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Martin Luther Nails His Ninety-Five Theses to the Door of the Castle Church: October 31, 1517

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part I.

Typically, in those days, preachers were sent throughout Europe to offer the indulgence to rich and poor alike. Though these preachers were supposed to tell people that they needed to repent of their sins and go to confession before the indulgence could do them any good, they often did not do so. Instead, they emphasized how much people needed to pay—the wealthy more, the poor, less, while some only had to promise prayers—and spoke as if the simple payment of money alone could win the indulgence for people or for family members who were in Purgatory. This was the case with the indulgence Albert of Brandenburg (with the pope’s blessing) ordered to be preached in Germany. The Dominican preacher, Johann Tetzel, who preached this indulgence, used this rhyme to convince people to offer their money: “When copper coin in coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”

In 1517, word came that one of the indulgence preachers was coming to Wittenberg, a city in German Saxony. When the Augustinian priest Martin Luther, head of the theology faculty at the new University of Wittenberg, came to hear of it, he resolved to do something about it. Luther, like other theologians, had come to the conclusion that the way indulgences were being preached led people away from a true understanding of the forgiveness of sins offered by Christ. But Luther went even further, for he began to doubt that the pope had the power of issuing indulgences at all. On October 31—the eve of the feast of All Saints—in 1517, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses (questions for debate) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, announcing a public lecture and debate on indulgences and other matters.

Martin Luther fastening his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, on Oct. 31, 1517
Martin Luther fastening his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, on Oct. 31, 1517

Martin Luther was a persuasive preacher and popular university lecturer. He had entered the Augustinian order and become a priest against his father’s wishes. To prove to his father and himself that he could be a priest, Luther tried to observe religious life perfectly. But though he took on severe penances and piled on many good works, he felt he could not earn God’s favor. Even though his confessor spoke to him about God’s mercy, offered through the crucified Christ, Luther still feared God terribly.

While still a young man, Luther had been appointed a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Studying St. Paul’s epistles, Luther slowly came to the conclusion that God offered salvation to those who simply believed and trusted in his mercy. Luther came to think that salvation came by God’s Grace through the gift of faith—which the Catholic Church taught. Yet, Luther went on to deny that good works count for anything, even for those who have the Grace of God within them.

Religious situation of Europe in the late 16th century
Religious situation of Europe in the late 16th century

It was partly on account of this belief that Luther objected to indulgences—for how, he said, can any good work we do remove any of the punishments for sin? In his Ninety-five Theses, Luther also complained that so much money, taken through the indulgence, was passing from Germany to Rome. Luther said that if the pope knew how poor the German people were, he would not take their hard-earned money even to build that new basilica over St. Peter’s tomb.

The point about the money appealed to Germans, who for years had been taxed heavily by Rome. Luther did not stop with just posting his theses for debate; he had them translated into German from Latin and printed on that new invention, the printing press, and they were distributed throughout Germany. The theses quickly became very popular among Germans of all classes. It was not long before Luther’s name became well known throughout Germany and even reached the pope in Rome. In 1518, the curia began the process that would end in the condemnation of Luther.

Pope Leo, however, did not want to move too quickly against Luther, for the priest had a powerful protector—Frederick III, the prince elector of Saxony. The pope needed Frederick’s friendship for political reasons and did not want to anger him. In the autumn of 1518, the learned Cardinal Cajetan met with Luther to try to convince him to recant his teachings. Luther, however, appealed to a general council—basically saying such a council had more authority than the pope.

Statue of Martin Luther outside St. Mary’s Church, Berlin
Statue of Martin Luther outside St. Mary’s Church, Berlin

It was in July 1519, in a debate with the theologian Johannes Eck, that Luther made an important discovery. During the debate, Eck had accused Luther of being a follower of John Wycliffe and the Bohemian John Hus. Like others of his time, Luther had thought Hus a heretic. Eck’s accusation, however, led Luther to look into Hus’s ideas and Luther discovered that he agreed with the Bohemian preacher in many areas. Returning to the debate, Luther told Eck that not only did he find much good in Hus but that he had reached another conclusion—that not only the pope, but even ecumenical councils could be in error.

Luther had gone from being what many thought him—a reformer of the Church—to denying not only the pope’s authority, but the authority of ecumenical councils as well. Basically, Luther now denied the authority of the Catholic Church. That he had come to that conclusion was as much a surprise to him as to those who heard him. But now that he had reached that conclusion, he would not turn back from it.

A Priest-Composer Who Liked Luther

Though he never left the Catholic Church, the priest, Ludwig Senfl, had Lutheran sympathies. He had also earned some fame as a composer. We offer here two of his compositions, Es Taget vor dem Walde, and Ach, Elslein, Liebes Elselein Mein.

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