Marin Luther is known today as one of the icons of Reformation. This clergyman and avid theologist, born in 1483 in Germany, was among the first few ones to see the deception of the practices held by the Catholic church and spoke against it. The matter in question was the sale of „indulgences”, certificates which were said to have the power of absolution of sins for both the living sinners and their loved ones whose souls were in purgatory. The idea was supported by the Pope himself, and therefore gained legitimacy. Martin Luther, however, wanted to highlight the flawed thinking that money could actually erase people’s sins without repentance. This is why he went on to present his 95 Theses, which eventually led to Reformation of the Catholic Church. Here are some facts about this particular event.
1. The Theses were originally meant to be a spark for academic debate.
Apparently, contrary to what one might think of it, hammering documents to doors of public buildings was quite an ordinary practice in the times of Martin Luther. Such events were usually staged to commence an academic debate on a given subject. As a scholar, Martin Luther felt free to express his opinion on the matters of the conduct of the Church and wanted to encourage his fellow clergymen to look into the issue. The first few lines of the original document, nailed to the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, most probably around October 1517, even mentioned the doctors and scholars to whom the Theses were addressed.
2. Martin Luther entered into the clergy at a very young age.
His parents, Hans and Margaretta had big plans for Martin since the day he was born. At the age of 5, he already was taking lessons in reading, writing and Latin at a local school and then at 13 he was sent to a school owned by the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. The school’s curriculum combined academic teachings with an introduction into monastery and from then on Luther became interested in joining the Church. But his parents saw him rather becoming a lawyer instead. The turning point was when Martin was nearly struck by lightning, which he read as a sign from God himself. From then on, he convinced his parents of his true calling.
3. The Theses were ordered according to the subject they mentioned.
The Theses’ order was far from random. They were put together in sections. For example, the first five opening theses discuss the nature of repentance, which according to Luther is more a spiritual resolution than an external system of confession. The next theses, from 5 to 7 talk about the limited jurisdiction of the Pope over releasing people from sin or guilt. Further on, in the theses 14-24, Luther talks about the nature and function of the purgatory as stated in the Bible, and he finishes his treaty with the theses encouraging Christians to imitate Christ, i.e. not fleeing from suffering, if it’s the way for their salvation.
4. Martin Luther was not the first one to criticize the Church for „indulgences”.
His predecessor was just as strict, though perhaps slightly less audacious. And he went by the name John Wycliffe. John was an English intellectual, who just like Luther participated both in the clerical and academic life. He was a scholastic philosopher and theologian, in addition to being a successful Biblical translator and seminary professor at Oxford University. He took a stand against the Church’s trespassings in the 14th century. Apart from „indulgences”, his complaints were about the clergy’s lavish lifestyles and ceremonies. He also spoke against Papacy.
5. Another of his predecessors was Jan Hus.
Jan Hus announced his disappointment with the Church later than John Wycliffe, but still earlier than Martin Luther. He was a Czech priest, born in 1372 in Husinec, a small town in the Bohemia – an Imperial State in the Holy Roman Empire. Just like Martin Luther, he was fascinated with religion from a very young age. As a child he sang and served in churches in Prague. He attacked the Church teachings on On 24 June 1405 from the comfort of his own pulpit during sermon. However, news spread quickly and Jan Hus was executed in 1415. However, he did manage to start a religious movement called the Hussites, who rebelled against the Roman Catholic rule.
6. The 95 Theses were also distributed as a paper afterwards.
On 31 October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, the person in charge of the distribution of „indulgences”. He then placed the Theses on the door of the aforementioned Church. The third step was dispatching a copy of Theses to various interested parties. The text of the Thesis, printed in Latin, covered an area of a four-page pamphlet. These were distributed all throughout Basel, and in Leipzig and Nuremberg, placards were published instead. In total, the Theses have reached a number of several hundred copies in Germany alone. Soon they were also available in translation and sent on request.
7. Martin Luther was subsequently called a heretic.
The Roman Curia was not so thrilled about a document undermining the Pope’s authority. The recipient of the 95 Theses, Albert of Brandenburg, soon discussed the controversial matter with experts on theology at the University of Mainz and they soon reached the conclusion, that Luther should be banned from preaching against the „indulgences”. Johann Tetzel, a fellow clergyman, wanted Luther burnt at the stake, and had a man called Konrad Wimpina publish 106 theses contradicting Luther’s work. On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”). The document basically stated that Luther was wrong and that „indulgences” were fairly legit in the light of the Bible and teachings of the Church.
8. The Wittenberg Theses started the Reformation movement.
October 1521 saw the chapel at Wittenberg resigning from private Masses. The whole city of Wittenberg was now more inclined towards conducting Lutheran services instead of Masses. Even with the threats of excommunication by the Church, Martin Luther was still very popular with the German people, who believed his Theses to be true. His followers set foundation for a new religious movement, called Lutheranism. The Lutherans placed much weight on reading into ancient Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and declined the well-established Roman Catholic doctrines. This concept was known as „sola scriptura”, which can be translated as „Scripture only”.
9. Martin Luther was given 60 days to repent.
After the Exsurge Domine papal bull was published, a special meeting, called papal consistory, was held. The aim of the meeting was to establish whether Luther’s teachings were true or false. Surprisingly enough, a few of the teachings were found to be true, but the vast majority was deemed false. Therefore, on behalf of the Papal authority, Luther was given 60 days to admit to the error of his ways. Luther’s response was straightforward and very unpredictable. He said that the bull „was the work of Antichrist, whatever its true origin may be” and quickly put together a publication with a telling title: „Adversus Execrabile Antichristi Bullam” (Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist). And the feud went on.
10. Martin Luther did not stop with one response to the Papal bull.
In November 1520, Martin Luther issued „Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull”, a work which was an emphasis on his Theses, strengthening the former arguments to new heights. To give you the general idea, phrases like: ‘the pious defrauding of the faithful.’ were substituted with shrewd ‘Indulgences are the most pious frauds and imposters of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the goods of the faithful.’ And to further annoy the Church and condemn its doings, Luther published „On the Freedom of a Christian” the same month. It earned him just as many foes as friends, asserting his position as the leader of the Reformation movement.