David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500, Part 1: 95 Theses, 500 Years On: A Reformation Day Reflection

In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a number of Protestant scholars have published a number of new resources. My favorite is the new 6-volume Annotated Luther series that Fortress Press has rolled out over the last three or so years. Some of Luther's most important writings are translated into contemporary English, annotated with excellent scholarly notes, and appended with wonderful introductions written by top-notch Luther scholars. In honor of the 500th anniversary, I am beginning a new blog series I'm calling Refo500. after the website and scholarly organization of the same name. In this series, I hope to blog at least once a month on one of Luther's works from the annotated series. Today, I begin–appropriately–with Luther's 95 Theses.



What Happened at the Wittenberg Door

Today is the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther supposedly posted his 95 Theses (titled, "Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences") on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Whether or not Luther actually did so is a point of historical contention. The first known documentation of this legend comes in Melancthon's preface to Luther's works published in 1546. Melancthon–himself not in Wittenberg at the time–retold a story that Luther himself told him.

The "Theses Doors" at Wittenberg Castle Church.

The "Theses Doors" at Wittenberg Castle Church.

If Luther did post the theses on the door, it was not an aggressive gesture, but merely the publication of an invitation to debate. The church door was like a bulletin board; Luther's disputation would have been posted next to other documents and advertisements. And if he did so, it was likely in accordance with the University's policy for debating theological issues.

What is certain is that on October 31, 1517, Luther mailed a copy of his theses to Archbishop Albrecht with a letter imploring the Archbishop to reconsider the theological justifications used for the preaching of indulgences. Insofar as this is true, the 95 Theses still represent the beginning of Luther's efforts to reform the church. And subsequently, it is reasonable to recognize October 31 as "Reformation Day." On this 500th Reformation Day, I want to take a few minutes to think about the 95 Theses and what they might say to us today.


Getting Medieval on Penance

[The following explanation is dependent on Timothy Wengert's excellent explanation of penance in his introduction to the 95 Thesis in The Annotated Luther, Volume 1].

To understand what is at stake in Luther's challenge to indulgences, you have to understand the theological reasoning behind the sacraments of baptism and penance. Historically, Christian baptism is understood to be "for the remission of sin." The act literally washes one's sin away. This is why it was a known practice for someone to wait until they were on their death-bed to receive baptism (think Augustine's Confessions). It was thought that this was the best way to insure that one died without sin and in a state of grace. While baptism washes away all of one's sin, after baptism a person continues to sin and, therefore, accrues new penalties for the sinner. Penance developed as the means by which Christians addressed the post-baptismal sin in their lives.

The sacrament of penance includes three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Contrition describes when, out of love for God, a sinner becomes aware of and regrets sin in their life. Confession is when that sinner goes to a priest, confesses that sin, and receives absolution. Finally, satisfaction is when the penitent, now forgiven of her sin and in a state of grace, does some sort of work (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) in order to satisfy the temporal penalty that comes from sin.

To be clear, the actual forgiveness of sin–or the move from a state of sin to a state of grace–occurs in the first or second act. Luther would eventually side with those who suggested that even the act of inner remorse or contrition itself was sufficient to bring about an infusion of God's grace. Thomists, on the other hand, would maintain that it was only with the second act and the priest's absolution, that a sinner was returned to grace. Either way, the important point is that nobody thought that works of penance–satisfaction–was for the purpose of "earning" grace.

To understand the purpose of satisfaction, then, we must consider another related theological concept: purgatory. While confession may return the sinner to a state of grace, should she die without having satisfied the penalties accrued for sin in this life, then the sinner would be unable to enter into the divine presence. Purgatory, then, is the place where saved sinners go in order to satisfy the remainder of whatever penalties they could not satisfy during their lifetime. Once purged of all outstanding penalties, a person may finally proceed to heaven and God's eternal presence.

Indulgences originate with the idea that the church has the ability to wipe clean the slate of penalties a person has accrued. In exchange for acts of piety–like participating in a crusade, or making pilgrimage to a holy site or relic–the church can partially or fully remove the sinner's penalties. Eventually this morphed into the idea that one could acquire an indulgence not only for their own sin but for a loved one who has already died and is perhaps even now in purgatory.

