family name was Maier, and his father, Michael Maier, was for many years magistrate in the town, the latinized name of which, Eckius or Eccius, was adopted after 1505 by Johann. His uncle, Martin Maier, pastor at Rothenberg on the Neckar, received Johann in his house (1495) and educated him. In 1498, when twelve years old, he was admitted to the Heidelberg University; thence he went in 1499 to Tubingen where he received the degree of Master of Arts in 1501; then to Cologne and in 1502 to Freiburg in the Breisgau. After his graduation in the faculty of arts he began the study of philosophy and theology, took courses at the same time in jurisprudence, physics, mathematics, and geography, joined the Humanistic movement, and in addition to Latin, learned Hebrew and Greek. Among his instructors at the university were many distinguished scholars. His uncle now withdrew his allowance and Eck was obliged to earn his livelihood as a tutor while continuing his studies. In 1505 he was appointed rector of the Artistenburse zum Pfau, i.e. principal of the hall for students in arts at Freiburg, and received the degree of Bachelor of Theology; he lectured on the “Sentences” in 1506; was promoted to the licentiate in 1509; and in 1510, when twenty-four years old, he received the degree of Doctor of Theology. He had been ordained to the priesthood in 1508 with a papal dispensation from the age-requirement. Shortly after graduating as doctor, he was invited (1510) by the Dukes of Bavaria to the professorship of theology in Ingolstadt. He was appointed pro-chancellor of the university in 1512, and during his professorate of thirty-two years filled repeatedly the offices of dean, pro-rector, and rector; he also served as pastor and was appointed canon in Eichstätt. At Freiburg and during his earlier years at Ingolstadt, his literary activity was remarkable, not only in theology but also in other departments of science, as is evidenced by his writings which have been preserved partly in print and partly in MS. He engaged in geographical research and published a series of philosophical works, some of which were to serve as textbooks in the faculty of arts at Ingolstadt. In these writings he attempts to combine in a rational synthesis the advantages of the older philosophy with those of the new. His principal theological work during this period, entitled “Chrysopassus”, treats of predestination with special reference to the dogmas of grace and free will which were so soon to become, in consequence of Luther’s outbreak, the center of sharp discussion. The tenor of this treatise, written when its author was only twenty-eight years old, evinces both confidence and modesty.

Luther’s appearance, and especially the Disputation at Leipzig (1519), formed the turning-point in Eck’s intellectual development and in his activity as a theologian. Thenceforth he is a prominent figure in the history of that period. With a clear insight into the meaning of Lutheranism, he was the first to champion the cause of Catholic teaching against Protestant error; and he became Luther’s ablest opponent, skillful, untiring, and thoroughly equipped in theology. The rest of his life was spent in conflict with the Reformers in Germany and Switzerland. He defended the Catholic Church, its doctrines and its institutions, in his writings, in public debates, in his speeches at the diets, and in his diplomatic missions. For the betterment of ecclesiastical life and the spread of genuine reform he labored earnestly by preaching to the people and by insisting on the scientific education of the clergy. As a reply to Luther’s “theses” he wrote his “Obelisci”, originally intended solely for the Bishop of Eichstätt. Both Luther and Karlstadt answered bitterly and then it was agreed to submit the points at issue to the test of a public debate, which was held in Leipzig, June 27-July 15, 1519. Eck came off victorious, exposed Luther’s heresy, and won over as a loyal adherent to the Catholic standard, George, Duke of Saxony. During the same year he published several essays attacking the tenets of Luther, and grew steadily in prominence as an authority on theological questions. In 1520 he visited Rome to report on the condition of affairs in Germany and to secure the condemnation of Luther’s heresy. He submitted his essay on the Primacy of Peter to Leo X, was appointed prothonotary Apostolic, and was charged as papal legate, along with the two other legates, Aleander and Caracciolo, to carry out in Germany the provisions of the Bull “Exsurge Domine”, hich excommunicated Luther and condemned his 41 theses. The execution of this mandate was beset with difficulties on every side. Eck, through his “Epistola ad Carolum V” (1521), admonished Emperor Charles to enforce the papal Bann. In the same year he went to Rome again, principally at the behest of the Bavarian dukes for whom he acted as counsellor in ecclesiastical affairs, and made a third visit to Rome in 1523. Meanwhile (1522) he had induced the Bavarian duke to publish an edict in defense of the Catholic Faith. While in Rome he procured for the dukes, among other privileges, the power of enacting, independently of the bishops, decrees for the moral reformation of the clergy; and furthermore the right to appropriate, for use against heretics and Turks, a fifth part of all church revenues.

