22 pages • 44 minutes readMartin Luther
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Martin Luther wrote the “Ninety-Five Theses: A Disputation to Clarify the Power of Indulgences” in 1517. These statements were called “theses” because they were meant to provide a basis for later arguments, much like the statements that students base academic papers on today. This guide refers to The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings, translated by William R. Russell, published in 2017 by Penguin Books.
Martin Luther sent a copy of the theses along with a letter to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg on October 31, 1517. Luther may have placed a copy of the theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in the northern German town of Wittenberg. Although the image of Luther posting his theses to the church door has become famous in art, historians debate whether he actually did so. It was customary to use church doors to show announcements and writings to the community. If Luther did post the theses, it was a routine act of presenting one’s writings to the public, not an act of defiance.
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Nonetheless, Luther’s theses made a splash. October 31, the day he chose to send his theses to Archbishop Albrecht, was All Saints’ Day, an important holy day on the Catholic Church’s calendar. Later generations would remember October 31 as the day the Protestant Revolution started. Today, it is still observed as Reformation Day in parts of Europe and South America. Once Luther’s ideas evolved and spread, and Protestantism emerged as a new branch of Christianity, the “Ninety-Five Theses” would become one of the most important documents in world history.
Still, it is important to keep in mind that Luther did not intend to start a revolution. Instead, the 95 theses were meant to start an academic debate. Luther’s main concern in the “Ninety-Five Theses” is indulgences, as the document’s subtitle, “A Disputation to Clarify the Power of Indulgences,” explains. Indulgences are grants that reduced the penance required by a living or dead Christian to make up for their sins, sold by the Catholic Church. Although Luther and his supporters would have a large impact on the history of Christianity, in the “Ninety-Five Theses” Luther is not arguing to change Christianity or get rid of the pope.
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Luther explains that he is a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg and that he is offering up the theses for a debate. Luther’s theses argue that when Jesus Christ called for his followers to repent (Matthew 4:17), he meant “the entire life of believers be a life of repentance” (Line 1). In the next few theses, Luther clarifies that in this biblical passage Jesus is referring to the sacrament of penance. Luther argues that Jesus did not just mean “internal” repentance, meaning repenting one’s actions. Instead, Jesus was also asking for “external” repentance, which would mean resolving to exercise more “external self-control” in the future (Line 3). Luther concludes that “true internal repentance” would entail guilt or “hatred of self,” which would not end until after one entered heaven (Line 4).
In the next theses, Luther addresses the question of the pope’s authority over forgiveness and penance. Because Luther sees penance as a matter of guilt, he argues that the pope cannot reduce the amount of anyone’s required penance any more than he can reduce a person’s guilt. Nor can the pope reduce the penalties the dead suffer in purgatory for their sins in life. Instead, the dead are released from any canonical penalties the church can impose. Priests who argue otherwise “act ignorantly and wickedly” (Line 10). By using indulgences to offer people absolution from their sins first and requiring them to perform penance later, priests are reversing the older procedure of the church, in which absolution was only offered after acts of penance.
Luther discusses purgatory. He views the afterlife in terms of emotions: “The differences between hell, purgatory, and heaven are akin to the differences between despair, fear, and the assurance of salvation” (Line 16). Luther sees purgatory as a place where souls can lose their fear of damnation and gain God’s love. In short, Luther is arguing that souls in purgatory do not need penance from the church.
Next, Luther argues that the pope can only reduce or absolve penalties that the church itself imposes, referring to the penance the church orders for people seeking absolution. Even if the pope could grant such remissions, it would be reserved for only a few. According to Luther, the only way the pope can help souls in purgatory is by praying for them. Otherwise, he has no direct influence over the amount of penance they must pay in purgatory. The claim that the pope can help souls enter heaven is “simply a human doctrine” spread by deceptive priests (Line 27). The church can only pray to God on someone’s behalf, while God alone determines when a soul gets to heaven.
Luther adds that we cannot know if all souls in purgatory even wish for salvation. Nor can anyone know if they have repented of their sins or have received plenary (total) forgiveness. Luther concludes that the person who buys an indulgence and is genuinely remorseful is “exceedingly rare” (Line 31). Indulgences are only good for receiving penance according to church doctrine. However, certain priests lead people into believing that receiving indulgences absolves them of their sins. This causes people to believe that an indulgence makes true contrition for one’s sins unnecessary.
Luther still insists that indulgences can do some good. However, he argues people should understand it is better to spend one’s money in charity toward the poor or on their own families. If not properly understood, indulgences could cause Christians to “lose their fear of God” (Line 49). Also, Luther thinks the pope himself would be horrified at the actions of the “indulgence-hawkers” (Line 51). He goes on to denounce priests who discuss indulgences as much or more than the actual tenets of the church.
Luther concludes that “the church’s true treasure is the most holy gospel of God’s glory and grace” (Line 62). This treasure is the most ignored. Rather than valuing the church’s message of God’s love for the poor and downtrodden, certain priests are valuing indulgences for profit.
Luther says that the abuse of indulgences has hurt the pope’s reputation. Specifically, it raises questions such as why the pope does not just free every soul in purgatory, why endowments to pray for the dead are continued if the pope can absolve the sins of all souls, and why impious people are allowed to buy their way out of purgatory. Luther concludes that it is the responsibility of priests and theologians to remind Christians to “be confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace” (Line 95). To put it another way, Luther finishes by asserting that indulgences offer a deceptively easy path to salvation.