The 95 theses of Wittenberg. At the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation

In October 1517, Martin Luther set down his famous Wittenberg theses and began his reformation. This article closes the 500th anniversary and complements the dossier devoted to the subject in the April issue.  

Alfred Sonnenfeld-October 16, 2017-Reading time: 6 minutes
Wittenberg Town Hall Square.

500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther published 95 theses in the city of Wittenberg, which today is also called "Luther's city" (Lutherstadt). In this way the young university professor wished to invite a scientific discussion on indulgences, as was usual in his time, but also to oppose points of Catholic doctrine.

How to save yourself?

As we enter the church in Wittenberg, a few words remind us of Luther's central message: "Salvation cannot be earned, neither by works, nor by sacraments, nor by indulgences. Believers are saved only through divine grace. No one can act as mediator between God and men, neither the Pope nor the Church.". How does Luther arrive at this statement which summarily describes his doctrine?"We are pure matter. It is God who is in charge of the form; everything in us is worked by God.". This affirmation, nuclear in his theology, has been maturing in him since his beginnings as professor of theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg.

Luther's conversations with his spiritual director, John Staupitz, had a great influence on his theological thinking, although he would later separate from him, radicalizing his position. From him he learned to unite exegesis with dogmatic theology under the aspect of what both mean concretely, according to him, "for us", pro nobisand not so much in itself. 

Years later he would state: "I don't care what Jesus Christ is in himself, I only care about what he represents to me.". His whole doctrine will be reduced to the purely soteriological question; he is only interested in being able to answer this question: what must I do to be saved? 


In 1513, shortly after succeeding Staupitz as professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther states that his doctrineThe new theological approaches had begun thanks to the impulses received from him (cf. Volker Leppin, Die fremde Reformation. Luthers mystical Wurzeln, Munich, 2016, p. 46).

From there, he develops his theology, understanding the justification of the sinner from the famous "theology of the sinner". alone/us: Solus Christus, Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura. This radical affirmation of "only" implies that man cannot contribute anything of his own to his salvation. Not even blameless conduct, an exemplary life, a life of prayer or a search for God could change the divine will. Therefore, Luther concludes, "in case we do not belong to the group of the elect, we would irremissibly slide down the road to eternal damnation"..

In one of his famous "after-dinner conversations" (Tischreden), Martin Luther reflects aloud on what triggered his decision to post the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church on October 31, 1517. The Dominican John Tetzel had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht, to preach on the importance of indulgences for salvation. According to Luther, "Tetzel said nothing but true barbarities: indulgences would reconcile us with God and this would happen even in the case of lack of contrition and even without having done penance... These fantasies forced me to intervene".. In his opinion, the preachers of indulgences did so without taking into account the difference between the remission of guilt and the remission of penalties for sins, as evidenced by the ironic phrase often attributed to Tetzel: "At the ringing of the coin in the trunk, the soul from fire to paradise flies.". For the simple people, the confusion was widespread and theology did not help to provide a clear solution. These confusions led the theologian Luther to go public.


It is well known that Luther, as a young man, with his scrupulous conscience, thought he was committing a mortal sin if he skipped any of the mild monastic rules and customs or any of the rubrics of the liturgy. 

But where his scrupulosity was most manifest was in his restless and uneasy conscience. He was never at peace with himself, and he wanted to know for sure whether he was in God's grace or in sin. Well, now he reacts ardently to the confusion on the subject of indulgences, which seemed to him to be a swindle. These are his words: "Those who preach to simple people the entrance into heaven through indulgences are actually leading them to hell. The Pope himself should also be protected for contributing to these heresies."

The harm produced by the granting of indulgences consisted in the fact that the people, ignorant and rude, sometimes attended not so much to repentance and internal contrition as to the external work required, manifesting even more fear for the penalty than for the guilt. It was one of the many dangers of false religiosity against which Luther rightly protested, as had other Catholic preachers before him: Luther was not the first to criticize the traffic or sale of indulgences.

