by Paul Dean
According to historic legend, Martin Luther posted the Latin document, later referred to as the 95 Theses, on the door of Wittenberg Church on the 31 October 1517. As everyone knows, it questioned the idea that the indulgences trade perpetuated—that buying a trinket could shave time off the stay of one’s loved ones in purgatory. But later events have made the document seem much more radical than it was at the time, to the extent that is often even considered to be the start of the lengthy process of the Protestant Reformation itself. For one thing, the act of nailing the theses to a church door seems deliberately provocative, if indeed he did this; many historians are sceptical, given that the story was first told by Philip Melanchthon long after Luther’s death. In fact the door of the Castle Church served as the official university bulletin board and was regularly used for academic and public disputes. For another, many had criticised the abuse of indulgences before (including Luther himself). Most importantly, Luther did not seek to abolish indulgences per se, the document being questioning rather than accusatory, seeking to inform the Archbishop of Mainz that the selling of indulgences had become corrupt, with the sellers seeking solely to line their own pockets.
The indulgences trade was authorised by the Archbishop of Mainz and Madgeburg, who was deeply in debt due to his purchase of the bishopric of Mainz. In exchange for a cut of the profits, the Archbishop permitted Johann Tetzel to sell a series of indulgences to the poor. Moreover, the indulgence trade was growing—Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, had a collection of indulgences that, if used, would be equivalent to 1,900,000 days removed from one’s time in purgatory. Yet it was Tetzel’s selling of indulgences as a commodity that appears to have broken Luther’s back; Tetzel’s oft-quoted jingle of ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’ simply highlighted to Luther the financial nature of the entire process.
In particular, Luther was horrified by the fact that a large portion of the profits from this trade were being used to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome: in his 86th thesis Luther sarcastically asks: ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of the poor rather than with his own money?’ This is indicative of Luther’s opinion as opposing the financial extortion indulgences pressed upon the poor, rather than the theology which lay behind the process of freeing souls from purgatory. For Luther, it was better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence, as thesis 45 declared: ‘He who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath’.
Moreover, it is important to recognise that this was not the action of a man wanting to break away from the Church: Luther wished to reform, rather than abandon, the Church. The Theses were undoubtedly provocative, and the role of the printing press and the German translation of the theses (done without Luther’s permission) in creating debates across the German Lands about what it meant to be a true Christian is well documented, but this does not seem to have been Luther’s original intention; it appears that he legitimately believed that the Archbishop was not aware of the corruption inherent in the indulgence trade led by Tetzel. This is something which can be considered important later on, for it indicates that Luther did not consider the Church hierarchy redundant at this point. Thesis 38 made clear that the pope’s distribution of indulgences should continue, whilst in thesis 50, Luther expressed the assumption that the pope did not know how indulgences were being sold.
The document itself therefore has a debatable significance; it is rather the events which occurred after its publication which are far more important, leading as they did to Luther’s ideological and religious development. Almost immediately there was outrage at the ‘heresy’ which the Church viewed as implicit within the document. Despite the pressure upon Luther to immediately recant his position, he did not. This in part led to the Leipzig debate in summer 1519 with Johann Eck which forced Luther to clarify some of his theories and doctrinal stances. The debate focused largely on doctrine; perhaps surprisingly, the debate regarding indulgences was only briefly mentioned in the discussions. In the debate Luther was forced to conclude that Church Councils had the potential to be erroneous in their judgements, which threw into dispute the papal hierarchy’s authority, and set him on his path towards evangelicalism and the formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
It seems therefore highly likely that, had the pope offered a reconciliation, Luther would have returned to the doctrine of the established Church. Instead, the Church immediately sought to identify Luther as someone who had strayed from the ‘true way’ and was therefore a heretic; it refused to recognise that Luther had valid complaints which were shared by many across Western Christendom. The 95 Theses could have been taken at face value and used as an avenue to reform, as Luther intended. Instead, the papal hierarchy sought to discredit Luther.
It would not be surprising if, when posting his 95 Theses on the door of the chapel on the 31 October 1517, Luther did not expect a great deal to change. At the time, he obviously did not know what such an act would lead to.