Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

The Ninety-Five Theses and Their Effect

Among the errors of faith and practice to which the young Luther called the attention of his parish was that of the vending of those pardons or indulgences by which the sinner expected to secure in exchange for money a remission of his sins, not only on the earth, but in purgatory. So enormous a sum had this traffic brought into the treasury of Rome that its extension was authorized in all portions of the Church. In its support the theory was set forth that Christ and the saints, by their excess of merit had established a great treasury upon which the Pope could draw for the benefit of mankind. Even to those who were already dead and in purgatory could this merit be applied. Hard-hearted., indeed, must he be who would not give the small sum which would free from pain the sour of a beloved relative or friend! . Foolish, indeed, was he who suffered contrition for sin when he might with so much less suffering be freed from guilt by the paying of a gulden! Among the prelates of the Church there must have been many who disapproved of the traffic and who were not blind to the wicked misrepresentation of the vendors of indulgences, but the Church herself, far from correcting the abuse or setting straight the minds of the buyers, encouraged its growth in every possible way.

In 1514, Pope Leo X bestowed upon Prince Albert of Brandenburg three great bishoprics. According to canonical law Albert was not yet old enough to be a bishop. The uniting of three bishoprics under one head was also contrary to canon law. In return for these special privileges the Pope required of the young man a sum which would to-day have the value of about a million dollars. In order that Albert, who was now Archbishop of Magdeburg, administrator of the bishopric of Halberstadt, Archbishop and Elector of Mayence and Primate of Germany, might win back the enormous sum which he had paid for his honors, the Pope declared that indulgences would be sold for the benefit of the new St. Peter's Church in Rome, then in process of construction. A large share of the money from this sale was to belong to Albert to be transferred by him to the banking house which had loaned him the money with which to pay the Pope. Thus the poor people were to pay unknowingly for the unlawful ambitions of a prince.

The chief agent in Albert's territory was a monk of the Dominican Order, Tetzel by name, a powerful preacher who terrified his hearers with vivid accounts of the pains of purgatory and the guilt and cruelty of withholding the small sum which would relieve one's friend or save one's self from torture.

Into the territory of Saxony Tetzel was not allowed to enter, since the electors declined to permit their subjects to help to pay the debt of Albert, with whose arrangements they were acquainted. But Tetzel pressed as near to the border as he dared, and to him went members of Luther's parish.

Thereupon Luther prepared to combat what he considered to be an offense against common sense and religion. After preaching against the indulgence traffic, he offered for debate a set of theses or statements. This was a well-known method of opening a discussion; Luther had himself only recently offered ninety-seven theses against the foolishness of scholastic philosophy. Now, on October 31, 1517, the Feast of all Saints, he fastened to the wooden door of the castle church a new set of ninety-five theses against indulgences. The theses, written in Latin, were intended for his colleagues and not for the throngs of pious laymen who gathered upon that day to gain merit by viewing the five thousand relics collected by the Elector.

The theses were simple and practical. In the first was expressed the central truth of Luther's still unformulated interpretation of Christ's teaching, that is that Christ required repentance and sorrow for sin and not penances.

"1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying Penitentiam agite (do penance) meant that the whole life of the faithful should be repentance."

The other theses explained and corrected various popular misconceptions.

"5. The Pope does not wish, nor is he able, to remit any penalty except what he or the Canon Law has imposed."

"22. The greater part of the people will be deceived by this undistinguishing and pretentious promise of pardon which cannot be fulfilled."

"28. It is certain that avarice is fostered by the money chinking in the chest, but to answer the prayers of the Church is in the power of God alone."

"36. Every true Christian, alive or dead, participates in all the goods of Christ and the Church without letters of pardon."

"43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to one in need does better than he who buys indulgences."

"50. Christians are to be taught that if the Pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather have St. Peter's church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and bones of his sheep."

"62. The true treasure of the Church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God."

It is plainly to be seen that Luther wrote as a true and devoted son of the Church, protesting for the Pope as well as for himself against the sale of indulgences as it was carried on. If the Pope knew the evil works of his agents he would certainly condemn them.

