This year, focused on October 31, 1517, Lutherans and others are observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It might come as a surprise to learn that the first time the day was celebrated anywhere as a commonly acknowledged “Reformation Day” was in 1617, fully one hundred years later, and even then it did not become an event noted yearly.
In Wittenberg itself, the event was hardly noticed that day in 1517. In the fifteen-year-old university, Professor Luther had some years before demanded that students had to defend a set of theses for their graduation – it was common to do so in the medieval universities. These theses and notice of their public defense had to be made publicly. The place to do that was on the university bulletin board, which in Wittenberg had by custom become the door of the Schlosskirche (the “Castle church”), which was connected to the castle and to the university. It served for academic occasions and was the chapel for the university.
In early September 1517, Luther had written a set of theses dealing with the free will and the doctrine of grace (Disputation Against Scholastic Theology) to be defended by one of his students. A few years later, in his book The Bondage of the Will, Luther said that this issue was the one that penetrated to the heart of the biblical doctrine of salvation. These theses were sent to professors at other universities, but there was no great reaction to them even though they were attacking the foundations of medieval theology. But in a month, things changed.
The Ninety-five Theses of October 31, 1517, were prepared not for a student, but for Luther himself to defend, and he invited his fellow academics and the public. The theses, which had been written well before October 31, were printed in Latin on “broadsheets,” large paper about the size of a small newspaper, printed on one side. According to Philip Melanchthon, Luther tacked the broadsheet to the door at “12 noon,” so Luther was certainly not on a secretive mission under the cover of darkness.
News of the theses spread rapidly and, as we know now, had a very far-reaching effect. Their spread was certainly helped by Justus Jonas’ German translation soon after October 31, making them accessible to a wider audience.
Luther may have expected considerable interest to be aroused by his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, but instead the greater interest was provoked by the theses on indulgences. If anything was going for the jugular of medieval theology, it was the Scholastic Disputation and not the October 31 theses. The difference was that the sale of indulgences was a very live issue, which today would have been widely “tweeted.” Furthermore, while the question of free will and grace did not directly affect anyone’s pocketbook, the issue of indulgences did. Yet the matter of indulgences ultimately touched on the Gospel because while indulgences didn’t claim to provide forgiveness, many did in fact believe that they provided forgiveness, as Luther shows in the theses.
What were indulgences? By Luther’s time, the Roman Catholic teaching about repentance and forgiveness had taken a form very different from that of the early church. The sinner must first feel contrition, sorrow for sin; then confess it to a priest; and finally perform some act of penance to demonstrate true sorrow and suffer any temporal punishment imposed by God Himself. If these were not completed in this life, they would have to be completed in purgatory. Indulgences were releases or reductions from the acts of penance or temporal punishment due because of one’s sin, both in the here and now and in the time after death.
This medieval three-part repentance – contrition, confession, satisfaction – was challenged by the Lutherans in their Augsburg Confession and Apology with a two-part repentance – contrition and faith. True repentance could not be conditioned on any human act, but solely on God’s grace and Christ’s substitutionary atonement. There were also plenary (“full” or “complete”) indulgences for all penalties, past and future. These plenary indulgences had been granted for participation in the Crusades in the eleventh century. In 1513, a Jubilee Indulgence was instituted by Pope Julius II and renewed by Pope Leo X which would remit all satisfactions and temporal punishments owed by the sinner. The proceeds of this sale of indulgences would be used for building St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, replacing an earlier St. Peter’s church (said to be built on St. Peter’s grave).
The German Archbishop who promoted the use of indulgences in Germany was Albrecht of Mainz, who was granted the privilege of distributing plenary indulgences in exchange for repayment of a loan. It was not the position of the Roman church that indulgences could be sold, but were simply granted, also in exchange for a contribution. However, in the hands of Albrecht’s chief indulgence preacher, Johann Tetzel, it became a “sale of indulgences.” Few could see a difference between “in exchange for contributing to the building fund” and selling a “get out of jail (purgatory) free card.” That provoked not only theological objections from a wide circle of German Catholics, but also great economic objections because large amounts of money were thereby being sucked out of Germany to Rome.
A phrase often attributed (but not proven) to John Tetzel, the foremost indulgence preacher working for Albrecht, was “When a coin into the coffer clinks, another soul out of purgatory springs.” Luther alludes to it in Thesis 28: “It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.”
The Ninety-five Theses are a sharply worded, systematic refutation of the doctrine and practice of indulgences in Luther’s century. They are not at all quickly-dashed-off observations. We have reprinted here just a selection, but they clearly show why, on the one hand, Luther’s theses found immediate agreement from many in Germany and on the other such fierce opposition from the Roman Church.
The first thesis establishes Luther’s central point: “1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Everything else in the Christian life flows from that “life of repentance.” The repentance taught by Scripture is not something that can be dismissed as a simple act of going to the priest and reciting a list of wrongdoings, though the sacramental repentance is not to be rejected (see Augsburg Confession, Article XI), nor is one to rely merely on a casual feeling of regret (as in “Oops – sorry”).
Furthermore, the only real power the pope has over sin is what is given to all believers and to the whole church: “The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God….” Thesis 13 summarizes the argument of Theses 13–19: “13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon [church] laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.” That is followed by the argument against the idea of plenary (full) indulgences. The indulgence preachers were accused of confusing penalties and guilt: “21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences,” and “23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few” (which is Luther’s way of saying “nobody”).
A further emphasis on the wrongness of the confusion between penalty and guilt is asserted in the next section: “36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”
In a longer section, Theses 38-59, Luther shows that indulgences are in fact dangerous to true contrition and repentance. He points out a number of dangers: “The true remission of sins proclaimed by the pope is the God’s forgiveness (38) – insofar as the pope proclaims the forgiveness of sins, he truly remits sins; it is impossible to point people to the bounty of the indulgences and at the same time the need for true contrition (40); indulgence preachers lead people to think that indulgences are preferable to other good works.”
Luther’s most affirmative argument, even in negative theses, points to the office of the keys as the place the treasure of the church is to be found: “60. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure,” and “62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” And “68. They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.”
By contrast, Luther points to one of the worst absurdities of the indulgence preachers: “67. The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.” Perhaps most shocking was the statement that “papal indulgences [are] so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God” (75).
Luther’s final argument offers some questions raised by shrewd laymen that actually demolish the sale of indulgences: “82. ‘Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.’” Again, “87. ‘What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?’ Again, “88. ‘What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?’”
As a theologian of the cross, Luther’s final theses are: “94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell; 95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].”
Though Luther had not yet come to complete clarity on some things in the Ninety-five Theses – he had not yet rejected purgatory – he was a theologian of the cross and knew that only there had the Lord Christ already suffered fully for all the world’s guilt and paid the penalty and the satisfaction due for sin. The doctrine and practice of indulgences simply obscured the cross and thus the full forgiveness won by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
For further study, the complete 95 theses can be found @ luther.de/en/95thesen.html
Notes on Sources: Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences appears in Luther’s Works, (Muhlenberg Press, 1957), Vol. 31, 25-33. Nearly all histories of the reformation deal with ninety-five theses, but the following sources are especially helpful: Luther published an explanation of the 95 theses, found in the same volume as the Ninety-five theses, p. 77 ff. A collection of background material is found in Kurt Aland, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), and includes the same translation of the Theses found in Luther’s Works, vol. 31. A good commentary and historical sketch is found in Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 176 ff.
For a Roman Catholic account of indulgences and the indulgence controversy, see the Catholic Encyclopedia @ newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm.
Reverend Erling T. Teigen
Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, MN