Was 95 Theses an attack on the Papacy?

This is a refactor of my final paper for the coursework History of Christianity II that I undertook as a requirement for the Master of Divinity program which I am currently a candidate of at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

Was 95 Theses an attack on the Papacy?

Rarely has a document precipitated a revolution, though many have resulted from them, like the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is unique among historical documents to bear direct responsibility for the series of events that resulted in the Protestant reformation. However, a study of this document cannot be conducted without attempting to divulge Luther’s original intent through its publication. And as that concern is studied, the document and the historical context in which it exists is very much revelatory of Luther’s theological morphosis in the two years stretching from 1517 to 1519. My study has shown me that Luther’s original intent through this document was not a Protestant reformation, rather an internal reformation of the Western Catholic church, with regard to how it’s authority and theology were derived. In addition, I will argue that placing the document in contrast with Luther’s stated positions by the time of his presentation at the Leipzig Debates in 1519 will put at display the radical changes his theology had undergone in the intervening period.

Why was the document written?

Scholar’s debate whether the legendary depiction of Luther nailing the ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church door in October 1517 is an historical event. Especially since it was first recounted only a few months after Luther’s death in 1546 by Philipp Melanchthon, who didn’t join the Wittenberg University faculty till August 1518. Originally published in Latin and titled Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences), Luther intended the document to be an invitation to his faculty colleagues at the University of Wittenberg to discuss the issue of indulgences. The document at its very core is an academic and theological one, written with no desire to present it for wider consumption, and with the stated purpose of bringing to “light the truth”. The theological brilliance and persuasiveness of Luther is evident from the very first thesis in which he claims that Jesus' calls to repentance is not merely heeded through things the Christian does in interaction with the Church, rather his or her “whole life” is supposed to subsumed by it. In making this point Luther begins to extricate the act of repentance as something that requires the church to be actively present in the exercise of, thus challenging it's authority to peddle indulgences.

However, the document doesn’t present a serious attack on the overall authority of the papacy, instead merely clarifies its bounds. For example, in thesis number 26, Luther clarifies that the pope doesn’t grant remission to souls because of any heavenly authority (key) granted to him, rather through intercession. In theses 20 and 34, he further clarifies that pope’s pardons and remissions are established by human authorities of the church. He doesn’t decry pope’s pardons in these ninety-five theses, and in fact encourages Christians to not despise them in thesis 38, where he refers to them as a “declaration of divine remission”. Bettenson and Maunder in their brief editorial introduction to the document, observing this deference to the papacy, opine: “Luther was confident that he would have papal support when he had exposed the evils of the traffic in indulgences”.

Luther’s encounter with the phrase “The just shall live by faith” in Romans 1:17, which is a restatement of the Old Testament passage Habakkuk 2:4, brought a paradigm shift to his thinking and theology.

What is the historical context of Luther's theses?

The academic and theological pathway that Luther journeyed to arrive at the production of ninety-five theses is vitally important to understand how the document was not a frontal attack against the papacy and the Roman Catholic church, unlike many of his future works. The primary influence behind the theses seems to be two-fold. First was Luther’s growing appreciation for the primacy of justification by faith alone as he discovered in Romans 1:17. And second, the greedy and unethical way the medieval church marketed the sale of indulgences. By understanding Luther’s observations and growing convictions about both issues, one makes better sense of his original intentions behind the ninety-five theses.

Luther’s encounter with the phrase “The just shall live by faith” in Romans 1:17, which is a restatement of the Old Testament passage Habakkuk 2:4, brought a paradigm shift to his thinking and theology. For Luther the implication of this discovery was monumental, as it helped him see that works were not sufficient to help believers to gain salvation. For this reason, Luther began putting solitary emphasis on faith as the cause of salvation. However, very soon Luther began exploring the logical extremities of this monumental implication. If salvation is by faith alone, then the complex and expensive “medieval institutional edifice” that the Roman church supported through sacraments, rituals, prayers, and numerous rites were no longer required to proclaim salvation over human sin. They may have a role, Luther suggested, in “guiding, teaching, supporting and encouraging”, but by themselves they did not assist the believer in approaching God’s throne of grace and mercy. It is in the context of this increasing appreciation for salvation by faith alone, sola fide, that Luther views the sale of indulgence to be an “invention of man” as he claims in thesis number 27.

The greedy and unethical ways in which the sale of indulgence was conducted was the most immediate and present reason why Luther wrote the ninety-five theses as an invitation to debate on the issue. The sale, introduced to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was first permitted by Pope Julius II in 1507 and then renewed by Pope Leo X in 1513. Due to his growing convictions regarding sola fide, Luther had begun criticizing the practice as early as 1514. But the fearsome exhortations of Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest and indulgence seller, seemed to have been the catalyst for Luther’s scholarly assessment and invitation to debate on the issue. Tetzel used to tell his listeners that the voices of their dead parents were screaming from purgatory “Have pity on us…we are suffering severe punishments!”. Luther saw this as the church acting out of greed by manipulating the fear of the poor that their family was suffering torment. In addition, Luther saw in these entreaties a Christian worldview prompted primarily by fear rather than God’s rich and abundant mercies. The concern for the poor who were manipulated and duped by the sellers of indulgence was a major concern for Luther in extending the invitation of debate through ninety-five theses as observed in thesis number 28, 43, 45, 47, etc.

