An Introduction to the Ninety-Five Theses (Part 2)

As Luther’s own uncertainties about the practice of indulgences grew he sought to engage the broader theological community in discussions over the issues. The Ninety-Five Theses, despite their impassioned rhetoric, is an effort to establish the issues for debate. His introduction and the first five points of the Theses demonstrate his expected goal.

The introduction starts with an appeal to the reader that, because the truth matters, there should be a willing discussion of the issue of indulgences and penance. We read:

Out of love and zeal for bringing the truth to light, what is written below will be debated in Wittenberg with the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed lecturer on these subjects at that place, presiding. Therefore, he requests that those who cannot be present to discuss orally with us will in their absence do so by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Luther had in mind an academic and pastoral debate over the practice. The Theses were a call to discuss and a setting of the terms of that discussion. A unique feature of this particular appeal is his request that those who couldn’t be present submit their responses by letter. He had every intent to discuss indulgences seriously. It’s important for readers, however, to wrestle with what the intent and the reality was regarding these Theses.

The popular image of Luther nailing the document to the church door at Wittenberg in an effort to stir up a revolution of sorts is pure fiction. There is, in fact, even debate about whether or not Luther actually posted the document at all. They would have been written in Latin, the language of the church, and since even those who could read in German were few, the idea that this was posted to spar a reform movement seems silly. In fact, Luther seems to have conformed to the very basic practice of academic discussion for his day. He likely would not have seen the document itself as any big deal.

Luther had already spoke out against indulgences and the use of relics. Carter Lindberg notes that “as early as 1514 Luther had denounced the abuse of indulgences and in sermons in 1516 had criticized his own prince’s relic collection” (The European Reformations, 76). While the results of the document were history-altering, the document’s content is not that revolutionary. Diarmaid MacCulloch explains:

Luther’s low-key understanding of what he was doing was hardly surprising because the ninety-five theses are hardly a call to revolution. They still assumed the existence of purgatory, works of merit, and the value of penance to a priest, even if they were couched in the sharp terms appropriate to points intended to provoke formal scholastic debate. (The Reformation, 120)

In other words, the historical context suggests that the results of the Ninety-Five Theses were very different from intent. In fact, so confident was Luther of the appropriateness of what he was doing that he sent the Theses and an accompanying letter to the highest Roman official in Germany, Albrecht of Mainz. That mail was the real spark of the Reformation, but nonetheless Luther did not see it as any grand or extreme move.

The first four points of the Theses establish the assumed facts of his premise, the narration (as it was called). These were not issues up for debate in Luther’s mind, they were necessary facts. He starts by insisting that the “repentance” is to be a discipline of the Christian throughout his whole life, and therefore is not limited to the Sacrament of Penance. Luther writes in theses one and two:

  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Do penance …” wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.
  2. This phrase cannot be understood as referring to sacramental Penance, that is, confession and satisfaction as administered by the clergy.

Here Luther quotes from the standard Vulgate translation of Matthew 4:17, but he was interpreting the verse based on Erasmus’ translation from the Greek, which had already clarified that the word “Repent!” could not be understood in terms of Penance, but is translated best as “come to your senses.” He sets out that “inner penitence” should result in works that evidence such contrition (theses 3), but the reality of the punishment of sin remains until “entrance into the Kingdom of heaven” (theses 4). Luther is establishing something of a distinction between repentance in the divine economy and the ecclesiastical economy. This will lead him to the major premise of the document, theses 5: The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own discretion or that of the canons.

The Ninety-Five Theses were intended for debate and the fact that they didn’t result in one should not skew our understanding of their historical impact. Luther is raising important, even challenging questions – as we can clearly see in the opening theses – but he did not view himself as starting a revolution. This was a formal and commonplace practice to engage in a meaningful theological and pastoral exercise. But, as we will see, it does raise significant challenges for the church. Next week we will look at the Proofs for his argument, theses 6 – 80.

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