Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are often considered a charter, a bold declaration of independence for the Protestant church.

But when he wrote nearly 100 points of debate in Latin, Luther was simply inviting fellow academics to a “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” the theses’ official title. (The debate never was held, because the theses were translated into German and distributed widely, creating an uproar.)

What were indulgences? In the sacrament of penance, Christians confessed sins and found absolution for them. The process of penance involved satisfaction—paying the temporal penalty for those sins. Under certain circumstances, someone who was truly contrite and had confessed his sins could receive partial (or, rarely, complete) remission of temporal punishment by purchasing a letter of indulgence.

In the 95 Theses, Luther did not attack the idea of indulgences, for in Thesis 73 he wrote, “... the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatsoever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.”

But Luther strongly objected to the abuse of indulgences—most recently under the salesmanship of Johann Tetzel. And in the process, Luther, though probably not fully aware of it, knocked down the pillars supporting many practices in medieval Christianity.

Key Statements

Here are thirteen samples of Luther’s theses:

1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says “Repent ye,” etc., he means that the entire life of the faithful should be a repentance.

2. This statement cannot be understood of the sacrament of penance, i.e., of confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priesthood.

27. They preach human folly who pretend that as soon as money in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.

32. Those ...

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