The same day as that on which Luther nailed the theses to the church door he wrote to Albert, ignorant of Albert's interest in the sale:—

"Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's are hawked about under your illustrious sanction. I do not now accuse the sermons of the preachers who advertise them, for I have not seen the same, but I regret that the people have conceived about them the most erroneous ideas. Forsooth, these unhappy souls believe that if they buy letters of pardon they are sure of their salvation; likewise that souls fly out of purgatory as soon as money is cast into the chest; in short, that the grace conferred is so great that there is no sin whatever which cannot be absolved thereby. . . . They also believe that indulgences free them from all penalty and guilt.

"My God! Thus are the souls committed, Father, to your charge, instructed unto death, for which you have a fearful and growing reckoning to pay . . .

"What else could I do, excellent Bishop and illustrious Prince, except pray your Reverence for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ to take away your instructions to the Commissioners altogether and impose some other form of preaching on the proclaimers of pardons, lest perchance some one should at length arise and confute them and their instructions publicly, to the great blame of your Highness. This I vehemently deprecate, yet I fear it may happen unless the grievance is quickly redressed."

In the mind of the Archbishop no regret was aroused, but instead violent anger, which increased as he saw the sale of his indulgences begin to lessen. He wrote at once to Rome and sent with his complaint a copy of Luther's theses against indulgences and a copy of the theses against scholastic philosophy.

To Luther's amazement his hastily written statements attained at once an enormous popularity. Once more he had put into clear language the thoughts of thousands. The humanists welcomed the theses as a blow against the domination of the Church. One of them, the painter, Albert Durer, sent Luther one of his wood-cuts to show his admiration and approval. The minor princes welcomed them because they were jealous of the power of the Church. Most popular of all were they among the "common men" whose scant and hard-earned money was so often taken from them. Without Luther's knowledge the theses were printed at Nuremberg in Latin and German, and in a few weeks were not only circulated through the whole of Germany, but passed far beyond the borders.

By the Pope the theses were received neither with approval nor with alarm. It would be a simple matter to silence this clever but foolish monk who would surely not risk all his future upon a quarrel with his superiors. Many little fires had been lighted, but they had always been quenched. Sometimes those who lighted them had been themselves burned in the flames they kindled. The hard mouth of worldly Leo must have twitched with amusement as he read Luther's statement of the papal attitude toward indulgences. He ordered the General of the Augustinians, Gabriel della Volta, to command Luther to recant, and Volta in turn passed the 'command on to Dr. Staupitz, Luther's immediate superior and his beloved friend.

In April and May, 1518, there was held at Heidelberg a conference of the Augustinians of the province of Saxony, at which Luther appeared. Resigning his office of district vicar in order to save embarrassment to his order, he not only declined to withdraw any of his statements, but defended them in a sermon based upon the principles which underlay the theses. His fellow monks listened to him with courtesy, but not without astonishment. To his exposition of his doctrines no one seemed able to oppose any valid arguments.

Hearing that Volta had failed to secure a recantation, and being constantly urged by the Dominican Order to which the indulgence-vendor Tetzel belonged, the Pope ordered action to be taken against Luther for "suspicion of heresy." Luther was commanded to appear in Rome within sixty days. With the order there was delivered to him a statement of the rights of the Church, which declared that whoever questioned an act of the Church was a heretic.

Upon his return from Heidelberg, Luther began the preparation of a careful defense and amplification of his theses. Dedicating this composition, which he called "Resolutions," to the Pope, he made humble submission, but defended and indeed extended all the statements which he had made.

When his friends warned him of the danger of his course, he answered: "He who is poor fears nothing and can lose nothing. Property, I neither have nor desire. If I have had fame and honour, he who now loses them loses them forever. If, then, by force or plots, as God wills, they take away the one thing that is left, my poor, frail body, already worn out with incessant troubles, they will make me poorer for perhaps one or two hours of this life! Enough, for me is it to have my precious Redeemer and Advocate, my Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I will sing as long as I have being. If any one be unwilling to sing with me, what is that to me? Let him howl to himself if he so prefer!"

Before Luther could decide whether to obey or to refuse, the attitude of Rome grew suddenly more threatening. Cardinal Cajetan, the agent of the Pope in Germany, saw plainly that the fire lit by the presumptuous monk was not a small blaze to be easily extinguished, but that it had already spread far and wide over Germany. To his alarm was added rage when he heard that Luther had published a sermon on the ban in which he compared that hitherto useful weapon of Rome to a bat, which flew about in an annoying fashion, but did no harm. Immediately Luther ceased to be a suspected heretic and became a notorious .heretic. As such he was summoned at once to meet the Cardinal at Augsburg. If he did not recant, he was to be sent thence bound to Rome. If it was impossible to secure him, he and his followers were to be put promptly under that ban of which he thought so lightly.

