An Introduction to the 95 Theses (Part 4)

Church history is valuable because it reminds us that we never stand alone. We are always standing on the shoulders of saints who have gone before us. This is true of us, and it was true of Martin Luther too. Critiques of the Indulgence system had been offered prior to Luther, and he builds upon those critiques and utilizes them in his own defenses of reform. In theses 81-91, Luther utilizes common critiques of indulgences to point the reader back to  his own proposed solution.

Theses 81-91 represent the section known as the “Confutation.” In standard debate documents, the writer would present the objections to his position and respond to them with sound refutation. It had long been a standard practice, but Luther takes this element of the formula and flips it on its head. Instead of presenting the objections to his own view, those which would have contended for the continuance of the prevailing view on indulgences, he appeals to the other common criticisms against indulgences. In thesis 81 he introduces the “sharp layperson” who has questions about indulgences, and which must be answered. So we read:

This unbridled preaching makes it difficult even for the learned men to defend the reverence due the pope from slander or from the truly sharp questions of the laity

This character then proceeds to ask questions that had a long history within the church, offering critique and doubt about the dominant view of indulgences at the time.

This method of a fictional counterpart in debate had a long history, dating as far back as the Greek philosophers. It was perhaps most notably used by Plato. Here the “sharp layperson” asks a host of common questions about indulgences that require explanation, questions like:

Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of the holiest love and the direst need of souls as a matter of the highest justice.. (Thesis 82)

Since, rather than money, the pope seeks the salvation of souls through indulgences, why does he now suspend the documents and indulgences previously granted, although they have equal efficacy? (Thesis 89)

Many of these complaints and questions – they were really veiled critiques – were offered up prior to Luther. He capitalizes on their familiarity to present his own case against indulgences.

It was a rather insightful rhetorical move, if an unconventional one. As Luther saw it, there was no response to these common critiques except to follow his own counsel regarding indulgences. In theses 90 and 91 Luther explains:

To suppress these very pointed arguments of the laity by force alone and not to resolve them by providing reasons is to expose the church and the pope to ridicule by their enemies and to make Christians miserable.

Therefore, if indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all of these would be easily resolved – indeed they would not exist.

With the language of the “spirit and intention of the pope,” Luther is directing the reader back to the central premise of thesis 5. There Luther had stated:

The people neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own discretion or that of the canons.

His point being, then, that if the indulgences were preached so as to clearly communicate the limits of papal authority there would be no criticism. How do you defeat this common objects with “reason” instead of “force”? You apply indulgences exclusively to ecclesiastical punishments.

Luther’s theological work often reflected his gratitude for those who had gone before him. Despite breaking from many of the established practices of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther was not an advocate of complete theological autonomy or independence. He cherished the writings of the early church fathers and appreciated particularly Augustine. Even in the Ninety-Five Theses he is building on the work of those who have gone before him. Theses 81-91 demonstrate his gratitude for the many who had formulated critiques of indulgences before him. He was happy to utilizes their common complaints against indulgences to point to his reasonable reform.

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