About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Richard Johnson at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on Medieval and Reformation Church History.
Martin Luther greatly impacted the world when he challenged the use of indulgences by the Catholic Church. But who was Luther? Where did he come from and how did he find himself in a position to challenge the practices of the church? We should examine Luther’s early life, from before and during his monastery experience, what indulgences were, what Luther thought about them, and what happened as a result of his challenges. We now turn to Luther’s biographical information and life leading up to the monastery.
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses
Life Towards the Monastery
Luther was born on November 10, 1483.1 He was German, being born to Hans Luther in Eisleben, which was located in the land formally known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.2 This land was controlled by princes, nobles, lords, and councils.3 Luther and his family were peasants.4 His father was in the copper-mining industry.5
Luther went to the Latin School of the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg, followed by three to four years at a school in Eisenach, and from there he went to the University of Erfurt.6 He received his bachelor’s degree in 1502, and his master’s degree in 1505.7 After he received his master’s degree, Luther planned to study law at the Faculty of Law at Erfurt, but when he was in transit to Erfurt after having visited his family he encountered a terrible thunderstorm; fearing for his life, he called out to St. Anne, the traditional mother of Mary and patron saint of miners, and he swore an oath that if she would help he would join a monastery.8
Luther and the Monastery
Luther joined an Augustinian monastery. The monastery itself was a refuge. Those who wanted to save their souls from death fled to the monastery. The monastery was a life of communal routines, ceremonies, and duties. It embodied prayer, meditation, and solitary confinement. It was a highly regulated life.9 In this structured and strict life, Luther continued to study. The Vicar-General of the Saxon province of the Augustinian order, Staupitz, commanded Luther to study theology. He was ordained as a priest in 1507, and in May of that year he performed his first mass, which brought him much terror. He was horrified by the thought that he was approaching the one true God while being a sinner. He was so terrified that he nearly did not finish the ritual. Afterwards, Luther was very anguished. He punished the flesh of his body, fasted, prayed, and even stayed up late to pray, yet he never found peace with God despite all of his efforts.10
Luther became a doctor of theology at the University of Wittenberg on October 19, 1512.11 This advancement elevated him to the chair of Biblical theology. He lectured on the Psalms and Romans.12 Perhaps it was from these lectures that Luther began to see the importance of God’s grace. His emphasis on the forgiveness of human sin and reconciliation with God through God’s grace alone caused him to call into question the practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church.13 We must see what indulgences were and how they were perceived and used in the Catholic Church in order for us to be able to see why Luther challenged them.
Indulgences and Their Background
Indulgences were a medieval development related to the sacrament of penance.14 Indulgences were bought by contrite sinners, sometimes on behalf of a dead relative so as to reduce suffering in purgatory.15 In theory, they were given to those contrite sinners with good reason, and in return the penitent gratefully and freely gave alms; therefore, indulgences were not technically bought or sold, but since money and indulgences were exchanged, it was only a matter of time before the transfer of indulgences possessed a suggested retail value for the contributions.16 The practice of indulgences was abused as some who sold indulgences claimed that they “could free a damned soul from hell.”17
The expansion of indulgences was made possible by the common people’s passion for them and the loose theology behind them.18 Due to the presence of the cultic relics, the main thought of medieval Christianity held that “nothing in the divine economy of salvation could be lost,” so that the church claimed to possess and maintain a treasury of merits collected from the deeds of the saints.19 The relics and the blood spilt in testimony by the saints gathered together into something that was thought to be eternal, a treasury that could be applied to indulgences, so that if a penitent Christian receives one, God would transfer the power from the treasury onto the penitent to bring about purity of heart.20 This transfer was thought to be possible because the church is one body, and so the good of one part is spread throughout the whole; the popes and the bishops are able to direct the goods to where the church needs them.21
It was only a matter of time for indulgences to apply to the life that comes after earthly death. Purgatory, a temporal place of satisfaction for sin, holds suffering for a limited time. Indulgences were later sold on behalf of dead relatives to help shorten their time of purging. This practice was possible because the treasury of merits were seen as divine and not limited to life on earth. Aquinas and Bonaventure held that indulgences could have a lasting effect even in purgatory, although they did not say that indulgences could be bought for someone other than oneself to be applied in the afterlife.22
Popes and Indulgences