Now, if not before, must Luther have realized that his boat was turned out of the main current of the stream. Solemn thoughts must have come to his mind of the fate of those who had dared to call in question not even doctrines of the Church, but merely her practices. But he did not falter. Again and again in his spoken and written word we have testimony to the light esteem in which he held his own life in comparison with truth. "Let Christ live," said he; "let Martin die." Sure of his position and of himself he set out for Augsburg. He was assured of a safe-conduct from the Emperor Maximilian, without which his own Elector Frederick would not let him proceed, and he was accompanied by friends, among them Dr. Staupitz. But that neither a safe-conduct nor the support of friends had saved Huss from the stake, he could not have forgotten.

On October 12, Luther had the first of three interviews with the Cardinal. At first complimenting and flattering, then storming and commanding, and always refusing to listen to Luther, Cajetan made clear that Rome would hear to nothing but a complete recantation. When Luther asked what errors he was expected to recant, Cajetan replied that there were two: first, Luther had asserted in support of his theses the sole authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith; and, second, he had taught in his Resolutions that the sacraments are of value only to those who believe the promise attached to them. The demands of the Cardinal were reinforced by shouts. "At last," confessed Luther, "I began to shout also." The unreasonableness of the legate fortified Luther in his intention to do nothing against his conscience. Finally, seeing that nothing was being accomplished, he left Augsburg secretly and returned to Wittenberg. When Cajetan demanded that the Elector Frederick send him to Rome, Frederick refused to comply.

Before leaving Augsburg, Luther prepared an "Appeal from the Pope-badly-informed to the Pope-better-informed," in which he asked that his case be heard from the beginning before unprejudiced judges. The Pope's reply was not directed to Luther by name, nor did it make any allusion to his appeal. It took shape in a "bull "or decree, in which Luther's theories were condemned, and the issue at stake was made clear. If Luther persisted in the doctrines of his theses he opposed the Pope and the Church, to which he had hitherto declared himself loyal.

Upon the failure of Cajetan to arrest the heretic, the Pope sent a new ambassador to Germany, Charles von Miltitz. For his purpose Miltitz was armed, not only with a ban against Luther and an interdict against all Saxony, but with the "anointed golden rose," a gift which carried with it great honor by which he was to win to his side the Elector Frederick, who had long coveted it. Miltitz was very different in temper from Volta, Cajetan, and the others who had hitherto been appointed to deal with the troublesome Luther. Hoping to adjust all things amicably, he arranged what seemed to him to be a compromise and wrote in glowing terms to the Pope of his success. That Luther yielded nothing is clear from his letter to the Elector:—

"Let me humbly inform your Grace that Charles von Miltitz and I have at last come to an agreement, and concluded our negotiations with two articles.

"1. Both sides shall be inhibited from preaching, writing, and acting further in the matter.

"2. Miltitz will write to the Pope at once, informing him how things stand, and asking him to recommend the matter to some learned bishop, who will, hear me and point out the errors I am to recant. For when I have learned my mistakes, I will gladly withdraw them, and do nothing to impair the honor and power of the Roman Church."

Before the Pope could consider the failure of his legate to accomplish his errand, the Emperor Maximilian died, and to the election of his successor the attention of Rome was devoted for many months. On account of the political situation it was inexpedient to anger the Elector Frederick, who had wide influence and who himself hoped for the imperial crown. The difficult conscience of the German monk was for fourteen months forgotten.

During the summer months of 1518 there had come to the University of Wittenberg a new teacher, Philip Melanchthon, a grand-nephew of the humanist Reuchlin. He had taken the degree of Master of Arts at seventeen and was still under twenty-one. Only a few days after he arrived, Luther wrote of him to his friend Spalatin the first tribute of an affection which lasted throughout life:—

"Doubt not that we have done all and shall do all you recommend about Philip Melanchthon. He delivered an oration the fourth day after he came, in the purest and most learned style, by which he won the thanks and admiration of all, so that you need not worry about commending him to us. We quickly abandoned the opinion we formed from his small stature and homeliness, and now rejoice and wonder at his real worth, and thank our most illustrious Elector and your good offices, too, for giving him to us. . . . While Philip is alive, I desire no other Greek teacher."

