This Day in History -- Luther's 95 Theses

Next year on this day, it will have been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in the Saxon city of Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517.  The posting of the 95 theses is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, without which there would have been no Protestant denominations, and no Seventh-day Adventists.

The immediate cause was Pope Leo X's decision to finance the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome largely through the sale of indulgences.  Indulgences were supposed to shorten a person's stay in purgatory and allow him to get to heaven sooner.  Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainze and Magdeburg, was an enthusiast of the sale of indulgences; he had purchased his bishopric from the pope on credit, and needed to raise funds to pay off his loan.  Albrecht appointed the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel as his chief indulgence salesman.  Tetzel is best known for his advertising jingle:

"As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"

The 95 Theses were directed against the sale of indulgences.  In the first few theses, Luther argues that repentance is the Christian's inner struggle with sin rather than the external system of sacramental confession. Luther emphasized that even in theory, the Pope could only release people from punishments that he himself or the Catholic Church had imposed.  He attacked Tetzel's jingle "as soon as a coin in the coffer rings . . . " as encouraging sinful greed, and argued that only God has power in forgiving punishments.

He attacked the idea that an indulgence makes repentance unnecessary, and argued that the indulgence-mongers' assurances of certainty of forgiveness were false, because no one knows whether someone is truly repentant.  The logical conclusion was that the truly repentant person, who alone may benefit from the indulgence, has already received the only benefit of the indulgence.

In theses 48–52, Luther exculpates the pope by assuming that Leo did not know what Tetzel was saying and promising in order to sell indulgences.  He asserted that if the pope knew what was being preached in his name, he would rather burn St. Peter's Basilica to the ground than have it be "built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep."

Although Luther did not, at this time, deny the doctrine of purgatory, he began to ask embarrassing questions about it.  If the pope has the power to let anyone out of purgatory, why doesn't he let everyone out?  Why is he holding people hostage in purgatory to finance the building of a magnificent church structure, especially since he is very wealthy, and the indulgences were being sold to the poor?  

No. 82:  `Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?'' The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.

Of course, the Reformation was not just over indulgences, but over the moral declension of the whole Catholic Church, which had been awash in simony, nepotism, venality and corruption for centuries.  The corruption was epitomized by the Borgia family, whose patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, served as Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503.  (October 31 is also the anniversary of an infamous debauchery held in the Vatican by Rodrigo's son, Cesare Borgia, in honor of the marriage of his sister, Lucretia, in 1501.)

In the end, the Reformation was not even primarily about the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, but the more fundamental question of authority:  Does authority come from church councils, the traditions of the church, or from the Scriptures.  Luther ultimately concluded that the Christian's authority comes from the word of God:

I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen."