Martin Luther's 95 Theses | Study Guide

Martin Luther

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Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) grew up in Mansfeld, in what is now eastern Germany. During Luther's lifetime this area was part of the Holy Roman Empire. He studied law, theology, and philosophy before becoming an Augustinian monk at the age of 25. Eventually, he returned to university to further his study of theology, earning a doctor of theology degree. He went on to teach theology and was ordained as a priest.

Luther was a devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church but deeply questioned some of the church's doctrines and practices. Like some other religious scholars of his time, he was strongly influenced by the early Christian philosopher Augustine (354–430), who had stressed the importance of the Bible over the authority of church officials. Luther lived during a transitional period in European history, at a time that was both the end of the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. His writings helped spur enormous social, political, and religious change.

In 1517 Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, one of his first influential texts. He likely posted them on the door of the chapel at the University of Wittenberg, although there is some scholarly disagreement over whether this actually occurred. His text sharply criticized the practice of selling indulgences and introduced his view on the primacy of scripture, or the texts of the Bible.

Indulgences

The early Christian church introduced the concept of indulgences, a way to lessen the punishment required when a person sinned. To receive an indulgence, the person had to give something in exchange. This might be a prayer, an act of charity, or another action meant to counterbalance the sinful behavior. Such acts demonstrated repentance for sin. The church taught that repentance was necessary in order for a person to be granted salvation and go to heaven. Church teachings were important, as the faithful looked to church doctrine to help them know how to achieve salvation and avoid eternal punishment.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church developed the practice of selling indulgences. This became a widespread commercial enterprise. People could pay the church instead of performing the required repentance for a sin. Catholic doctrine also held that such payments expedited a soul's ascent to heaven. Luther's Ninety-Five Theses was a reaction against the sale of indulgences and a discussion of theological questions tied to this practice.

Concerns about Marketing of Indulgences and False Promises

Various popes had used the sale of indulgences as a way to fund ambitious projects. Pope Julius II (1443–1513) ordered the sale of indulgences to fund the restoration of Saint Peter's Basilica, a grandiose church, in Rome. His successor, Pope Leo X (1475–1521), increased the sale of indulgences to fund both the basilica and his notoriously lavish lifestyle.

As part of the church's fundraising efforts, Dominican friar Johann Tetzel (1465–1519) was commissioned to promote the sale of indulgences in eastern Germany. Tetzel's actions caught the attention and the ire of Martin Luther. Several of Luther's theses, most notably Thesis 28, are directly addressed to Tetzel.

However, Tetzel was only one of many sellers whose claims Luther found alarming. Luther wrote that some of these claims did not match actual church teachings. Much of the Ninety-Five Theses is an attack on the claims and tactics of the indulgence sellers. Luther charges that in an effort to boost sales, the indulgence sellers were promising an easy and false path to salvation. His concern was that such promises were not only false but dangerous because they could lure purchasers into forgoing the necessary steps to properly repent for their sins. Instead of securing salvation, the purchasers of indulgences unknowingly risked eternal damnation.

Challenge to Papal Authority

The pope is the leader of the Catholic Church. Papal authority—how much power popes have as spiritual leaders—is another question raised in the Ninety-Five Theses. By authorizing the sale of indulgences and claiming that buying indulgences could release people from divine punishment, the papacy asserted that it had power over the ultimate destiny of souls both in life and death.

Much of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses criticized the excesses of the people charged with selling indulgences, but the text also directly challenged the pope's spiritual authority. Luther wrote that the pope does not have the power to remit, or excuse, penalties owed to God for an individual's sins. He argued that the pope can only reduce earthly punishments imposed by the church, not punishments of divine origin. Papal indulgences, Luther claimed, have no bearing on an individual's soul in the afterlife. His claim undermined a practice that popes had used for more than four centuries.

The Bible as the Pathway to Salvation

Luther objected to the notion that the church or the pope were of primary importance in people's efforts to achieve salvation (to be forgiven for sins and go to heaven when they die). He asserted that the word of God—the Bible, or scripture—is of paramount importance to the faithful. He argued that anything, including the selling of indulgences, that detracts from or de-emphasizes the word of God is both dangerous and unchristian. He compared indulgence sellers to false prophets and warned that their claims actually hurt the faithful because they steer Christians away from the acts prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels. Luther's emphasis on the Bible as the key to salvation would become a foundational doctrine of the Protestant religion, which arose in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Ninety-Five Theses.

A Call to Debate, Not a Call for a New Church

While the document was provocative for the times, Luther viewed it as a call for religious scholars and officials to debate the merits of a particular Roman Catholic practice, the sale of indulgences. The fact that Luther chose to draft his document in Latin, the language of the church, instead of his native German, supports the claim that he was not seeking a wide audience for his argument but, rather, a scholarly debate.

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