Johann Maier von Eck

Johann Maier von Eck

Johann Eck is best remembered for his debates with Martin Luther during the initial period of the Reformation. He was born Johann Maier in the city of Eck in southern Germany on November 13 (some say November 15), 1486, and later took the name of his city as his surname. At age 12, he entered Heidelburg University and went on to Tübingen, where he received his master’s degree.

He continued his studies in both theology and classical languages. In 1508, at age 22, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. In 1510, at age 24, he received a doctorate in theology. After receiving his doctorate, he went to the University of Ingolstadt in southern Germany as a full professor.

Eck was a humanist in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and was well versed in Greek and Hebrew. He was interested in many theological topics, and when the monk Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg in 1517, he at first received a cordial reception from his fellow humanist Eck. Luther’s expectation in his posting of the Ninety-five Theses was a debate with fellow academics and church theologians, and he hoped for gradual reform of the Roman Catholic Church.

As Luther’s writings became almost instantly popular, Eck saw Luther’s theology as both wrong and dangerous for the Roman Catholic Church and decided to take action against Luther. In 1518, he circulated among other academics a work attacking Luther’s theology titled Obelisci and in it accused Luther of being a follower of John Huss, a Bohemian reformer from the previous century who was burned at the stake for his views.

Luther’s fellow professor Carlstadt responded to the Obelisci with a document refuting Eck and declared himself ready to meet Eck in a public disputation. This series of debates took place at the University of Leipzig, beginning in June 1519, and continuing through July.

The debate was academic in style (as would befit university professors). Eck clearly won the debate against Carlstadt, forcing Luther to defend his doctrines. While Eck and Luther were more evenly matched in intellect and debating ability, most agree that Eck won the debates.

Returning to Ingolstadt, Eck attempted to get the other universities to condemn Luther’s theological writings but failed. He continued to write against Luther and in 1520 went to Rome to help with the official Catholic attack on Luther. Eck was a significant contributor to the papal document ExsurgeDomine (Arise, O Lord), which condemned Luther’s teaching as heretical.

Eck continued to write and campaign against Luther as well as other Protestants, particularly Ulrich Zwingli. Eck debated supporters of Zwingli in 1526 near Zürich, Switzerland. He never succeeded in his goal of bringing about a clear condemnation of Luther by the political authorities. Luther was seen in the eyes of many Germans as a champion for Germany against the influence of Rome and was simply too popular among both the nobles and common persons to be suppressed effectively.

Eck is also known for his translation of the Bible into German, published in 1537. (Luther had published his own translation into German about 10 years previous.) Roman Catholics normally used the Latin Bible, but Eck as a humanist followed Erasmus and others in promoting the Bible in the vernacular, the language of the people. Eck died on February 13 (some say February 10), 1543, in Ingolstadt.