Martin Luther Biography, Part 9: The 95 Theses
The sum total of the merits of Christ was greater than was required for the salvation of man, and that the saints also had done more and suffered more than was absolutely required to insure their own salvation, that these superabundant merits were placed in the “spiritual treasury” of the Church, at the disposal of its visible head; that as the Church is one, in this world and the next, they may be applied to such of its members as are still lacking in the required amount of works necessary to satisfy the divine demands.
- The plenary remission of sins
- A confessional letter allowing the penitent to choose his confessor
- A share for one and one’s family in all alms, fasts, prayers, and pilgrimages of every sort
- The total remission of all sins for souls in purgatory
Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, ‘We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory? (Bainton, 59)
Remember that you are able to release them, for as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise? (Bainton, 60)
You priest, you nobleman, you merchant, you woman, you virgin, you married woman, you youth, you old man, go into your church, which, as I have said, is St. Peter’s, and visit the hallowed cross that has been put up for you, that incessantly calls you… You should know: whoever has confessed and is contrite and puts alms into the box, as his confessor counsels him, will have all of his sins forgiven, and even after confession and after the jubilee year will acquire and indulgence on every day that he visits the cross and the altars, as if he were visiting the seven altars in the Church of St. Peter, where the perfect indulgence is granted.” (Oberman, 188)
- “An objection to the avowed object of the expenditure”
- “A denial of the powers of the pope over purgatory”
- “A consideration of the welfare of the sinner”
Analysis of the 95 Theses
On some points in the 95 Theses, Luther seems yet to fall short of a Reformation view, as Heinrich Bornkamm observes: Luther, at this time upholds Roman authority in Thesis 7, "God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest."
Overall, the Theses seem to indicate that, when they were written, Luther still held to beliefs in:
2. Indulgences (in some sense)
3. The Pope
On the other hand, Bornkamm further observes that Luther does interpret penance biblically rather than sacramentally in Thesis 4, "The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven."
Furthermore, Bainton points out that the 95 Theses denied three main points of Roman doctrine:
- “There is no such thing as supererogation”
- “The pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory”
- “Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though he is absolved a million times by the pope…”
It is interesting that indulgences are rarely mentioned in the theses, but when he does mention them, Luther clearly states that good works are better than indulgences (Theses 43 and 45). Concerning indulgences, Luther argues that Papal authority is not to the extent that the pope may dispense or withhold grace.
Consequences of Posting the 95 Theses
The 95 Theses were originally written in Latin; Luther seemed to think that they would only be debated by a few theologians. Two weeks after the 95 Theses were posted they were translated into German and given to a printer. “Luther took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute and dignitaries to define, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the press. In short order they became the talk of Germany.” (Bainton, 63-64)
Luther was not meaning to attack papal authority in general, but the abuse of the doctrine of indulgences. But Luther's intention to discuss and debate was interpreted as an attack on the power of the papacy. For the Theses struck a blow at the misuse of indulgences and simultaneously called into question a central position of Catholic piety. Questioning the indulgences instituted by the popes lead others (and eventually Luther himself) to a question of the Pope’s authority in general.