Popes viewed indulgences as a good source of money. In 1300 Boniface VIII declared a jubilee year in Rome and granted indulgences to all pilgrims who came to the city, so that those who received indulgences, regardless of the theology behind them, thought that their sins were satisfied. Indulgences were abused, for they had become medicine for the soul and those who sold them were evaluated in regards to how much money they brought in. In 1312 the Council of Vienne criticized the claims being made that indulgences could pardon guilt and penalty for serious mortal sins, such as murder. Given the financial crisis of the Avignon papacy, it is no wonder that the popes did not call into question the claims of the indulgences, since they were a good source for money.23
Indulgences reached their peak in 1476 when Sixtus IV made them efficacious for the dead in purgatory. Buying an indulgence on behalf of a dead relative meant that one would no longer need to pray for that person. This idea was not met without opposition. The University of Paris did not agree with the claims of the pope, that a soul in purgatory was not released when an indulgence was sold. It also condemned the idea that the pope had authority over purgatory. However, popes had more authority than the university, so indulgence sales did not decline. But protests still continued. Johannes von Staupitz expressed his concerns in 1516 in an Advent sermon at Nuremberg’s Augustinian monastery.24
Pope Leo X and John Tetzel
By the time Staupitz expressed his concerns, Pope Leo X had already declared his sale of indulgences in 1515 for his construction project–St. Peter’s basilica.25 Pope Leo X was of the Medici family, “the energetic Florentine banking family with a talent for profit.”26 His father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was one of the greatest patrons of the arts. Pope Leo X, elected in 1513, had his own artistic agenda–to finish St. Peter’s basilica over the supposed grave of the apostle. The foundation for this project had already been laid by Pope Julius II, but the basilica was not finished due to a disagreement on the designs and also due to a lack of funding. Pope Leo X determined to finance this project by selling indulgences.27
Pope Leo X had to negotiate with the various governments involved in order to sell indulgences. The Germans did not like how their money was taken and used in Italy, so the Emperor Maximilian had to be convinced to allow indulgence sellers into his lands. Albrecht of Brandenburg welcomed indulgence sellers into his lands, however, so that he could gain his position as Archbishop of Mainz and repay his debt for being granted such a position. Neither the emperor nor the Archbishop of Mainz could convince the Elector Frederick the Wise to allow indulgence sellers into his part of Saxony, probably because it would decrease the value of his own collection of relics. Whatever the reason, he refused to allow them into his lands, which forced a certain seller to remain just outside his borders.28
A Dominican indulgence seller, John Tetzel located himself outside the border of Electoral Saxony.29 He had been commissioned by Albrecht of Hohenzollern, the Archbishop of Mainz, to sell Jubilee indulgences to help pay for St. Peter’s basilica in Rome and to pay for Albrecht’s debts.30 Since Frederick the Wise refused indulgence sellers into his area of Saxony, Tetzel set up in Jüterbog, which was a few miles beyond the Saxon border.31 Being a Dominican, a monastic order that had fallen to low esteem, an order that were often dishonest in getting contributions, it is not a surprise that Tetzel swayed the crowds to purchase indulgences. He was so bold as to claim (possibly) that even stealing the virginity of the Virgin Mary could be pardoned by purchasing an indulgence, although Tetzel did deny making such a claim.32
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses
Tetzel’s claims were the immediate cause for Luther’s theses. Tetzel’s claims that indulgences guarantee release from punishment and forgiveness of sins prompted Luther to give his counter claim that indulgences had no reference to purgatory or forgiveness. It was Tetzel’s claim that as soon as the money was collected a soul left purgatory.33 It has been commonly said that Luther prepared and presented his theses for an academic debate on the indulgences. According to tradition Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the church door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, and within a few weeks the theses had been copied and translated into the common language, and spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire unleashing a great controversy.34
A debate has emerged regarding the posting of the theses. Did Luther post the Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg? Did someone else take the theses off of the door and translate them from Latin into German for everyone else to read? According to Richard Marius, a scholar in 1961 by the name of Erwin Iserloh considered the following facts: nowhere in his table talk did Luther speak about posting the theses on the church door; at no time does Luther mention publicly posting the Ninety-five Theses; and Luther recalled preaching to the people and discussing in private with associates the concerns with the indulgences and their sellers. However, none of his recollections indicate the public display of the theses in an effort to start a public debate.35
Marius reports that Iserloh proposed that the story of the nailing of the theses came from Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther’s colleagues. Melanchthon wrote a short summary of Luther’s life following Luther’s death. The problem was Melanchthon had not yet come to Wittenberg by the time of the theses–he arrived in August 1518–so he did not see or witness the event firsthand. According to Marius, Iserloh took the fact that Luther used necessary channels seriously, which, in his view, means that he did not post the theses. Furthermore, Luther never perceived the theses to be as important as his discovery of the gospel, which came afterwards. For Iserloh, Marius says, the evidence does not suggest Luther posted the theses.36
