Nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 on the eve of All Saints’ Day (according to Philip Melanchton, Luther’s colleague in Wittenberg University), Martin Luther’s 95 theses paved the way for the birth of a great spiritual movement called the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation ultimately signaled the end of the Medieval Age and the inauguration of modern times.
What Luther intended to be a set of propositional statements to be debated upon over the abuses associated with the sale of the indulgences very soon became the key that unlocked the door towards the long-awaited reformation of the church of the late Medieval Christendom.
The Sale of the Indulgences
The doctrine of indulgences is peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church, unknown to the church fathers, and most importantly, to the apostles of Christ. It is basically defined as a certificate of forgiveness granted by a bishop or an archbishop within his diocese for the remission of the temporal punishment of sin both on earth and in purgatory, the alleged source of which was the surplus of merit and grace accumulated through the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints of the Church.
What most particularly attracted Luther’s attention in this regard was the extravagant preaching associated with the sale of the indulgences in Germany by a Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was commissioned by Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, to raise funds for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel proclaimed, “the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther’s long quest for truth that resulted in his discovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone must have been the reason why he indignantly reacted to such a deceptive message that offered false hopes to those who bought the indulgences for themselves and their departed loved ones on account of their ignorance of the true gospel of Christ.
The 97 Theses Before the 95 Theses
Convinced that he must challenge the traditional views purported by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, he published a set of 97 theses to be debated in an academic setting among his colleagues at Wittenberg University. The theses attacked many of the major tenets of the Church with a clear message in mind: that the gospel was entirely different from what had been commonly held.
Luther expected the theses to cause a stir among the participants which in turn would allow him to divulge his great discovery. To his disappointment, they only mustered little interest.
Martin Luther and His 95 Theses
Despite such a cold response to his 97 theses, Luther composed another set of theses which he called The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of the Indulgences, now popularly known as the 95 theses. Like the 97 theses, this new set of theses was also meant to provoke academic discussion among his colleagues in the university. They may have been an afterthought to a letter he sent to Albrecht through which he aired his disagreement on the sale of the indulgences.
However, scholars are divided whether the Luther of the 95 theses was still a Roman Catholic clergyman at this time or already a Protestant Reformer. On the one hand, Luther appeared to have thought Pope Leo X was on his side in this matter. Some scholars even suggest (probably following the church historian Philip Schaff) that he was not protesting against the indulgences, but only against its abuse.
On the other hand, a closer look at the document would reveal one thing for sure: what Luther was up against was not simply the sale of the indulgences but its theological underpinnings. As Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield puts it, “They constitute, in point of fact, a theological document of the first importance, working out a complete and closely knit argument against, not the abuses of the indulgence traffic, and not even the theory of indulgences, merely, but the whole sacerdotal conception of the saving process – an outgrowth and embodiment of which indulgences were.”
While there may be apparent remainders of Roman Catholicism in the theses, they nonetheless assert the evangelical Protestant doctrine of salvation that refuted the sacerdotal system that was largely built on tradition instead of the Bible. In summary, the 95 theses proclaimed that indulgences cannot remit guilt as such a work belongs to God alone, that they are unable to make souls spring from the Purgatory, and that the truly repentant sinner has already received the forgiveness of God and is justified by faith alone.
Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity Volume 2. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1985.
Schaff, Phillip. History of the Christian Church Volume VII. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Warfield, Benjamin Breckenridge. “The Ninety-Five Theses in Their Theological Significance.” The Princeton Theological Review, xv. 1917, pp. 501-529.
Copyright Edwin Vargas. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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