The Ninety-Five Theses

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"Thesentür" (the "Door of the Theses") memorial at All Saints' Church (Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg

The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (original Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) were written by Martin Luther and are widely regarded as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism, and the sale of indulgences. It is generally believed that, according to university custom, on 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg.

Background

The Ninety-Five Theses question the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences and view skeptically the notion that a papal pardon rather than penance or genuine contrition can achieve forgiveness of sins. Luther argued that Christians were being falsely told that they could obtain absolution for souls in purgatory by buying indulgences.

All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire, locally known as the Castle Church (Schlosskirche), where the Ninety-Five Theses famously appeared, held one of Europe's largest collections of holy relics. These had been piously collected by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics supposedly allowed the viewer to receive relief from temporal punishment for sins in purgatory. By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly "including vials of the milk of the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger [of Jesus], and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod."[1]

As part of a fund-raising campaign commissioned by Pope Leo X to finance the renovation of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, began the selling of indulgences in the German lands. Albert of Mainz, the Archbishop of Mainz in Germany, had borrowed heavily to pay for his high church rank and was deeply in debt. He agreed to allow the sale of the indulgences in his territory in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Luther was apparently not aware of this. Even though Luther's prince, Frederick III, and the prince of the neighboring territory, George, Duke of Saxony, forbade the sale thereof in their respective lands, people in Wittenberg traveled to purchase them. When these people came to confession, they presented their plenary indulgences for which they paid, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins, since the document promised to forgive all their sins. Luther was outraged that they had paid money for what was theirs by right as a free gift from God. He felt compelled to expose the fraud that was being sold to the people. This exposure was to take place in the form of a public scholarly debate at the University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses outlined the items to be discussed and issued the challenge to any and all comers.

Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs."[2] He insisted that since forgiveness was God's alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

The 95 Theses

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

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

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.

11. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept (Mt 13:25).

12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.

14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.

17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.

18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.

19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.

20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words "plenary remission of all penalties," does not actually mean "all penalties," but only those imposed by himself.

21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.

22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.

23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.

24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.

25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish.

26. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend.

30. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.

31. The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed, he is exceedingly rare.

32. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

33. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.

34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.

35. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission.

39. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition.

40. A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them -- at least it furnishes occasion for hating them.

41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

47. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.

48 Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.

49. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.

53. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

55. It is certainly the pope's sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

56. The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.

57. That indulgences are not temporal treasures is certainly clear, for many indulgence sellers do not distribute them freely but only gather them.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.

59. St. Lawrence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

60. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure.

61. For it is clear that the pope's power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself.

62. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16).

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.

66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.

67. The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.

68. They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence.

70. But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned.

71. Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.

72. But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed.

73. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.

74. Much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth.

75. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.

76. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.

77. To say that even St. Peter if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope.

78. We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written, 1 Co 12[:28].

79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this.

81. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.

82. Such as: "Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church? The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.

83. Again, "Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?"

84. Again, "What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love's sake?"

85. Again, "Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?"

86. Again, "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?"

87. Again, "What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?"

88. Again, "What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?"

89. "Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?"

90. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.

91. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!

94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).

Initial dissemination

A replica of the Ninety-Five Theses in Schlosskirche, Wittenberg

Until the 20th century it was accepted as fact that on 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, according to university custom.[3]

However, Catholic Luther researcher de (Erwin Iserloh) asserted in 1961 that the nailing of the theses to the church door is a myth. The first written account of the event comes from Philipp Melanchthon who could not have been an eye-witness to the event since he was not called to Wittenberg University as a professor until 1518. Also, this account appeared for the first time after Luther's death and he never commented on 'nailing anything up' in 1517. Announcements of upcoming disputes were supposedly regularly hung on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. But, openly hanging the theses without waiting for a reaction from the Bishops could have been seen as a clear provocation and Luther only wanted to clear up some misunderstandings. It is also worth noting, that there was no open discussion of the theses in Wittenberg and that no original printing of the theses could be found.[4]

