The 95 Theses, a document that sparked the Protestant Reformation, was very controversial upon its release. But have you ever wondered how the Catholic Church reacted to it? If you are, let me explain what transpired right after it was published.
The Catholic Church asked Martin Luther to retract his views on the 95 theses. Theologians and clergy were also sent to challenge him in debates, and a papal decree was published to reject some of his propositions. But Luther still stood his ground. As a result, the Church branded him as a heretic.
So what are the 95 Theses, and what are the events that led Luther to write them? Moreover, how did he end up as a heretic? Continue reading to find out.
What Were the Ninety-Five Theses and How Did it Impact Society?
Legend has it that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther approached the Castle Church’s door in Wittenberg, Germany, and with nails and a hammer, he posted a piece of paper containing his 95 Theses. In the next four years or less, the Catholic Church will brand him as a heretic, and the Roman Empire will try him as an outlaw. This was how one document changed not only the Christian faith but the political landscape in Europe as well.
But what exactly are the 95 Theses, and who was Martin Luther? Find out below.
Who is Martin Luther?
When Martin Luther posted the ninety-five theses, he was a theology professor at Wittenberg University. But more than that, he was a Catholic priest. That said, Luther originally had no intention to break from the Church, so long as his call for reform was heard. He only composed the theses for scholarly debate, particularly on papal indulgences.
Indulgences have been practiced and granted since the Middle Ages to Christians. It’s the practice of asking for “indulgences” or payment so one’s sins can be forgiven. During Luther’s time, however, the Church was outright selling indulgences for profit. According to him, the Pope, along with the archbishop of Mainz, were dividing proceeds from indulgences to pay for the archbishop’s debt and finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
As a Catholic priest, Luther felt that selling indulgences exploited the people’s quest for salvation, weakened their motivation to seek divine grace, and made penance all about wealth and power. While Prince Frederick III banned the selling of indulgences in Wittenberg – where Luther taught – many members of the Church traveled to neighboring towns just to purchase them. Then when they returned, they’d show him their bought pardons. For them, this meant that they no longer needed to repent for their sins.
Such a practice greatly frustrated Luther, which led him to write the Ninety-five Theses. He then posted this on the doors of the Church, which was a common practice at that time. Ordinarily, this notice would only catch the interest of professional theologians. However, because of the rocky political and religious landscape during that period and the invention of printing, the theses were quickly snapped, translated, and distributed. In a matter of weeks, Luther’s work was known throughout Germany.
What are the 95 Theses?
The “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” more popularly known as the “95 Theses” is a document containing a list of propositions that Martin Luther proposed for disputation or scholarly debate. As its name suggests, it contained 95 of them. They are mostly about indulgences and purgatory as well as the Pope’s role in them.
The Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church, saw the document as a challenge to its power since granting indulgences was under the authority of the Pope.
Of these 95 propositions, he made three points, which are:
- It is wrong to sell indulgences to finance the construction of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the 85th thesis, Luther strongly criticized the Pope, stating: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
- The Pope does not have authority or power over purgatory.
- The selling of indulgences gives people a false sense of security, thus, endangering their salvation.
These points resonated with the sentiments of many Germans, who at that time, were already resentful of being forced to contribute money to Rome. The document was also welcomed by many scholars, clergymen, knights, and laymen across Western Europe. So from being an academic agenda, the Ninety-five Theses transformed into a manifesto of reform, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation.
Within a few years, the movement spread from Germany to the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and then to Scandinavia and England. In the next 40 years, entire nations would break away from the Roman Catholic Church, revolutionizing Western civilization. Those who believed in the movement were then known as “Protestants”.
It’s worth noting, however, that not all 95 of Luther’s propositions were bad. In fact, some of them are consistent with the Catholic Church’s teachings. You can check out all the 95 theses here.
The Catholic Church’s Response to the Ninety-Five Theses
When the 95 Theses reached Rome, the Catholic Church’s initial response was to dispatch high-ranking theologians and clergy to debate Luther and offer him an opportunity to retract his views. In 1518, a counterthesis was prepared and defended at Frankfurt. Luther was also summoned to Augsburg where he defended his views before an assembly and debated against Cardinal Thomas Cajetan. Reaching no agreement, Luther refused to recant his statements and went back to Wittenberg.
In 1519, Luther took part in another debate. Only this time, against Johannes Eck, a formidable theologian in that period. Still, Luther stood his ground. This was a huge turning point as it was interpreted by the Church as a direct challenge to the Pope’s authority.
Three years after posting the 95 Theses, Luther not only decided not to recant his statements, but he also continued his criticism of the Church, expanding it to practically every area of the Christian faith and its authority in society. So in June 1520, Pope Leo promulgated the “Exsurge, Domine” (Arise, O Lord), which was a decree condemning Luther’s unrepentant accusations of the Catholic Church. In it, the Church accuses him of heresy and gives him an ultimatum, which was to recant his statements in the 95 Theses and other writings within 60 days or else face ex-communication. The bull also instructed for his works to be burned in public, and all Christians who owned, read, or published them would also face ex-communication.
Then, in a dramatic act of defiance and retaliation, Luther burned the papal bull in public on December 10, 1520, which was exactly the pope’s deadline. During this time, burning one’s works was a powerful symbol equivalent to burning the person himself. This made the split between Luther and the Catholic Church irrevocable. Thus, in January 1521, the Pope formally declared Martin Luther a heretic, yielding him over to the Holy Roman Empire to be tried and punished.