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Martin Luther and the 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in what is now Germany. He was christened in the Roman Catholic Church, like everyone else in the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched through most of Europe at the time. He received his doctorate in theology from Wittenberg University in 1512. Five years later, in 1517, he nailed a list of 95 "theses", or arguments, to the door of the Wittenberg Church. Many of these arguments dealt with indulgences. At that time, it was not enough to confess one's sins. The Catholic Church encouraged people to secure their salvation by purchasing certificates called indulgences. This would clear a person of sin—for a while, until more sins accumulated, and another indulgence needed to be purchased.
Luther's act had great repercussions around Europe, but it also had repercussions in his life. The following three letters were written by Martin Luther just before and just after the nailing the theses to Wittenberg Church. The first is a letter from Martin Luther to Archbishop Albrecht written before his revolutionary act. In the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, archbishops rank just below the Pope.
Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do....
Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's are circulating under your most distinguished name... , and I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived from them; to wit, — the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory; furthermore, that these graces are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say (though the thing is impossible) if one had violated the Mother of God; again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt.
The church used the money from indulgences for various purposes, and often to build grand cathedrals. Each bishop had his own cathedral, which served as his seat of power. A large, ornate cathedral helped glorify not only God but the bishop who presided there.
But that is not Martin's main concern in this letter. He is worried about the souls of the parishioners. How does one absolve oneself of sins? Clearly not through money. What about good deeds? Luther said no. Human actions had no real power in matters of eternity. He was developing a brand new theology. In it, what mattered was how the person felt about his or her sins—whether or not she/he had inwardly surrendered to the total power and grace that is God.
This next letter was written from Martin to one of his teachers of theology at Wittenberg, around the time of the controversy.
I remember, dear Father, that once, among those pleasant and wholesome talks of thine, with which the Lord Jesus ofttimes gives me wondrous consolation, the word penitential was mentioned. ... we heard thee say as with a voice from heaven, that there is no true penitence which does not begin with love of righteousness and of God, and that this love, which others think to be the end and the completion of penitence, is rather its beginning.
After this it came about that, by the grace of the learned men who dutifully teach us Greek and Hebrew, I learned that this [Latin] word is in [the New Testament] Greek metanoia [meh-tuh-NOY-uh], and is derived from meta and noun, such that ... metanoia is a "coming to one's senses," and is a knowledge of one's own evil, gained after punishment has been accepted and error acknowledged; and this cannot possibly happen without a change in our heart and our love....
Depending on these things, I ventured to think those men false teachers who ascribed so much to works of penitence that they left us scarcely anything of penitence itself except trivial satisfactions and laborious confession, because, forsooth, they had derived their idea from the Latin words poenitentiam agere [pen-eh-TENSH-ee-yum uh-ZHAIR-eh], which indicate an action, rather than a change of heart, and are in no way an equivalent for the Greek metanoia.
Luther did not just wake up one day believing in something new. Hours and hours of study convinced him of the importance of faith rather than acts. Legends tell of Luther reading the Bible through the night by the light of a sputtering candle. To understand it better, he read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. These are the languages in which the books were originally written.
By contrast, the Catholic Church conducted all of its services in Latin. The Bible it used was in Latin. Never mind that most people did not understand Latin! People were missing out on the meaning of their faith—and just following its forms, or rituals. In subsequent years, Luther translated the Bible into the common language, German, so that people could read it and understand it on their own.
Unfortunately, not everyone was so ready to go against the established power of the Church—least of all the Church itself. Shortly after nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, Luther wrote this letter to the Pope.
I have heard evil reports about myself, most blessed Father, by which I know that certain friends have put my name in very bad odor with you and yours, saying that I have attempted to belittle the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff. Therefore I am accused of heresy, apostasy, and perfidy, and am called by six hundred other names of ignominy. My ears shudder and my eyes are astounded. But the one thing in which I put my confidence remains unshaken—my clear and quiet conscience.
The Pope excommunicated him anyway. Exiled from the Catholic Church, Luther had no choice. If he could not reform Catholicism, he must start his own church. Thus began the Protestant Revolution in Europe.