1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eck, Johann Maier
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Eck, Johann Maier
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ECK, JOHANN MAIER (1486-1543), German theologian, the most indefatigable and important opponent of Martin Luther, was born on the 13th of November 1486 at Eck in Swabia, from which place he derived his additional surname, which he himself, after 1505, always modified into Eckius or Eccius, i.e. “of Eck.” His father, Michael Maier, was a peasant and bailiff (Amtmann) of the village. The boy’s education was undertaken by his uncle Martin Maier, parish priest at Rothenburg on the Neckar, who sent him at the age of twelve to the university of Heidelberg, and subsequently to those of Tübingen, Cologne and Freiburg in the Breisgau. His academic career was so rapidly successful that at the age of twenty-four he was already doctor and professor of theology. During this period he was distinguished for his opposition to the scholastic philosophy; and, though he did not go to all lengths with the “modernists” (Moderni) of his day, his first work—Logices exercitamenta (1507)—was distinctly on their side. This attitude brought him into conflict with the senate of the university, a conflict which Eck’s masterful temper, increased by an extreme self-confidence perhaps natural in one so young and so successful, did not serve to allay. His position in Freiburg becoming intolerable, he accepted in 1510 an invitation from the duke of Bavaria to fill the theological chair at Ingolstadt, where he was destined for thirty years to exercise a profound influence as teacher and vice-chancellor (Prokanzler).
A ducal commission, appointed to find a means for ending the interminable strife between the rival academic parties, entrusted Eck with the preparation of fresh commentaries on Aristotle and Petrus Hispanus. He had a marvellous capacity for work, and between 1516 and 1520, in addition to all his other duties, he published commentaries on the Summulae of Petrus Hispanus, and on the Dialectics, Physics and lesser scientific works of Aristotle, which became the text-books of the university. During these early years Eck was still reckoned among the “modernists,” and his commentaries are inspired with much of the scientific spirit of the New Learning. His aim, however, had been to find a via media between the old and new; his temper was essentially conservative, his imagination held captive by the splendid traditions of the medieval church, and he had no sympathy with the revolutionary attitude of the Reformers. Personal ambition, too, a desire to be conspicuous in the great world of affairs, may have helped to throw him into public opposition to Luther. He had won laurels in a public disputation at Augsburg in 1514, when he had defended the lawfulness of putting out capital at interest; again at Bologna in 1515, on the same subject and on the question of predestination; and these triumphs had been repeated at Vienna in 1516. By these successes he gained the patronage of the Fuggers, and found himself fairly launched as the recognized apologist of the established order in church and state. Distinguished humanists might sneer at him as “a garrulous sophist”; but from this time his ambition was not only to be the greatest scientific authority in Germany but also the champion of the papacy and of the traditional church order. The first-fruits of this new resolve were a quite gratuitous attack on his old friend, the distinguished humanist and jurist Ulrich Zasius (1461-1536), for a doctrine proclaimed ten years before, and a simultaneous assault on Erasmus’s Annotationes in Novum Testamentum.
It is, however, by his controversy with Luther and the other reformers that Eck is best remembered. Luther, who had some personal acquaintance with Eck, sent him in 1517 copies of his celebrated 95 theses. Eck made no public reply; but in 1518 he circulated, privately at first, his Obelisci, in which Luther was branded as a Hussite. Luther entrusted his defence to Carlstadt, who, besides answering the insinuations of Eck in 400 distinct theses, declared his readiness to meet him in a public disputation. The challenge was accepted, and the disputation took place at Leipzig in June and July 1519. On June 27 and 28 and on July 1 and 3 Eck disputed with Carlstadt on the subjects of grace, free will and good works, ably defending the Roman Semipelagian standpoint. From July 4 to 14 he engaged with Luther on the absolute supremacy of the papacy, purgatory, penance, &c., showing a brilliant display of patristic and conciliar learning against the reformer’s appeals to Scripture. The arbitrators declined to give a verdict, but the general impression was that victory rested with Eck. He did, indeed, succeed in making Luther admit that there was some truth in the Hussite opinions and declare himself against the pope, but this success only embittered his animosity against his opponents, and from that time his whole efforts were devoted to Luther’s overthrow. He induced the universities of Cologne and Louvain to condemn the reformer’s writings, but failed to enlist the German princes, and in January 1520 went to Rome to obtain strict regulations against those whom he called “Lutherans.” He was created a protonotary apostolic, and in July returned to Germany, as papal nuncio, with the celebrated bull Exsurge Domine directed against Luther’s writings. He now believed himself in a position to crush not only the Lutheran heretics, but also his humanist critics. The effect of the publication of the bull, however, soon undeceived him. Bishops, universities and humanists were at one in denunciation of the outrage; and as for the attitude of the people, Eck was glad to escape from Saxony with a whole skin. In his wrath he appealed to force, and his Epistola ad Carolum V. (February 18, 1521) called on the emperor to take measures against Luther, a demand soon to be responded to in the edict of Worms. In 1521 and 1522 Eck was again in Rome, reporting on the results of his nunciature. On his return from his second visit he was the prime mover in the promulgation of the Bavarian religious edict of 1522, which practically established the senate of the university of Ingolstadt as a tribunal of the Inquisition, and led to years of persecution. In return for this action of the duke, who had at first been opposed to the policy of repression, Eck obtained for him, during a third visit to Rome in 1523, valuable ecclesiastical concessions. Meanwhile he continued unabated in his zeal against the reformers, publishing eight considerable works between 1522 and 1526.
His controversial ardour was, indeed, somewhat damped by Luther’s refusal to answer his arguments, and with a view to earning fresh laurels he turned his attention to Switzerland and the Zwinglians. At Baden-in-Aargau in May and June 1526 a public disputation on the doctrine of transubstantiation was held, in which Eck and Thomas Murner were pitted against Johann Oecolampadius. Though Eck claimed the victory in argument, the only result was to strengthen the Swiss in their memorial view of the Lord’s Supper, and so to diverge them further from Luther. At the Augsburg diet in 1530 Eck was charged by Charles V. to draw up, in concert with twenty other theologians, the refutation of the Protestant Confession, but was obliged to rewrite it five times before it suited the emperor. He was at the colloquy of Worms in 1540 and at the diet of Regensburg (Ratisbon) in 1541. At Worms he showed some signs of a willingness to compromise, but at Regensburg his old violence reasserted itself in opposing all efforts at reconciliation and persuading the Catholic princes to reject the Interim.
Eck died at Ingolstadt on the 10th of February 1543, fighting to the last and worn out before his time. He was undoubtedly the most conspicuous champion produced by the old religion in the age of the Reformation, but his great gifts were marred by greater faults. His vast learning was the result of a powerful memory and unwearied industry, and he lacked the creative imagination necessary to mould this material into new forms. He was a powerful debater, but his victories were those of a dialectician rather than a convincing reasoner, and in him depth of insight and conviction were ill replaced by the controversial violence characteristic of the age. Moreover, even after discounting the bias of his enemies, there is evidence to prove that his championship of the Church was not the outcome of his zeal for Christianity; for he was notoriously drunken, unchaste, avaricious and almost insanely ambitious. His chief work was De primatu Petri (1519); his Enchiridion locorum communium adversus Lutherum ran through 46 editions between 1525 and 1576. In 1530-1535 he published a collection of his writings against Luther, Opera contra Ludderum, in 4 vols.
See T. Wiedemann, Dr Johann Eck (Regensburg, 1865).