Luther’s 95 theses detail his objection to the sale of indulgences
As we consider Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, it’s important to note that his initial objection centered on the abuse of indulgences, not indulgences themselves. He didn’t object to the concept, but merely how it had morphed into something he found unsupported by scripture.
It’s also an overstatement to suggest he started out opposing many of the church’s practices as unbiblical and in need of reform. Martin sought not to provoke a revolution against the Church, but to spark a civilized, theological debate within its leadership.
He wanted to address what he saw as an overreach of one specific church doctrine.
He preached publicly on this to the laity and sought to discuss his concerns privately with Church leaders. The leaders weren’t interested.
Frustrated, Martin drafted a list of ninety-five points of contention. Some say he wrote on impulse and out of anger. Others insist his concise words resulted from a carefully informed study.
His points of dispute addressed purgatory, a place between heaven and hell. Indulgences, a payment of money to escape purgatory; and the pope’s unbiblical role in this.
Writing in Latin, to keep the uneducated masses from overreacting, Martin intended his ninety-five theses to be a document for the learned that would spark debate among Church leadership and bring about needed reform within the Church.
October 31, 1517
According to legend, and consistent with his fiery personality, here’s what allegedly happened: On October 31, 1517, on the eve of the Feast of All Saints day, he took a hammer and defiantly nailed his list of grievances to the wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
His bold act of rebellion symbolized revolution.
This myth, while compelling, is unlikely. It stands in contrast to his calling to serve the Church and his character as an academic, professor, and preacher.
An alternative understanding shows Martin respectfully posting his theses on the church doors, which served as a bulletin board for the local university housed there.
This wasn’t a show of brazen rebellion, but the accepted practice of the day: attaching a notice, written in Latin, on the church’s door of the items he wanted to debate. Since only learned scholars could read Latin, the masses would have no idea of the issues he raised.
This would allow the Church to consider this issue in isolation.
Or so was Martin’s intent. Regardless of which explanation we follow, his action brought attention to his words, but not in the way he hoped.
His attitude wasn’t rebellion, but respect. He desired to offer correction to his beloved Church and change her from within. His short preamble to his list of ninety-five items confirms this. In it, he conveyed his humility and called for a discussion to discern truth.
Read more about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Peter DeHaan’s book Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: Celebrating the Protestant Reformation in the 21st Century. Buy it today to discover more about Martin Luther and his history-changing 95 theses.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.