The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”
Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.
The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.
As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.
Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.
Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.
When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.
In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.