The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences (Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) are a list of propositions for an academic disputation written by Martin Luther in 1517. They advance Luther's positions against what he saw as abusive practises by preachers selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates which would reduce the temporal punishment for sins committed by the purchaser or their loved ones in purgatory. Luther sent the Theses to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Protestant Reformation. Luther might have additionally posted the Theses on the door of All Saints' Church, Wittenberg, probably in mid-November.
Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg and town preacher, wrote the Ninety-five Theses against the current practise of the church with respect to indulgences. In the Catholic Church, indulgences are part of the economy of salvation. In this system, when Christians sin and confess, they're forgiven and will no longer receive eternal punishment in hell, but might still be liable to temporal punishment. This punishment can be satisfied by the penitent performing works of mercy. If the temporal punishment isn't satisfied throughout their life, it would need to be satisfied in purgatory. With an indulgence (which might be translated "kindness"), this temporal punishment can be lessened. Under abuses of the system of indulgences, clergy benefited by selling indulgences and the pope who gave official sanction in exchange for a fee.
Popes are able to grant plenary indulgences, which provide complete satisfaction for any remaining temporal punishment due to sins, and were purchased on behalf of people in purgatory. This led to the popular saying, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs". Theologians at the University of Paris had criticised this saying late in the fifteenth century. Earlier critics of indulgences included John Wycliffe, who denied that the pope had jurisdiction over purgatory. Jan Hus and his followers had advocated a more severe system of penance where indulgences weren't available. Johannes von Wesel had additionally attacked indulgences late in the fifteenth century. Political rulers had an interest in controlling indulgences. Local economies suffered when the money for indulgences left a given territory, so rulers most often sought to receive a portion of the proceeds or prohibited indulgences altogether.
In 1515, Pope Leo X granted a plenary indulgence intended to finance the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It would apply to almost any sin, including adultery and theft. All additional indulgence preaching was to cease for the eight years in which it was offered. Indulgence preachers were given strict instructions on how the indulgence was to be preached, and they were much more laudatory of the indulgence than those of earlier indulgences. Johann Tetzel was commissioned to preach and offer the indulgence in 1517, and his campaign in cities near Wittenberg drew a large number of Wittenbergers to travel to these cities and purchase them. Duke George, had prohibited Tetzel from actually entering Electoral Saxony, the state in which Wittenberg was located.
Luther additionally had experience with the indulgences connected to All Saints' Church, Wittenberg. By venerating the large collection of relics at the church, one could receive an indulgence. He had preached as early as 1514 against indulgences and the way they cheapened grace rather than requiring true repentance. Luther became especially concerned in 1517 when his parishioners, returning from purchasing Tetzel's indulgences, claimed that they no longer needed to repent and change their lives in order to be forgiven of sin. After hearing what Tetzel had said about indulgences in his sermons, he began to study the issue more carefully and contacted experts on the subject. He preached about indulgences several times in 1517, explaining that true repentance was better than purchasing an indulgence. He taught that receiving an indulgence presupposed that the penitent had confessed and repented, otherwise it was worthless. A truly repentant sinner would additionally not seek an indulgence, because they loved God's righteousness and desired the inward punishment of their sin. These sermons seem to have ceased from April to October 1517, while Luther was presumably writing the Ninety-five Theses. He composed a Treatise on Indulgences, apparently in early Autumn 1517. It is a cautious and searching examination of the subject. He contacted church leaders on the subject by letter, including his superior Hieronymus Schulze, Bishop of Brandenburg, sometime on or before 31 October when he sent the Theses to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg.
The first thesis has become famous: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." In the first few theses Luther develops the idea of repentance as the Christian's inner struggle with sin rather than the external system of sacramental confession. Theses 5–7 then state that the pope can only release people from the punishments he has administered himself or through the church's system of penance, not the guilt of sin. The pope is only able to announce God's forgiveness of the guilt of sin in his name. In theses 14–16, Luther challenged common beliefs about purgatory, and in theses 17–24 he asserts that nothing can be definitively said about the spiritual state of people in purgatory. He denies that the pope has any power over people in purgatory in theses 25 and 26. In theses 27–29, he attacks the idea that as soon as payment is made, the payer's loved one is released from purgatory. He sees it as encouraging sinful greed and impossible to be certain because only God has ultimate power in forgiving punishments in purgatory.
Theses 30–34 deal with the false certainty Luther believed the indulgence preachers offered Christians. Since no one knows whether a person is truly repentant, a letter assuring a person of his forgiveness is dangerous. In theses 35 and 36, he attacks the idea that an indulgence makes repentance unnecessary. This leads to the conclusion that the truly repentant person, who alone might benefit from the indulgence, has already received the only benefit the indulgence provides. Truly repentant Christians have already, according to Luther, been forgiven of the penalty as well as the guilt of sin. In theses 37 and 38, he states that indulgences aren't necessary for Christians to receive all the benefits provided by Christ. Theses 39 and 40 argue that indulgences make true repentance more difficult. True repentance desires God's punishment of sin, but indulgences teach one to avoid punishment, after that's the purpose of purchasing the indulgence.
