Misunderstanding Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

Introduction

The Reformation’s unparalleled rupture of the unity of Christ’s Church is said to have begun on Oct. 31, 1517, when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his soon-to-be-famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These theses were a list of religious complaints Luther wished to debate with any who would do so. Although almost no non-Catholic Christians follow the teachings of Martin Luther today, they nearly all celebrate him as a sort of patron saint for his act of rebellion which they credit with launching the Reformation.  Although some believe the story to be a legend,  October 31st is now celebrated by many as “Reformation Day.”

There are some popular misconceptions with regard to Luther’s 95 Theses that I wish to briefly address. The first is that Luther was acting in a revolutionary way (when what he did was neither uncommon nor rebellious), that the 95 Theses reflected Protestant doctrine (when they were actually neither anti-Catholic nor reflective of any unique Protestant teachings), and that Luther was opposing indulgences (when it was really their abuse). Finally it should be pointed out that the true reforms were done by the Catholic Church, while all Luther inspired was rebellion.

Not Revolutionary

First, although Luther’s action is often seen as the “radical act of a revolutionary,” it simply was not. Luther was not the only one of his day calling for reform in the Catholic Church, and Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church was not an act of protest.  Luther was simply using a common, socially acceptable means of communication to offer subjects up for a scholarly debate. (Back then, church doors were like city kiosks – they served as central places to put up public announcements.)

Further, it is not the case that “Luther published his ’95 Theses’ fully realizing that he faced excommunication and even death for protesting the traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church.” The 95 Theses were not written in protest of Catholic dogma, nor were they written for the common people (he wrote them in Latin, not German), nor were they meant for publication (it was not Luther that had them published, and he even tried to have them recalled once they taken, translated, and distributed.*).

Not Protestant

Second, the 95 Theses were neither pro-Protestant nor anti-Catholic. There was nothing in them about sola scriptura, justification by faith alone, or church tradition. Neither did Luther mention anything about Mary (in fact Luther held to standard Catholic dogma concerning Mary),  infant baptism (which he supported), Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist (which he held to fiercely), the use of images in church, or any number of Catholic things he might have protested. Further, in the 95 Theses Luther assumes the necessity of good works, the existence of Purgatory, and the authority of the Pope.*

Although credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, the 95 Theses were hardly the Augsburg Confession! So what was Luther’s concern? A clue is found in the actual title of the 95 ThesesDisputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.It might seem, then, that Luther was against indulgences – but that is not exactly the case either.

Not (Exactly) Over Indulgences

Luther was actually (and rightly) protesting the abuses surrounding the granting of indulgences going on in his day. Indulgences were supposed to serve as official recognition of the remission of temporal punishment for sin (in Purgatory) based on contrition and the performance of some penitential act. An indulgence required three things to be procured: (1) confession and sorrow for sin, (2) absolution/forgiveness by a priest, and (3) some act of penance (good works to cancel temporal punishment for the sin). Penances could be anything from Bible reading, to prayer, to bridge-building, to almsgiving (donating money to support the Church in its work).

Abuses arose when the Pope began soliciting alms to complete work on the Vatican. He came up with the idea to allow others to both collect alms and grant indulgences based on them. This might not have been a bad idea, but allowing the collector to pocket some of the income was a recipe for disaster. Soon, people like Albert of Brandenburg were advertising that indulgences granted a complete remission of sins and could be used to free loved ones from the pains of Purgatory.* The neighboring priest, Johann Tetzel, promised remission of sin’s penalty without the required repentance and humility.* His famous commercial jingle says it all: “As soon a coin in the bowl rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

Luther taught instead that a life of repentance and good works was necessary for true forgiveness. Indulgences were only an official recognition of this (when they were valid). Even as late as 1518, Luther said that he only wanted to deal with indulgence abuse, and was “not striving to unhinge the papacy with his theses.”* Luther’s issue was not, then, with official Catholic teaching – but with its abuse at the hands of greedy peddlers.

Not the Actual Reformation

Luther’s concerns over indulgence abuse were valid, and at the Council at Trent they were dealt with (along with other reforms that had been needed for years). The Council declared that:

In granting indulgences the Council desires that moderation be observed in accordance with the ancient approved custom of the Church, lest through excessive ease ecclesiastical discipline be weakened; and further, seeking to correct the abuses that have crept in . . . it decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever–since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions—the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence measures will be taken for the welfare of the Church at large, so that the benefit of indulgences may be bestowed on all the faithful by means at once pious, holy, and free from corruption.

Shortly after the council, Pope Pius V disallowed grants of indulgences involving fees or financial transactions. The practice of indulgence granting came up again at the Second Vatican Council, and in 1967 Pope Paul VI wrote Indulgentiarum Doctrina  “a modest reworking of the medieval teaching on indulgences.”* The practice was re-asserted by Pope John Paul II in 2000 as part of the celebration of the church’s third millennium, and increased under his successor, Pope Benedict.* The Catholic Church continues the practice of granting indulgences, but it is not in the abusive manner that prompted Luther’s admirable outrage.

Conclusion

The posting of the 95 Theses should not be credited with starting the Reformation. Luther’s truly “Protestant” ideas developed only after they were written, and it was not until years later that he was in official trouble with the Church. On January 3rd, 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther based on his previous condemnation of the 41 propositions. Three months after his excommunication, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms. For Luther’s refusal to recant, the emperor declared him a heretic. This event would better serve as a Protestant rallying point because it reflects what Protestantism really is – a heretical movement out of communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Post-Script

The best way to understand what Luther was concerned with is to simply read the 95 Theses (it won’t take long – each one is a single sentence). As some of them are repetitive or just sub-points, a decent summary can be made by reading 1, 5, 8, 14, 18-20, 27-32, 44, 50, 53, 62, 71, 75-78, 94-95.

Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing.

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2 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

  1. interesting…not completely unbiased, of course… indulgences were not the only abuses of the Church the Reformation had to deal with… many remain…

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