At the time of the writing of the 95 Theses, Luther was only beginning to scratch the surface of his theological changes. He had not yet rejected the role of the Pope, nor purgatory, nor even the use of indulgences. The Ninety-Five Theses arose over his concern with the abuse of the indulgences, and so the document reflects this concern. Theses 5-80 present the extended argument of the work itself and focus on the proper limits of indulgences. Indulgences were limited in application to ecclesiastical punishment.
The Theses follow a standard structure common to this sort of academic writing. There is usually an introduction, or exordium. This is followed by the “narration” of accepted facts (theses 1-4). Then there is the heart of the debate (thesis 5), and the confirmation or “proof” in support of the major premise (6-80). Here, Luther makes his most compelling case for the limitations of indulgences. He does so by speaking to the limitations of the Pope’s authority, the heresy of indulgence preachers, the relationship between indulgences and good works, defining the “treasures of the church,” and calling for restraint in indulgence preaching. A look at each section can help us to understand more clearly the development and overall thrust of Luther’s argument.
In theses 6-20 Luther argues that the Pope cannot remove the penalty of a person’s sin, but only the consequences which the church imposes on that person. His authority is limited to ecclesiastical matters. So, he begins in theses 6 by plainly stating:
The pope cannot remit any guilt except by declaring and confirming its remission by God or, of course, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to himself.
Historically the church had seen indulgences as a matter of church law relating to ecclesiastical penalties. So, the church could issue an indulgence to show leniency on a punishment they had imposed. The technical phrase “by his description or that of the canons” was used to describe the process by which a priest would evaluate someone’s confession. If their sins had a prescribe penalty in canon law then he would apply it, if not then it was at his discretion. The church could show leniency in these matters by issuing indulgences, but they could show leniency precisely because these matters fell under their jurisdiction. The problem, as Luther saw it, was that the Pope was expanding that jurisdiction beyond ecclesiastical matters to divine matters.
Luther notes here too that the canons focused on imposing penalties on the living, not the dead (thesis 8). The pope exempted individuals of church penalty at death because purgatory was beyond his realm of authority (thesis 9). He states plainly in thesis 13:
Through death, those about to die are absolved of all and are already dead as far as canon laws are concerned, in that by right they have release from them.
Death was the end of the need for indulgences because it ended the church’s realm of authority. In thesis 20 Luther concludes his argument saying:
Therefore, the pope understands by the phrase “plenary remission of all penalties” not actually “all penalties” but only “penalties imposed by himself.”
Perhaps Luther gives the Pope the benefit of the doubt here, but he argues that “all penalties” does not include the penalties imposed by God, which only God can remove.
Thesis 21 starts the monk’s argument against the indulgence preachers. Further pointing to the limitations of papal authority, particularly his inability to provide release from purgatory, Luther claims that the indulgence preachers “err” in their sermons (thesis 21). These preachers “deceive by means of indiscriminate and high-sounding” promises, and it is pure “human opinion” that they preach (theses 24, 27). The claim that individuals can “be secure in their salvation through indulgence letters,” says Luther, “will be eternally damned along with their teachers” (thesis 32). In theses 41-51 he descries what proper preaching should look like, using the repeated refrain “Christians are to be taught.”
In theses 52-67 he redefines the “treasury of the church.” The church had a tradition by which they claimed access to the merits of Christ with could be distributed to parishioners based upon specific acts, contributions, pilgrimages, crusades, or through touching certain relics of the church. Luther clarifies, however, that the true treasury of the church is the gospel. He contrasts the treasure of the gospel and the treasure of indulgences, noting the gospel makes “the firs last” and is therefore hated, while indulgences make “the last first” and are therefore loved. Finally, Luther concludes the proof of his argument by making a plea that indulgence preachers be reined in (theses 68-80).
Theses 6-80 represent some of the most important early thoughts of Luther. The Heidelberg Disputation is perhaps more important in terms of his theological development, but the 95 Theses represent major trajectories of where the monk is headed. These nascent arguments are not portraying Protestantism as it will become, but they provide the ground-work for important shifts in the church. Luther’s arguments are well stated, and well researched, and yet they are more than just logical statements. Unlike most academic papers requesting debate, Luther makes a passionate appeal throughout these theses. He writes not simply as an academic, but as a pastor. The tone of these arguments represent his immense concern for the church and for his parishioners particularly. The pope was not merely overstepping his boundaries in the abuse of indulgences, but he was leading good Christian people to damnation in so doing.
Luther would, of course, come to change his mind about indulgences all together, and about purgatory. Here, however, he is simply concerned that they be restricted to their “proper” use: ecclesiastical law. Anything else is dangerous.