In theses 41–47 Luther begins to criticise indulgences on the basis that they discourage works of mercy by those who purchase them. Here he begins to use the phrase, "Christians are to be taught..." to state how he thinks people should be instructed on the value of indulgences. They should be taught that giving to the poor is incomparably more important than buying indulgences, that buying an indulgence rather than giving to the poor invites God's wrath, and that doing good works makes a person better while buying indulgences does not. In theses 48–52 Luther takes the side of the pope, saying that if the pope knew what was being preached in his name he would rather St. Peter's Basilica be burned down than "built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep." Theses 53–55 complain about the restrictions on preaching while the indulgence was being offered.
Luther begins to criticise the doctrine of the treasury of merit on which the doctrine of indulgences is based in theses 56–66. He states that everyday Christians don't understand the doctrine and are being mislead. For Luther, the true treasure of the church is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This treasure tends to be hated because it makes "the first last", in the words of Matthew 19:30 and 20:16. Luther uses metaphor and wordplay to describe the treasures of the gospel as nets to catch wealthy people, whereas the treasures of indulgences are nets to catch the wealth of men.
In theses 67–80, Luther discusses further the problems with the way indulgences are being preached, as he had done in the letter to Archbishop Albert. The preachers have been promoting indulgences as the greatest of the graces available from the church, but they actually only promote greed. He points out that bishops have been commanded to offer reverence to indulgence preachers who enter their jurisdiction, but bishops are additionally charged with protecting their people from preachers who preach contrary to the pope's intention. He then attacks the belief allegedly propagated by the preachers that the indulgence could forgive one who had violated the Virgin Mary. Luther states that indulgences can't take away the guilt of even the lightest of venial sins. He labels several additional alleged statements of the indulgence preachers as blasphemy: that Saint Peter couldn't have granted a greater indulgence than the current one, and that the indulgence cross with the papal arms is as worthy as the cross of Christ.
Luther lists several criticisms advanced by laypeople against indulgences in theses 81–91. He presents these as difficult objections his congregants are bringing rather than his own criticisms. How should he answer those who ask why the pope doesn't simply empty purgatory if it is in his power? What should he say to those who ask why anniversary masses for the dead, which were for the sake of those in purgatory, continued for those who had been redeemed by an indulgence? Luther claimed that it seemed strange to a few that pious people in purgatory can be redeemed by living impious people. Luther additionally mentions the question of why the pope, who's quite rich, requires money from poor believers to build St. Peter's Basilica. Luther claims that ignoring these questions risks allowing people to ridicule the pope. He appeals to the pope's financial interest, saying that if the preachers limited their preaching in accordance with Luther's positions on indulgences (which he claimed was additionally the pope's position), the objections would cease to be relevant. Luther closes the Theses by exhorting Christians to imitate Christ even if it brings pain and suffering. Enduring punishment and entering heaven is preferable to false security.
The Theses are written as propositions to be argued in a formal academic disputation. In the heading of the Theses, Luther invited interested scholars from additional cities to participate in the disputation. Holding such a disputation was a privilege Luther held as a doctor, and it wasn't an unusual form of academic inquiry. Luther prepared twenty sets of theses for disputation at Wittenberg between 1516 and 1521. Andreas Karlstadt had written theses for disputation in April of 1517, and these were more radical in theological terms than Luther's. He posted them on the door of All Saints' Church, as Luther was alleged to have done with the Ninety-five Theses. Karlstadt posted his theses at a time when the relics of the church were placed on display, and this might have been considered a provocative gesture. According to a few accounts, Luther posted the Ninety-five Theses on the most important day of the year for the display of relics at All Saints' Church.
Luther's theses were intended to start a debate amongst academics, not a popular revolution, but there are indications that he saw his action as prophetic and significant. Around this time, he began using the name "Luther" and at times "Eleutherius", Greek for "free", rather than "Luder". This seems to refer to his being free from the scholastic theology which he had argued against earlier that year. Luther later claimed not to have desired the Theses to be widely distributed. Elizabeth Eisenstein has argued that his claimed surprise at their success might have involved self-deception and Hans Hillerbrand has claimed that Luther was certainly intending to instigate a large controversy. At times, Luther seems to use the academic nature of the Theses as a cover to allow him to attack established beliefs while being able to deny that he intended to attack church teaching. Since writing a set of theses for a disputation doesn't necessarily commit the author to those views, Luther could deny that he held the most incendiary ideas in the Theses.