On the same day, Luther sent a hand-written copy, joined with honorable comments, to the archbishop Albert of Mainz and Magdeburg, who was in charge of the indulgence sales, and to the bishop of Brandenburg, the superior of Luther at the time. He put in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which became known as The Ninety-Five Theses. Hans Hillerbrand wrote that Luther had no intention of challenging the church but saw his dispute as a scholarly objection to church actions, and the voice of the letter is accordingly "searching, rather than doctrinaire."[5] Hillerbrand wrote that there is nevertheless an undertone of confrontation and dispute in several of the theses, especially in Thesis 86, which poses the question: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"[5]

Within two weeks, copies of the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.[6][7] In January 1518 Christoph von Scheurl and other friends of Luther translated the Ninety-Five Theses from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied them, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press.[8]

Reaction

On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X rebutted the Ninety-Five Theses by issuing a papal bull entitled Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"). This document outlined the Magisterium of the Church's findings of where the pope believed Luther had erred.

As early as 29 October 1521, the chapel at Wittenberg began to turn away from private Masses.[clarification needed] In 1522, much of the city began celebrating Lutheran services instead of Masses. Luther's popularity grew rapidly, mostly because the general Catholic population were dissatisfied with the corruption and "worldly" desires and habits of the Roman Curia.[9][10][11]

As the Reformation progressed, another element drew adherents to the ideas and practices that gradually became known as Lutheranism. Luther and others had urged that greater balance be observed in the attention given to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures versus the long-accepted sources of tradition and reason in the formation of doctrine.[12] This concept, called sola scriptura, offered a basis for querying the tight hold Catholic prelates then had over both the content of faith and over potentially infringing corollary practices like indulgential penance (the sale of indulgences).[13] As availability of the recently invented movable type printing press spread, literacy also began to grow among a wider population that was increasingly being exposed to books and began to hear the Bible read aloud in the vernacular at church.[14] The laity, now able to read and examine traditional creedal content, was encouraged to test its fidelity to Scriptures; the Bible began to take on the character of an ur-text for faith; and a new emphasis on personal piety resulted. This required a different kind of internal balance between the new, wider accessibility of texts, and the need for informed interpretation of the Scriptures: attendance at public preaching and lecturing events grew. It also allowed individual ownership of a previously more contained theological process, so that individuals found themselves more invested in understanding and living out their faith.[15]

See also

References

  1. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  2. Bainton, Roland, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 60; Brecht, Martin, Martin Luther, tr. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93), 1:182; Kittelson, James, Luther The Reformer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1986), p. 104
  3. Oberman, Heiko, Luther, Man between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 190 ISBN 0-385-42278-4; for the custom, see also Oberman, Heiko, Werden und Wertung der Reformation: Vom Wegestreit zum Glauben Kampf (Tuebingen, 1989) p. 190-192 with note 89. ISBN 3-16-145481-2
  4. about Luther: Nailing the 95 Theses
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hillerbrand, Hans J., "Martin Luther: Indulgences and salvation," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007
  6. Krämer, Walter and Trenkler, Götz, "Luther," in Lexicon van Hardnekkige Misverstanden (Bert Bakker, 1997), 214-216
  7. Ritter, Gerhard, "Luther (Frankfurt, 1985)
  8. Brecht, Martin, Martin Luther tr. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985–93), 1:204–205
  9. Löffler, Klemens (1912). "Wittenberg". Catholic Encyclopedia. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 2, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ganss, Henry (1910). "Martin Luther". Catholic Encyclopedia. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 2, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Pope Leo X (June 15, 1520). "Condemning The Errors Of Martin Luther".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. http://lutherantheology.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/a-brief-introduction-to-sola-scriptura/
  13. http://vivacatholic.wordpress.com/2008/08/24/luther-on-sacrament-of-penance/
  14. General theme throughout this excellent work: Eisenstein, E., "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," See: http://books.google.com/books?id=WR1eajpBG9cC&q=reformation#v=snippet&q=reformation&f=false. By way of a critique, see also 'Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Germany,' by R. Gawthrop and G. Strauss, in "Past & Present" No. 104 (Aug., 1984), pp. 31-55 Published by: Oxford University Press Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/650697"
  15. This is consistent with what is known of Luther's experience of personal piety as emphasized within the Augustinian order whence he had come. See: Marius, R., "Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death," p. 47 (Harvard University Press, Jun 1, 2009).

Bibliography

  • Erwin Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther Between Reform and Reformation, trans. by Jared Wicks, S.J. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968)
  • Palmer, R. R., A History of the Modern World (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002) ISBN 0-375-41398-7

External links