To counteract this situation, and with the pretense that they would serve as a basic manuscript for scholarly discussion, he published the 95 theses. According to the Protestant historian Volker Reinhardt (cf. Luther der Ketzer, Rom and the ReformationMunich, 2016, p. 67), today some experts again accept that Luther did indeed nail down the theses, as his fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon had claimed. At the same time he published a letter to Archbishop Albrecht, whom he considered to be the cause of the whole problem because of the assignment given to Tetzel to preach on the efficacy of indulgences. He accuses him of incompetence, especially for contributing to the confusion among the simplest people. 

Indeed, a dangerous consequence was the mixing of the spiritual with the economic, as happened when the ecclesiastical authorities realized that the granting of indulgences could become a copious source of income to build cathedrals, hospitals or bridges. The spiritual aspect of the granting of indulgences became even more obscure when great bankers, such as the Fuggers of Augsburg, intervened in the business, advancing credits to the Holy See in exchange for receiving an important percentage in the collection of indulgences.

Complexity of the problems

If we turn our attention to the content of the 95 theses, we can come to a first conclusion: we can recognize with Luther that the most relevant thing is not to look at the Christian's exterior satisfaction, but at his interior contrition. But Luther will go further by affirming that, if there is contrition, the penitent no longer needs to go to the confessor. The advice of John Staupitz and the readings of the mystic John Tauler affirmed that the penitent would not need to confess immediately if he makes a sincere act of contrition and there is no confessor at that moment; but Luther radicalizes this thought and affirms that the sinner would no longer need to confess his mortal sins orally. 

In the first thesis we can read: "Jesus Christ has said, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"."and in the second: "These words are not to be interpreted as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, to that penance with oral confession and satisfaction which is performed thanks to the priestly ministry.". Already in them Luther eliminates at a stroke all priestly mediation between God and man. The practical consequence after having read the second thesis would be clear: "If penitence is understood in the biblical sense, the important thing is only repentance and not confession with the mouth or satisfaction with works."According to the Lutheran doctrine, the action of the priest between God and the sinner would not be necessary.

A difficult character

Martin Luther strongly rejected the abuses and errors of Tetzel's preaching and protested with absolute sincerity. But even if the theological doctrine of indulgences - considered in theology a complement to the sacrament of penance - had been preached with the greatest possible theological clarity, it could not fit into Luther's head, for from 1514 to 1517 the foundations of his Lutheran theology had been forged in his mind. Luther did not admit the merit of the good works of the saints or the value of satisfaction, and held, instead, that only by inner penitence and trust in Christ does one obtain full remission of guilt and punishment. He abhorred holiness by works. With his 95 theses he wanted to move the high dignitaries of the Church to sincere penance, but by means of polemical discussion and with the aim of annihilating indulgences and implanting Lutheran theology.

Before beginning the exposition of the 95 theses, Luther writes that he wrote them out of love for the truth and with the desire to clarify it. However, in the fifth thesis he polemicizes against the Pope: "The Pope will not and cannot remit penalties other than those he imposed at his discretion or according to the canons.". In the 20 thesis specifies: "What the Pope means by plenary indulgence is not the remission of all penalties at all, but only of those imposed by him.". There is also no lack of irony in the wording of some of his theses, such is the case of number 82: "Why does the Pope not empty purgatory, given his most holy charity and the utmost need of souls?".

A careful reading of the 95 theses allows us to appreciate the complex and tormented character of an author full of contradictions, of a pious monk who uses his rhetorical knowledge of sharp antitheses with humanistic knowledge, and at the same time is quick to use expressions of low human level. He describes himself on one occasion as tragic, nostrae vitae tragoedia.


To conclude, let us recall the statements of Joseph Lortz, a world-renowned expert on Luther's life and writings. 

Lortz argues that while Luther had a deep knowledge of the Bible, he became a victim of his own subjectivism. In his efforts to understand what salvation means, he interpreted Holy Scripture in his own way and according to his own needs. He made selective use of biblical texts and often reduced the biblical message to simple formulas.

According to Lortz, Luther saw himself as an "prophet in isolation"and so he ventured, like the prophets, to interpret the biblical revelations according to his own needs. As a result, he did not always manage to grasp the fullness of the biblical messages.

His message, therefore, is not easy, and leads through complex paths to the Protestant vision of life and faith.

The authorAlfred Sonnenfeld

International University of La Rioja (UNIR)

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