This article appeared in Ad Fontes Vol II, Issue 2.
Excerpted from Davenant’s forthcoming Reformation Theology volume.
Few documents in Christian history have become as iconic as Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, the ringing denunciation of the corruptions of the late medieval church that was to spark the Protestant Reformation. Luther may or may not have posted them on the church door in Wittenberg (he almost certainly did not nail them, in any case, as later legend would have it), but his dissemination of them on October 31, 1517 marked a turning point not only in Luther’s life but in the life of the whole Christian church.
The document itself, however, is an unlikely candidate for the role of revolutionary text or Protestant manifesto: composed chiefly for an academic disputation on a practice now long-forgotten and scarce understood, the theses are a bit bewildering to the modern reader looking for familiar Reformation slogans. Indeed, neither of Luther’s two great principles—justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone—are to be found in these pages, even though the former had already begun to influence Luther’s thinking and underlies several of his concerns in the Theses.
Judged by the standard of Luther’s later work (even his writings from two or three years later), the Theses are fairly conservative, and Luther hardly expected them to unleash a full-scale reconception of Christian theology and division of the church. Luther here is not so much interested in overthrowing the whole penitential system of the Catholic Church as he is in purifying it from obvious abuses, and he continues to accept many of the Pope’s claims of authority. Indeed, in Theses 80-90 he says that one of his chief concerns is to defend the honor of the Pope against the easy attacks to which the careless teaching of the indulgence preachers had exposed him.
On the other hand, it is easy to downplay too much the significance of the Theses. Luther was not, after all, just a random and inconsequential monk, as the Pope and his advisors were to try and dismiss him; he was at this time one of the highest-ranking leaders of the Augustinian Order in Germany and an increasingly renowned professor at one of its leading universities. Moreover, Luther did not compose the Theses on a whim; he had been long wrestling over the indulgences issue and was well aware that by attacking the practice, he would likely be earning himself some very powerful enemies. Finally, although theses were normally composed for academic disputations only, Luther seems to have intended these at the outset for a wider audience. As scholar Timothy J. Wengert notes, the Theses are full of rhetorical flourishes that suggest Luther wanted to reach and persuade many educated readers, and very unusually for such theses, Luther from the first invited scholars from around Germany to respond to the theses in writing. Indeed, there does not ever seem to have been an academic disputation in Wittenberg as would normally have followed the proposal of such theses. Most striking of all, Luther took the extraordinary step of sending the Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the leading church authority in Germany, and exhorting him in no uncertain terms to restrain the indulgence preachers.
So who were these indulgence preachers and why was Luther so upset about them? The answer sheds light both on the astonishing depth of the corruption in the late medieval church and on the often misunderstood heart of Luther’s protest against it.
The theology and practice of indulgences had been around for centuries, although it had gotten increasingly out of hand in the decades leading up to 1517. At its root lay a long medieval distinction between guilt and punishment: although true repentance of sins and confession to a priest could give the believer absolution from guilt and therefore from hellfire, sin still demanded some kind of temporal punishment. Some of this punishment could be handled by taking penitential actions prescribed by the priest, but much of it would remain to be exacted after death. Accordingly, the medieval church came to increasingly teach the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the faithful must undergo a term (perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years) of purifying torment before they could enter heaven. But, there was some good news. By doing certain holy acts, like participating in or helping pay for a Crusade, Christians could receive an “indulgence” from the Pope, shortening their time in purgatory or perhaps even skipping it altogether. Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church. Ostensibly ordered to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, much of the money actually went into the coffers of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Albrecht needed it in order to repay the Fugger banking family for the immense debts he had contracted from them in order to buy from the Pope the most powerful church office in Germany at the age of 23. Since the most enthusiastic buyers of indulgences were the uneducated and gullible poor, Tetzel’s indulgence campaign constituted an extraordinary redistribution of wealth upward from the poorest to the richest in Christendom.
Such exploitation of the poor infuriated Luther, and in thesis 45, he decries those who, instead of helping the needy, as Christ commanded for the truly penitent, spent all their spare money on indulgences. More fundamentally, though, Luther worried that indulgences were a form of cheap grace, a way for people to purchase false security for their souls without truly facing the depth of their sin and repenting from the heart. The earlier distinction between guilt and punishment had been thoroughly blurred so that indulgences had in the minds of the public, encouraged by salesmen like Tetzel, become a substitute for true repentance, purchasing freedom from guilt as well as punishment. This point is key to grasp, given how readily Luther’s gospel of salvation by faith alone is often distorted. Luther’s concern with the late medieval church was less that it had made salvation too hard (by endless works rather than simple faith) and more that it had made salvation too easy (by thoughtless outward works or transactions rather than heartfelt repentance, being crucified with Christ). The real gospel of Christ, charged Luther, was both much more serious, more frightening, and more liberating than the spiritual economy the popes had created to fill their own coffers.
Dr. Bradford Littlejohn is the President of the Davenant Institute and teaches philosophy at Moody Bible Institute. He is the author of two books on Richard Hooker as well as numerous articles and book chapters on Reformation theology and Christian ethics.