The Ninety-Five Theses
“Many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter, and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith.” – Martin Luther
On Thursday, October 31, 2019, we will celebrate the 502nd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And for the past three Wednesdays, we have covered a few events and figures which/who have been influential during this much needed reformation of the church. We very briefly touched on the mysticism of the Dark Ages which was leading to the dawn of the Renaissance; a time which is summarized by the catch phrase ad fontes (back to the sources). We also looked at some of the contributions made by Erasmus, the Prince of the Humanities, to prepare and awaken the people of the need for reform in the church. But no study of the Protestant Reformation can be complete without also considering Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.
Many of us have heard about the 95 theses, but, unfortunately like the Pilgrim’s Progress, very few of us have actually read them. Some have thought that the theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Castle Church in Wittenberg was intentionally put there by him as a denouncement of the sale of indulgences. The document did not represent Luther’s absolute condemnation of indulgences as you can read in the 71st thesis where he wrote that anyone who “speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.” The reality is that Luther wrote them in Latin so that the masses could not read it and he posted them on the door, as was the custom, in order to call for an academic discussion on the issues he presented. This was not an act of vandalism against All Saints Church, but was what you would do in those days. Luther also did not have any intentions of sparking a reformation in the church, although he did see that there was a need for it.
Additionally, it cannot be overlooked that Luther had not intended for his theses to be mass produced and published. But because that had occurred, he published an extensive explanation of each point. So, what are theses about? And why did they spark the Reformation? To address the first question, we can summarize them into three main points. 1) A denial of the power of papal indulgences without contrition, 2) an objection to using the sale of indulgences for the building project, and 3) a careful consideration of the sinner. On the first point, Luther explained, “Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. The power of the keys cannot make attrition into contrition.” This possibly could also be construed as an attack on the power and authority of the pope, but really it was his understanding from Scriptures that only true repentance can bring forgiveness of sin and lead to one's salvation. Secondly, Luther did not agree with using the revenues for a building which “we Germans cannot attend” and questioned why the pope did not fund it himself or “give the money to the poor folks who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences”. And lastly, Luther was very concerned about the souls of the people. He wrote, “Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security.” Rather than purchasing indulgences, he wanted Christians to commit themselves to a life of good works in keeping with inward repentance.
Why then did this ignite the Reformation? No one can be 100% sure, but we know that his theses stuck a chord with the people and, to an opposite degree, with the religious leaders, to include the Pope. It eventually led to an imperial diet in which Luther was called to recant of what he wrote and taught, eventually leading to him being declared a heretic. It also forced Luther to defend his position and eventually fight contra mundum (against the world) in defending the three solas of the reformation (later expanded to five); Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), and Sola Scripture (by Scripture Alone). All doctrines which we can agree are fundamental to the Christian faith. As Luther defended these very important truths, we too are reminded each year on Reformation Day that we too must defend the faith. In one sense, Luther was doing what Paul commended to Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
Grace and Peace,
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