The theology that made indulgences possible depend upon the idea that the church, and specifically the Pope, possess the keys to the kingdom of God, and therefore have access to a "treasury of merits". Christ's sinlessness and his death on the cross plus the good works of the saints amounts to a bank of good work that the church can draw from to apply those whom it sees fit. In essence, an indulgence is a line of moral credit that one can open with the heavenly bank in order to pay off earthly sin debts.


Luther's Disputation


The Disputation Style

Luther's disputation follows the basic pattern for theological disputations in the Medieval university. It begins with an invitation to dispute, a preamble of sorts. Then, it commences to the theses, organized into the following sections: a narration of the facts, a description of the main theme for dispute, a presentation of the author's argument, a refutation of anticipated objections, and finally, a conclusion statement.

According to Wengert, Luther's Disputation breaks down in the following manner:

  • Exordium, or initial address
  • Narration of the Facts – Theses 1-4
  • Description of the Theme – Thesis 5
  • Confirmation, or Author's argument – Theses 6-80
  • Confutation, or Author's rebuttal to anticipated arguments – Theses 81-91
  • Peroration, or conclusion – Theses 92-95


Address, Narration, and Description (Theses 1-5)

The address invites anyone who would like to debate the matter to appear in Wittenberg to debate the matter in person or to send a written argument for discussion. Then, in Theses 1-4, Luther lays out the basic argument he will make: Jesus commands his disciples to "do penance" in Matthew 4:17, and by this he means that the life of discipleship will be a lifetime posture of penitence. This does NOT mean, however, that the sacramental practice of Penance as it was practiced through confession and satisfaction is what Jesus had in mind. At the same time, a real penance cannot be merely inward; it must also bear outward fruit. In that sense, Christians will live their whole lives under the weight of a real penalty for sin until they come into Christ's kingdom. Finally, Luther describes the point of his argument: the pope is not able to take away penalties that result from the sinner's disobedience to God's law; only God can do that. The pope may only remove or reduce the penalty associated with the church's laws (e.g. excommunication, etc.), but these things have no bearing on a sinner's standing before God. Hence, the whole practice of indulgences rests on a faulty theological presupposition: that the pope does not merely proclaim God's forgiveness and absolution, but that he actually can effect it himself.


Luther's Argument (Theses 6-80)

Luther's argument against indulgences unfolds in four subsections. Theses 6-20 argue the question of papal authority. Then, theses 21-40 argue that the preaching of indulgences is bad preaching and theses 41-55 then provide a clear explication of what Luther thinks proper preaching looks like. After that, Luther turns to the idea of the "treasury of the church" in theses 56-68, and argues that this concept is theologically misappropriated as well. Finally, Luther concludes his argument in theses 69-80 with an exhortation to priests and bishops everywhere to cease the widespread preaching of indulgences in their diocese.

Now, a summary of each argument:

