The Early Luther: A Man with Questions

Time has the potential to turn a man into a myth. Evangelicals, especially, love their heroes and so we are inclined to tell the stories of the past with a bit more simplicity and fanfare. We have done such with Martin Luther, portraying the man as more legend than reality. This exaggerated depiction is most evident when one compares the popular conception of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses with the historical record. Luther’s dispute over the issue of indulgences started as more questioning than rebelling.

The popular depiction of Luther nailing the theses to the church door at Wittenberg is largely fiction. The image we have adopted of this historic event, portrays a young Luther with anger and passion in his hammering away at the door as he posts his fiery rebuke of the church. His head is often turned back towards the viewer, as if he is casting a glance back towards the Pope and his Cardinals – as if to say, “your move, boys.” The reality however is far different.

For starters, Luther came to the issue of indulgences with uncertainties and doubts, not with foregone conclusions about their horrors. That very January before the infamous Theses were posted, Luther preached a sermon on indulgences. He was already questioning them, but he had a practiced habit of endorsing the indulgences. In 1518 he could reflect on his previous beliefs saying:

I once believed that the merits of Christ were actually given me through indulgences, and, proceeding in this foolish notion, I taught and preached to the people that, since indulgences were such valuable things, they should not fail to treasure them, and should not consider them cheap or contemptible. (Proceedings at Augsburg)

Luther came into 1517 with established practices and convictions about indulgences, they were not the enemy. Yet, even at the January sermon he was raising questions and evidencing his uncertainties.

He had been invited by the Electorate of Saxony, Duke Frederick, to preach an indulgence sermon at the anniversary of the dedication of the Castle Church. It was a big event and attendance was encouraged by the offering of a special indulgence, designed to grant 200 days off of time in purgatory. It was a bold move on the part of the preacher, to question the very practice he was supposed to be celebrating. He questioned many things regarding the traditional theological support for indulgences. He had technical questions, such as where the Bible taught private confession to a priest and whether penance should be described by a two-fold (sign and reality) or three-fold (contrition, confession, and satisfaction) division. Ultimately, however, this sermon, wondered if the indulgences did not make a mockery of true contrition.

If an indulgence offered a means of escaping punishment for sin, why should a person worry about their sin when they could simply buy release from punishment. It seemed to offer what Bonhoeffer would later term “cheap grace.” Timothy Wengert, quoting Luther himself, explains:

What Christians needed “for true interior penance is true contrition, true confession, true satisfaction, in the Spirit.” Through this they are effectively converted to God and trust God in the heart. Such persons do not want to avoid mortification of the flesh but welcome it. And precisely here lay the problem for Luther: “Consequently, indulgences by teaching the contrary (namely, fleeing from punishment and satisfaction) are cutting things short.” Indulgence, as Luther understood them in early 1517, were helping people avoid God’s own work of imposing the cross upon the sinner to eliminate the evil remnants of sin from the believer’s life. He concluded: “You see, therefore, how dangerous a thing the preaching of indulgences is, which teaches a mutilated grace, namely to flee satisfaction and punishment.” (Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, xxix)

Even as he preached in early 1517 on indulgences, he was already questioning them. There is no denying that these are bold questions too, and yet we must not think that Luther was already decided regarding the nature and practice of indulgences. He turned, in fact, to Cannon Law to study the issue more seriously.

Influenced, as he was, by Humanism, Luther gave priority to the Church Fathers and to the New Testament itself, over and against the more recent Cannon lawyers and theologians. What he found was that the earliest sources did not see indulgences as relating to divine judgment, but rather ecclesiastical penalties. Indulgences were a way for someone to demonstrate contrition of sin to the church and be readmitted to the Lord’s Table. Later papal decrees were wrong in what they believed about indulgences and the ways in which they tied them to divine judgment. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament had already exposed the faulty arguments behind the chief proof-text regarding the Sacrament of Penance. Erasmus was able to demonstrate from the Original languages that the Bible did not teach what the Medieval church was practicing.

Luther posted the Theses for the intended purpose of opening dialogue about the subject of indulgences. It was not his intent to spark a revolution or to distance himself from the Church. It was the common practice of the day to post these topics for debate on the church door, which served as a sort of community bulletin board. Interestingly, the popular image of Luther nailing the theses to the door is probably fiction. He most likely used wax to hang them, as was the custom. Wengert notes:

What later observes connected with he dating of the Reformation (or even the freedom of the individual!), however, was a simply business as usual for a late-medieval professor of theology…(xxxviii)

Luther was quite surprised by the response the Theses garnered. While no formal debate ever took place the impact of this rather typical document has been undeniably large. It is wroth our time, then, in coming weeks, to actually review the Ninety-Five Theses themselves.

The simple and popular notions of Luther nailing the theses as an act of rebellion simply doesn’t hold up to historical evaluation. We must seek to do history honestly, and that means understanding the man behind the myth. Early Luther is best understood as a man with questions, not a man bent on rebelling from the church.

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