Eck in the meantime combated Lutheranism by his letters and essays. Between the years 1522 and 1526 he published eight voluminous treatises against Luther. Through his influence the University of Ingolstadt retained its strictly Catholic attitude and strenuously opposed the rising Protestant institutions. Eck had also a considerable share in organizing the “Catholic Federation”, founded June 5, 1524, by the leaders in Church and State for the purpose of safeguarding the ancient faith and enforcing the Edict of Worms. He also defended in numerous essays the traditional doctrines of the Church against Zwingli and his adherents, and participated in the religious discussion in Baden (1526). When the Protestants, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, promulgated the “Augsburg Confession“, defining their religious views, Eck headed the Catholic champions upon whom the refutation of the articles in this confession devolved. Together with Wimpina and Cochlaeus he represented the Catholic party at the conference (August 16) between Catholic and Lutheran theologians relative to the “Confessio” and its “Confutatio”; and as theologian he served on the sub-committee which canvassed the results of the conference. Zwingli also had presented at Augsburg a Confession of Faith and this Eck alone refuted. Eck then drew up 404 heretical theses upon which he challenged the Protestant theologians to public debate. The challenge was not accepted; the only answer from the Protestant party was a torrent of abuse. In the negotiations relative to the Council of Trent, Eck was consulted by the emperor, Charles V, as well as by the pope, Paul III, and was charged by the latter with preliminary work for the council. At the religious disputation in Worms (1540), Eck again appeared as the chief Catholic representative and debated with Melanchthon on the issues involved in the “Augsburg Confession“. This discussion was continued during the Diet of Ratisbon (1541) to which, besides Eck, the emperor delegated as spokesmen on the Catholic side, Julius Pflug and Gropper. Eck maintained clearly and decisively the Catholic position, and quite disapproved the “Ratisbon Interim”. He also went on a mission to England and the Netherlands in the interest of the Catholic cause. In 1529 the bishops of Denmark invited Eck and Cochlaeus to the discussion at Copenhagen; but neither appeared. Eck fully deserved the prominence gained by him during the struggle against Protestantism. He was the most distinguished theologian of the time in Germany, the most scholarly and courageous champion of the Catholic Faith. Frank and even in disposition, he was also inspired by a sincere love of truth; but he showed none the less an intense self-consciousness and the jovial bluntness of speech which characterized the men of that day. His adversaries, lampooning him publicly, taxed him with drunkenness and immorality; but the general tone of the writings published against Eck and the readiness of the Protestants to calumniate their victorious opponent, arouse strong suspicion as to the truth of these accusations and make them, so far as the evidence goes, altogether improbable. In rebuttal it should be noted that Eck received the Last Sacraments with exemplary piety, and that his funeral in the Frauenkirche at Ingolstadt was marked by great solemnity.

As a writer Eck was prolific. His most important works are: “Loci communes adversus Lutherum et alios hostes ecclesiae” (Arguments against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church), printed first in 1525, 45th edition in 1576; essays on the Primacy of Peter, Penance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Purgatory, etc. He also published numerous polemical writings against Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, and other leaders of the new religious movements. He compiled the results of the numerous disputations in which he participated and the sermons he preached on various subjects. In 1539 he published a German version of the Scriptures, translating the Old Testament from the original and adopting Emser’s translation of the New Testament. Eck, however, was abler as a theologian than as a stylist. He also published a collection of most of his writings prior to 1535 entitled “Opera Johannis Eckii contra Ludderum in 5 partes” (Ingolstadt, 1530-4535). In this edition parts I-II contain his polemical writings on the Primacy, Penance, etc. against Luther; parts III-IV, his reports of the debates and his polemics against Zwingli, Karlstadt, and Bucer; also the “Loci Communes”, part V (4 vols.), his Latin semons.


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