An obscure monk hammers a list of grievances onto the doors of a church: what could be more revolutionary—or more symbolic of the Protestant Reformation—than that?
But when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door on October 31, 1517, he wasn’t launching a fully formed movement in a single act; he was giving voice to ideas that had been brewing in Christendom for years. Though many Christians see that act as the launch of the Protestant Reformation, the truth is a little more complicated.
Here are six facts you probably didn’t know about Martin Luther and his 95 theses, all drawn from Dr. Jennifer McNutt’s Mobile Ed course Milestones of the Protestant Reformation.
Nailing stuff to church doors wasn’t revolutionary in and of itself
It’s tempting to imagine Martin Luther striding to the doors of Wittenburg Church, hammer and nails in hand, emboldened to break his silence and at last declare his outrage at the abuses of Church leadership.
And there was some of that.
However, many modern Christians don’t realize just how run-of-the-mill Luther’s act was. This is likely because we don’t have a similar practice in modern culture. (After all, when was the last time you nailed criticisms of your church’s budget to the door of your pastor’s study?)
Dr. McNutt describes how Luther’s famous act was surprisingly ordinary.
On October 31, 1517, a completely ordinary event occurred: An obscure monk named Martin Luther, teaching at the New University in Wittenberg, watched a debate in the customary manner of a university professor. With academic freedom, he nailed his 95 Theses to the local church door, in accordance with the current scholarly practice and in the accepted scholarly language of Latin.
Luther’s intention was to spark an academic debate over the current practice of indulgences in the church as was his right as professor of theology. Yet what transpired from 1517 on could in no way be predicted or anticipated.
This wasn’t the first time indulgences were criticized
Acknowledging that Luther was following a common academic convention doesn’t mitigate the importance of his act. Indeed, Luther’s Theses would become the most prominent document criticizing the church’s practice of selling indulgences.
In Luther’s day, some Church leaders taught that Christians could reduce time spent in purgatory, either for themselves or a deceased loved one, by purchasing a church document called an indulgence. “Once the coin in the coffer rings,” as one ditty of the time had it, “the soul from purgatory springs.”
That practice had been abused by clergy for a long time—and plenty of Christians prior to Luther had voiced their criticism. As Dr. McNutt explains:
. . . from the medieval papacy at the Fourth Lateran Council to the medieval outliers of church leadership and scholarship, indulgences were known to be susceptible to corruption.
This was not even the first time Luther himself voiced concerns over the corruption of indulgences. Moreover, Luther did not even call for the abolition of indulgences at this point, but merely its reform.
However, there was one problem connected to indulgences that really got Luther’s blood boiling. It’s an issue that strikes at the heart of the theology Luther would go on to develop: the object of the Christian’s faith.
One idea in connection to indulgences would push Luther over the edge: that confession and, therefore, contrition—being sorry for your sin—was unnecessary to receive absolution. Indulgences were increasingly taking the place of both contrition and confession in the penance process. Possession of an indulgence was becoming proof of a person’s willingness to be penitent, and absolution was being granted based on that evidence.
For Luther, this presented real problems. Was one placing his or her faith in Christ, or in the indulgence?
What was really happening in the heart of the person? Were they really sorry for their sin? For Luther, the concern was pastoral: Were people putting their trust for forgiveness in a purchased document? Or in the promises of God? In the pope, or in Christ? . . . Luther believed his congregants were being led astray. . .
Luther’s theses were published without his permission
As was pointed out above, Luther wrote in the scholarly language of Latin. His views likely wouldn’t have gained popular appeal if the 95 Theses hadn’t been translated into German. But they were—without his permission. Dr. McNutt explains:
Quickly, Luther’s 95 Theses were translated into German without his permission, and from that point on, concerns originally intended for the attention of the scholars and clergy of the church became fodder for the masses. Luther’s posting of the theses would prove to be the hammer heard around the world. This one ordinary act initiated an extraordinary transformation of the church and European society.
Luther’s actions . . . would leave an undeniable mark not only upon Christianity but the Western world especially. . . . It was this milestone moment that proved to be the catalyst for daring the church to reform.
The theses weren’t as hard on the pope as you might think
Many Christians are familiar with the story of the 95 Theses, but less familiar with the content of the theses themselves. You might expect the document that launched the Protestant Reformation to be pretty rough on the pope . . . and it is. But not as much as you might think.
Luther’s theses limited the role of the papacy, critiquing developments introduced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
- Thesis six, for example, made clear that the pope does not have the power to remit sin but can only proclaim what God has done.
- Thesis eight, moreover, asserted that penance is only for the living and cannot be placed upon the dead.
- As thesis 20 explained, the papacy does not have jurisdiction over the treasury of merits for penalties against God.
Meanwhile, Luther tempered his treatment of the papacy in other ways.
- Thesis 38 made clear that the pope’s distribution of indulgences should continue.
- In thesis 50, he expressed the assumption that the pope did not know how indulgences were being sold.
Ultimately, the point for Luther was that our assurances for saving grace come from Christ and not the pope. Thus, thesis 94 declared that one must put confidence in the promise of Christ and not in the papacy.
. . . but that’s not to say Luther took a weak stance
Of course, Martin Luther had plenty of criticisms to level against church practices. Here are a few highlights:
In thesis 21, Luther accused the preachers of indulgences of misleading the people. The liberal promise of freedom from penalty was leading them astray. . . . Luther denied—in theses 27 and 28—that money releases souls from purgatory.
In thesis 35, Luther declared that the idea that contrition is not necessary for redemption is unchristian. Contrition is what leads to forgiveness, not purchasing a letter of pardon. . . . God’s grace is not subject to purchase.
For Luther, it was better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence, as thesis 45 declared, “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.”
Similarly, Luther made it clear that it was better to care for one’s family than to waste money on indulgences. Indulgences were, perhaps, more trouble than they were worth.
It might not have been the theses that sparked the Reformation after all
When Luther’s 95 Theses were published in German, they immediately made a stir. Still, it might not have been the Theses that truly sparked the Reformation. That honor may be due another of Luther’s works.
Luther was summoned to Heidelberg for a disputation [regarding the 95 Theses], but instead of being castigated, he was celebrated, and even given the opportunity to persuade those there of his views,201 including the future prominent Reformer, Martin Bucer. . .
By the following year, on August 7, 1518, Luther received a summons by the pope to Rome, to [account] for his ideas and actions. Though Luther believed he was merely fighting the corruption within the church at this point, the church was beginning to have a different view of Luther’s actions. How did it get to this point? Certainly, the rapid translation of Luther’s 95 Theses into German was a key factor. Moreover, the translation and publication of Luther’s sermons on indulgences into German, in 1518, was significant as well.
For some scholars, it was this action that truly ignited the Protestant Reformation. Why? Well, theological dispute was no longer relegated to the elites; instead, the door was opened for a wider discussion within Christendom over national and church authority.