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- Martin Luther and His 95 Theses
Martin Luther and His 95 Theses
Igniting the Protestant Reformation
In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, transformed Christianity by nailing his 95 Theses to a church door, igniting the Protestant Reformation. He criticized the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to absolve sin and asserted that salvation comes through faith, not deeds, with the Bible as the primary religious authority. This act not only split the Catholic Church but also influenced the rise of Protestantism, deeply rooted in Luther’s teachings.
Born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, Martin Luther was the eldest of a number of children. His father was determined that he receive a good education to become a lawyer and rise in the social hierarchy. Luther began his education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, then at 17, he entered the University of Erfurt. However, according to his later writings, he found his studies ultimately meaningless.
Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528
In July 1505, while returning to university, Luther encountered a severe storm where lightning struck a tree nearby. Terrified, he cried out, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!” After the storm, Luther kept his promise; he sold his books and left university to enter St. Augustine’s Monastery, against his father’s wishes.
Luther’s commitment to his vow to Saint Anne was profound, driven by his intense fear of death and belief in a divine, omnipotent God who scrutinized and punished human failings. Recognizing his own deep flaws, Luther saw no possibility of God’s forgiveness or an afterlife in heaven, fearing only the eternal torments of hell.
In response, he vigorously embraced monastic life, adhering to a strict regimen of prayer, fasting, constant confession, and scripture study, yet he still couldn’t grasp the concept of a forgiving, loving God.
When Luther shared his struggles with his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, he half-expected to be released from his vows. Instead, Staupitz advised him to pursue his doctoral degree and assume Staupitz’s Chair of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. It was there, while studying Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, that Luther had a profound revelation. The phrase from Romans 1:17, “the just shall live by faith,” resonated deeply with him, profoundly shaping his theological understanding.
If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.
In the early 16th century, Europe saw theologians and scholars starting to challenge the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings. This era also saw increased accessibility to translations of original texts, including the Bible and works by Augustine, an early church philosopher. Augustine emphasized the Bible’s primacy over Church authorities as the ultimate religious guide and believed that salvation was not attainable through human acts but was a divine grace granted by God. The Catholic Church, however, advocated that salvation could be achieved through righteous deeds. Luther adopted Augustine’s core beliefs, which later became fundamental to Protestantism.
Upon understanding God’s nature as depicted in scripture, Luther started to critically assess the medieval Church’s portrayal of God. He questioned the necessity of the Church’s extensive policies, rules, and tithes if salvation was attainable through faith alone. Luther scrutinized the Church’s teachings on purgatory, the transitional realm between hell and heaven where sinners were purified by fire before entering paradise, and the biblical basis for the pope’s authority.
The sale of Catholic indulgences depicted in A Question to a Mintmaker, a woodcut created by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg, c. 1530
Luther’s concerns intensified in 1516 when Albrecht von Brandenburg, the archbishop of Mainz, requested Pope Leo X’s permission to sell indulgences in his region. Albrecht, deeply indebted, agreed to share the proceeds with Leo X, who needed the money for Saint Peter’s Basilica’s reconstruction in Rome.
Luther, believing that salvation was attainable only through faith and divine grace, strongly opposed the sale of indulgences. In response, he composed the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, also known as the 95 Theses. According to popular legend, on October 31, 1517, he nailed a copy to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.
The 95 Theses were written with a notably humble and scholarly approach, raising questions rather than making accusations. The first two theses posited that repentance and faith, not deeds, were the path to salvation, with the remaining 93 supporting this argument, many criticizing the indulgence practice.
Furthermore, Luther also addressed the Saint Peter’s Basilica funding:
After composing the 95 Theses, Luther sent them to Albrecht von Brandenburg, who examined them for heresy and then forwarded them to Rome. In response, Pope Leo X dispatched several delegations to convince Luther of his mistakes, particularly his assertion that the pope, rather than the poor, should finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Among these delegates was theologian Johann Eck, once a friend of Luther’s. During their debate, Eck argued that without a centralized authority to interpret scripture, individual interpretations could lead to chaos, as not everyone could correctly understand sacred texts. He insisted that the Church’s scholarly tradition ensured accurate biblical interpretation and that Luther’s notion of justification by faith was flawed. Luther, however, stood firm. This led to the issuance of the papal bull Exsurge Domine in 1520, threatening him with excommunication, a decree Luther defiantly burned publicly in Wittenberg that December.
The 1517 printing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, preserved in the collections of the Berlin State Library
In January 1521, Luther was excommunicated and declared an outlaw in May 1521, which meant anyone aiding him could be punished, and he could be killed without legal repercussions. He found refuge in Frederick III’s castle at Wartburg. There, Luther dedicated himself to writing and notably translated the New Testament from Latin into German. His translation rapidly became a bestseller, greatly aided by the printing press’s innovation.
The printing press was indeed Luther’s covert advantage. Unlike earlier reformers who lacked such technology and depended on slower, less effective woodblock printing, Luther had access to a press that swiftly produced high-quality pamphlets, posters, books, and other materials for public distribution.
Though most of the population was illiterate, they could listen to others read these works. Luther’s writings made him a popular figure among the people. This popularity, coupled with local leaders’ encouragement, sparked the German Peasants’ War in Wittenberg. The peasants anticipated Luther’s support, but he condemned their violence, citing scriptures emphasizing obedience to secular authority, and quelled the revolt.
Later, Luther would advocate resistance against unjust authority, but at that time, he believed he was acting in accordance with his conscience and scriptural teachings by denouncing violence and upholding the status quo. Critics, however, have suggested that his stance may have been influenced by his relationship with Frederick III, whose lands and wealth—and thereby Luther’s protection—were jeopardized by the uprising.
You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.
Previously critical of the Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy, Luther married Katherine of Bora, an ex-nun, in 1525, and they had five children together. Towards the end of his life, Luther’s views became more radical; he declared the pope the Antichrist, called for the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Roman Empire, and supported polygamy based on Old Testament patriarchs’ practices.
Luther passed away from a stroke at 62 on February 18, 1546. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the very place where he had famously nailed his 95 Theses. By the time of his death, Luther was revered as a hero among Protestants and vilified by Catholics as a diabolical figure who fractured the Church’s unity.
Words of wisdom
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” —Winston Churchill
“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.” —Charlotte Brontë
“He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing.” —Epicurus
“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.” —Isaac Asimov
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