October 2017

October 2017

The Ninety-Five Theses Are Not Lutheran!

October 31, 1517, is widely recognized as the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. That is because it was on that date that Martin Luther publicly disseminated his famous Ninety-Five Theses. This is not a new celebration. For centuries the Lutheran Church has recognized this day, and in previous generations the Feast of the Reformation was celebrated with three days of services: Vespers (the evening service) on October 30, and Mass (Holy Communion in the morning) and Vespers on October 31 and November 1. Even within Luther’s own lifetime October 31 was celebrated as the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It might surprise us to realize, therefore, that the Ninety-Five Theses aren’t Lutheran!

What do I mean by that? I mean that, though they were written by Martin Luther himself, and though they judged current church practice based on the standard of Holy Scripture, and though they set in motion the series of events that would culminate in the excommunication of Luther and the establishment of the Lutheran Church as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, nevertheless, when we explore their contents, we find that the Ninety-Five Theses do not reflect Lutheran doctrine. They were written by a Roman Catholic monk who still believed most everything taught by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, though Luther used Scripture in his critique, he also used the laws of the Roman Catholic Church herself. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope, the existence of Purgatory, and even the propriety of selling indulgences! He just wanted to rein in the hyperbolic and misleading preaching of the indulgence salesmen, returning to the authentic Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences. It was only later that he would reject the whole concept of indulgences entirely.

It is true that the Ninety-Five Theses involve a biting critique of the church of Luther’s day. Consider Theses 65 – 66: “[65] The treasures of the Gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. [66] The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.” But overall the Ninety-Five Theses certainly don’t read like a clarion call to cast off the shackles of papal dominion and embrace the freedom of the Gospel. In fact, in some ways they are the opposite of what we might expect. We tend to think of Luther as helping us to see that salvation is easier to come by than it was under the papacy, and we tend to think of the corrupt Roman Catholic Church as keeping salvation under lock and key, inaccessible to all but the most wealthy. But what Luther actually does in the Ninety-Five Theses is show that salvation is harder to come by than the indulgence salesmen would have their audiences believe! Salvation cannot be bought. It must be obtained through heartfelt repentance, cross, and trial. The Theses end, “[94] Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell; [95] and thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.”

If you’d like to read the Ninety-Five Theses for yourself, you can find an accessible modern translation at www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html. A more classic translation, followed by Luther’s original Latin, can be found at www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/274/pg274.html, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. If you do undertake to read them, you’ll find that they are quite difficult. They are written for experts in the Latin theology of Luther’s day, and they assume a certain familiarity with what is now arcane theological terminology. But if you’re willing to give it a go, they’re certainly worth your time and effort. Just remember that Luther himself looked back on the Ninety-Five Theses as reflecting the thoughts of a Roman Catholic monk, not those of the Reformer of the Church. Their significance is not in their content, but in their effect: they brought Luther into direct conflict with the papacy, and they paved the way for his development as the Reformer, and especially for his later discovery of the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone for the sake of Christ alone as taught by Scripture alone.


Pastor Neu