Therefore, at best we can only arrive at a plausible reconstruction. Marius proposes that Luther was very upset with Tetzel and the indulgences at Jüterbog, and out of that anger he sent a letter on indulgences to the archbishop, “the man supposed to oversee the religious life of the entire region.” However, there is no indication that he wanted a public debate with Albrecht of Brandenburg or to embarrass Frederick the Wise. In fact, in early November, Luther wrote to a friend indicating he did not want his theses to be seen by Frederick before they had been received by those whom he was writing about, which suggests he did not intend them for public debate. It also suggests that he did not want others to think Frederick the Wise had anything to do with the theses. It is unlikely that Luther would have been able to post the theses on the church door and Frederick not see them; yet, when he wrote to his friend in early November, he seemed to have the assurance that Frederick had not seen them, which indicates that the theses were not presented to the public. It seems as though the theses were meant for Albrecht alone. Whether or not the theses were posted, Luther was working dangerously. Albrecht of Brandenburg was a noble, while Luther a monk. Bishops had the power to imprison a monk. Luther’s letter did demonstrate great flattery on the archbishop, which was common for communication of different social and political ranks.37
Luther’s theses quickly became popular among the people, being translated into German and spread throughout the country, most likely due to the blunt and witty arguments he put forth in the document, which drew him into controversy.38 We will now observe the frank arguments Luther wrote.
The Ninety-five Theses are ninety-five thesis statements; they are not in a paragraph form, but still they contain important issues that are logically plotted. Luther felt strongly that penitence was not supposed to be a single act as bound up in the purchase of an indulgence, but rather, penitence was a continuous lifestyle.39
Luther starts the theses with a declaration, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”40 He opens the theses with a statement that Christ desires repentance from believers (Thesis 1). Repentance is the theme in Theses 1-4. Repentance, according to Luther, cannot be understood in the sacrament of penance (Thesis 2), and it is not merely inner repentance (Thesis 3). For Luther, repentance is not fully consummated until we enter heaven, and until then the penalty of sin remains (Thesis 4).
In Thesis 5, Luther transitions from repentance to the Pope. He lists several reasons why the pope is not able to provide repentance for believers in Theses 5-9. The pope is neither able to remit penalties or guilt (Theses 5-6). God is the one remits guilt, but only if the believer humbles himself and submits to the priest (Thesis 7).
With a little overlap, Theses 8-20 deal with the provisions of repentance for the dead. In the end, Luther ties it all back into the relationship between the sacrament and the pope. The pope is unable to remit sins except in those cases where he instituted particular decrees that were broken by the people (Thesis 20). As a result, Luther declares that all preachers who say that the pope can actually provide repentance through indulgences are in error (Thesis 21). He concludes that the pope is not able to give repentance to those in purgatory (Thesis 22).
Luther moves on to say that the pope could only give indulgences for the remission of sins to those who were perfect (Thesis 23). Luther declares that the people have been deceived by the practice of indulgences, for the pope has no more power over the people’s guilt in purgatory as bishops have over the people in their diocese, that is, all he can do is intercede for them (Theses 24-6).
Luther seems to allude to the statement of John Tetzel in Thesis 27, that when a coin drops into the collection a soul flees from purgatory, and he looks upon it as erroneous. He takes up this idea to show that it permits greed to flourish, and he insists that no one knows the fate of those in purgatory (Theses 28-9). Furthermore, Luther says that no one is fully sure of their own repentance (Thesis 30). He insists that the one who does buy an indulgence in belief that they will have certainty of their salvation will be eternally damned alongside of the indulgence preachers (Thesis 32).
Luther returns to the errors associated with the pope. The people should not confuse the pope’s pardons with God’s grace, because the pope’s grace (indulgences) only apply to man’s decrees (Theses 33-4). Furthermore, those who teach that penance is no longer necessary for those who purchase an indulgence teach non-christian doctrine (Thesis 35). He boldly asserts that anyone who is truly repentant can have complete remission of sins and participates in the blessings of Christ, so indulgences are not necessary (Theses 36-7).
Luther makes a series of odd concessions in Theses 37-41. For example, he strangely concedes that the pope’s remission is not to be disregarded (Thesis 38). Indulgences are the proclamation of divine remission, but it is a fine line in theology, and so indulgences should be taught and used with great caution, as believers who are truly penitent purchase them. It seems as though Luther is cautioning against the great number of indulgences that were available (Thesis 40). He cautions that indulgences could be thought of as a good work of love and that it might take precedence over other such deeds (Thesis 41).
