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Martin Luther and His Ninety-Five Theses

October 31, 1517


Introduction by Donna Morley: There are many who simply do not understand the issues behind Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. What was it that prompted Luther to nail his long list of complaints on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany?

It all started when Prince Albert (1490-1545) of the House of Hohenzollern had his eye on a vacant archbishopric position in Mainz, Germany. Prince Albert already had control of two provinces in the Roman Catholic church. According to canon law, he would not be able to hold any other position. Canon law stated that no one could hold more than one office.

While Prince Albert wanted the archbishopric, Pope Leo needed lots of money so that he could build the Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Knowing what Albert wanted, Leo approached the Prince with an idea. He offered to give Albert the archbishop of Mainz if he paid for it. But, it would have to be a large sum of money.

Albert didn’t have the money Pope Leo wanted. Leo suggested that the Prince borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger family who lived in Augsburg. The Fugger’s agreed to give Prince Albert the money, who in turn, gave it to Leo. In exchange, the Pope made Prince Albert the archbishop in the Catholic church.

Now the Archbishop had to figure out how to repay the Fuggers. Pope Leo came up with the idea of selling indulgences. This way, the Fugger’s would get their money, and Leo would get more money for his cathedral.

The Pope told the Archbishop that the people could buy the indulgences as a way for them to receive forgiveness and thus revoke God’s punishment here on earth or when they got to purgatory. He also gave another selling point. That is, that the people could buy the indulgences to help their dead friends and relatives get out of purgatory.

The indulgences became great news to the Catholics, and as they paid the money for them, Leo got half the money, and the Fugger’s got the other half. Seeing how profitable this indulgence selling had become, the Archbishop branched out. He hired an agent, a Dominican monk, named Johann Tetzel.

Tetzel was to work full time selling indulgences. He was paid nearly eleven hundred dollars a month, plus his expenses, to bring in the large sums of money. While Tetzel offered indulgences free to the homeless, he normally sold each indulgence according to the person’s financial status. If the person was wealthy, one indulgence could go for three hundred dollars (an enormous sum in 1517).

Tetzel was a high pressure person. He told the people that if they bought an indulgence they would receive complete forgiveness of all sin. As well, they would be guaranteed salvation. He also suggested to the people that they buy salvation for their loved ones as well. Thousands of people flocked to Tetzel as he proclaimed “drop the coin in the box and all your sins fly away” [Durant, 374]. Obviously, the people wanted a guarantee of salvation, and were willing to pay for it.

Having discovered from the book of Romans (1:17): “The just shall live by faith” Luther realized that mankind can be “justified” (made just and therefore saved from hell) not by good works, which could never suffice as an atonement for our sins, but only by complete faith in Jesus Christ and in His atonement for mankind. Because of this truth, Luther was appalled that Tetzel was selling salvation. He believed that the Catholic church--from the Pope down to Tetzel–were deceiving and exploiting the people.

As a result, Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s theses addressed not only the issue of indulgence but other theological concerns that Luther wanted opened up for public debate.

Luther’s actions were not unusual. It was an old custom in medieval universities and on church doors to post a theses. To ensure that everyone would read it, Luther chose to post his statements on October 31, 1517. The following day was All Saint’s Day when the Elector would post relics in the church and so a large crowd was to be expected.

A large crowd did come to the church and all had an opportunity to read Luther’s ninety-five points, which included the following question:


Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of 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 reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial. [Point 82]

After the posting of the Theses, Tetzel tried to silence Luther. With the help of some professional aid, Tetzel replied in One Hundred and Six Anti-Theses(December 1517). He made no apologies, but “gave at times an uncompromising, even dogmatic, sanction to mere theological opinions that were hardly consonant with the most accurate scholarship.” [Ganss, H.G., in Cath. Enc., (New York, 1912), Vol. IX, 442. Also in Durant, 345.]

When Tetzel’s Theses reached Wittenberg, it was being offered for sale. A mob of university students attacked the seller of Tetzel’s work, and then burned the 800 copies for sell in the market square.

Luther responded to Tetzel’s Theses in a paper titled, “A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace.” His concluding remarks were, “If I am called a heretic by those whose purses will suffer from my truths, I care not much for their brawling; for only those say this whose dark understanding has never known the Bible” [Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, 14 V., St. Louis, 1898, and London, 1910), VII, 354. Also in Durant, 345-346.]

Luther debated this problem with members of his order in Heidelberg in 1518. At this debate, Luther continued to insist that authority comes not from the Pope, nor the Church, but from the Bible only. While the debate didn’t accomplish a whole lot in changing the minds of the Catholic leadership, it did get more people to accept Luther’s ideas. Those who got behind Luther were the professors at the university in Wittenberg, which included Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), who became the Lutheran Reformation’s theologian.

Luther was then ordered to appear before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. When they met on October 12-14, 1518, the Cardinal had many questions for Luther, such as “should a monk be allowed to criticize publicly his superiors–to whom he vowed obedience–and to advocate views condemned by the Church?” [Durant, 347-348]. At this time the Cardinal also demanded that Luther retract his views.

Luther told Cardinal Cajetan that he would only retract his views if Scripture could prove that his views were false. He again reiterated that, although he had great respect for the Pope as a person, he didn’t have the final authority in faith or in morals–only Scripture had final authority.

On June 15, 1520 Pope Leo X issued the bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned forty-one statements by Luther and eventually resulted in his excommunication. Leo also ordered the burning of Luther’s Theses at Cologne.

During the time Luther’s Theses were being burned at Cologne, Erasmus defended Luther, pointing out that Luther was right. There are abuses in the Church and that rather than suppress them, there should be efforts of remedy. Erasmus said that the two mistakes Luther made were that: “...he attacked the pope in his crown and the monks in their bellies.” [Johannes Janssen, History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 Vols. (St. Louis, MO., n.d.) III. 173]

By May of 1521, Luther had been commanded to be at a hearing concerning his case at the city of Worms. He was guaranteed his safety at this hearing. The Cardinal of Tortosa, soon to be pope, contacted the Emperor telling him to ignore Luther’s safety. Instead, he asked that Luther be arrested and sent to Rome.

Luther arrived in Worms on April 16, 1521. The streets were filled upon his arrival. The following day, in his monastic garb, Luther stood before Imperial Diet, the Emperor–Charles V, six electors, an array of court of princes, nobles, prelates, and burghers, and Johann Eck and Jerome Aleander armed with papal authority, formal documents, and Luther’s books.

Pointing to all of Luther’s books, Eck asked Luther if those books were indeed his writings, and if so, would he retract all “heresies” that are in those books?

Luther admitted that the books were his, and that he wrote everything on those pages. But, for some reason, he lost his nerve and asked if he could take some time to think about Eck’s second question.

Charles V agreed to give Luther the rest of the day to think about Eck’s question and to meet back the following day.