[Yesterday was "Reformation Day:" the annual remembrance of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The following is an examination of the circumstances leading up to Luther's writing and posting the Theses, a short summary of the Theses, an analysis of the Theses in light of Roman doctrine, and a brief word concerning the consequences of Luther posting the 95 Theses.]
When Luther began teaching against indulgences, many people who considered themselves faithful Catholics began listening to him. One reason that people thought that they could agree with Luther against the practices of the Catholic Church was that the doctrine taught by the Catholic Church concerning indulgences was extremely vague.
In 1423 Pope Clement VI had issued a papal bull that gave official teaching concerning the "treasury of merits." (The idea of this "treasury" is foundational to the development of the idea of indulgences.) Clement VI taught that Christ’s life and the lives of saints provided an “overflow of merits.” These merits by the saints that go beyond their own need are known as supererogation.
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia says concerning “Supererogation:”
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.
One way to access the "treasury of merits," according to the Catholic Church of Luther's day, was through indulgences granted in connection with gazing upon the relics of the saints. Luther's benefactor, Frederick the Wise, had amassed a huge collection of relics, and this collection was opened to the public on “the day of All Saints, whose merits provided the ground of the indulgences whose relics were then on display” (Bainton, 53). By paying a fee and seeing the relics, people were thought to be able to reduce their time in purgatory by thousands of years.
Another way to access the "treasury of merits" was through other indulgences, which were issued in order to help people meet the requirements of satisfaction when normal means could not be used. “An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin
, the guilt of which has been forgiven.” (Catholic Encyclopedia
“At first indulgences were conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the infidel [that is, the Muslim people], and then were extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land [as Crusaders], made contributions to the enterprise. The device proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover the construction of churches, monasteries, and hospitals.” (Bainton, 54)
Eventually, “The popes delegated to many churches in Christendom the privilege of dispensing indulgences, and the Castle Church at Wittenberg was the recipient of a very unusual concession granting full remission of all sins.” (Bainton, 53)
While Luther was a professor in Wittenberg, Leo X gave authority for a special indulgence in order to fund a third bishopric for Albert of Mainz. The special indulgence offered four benefits:
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
The most infamous of the sanctioned salesmen of indulgences in Luther's day was the Dominican priest, Johan Tetzel. Tetzel used tactics such as calling to mind the deceased family members of his hearers writhing in agony in purgatory while they held the money that could set them free. The following are quotes from Tetzel:
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)
Indulgence preachers would often set up a replica of the papal seal as a symbol that they were under his authority. “A cartoon published…by one of Luther’s followers showed the cross in the center empty of all save the nail holes and the crown of thorns. More prominent beside it stood the papal arms with the balls of the Medici, while in the foreground the vendor hawked his wares.” (Bainton, 60)
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses against indulgences on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg.
A Short Summary of the 95 Theses
The 95 Theses may be understood according to three main points (Bainton 60-61):
Analysis of the 95 Theses
“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”
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:
Indulgences (in some sense)
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…”
Luther taught that repentance and faith are synonymous. Luther’s teaching of the superiority of repentance over indulgences was considered revolutionary, but this teaching was actually preceded by the Augustinian Gottschalk Hollen’s statement in c.1452, “Repentance is better than indulgences” (Oberman 74-75). In the background of the Theses, then, is the change in Luther’s theology gained from a study of Pauline and Augustinian theology.
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.