Luther moves on to caution that indulgences should not be conceived as God’s work of mercy, and he encourages believers to use their money to aid the poor and not buy indulgences, because believers grow in actions of love, but not when they buy indulgences (Theses 43-45). Luther also concedes that believers need to provide for their families first and not squander wages on indulgences (Thesis 46). Luther emphasizes that purchasing indulgences is an option, not a requirement (Thesis 47).
Luther claims that the pope needs the people’s prayer more than their money because he issued the sale of indulgences (Thesis 48). He goes on in Theses 48-91 to focus on the perils of the pope and indulgences. This majority section has several motifs. Papal scathing is the main motif throughout this section. The ignorance of the pope is pointed out (Thesis 51); not even the pope’s soul as a security for the purchase of an indulgence would help (Thesis 52); the pope allows for the Word of God to be diminished in order that indulgences may be preached (Thesis 53-4). Yet he highlights the seemingly true desires of the pope. The pope would surely want the gospel to be preached in greater relationship to indulgences (Thesis 55). He points out that we know very little of the treasury of merit from which the pope is able to create indulgences, but what we do know is that the treasure is not what the pope declared, but rather, it is the Church of God (Theses 55-66).
Luther makes it quite clear how he feels of indulgences as a whole with a series of questions. In Thesis 82 he questions why the pope does not rescue all the souls from purgatory out of love and not for money to build a church. In Thesis 83 he questions why the pope allows for a sort of double payment for the dead, since through indulgences they were already redeemed. He asks further about the unjust and unfair result of indulgences, that the wicked can buy their way out of the penalty of their sins (Thesis 84). He bluntly questions why the pope does not build the church with his own money, since he is rich himself. These are frank questions, and he continues with more, pointing ever so brilliantly to the corruption of the pope and the system of indulgences. But in the end he concedes that if the specific intentions of the pope were carried out, then the problems of indulgences would not exist (Thesis 91). Luther rebukes indulgence preachers and exhorts believers to be confident of their salvation through suffering (Theses 92-5).
Indulgences were a fairly long tradition within the church, but it did not take long at all for the system to collapse after Luther challenged them. The Ninety-five Theses attacked this corrupt, abused, and misunderstood practice. Regardless if the theses were posted on the Castle door, though it seems they were not, they had a powerful and enduring affect on the people and the church. As a result, indulgence sales declined, controversy arose, and the church later divided. All of these events were the result of a frightened law student in the middle of a terrible thunderstorm, who became a monk and later argued against a fraudulent system of penance.
Dillenberger, John, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from his writings edited and with an introduction. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1961.
Latourette, Kenneth. A History of Christianity: Reformation to the present. Vol. II. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975.
Luther, Martin. Ninety-five Theses. In Lewis Spitz, The Protestant Reformation. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966.
Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian between God and death. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
Spitz, Lewis. The Protestant Reformation. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966.
1 Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian between God and death (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 1.
2 Marius, Martin Luther, 1.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his writings edited and with an introduction (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1961), xiv.
6 Dillenberger, Martin Luther, xiv.
8 Ibid. Also, cf. Marius, Martin Luther, 44, for the statement about St. Anne being the “mythical mother of the Virgin Mary.” Dillenberger gives no such information. Marius gives some additional background to this patron saint.
9 Ibid., 45.
10 Kenneth Latourette, A History of Christianity: Reformation to the present, II (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975), 705.
11 Lewis Spitz, The Protestant Reformation (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966), 36.
12 Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 36.
13 Ibid., 43.
15 Ibid. Also cf. Marius, Martin Luther, 129-30.
16 Marius, Martin Luther, 132.
19 Ibid., 132-3.
22 Ibid., 133.
23 Ibid., 133-4.
24 Ibid., 134.
26 Ibid., 129.
28 Ibid., 134.
29 Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 43.
31 Marius, Martin Luther, 134.
32 Ibid., 134-5.
33 Latourette, A History of Christianity, II, 708.
34 Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 43. Also cf. Latourette, A History of Christianity, II, 708. Latourette also says that Luther posted the theses on the door of the church as a way to start a debate.
35 Marius, Martin Luther, 137.
36 Marius, Martin Luther, 137-8.
37 Ibid., 138-9.
38 Latourette, A History of Christianity, II, 708-9. Cf. also Marius, Martin Luther, 147. According to Marius, the controversy came about largely because of the plummeting of indulgence sales.
39 Dillenberger, Martin Luther, xix-xx.
40 Martin Luther, Ninety-five Theses, in Spitz, The Protestant Reformation, 43-50. All references to the Ninety-Five Theses in this section come from this source.