  1. The first argument, against papal authority, does not challenge papal authority itself, but merely the pope's authority to forgive penalties that a sinner incurs from anything more than disobedience to the church's canon law. This point, subsequently means, that the types of things the pope can absolve are not the types of penalties that can follow one into death, and therefore, into purgatory. Therefore, anyone who preaches that one can take these penalties with them into purgatory is lying or ignorant. This is the root cause of the poor preaching of the indulgence preachers.
  2. The second argument is about the poor theology of indulgence preaching itself. Here, Luther takes on the commonly taught refrain that "as soon as a coin thrown into the money chest clinks, a soul flies out [of purgatory]"; instead, Luther exclaims, "when a coin clinks in the money chest profits and avarice may well be increased, but the intercession of the church rests on God's choice alone" (Theses 27-28). Here, Luther's rhetoric becomes fiery: "Those who believe that they can be secure in their salvation through indulgence letters will be eternally damned along with their teachers" (Thesis 32). Again, these indulgences only pertain to the prescribed satisfaction required by the church's penitential practice of confession, not anything required by God himself. Satisfaction is a good thing, because it bears witness to the truth of our contrition; but it does not deny a Christian the benefits of Christ, which all Christians receive from God alone and without regards to merit. By preaching that these indulgences wipe the slate clean for those in purgatory, the church simultaneously dis-incentivized true repentance, contrition, and works of mercy. Simultaneously, it misguided the laity with regards to the nature of salvation itself and preyed upon the finances of the vulnerable.
    In contrast, the church should champion the preaching of the gospel. Wherever the preaching of the gospel is halted so that indulgences can be preached instead, "injustice is done to the Word of God" (Thesis 54). The unusual amount of time that was being given to indulgences in churches all over Christendom gave the mistaken impression that one could entrust their salvation to indulgences themselves, and not to the gospel. In turn, it led to a sort of libertine lifestyle that found solace in buying indulgences instead of devoting oneself to works of love. 
  3. Third, Luther challenges the notion of a "treasury of merit" that the church can access in order to satisfy the penalties of sin. Nowhere, it seems to Luther, does there appear to be a clear theological origin or warrant for this claim. Some have claimed in the past that the poor are the church's treasure. Likewise, it has been said that the keys of the church are its treasure. But, if by "treasure" these indulgence preachers mean a treasury of Christ's merit–which is clearly what they intend–then they are on shaky ground. Again, the pope cannot forgive things that extend beyond the church's earthly purview. Furthermore, the true treasure of the church is the gospel itself. This is a treasure that offers Christ's grace freely and without any recourse to human merit. In a series of back-and-forths Luther contrasts the church's treasure with the treasure of the indulgence preachers. The former makes the first last while the latter makes the last first; or again, the former catches men of wealth in its nets while the latter catches instead the wealth of men.
  4. Finally, Luther concludes with a exhortation to church officials to curb the preaching of indulgences, noting some of the more unsavory claims that were reported to have been made by indulgence preachers: that an indulgence "could absolve a person even for doing the impossible by violating the mother of God" (Thesis 75); that not even St. Peter himself "could grant greater grace" (Thesis 77); or, that a cross bearing the pope's coat of arms "is of equal worth to the cross of Christ" (Thesis 79).


Luther's Confutation (Theses 81-91)

Most confutations take the opportunity to anticipate counter-arguments and to preempt them. Luther, instead, takes a different approach. He uses his confutation as an opportunity to reinforce his main point by imagining the types of questions that his interlocutors will have to address should they disagree with him. Here we find such questions as, "if the Pope has access to this treasury of merit, why would he not want to use it lovingly in order to redeem souls? Why would he resort to selling it for the building of St. Peters?" The force of these questions are to place all of the unnamed and underlying political issues on the table before his opponents have the opportunity to mask them in a theological rebuttal.


Conclusion (Theses 92-95)

Luther concludes by reminding us that the Christian life is a life of penance and, therefore, the only way to heaven is to follow the way of the cross: a way that includes penalties, death, and hell, before it leads to heaven. Indulgences promise to be a shortcut, but they replace the fear of God with a false sense of security.


Final Thoughts

Luther probably never intended his 95 Theses to spark a Reformation. It clearly demonstrates themes that will become prevalent to the Reformation tradition. From the beginning, it demonstrates the Renaissance commitment to ad fontes by questioning the Vulgate translation of Matthew 4:17 and presupposing instead that Erasmus's Greek text is more accurate. Jesus' command is "Repent", not "Do penance." And by this, he clearly means an interior act of contrition, not a highly formalized sacramental practice that is mediated by the church. It further challenges the limits of papal authority and presses for a return to the proclamation of the gospel. At the same time, it is far from clear that Luther intended for his challenge of papal authority to be the main point. For one thing, he continues to write favorably about the pope at this point, suggesting that the problem is not with the pope himself, but with the sorts of things that are being taught in the name of the pope, and the manner in which indulgence preachers were promising things that the pope could not deliver. For Luther, the more significant point seemed to be the correct proclamation of the gospel. He worried that Christians everywhere were being taught that salvation itself could be bought and sold on an open market and that a life of Christian discipleship could be avoided provided one had the financial means. That the 95 Theses provoked such a significant response from the archbishop's theologians and from the pope's theologians demonstrates that at least from their side of the debate, the main thing at stake was the pope's authority itself and Martin Luther appeared to be a burgeoning threat.