The two men were exactly opposite in temperament. Melanchthon was a scholar, Luther a warrior. The difference, in temper, however, made the one a complement rather than an antagonist of the other. More and more the young classicist turned his attention to the theological formulation of Luther's doctrines. There between them harmony of thought was complete. Though each was aware of the imperfections of the other, each held the gifts and achievement of his friend to be greater than his own. Luther was never weary of expressing his satisfaction in the society of his young colleague and his high opinion of his character and work.

"I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him."

The compact between Luther and Von Miltitz, that both parties to the argument should keep silence, was soon broken. John Eck of Ingolstadt, once a friend of Luther, had attacked his ninety-five theses in a pamphlet which he called "Obelisks," and had been answered by Luther in a pamphlet called "Asterisks." The quarrel was then taken up by a Wittenberg professor, Carlstadt by name, who prepared a set of theses on free will and the authority of the Scriptures, which Eck promptly answered. Now Luther took a hand once more by offering twelve propositions, in one of which he assailed the claim of the Roman Church to be superior to all other churches. Promptly Eck challenged both Carlstadt and Luther to a debate.

After a good deal of negotiation, Leipsic was selected for the scene of the debate. At once, in the midst of his lecturing, preaching, and writing, Luther set diligently to work to prepare himself by a thorough study of church history to meet his opponent. In the course of his investigation he came to a conclusion which amazed and disturbed him. The claim of Rome to supremacy was not made by any ancient right, for only within four hundred years had she attained her tyrannous power. In the decretals in which this power was defined, Scripture texts which referred to "spiritual food and faith" were twisted to refer to temporal power. The words in which he announced his conclusion to his friend Spalatin, mark a new stage in his progress.

"I count the papal power as a thing indifferent," said he, "like wealth or health or other temporal goods, which are insisted on as if by the command of God, though He always teaches that they should be despised. How can I hear with equanimity this perverse interpretation of God's word and that wrong opinion, even if I allow the power of the Roman Church as a thing convenient?"

Luther made, moreover, another astonishing discovery. He learned that the teachings of John Huss, which had been condemned by the Council of Constance, were in entire accord with the gospel and the fathers.

The debate was held in the hall of the castle of Pleissenburg before a large audience. Eck, as the loyal and ardent supporter of the Church, was treated with the highest honor; Luther and Carlstadt and their friends, as the impudent questioners of her power, with rudeness. During the first week Carlstadt and Eck debated on free will; during the second week Luther and Eck on the primacy of the Pope and the authority of a council. During the third week Luther and Eck discussed the orthodox doctrines of penance, purgatory, indulgences, and the power of the priest to absolve.

Eye-witnesses have described the handsome hall which was elaborately decorated for the occasion, the distinguished audience and the eager disputants Eck, heavy in figure and countenance; Carlstadt, small, swarthy, and fiery; Luther, of. medium height, emaciated, clear-voiced, and eloquent. Luther carried with him on one occasion a bouquet of flowers with whose odor he refreshed himself so often that an onlooker suggested that he held thereby communion with the devil.

The effect of the Leipsic debate was not limited to Luther himself. It was now necessary for his friends to take their choice between his friendship and doctrines and the protection and doctrines of the Church. Among those for whom his position was too advanced was his loved Staupitz, who became more and more alienated as the inevitable conclusion approached. The widening breach caused Luther great distress, but neither his own danger nor separation from his friends altered his convictions.

It was inevitable that Rome should ere long take notice of the insolence of her son. The election of the new Emperor was held on June 28, 1519, at which time Charles of Spain, the grandson of Maximilian, was chosen. Now it was no longer necessary to conciliate the Elector Frederick, and at once he was commanded to give Luther up. Again he refused. After Eck had come to Rome with a first-hand account of the black heresy of his opponent, the bull against Luther was prepared and signed on June 15, 1520. It was called "Exsurge Domine," from the first words of the opening sentence, "Arise, Lord, plead thine own cause, arise and protect the vineyard thou gayest Peter from the wild beast who is devouring it." The wild beast was to have sixty days to recant; if he remained stubborn, he would be declared a "stiff-necked, notorious, damned heretic" and would be ex-communicated.