Did Luther want to separate from the Catholic Church in 1517?

In both teaching the primacy of sola fide and confronting the avarice that the church was engaging in through the selling of indulgence, Luther’s ninety-five theses never envisioned to produce a disruption of unity in the Western church. In fact, much of the document aims to produce discussions that could lead to the reform of the Roman church without directly confronting the issues as anathemas. To substantiate this position let’s look at how Luther deals with three issues throughout the document: papal authority, sale of indulgence and purgatory.

St Peter Basilica
Vaticano, Vatican City
The Basilica whose ballooning construction cost required the church to authorize the sale of indulgences.

While many today consider the ninety-five theses a frontal attack against papal authority, most likely so because the Vatican responded to it as such, Luther had put out this invitation to academic debate with much deference to the Pope. This is obvious through much of the document. For example in thesis 20 Luther defends the papal intentions in plenary remissions by blaming the error on the preachers of indulgence in thesis 21. In thesis 38, he refers to Pope’s declaration of pardon as a “declaration of divine remission”. This is not to say that the document is not full of questions, suggestions and even exhortations about how the Pope could be wrong. The most prominent of which is thesis 86, where Luther suggests that the Pope should build the Basilica out of his great wealth rather than the “money of the faithful poor”.

Similarly, though Luther presents great indignation regarding the avarice propagated in the church through the sale of indulgence, the document falls short of outright rejecting its sale. Instead in thesis 41 Luther suggests that: “Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.”  In thesis 42 he says that: “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.”  These two theses stands in contrast to arguments in the remainder of the document and the popular perception that Luther at this point demanded an absolute stop to the sale of indulgences.

The question of purgatory, which formed the foundational basis of the sale of indulgence, seems to be an issue regarding which Luther doesn’t seem to have made up his mind at this point. Luther understood the theological basis the church had for purgatory. The church made a distinction between the guilt of sin which ruined one’s relationship with God and was satisfied by the grace of God’s forgiveness and the punishment of sin which had to be satisfied by punitive measures in order to restore equilibrium into the disorder it caused. Purgatory was the mechanism through which the church claimed that the Christian soul can be purified even after death by enduring the penalties of unpunished sins through suffering. Although Luther criticizes the use of fear to sell indulgences in thesis 17, he does so by making the point that the purpose of purgatory is to decrease fear and increase charity. Luther had not rejected purgatory at the time he wrote the ninety-five theses. By not rejecting unchecked papal authority, the sale of indulgence and the idea of purgatory, Luther shows us that his theology and convictions as of October 1517 didn’t demand or even imagine a separation from the Roman Catholic church. Instead, this invitation to debate was envisioned as a means through which the Western catholic church could be reformed.

So then what is all the hullabaloo about 95 theses?

Despite Luther’s inability to fully reject some major issues in 1517, whose eventual rejection led to his excommunication and hence the split in the Western church, the document carries within it the seeds of what became the protestant revolution. Timothy J. Wenger claims that this is so because despite the benign intentions of the author, the document seemed to have become a challenge to the papacy when in thesis 5 Luther asserts that the Pope neither “desires” nor is “able” to “remit any penalties”. Instead of encouraging an academic debate on the issue, the document resulted in the instruction from Rome to discipline the young monk and theological faculty. Looking back at the series of events that transpired making his life extremely challenging and dangerous, Luther would later claim that it only deepened his conviction that his discovery of Paul’s teaching on justification by grace alone was in fact the doctrine for which he was willing to protest the Roman papacy.

This is indeed a relevant lesson for the church today. Biblical convictions are worth suffering great rejections and dangers for. Though the issues of the day are different, there are biblical convictions Christians need to stand by simply because the Bible teaches us so. Luther also serves as an example of humble submission and obedience as the scripture actively reforms one’s theology. This is a lesson that particularly hits home for me as my own journey from Pentecostalism to a more reformed Christianity didn’t involve knee jerk reactions, rather iterative changes in my doctrinal positions that required humble submission, obedience, and careful study to progress to a more reformed position.

By the time Luther debates Eck at Leipzig in 1519, he had rejected papal authority as iure divino instead claiming it was merely an establishment of human ordering.

Placed within the proper historical context Luther’s ninety-five thesis was not meant to split the church and start the Protestant revolution. It came from Luther’s reforming spirit as expressed in the preface to the document, “to bring to light the truth.”  Despite this, Luther’s position by 1519, during the Leipzig debate with Eck, shows the radical morphosis that his theology had undergone. From his lightweight rejection of the absoluteness of papal authority in ninety-five theses, during his debate with Eck, Luther denied papal authority as iure divino or by divine right, instead claiming that it was established by human ordering. In addition, Luther undermined the claim of the church that Peter was the head of the church, by claiming that Christ was the sole head of the church. While debating penance, purgatory and indulgences, Luther had gone from only discussing the promotion of avarice and fear through them, and instead outright denied their need, basing the rejection on the theology of salvation by faith alone that he had discovered in Romans 1:17. Luther’s theology had transformed in the intervening two years between publishing Diputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum and attending the Leipzig debate with Eck. But more transformational was his conviction by 1519 that church under papal authority could not be reformed.

Find the original fully cited work here.