Distribution and publication
On 31 October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, under whose authority the indulgences were being sold. In the letter, Luther addresses the archbishop out of a loyal desire to alert him to the pastoral problems created by the indulgence sermons. He assumes that Albert is unaware of what's being preached under his authority, and speaks out of concern that the people are being lead away from the gospel, and that the indulgence preaching might bring shame to Albert's name. He doesn't condemn indulgences or the current doctrine regarding them, nor even the sermons which had been preached themselves, as he hadn't seen them firsthand. Instead he states his concern regarding the misunderstandings of the people about indulgences which have been fostered by the preaching, like the belief that any sin can be forgiven by indulgences or that the guilt as well as the punishment for sin can be forgiven by an indulgence. In a postscript, Luther wrote that Albert could find a few theses on the matter enclosed with his letter, so that he could see the uncertainty surrounding the doctrine of indulgences in contrast to the preachers who speak so confidently of the benefits of indulgences.
It was customary when proposing a disputation to have the theses printed by the university press and publicly posted. No copies of a Wittenberg printing of the Ninety-five Theses has survived, but this isn't surprising as Luther wasn't famous and the importance of the document wasn't recognized. In Wittenberg, the door of All Saints' Church was the location where theses would have been posted. While Philip Melanchthon later claimed that Luther posted the Theses to the door on 31 October, this conflicts with several of Luther's statements about the course of events. It is likely that while Luther later saw the 31 October letter to Albert as the beginning of the Reformation, he didn't post the Theses to the church door until mid-November, and a few scholars doubt that he posted the Theses on the door at all. Regardless, the Theses were well-known amongst the Wittenberg intellectual elite soon after Luther sent them to Albert.
The Theses were copied and distributed to interested parties soon after Luther sent the letter to Archbishop Albert. The Latin Theses were printed in a four-page pamphlet in Basel, and as placards in Leipzig and Nuremberg. In all, several hundred copies of the Latin Theses were printed in Germany in 1517. Kaspar Nützel in Nuremberg translated them into German later that year, and copies of this translation were sent to several interested parties across Germany, but it wasn't necessarily printed.
Albert seems to have received Luther's letter with the Theses around the end of November. He requested the opinion of theologians at the University of Mainz and conferred with his advisers. His advisers recommended he have Luther prohibited from preaching against indulgences in accordance with the indulgence bull. Albert requested such action from the Roman Curia. In Rome, Luther was immediately perceived as a threat. In February 1518, Pope Leo asked the head of the Augustinian Hermits, Luther's religious order, to convince him to stop spreading his ideas about indulgences. Sylvester Mazzolini was additionally appointed to write an opinion which would be used in the trial against him. Mazzolini wrote A Dialogue against Martin Luther's Presumptious Theses concerning the Power of Pope, which focused on Luther's questioning of the pope's authority rather than his complaints about indulgence preaching. Luther received a summons to Rome in August 1518. He responded with Explanations of the Disputation Concerning the Value of Indulgences, in which he attempted to clear himself of the charge that he had been attacking the pope. This was a clearer presentation of his views on indulgences as well as related matters of sacraments, faith, and justification. As such it has been called his first Reformation work.
Johann Tetzel responded to the Theses by calling for Luther to be burnt for heresy and having theologian Konrad Wimpina write 106 theses against Luther's work. Tetzel defended these in a disputation before the University of Frankfurt on the Oder in January 1518. 800 copies of the printed disputation were sent to be sold in Wittenberg, but students of the University seized them from the bookseller and burned them. Luther became increasingly fearful that the situation was out of hand and that he would be in danger. To placate his opponents, he published a Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, which didn't challenge the pope's authority. This pamphlet, written in German, was quite short and easy for laypeople to understand. Luther's first widely successful work, it was reprinted twenty times. Tetzel responded with a point-by-point refutation, citing heavily from the Bible and important theologians. His pamphlet wasn't nearly as popular as Luther's. Luther's reply to Tetzel's pamphlet, on the additional hand, was another publishing success for Luther.
Another prominent opponent of the Theses was Johann Eck, Luther's friend and a theologian at the University of Ingolstadt. Eck wrote a refutation, intended for the Bishop of Eichstätt, entitled the Obelisks. This was in reference to the obelisks used to mark heretical passages in texts in the Middle Ages. It was a harsh and unexpected personal attack, charging Luther with heresy and stupidity. Luther responded privately with the Asterisks, titled after the asterisk marks then used to highlight important texts. Luther's response was angry and he expressed the opinion that Eck didn't understand the matter on which he wrote. The dispute between Luther and Eck would become public in the 1519 Leipzig Debate.
There is no evidence that the disputation Luther proposed with the Theses ever took place.
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. 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.
As the Reformation progressed, another element drew adherents to the ideas and practises 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. 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 practises like indulgential penance (the sale of indulgences). As availability of the recently invented movable type printing press spread, literacy additionally began to grow amongst a wider population that was increasingly being exposed to books and began to hear the Bible read aloud in the vernacular at church. 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 additionally allowed individual ownership of a previously more contained theological process, so that individuals found themselves more invested in understanding and living out their faith.