Monday, April 15, 2002

Luther's 95 Theses

If you asked anyone who knows anything about Church History in the West to pinpoint a specific moment or event which can be considered the beginning of the Reformation, the answer would probably be Martin Luther's posting of his 95 theses on indulgences on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. By this act, Luther is seen as rejecting the whole medieval system of indulgences and their associated doctrines and practices; in so doing, he makes his break from Rome, or at least begins to do so in a definitive way. In fact, many Protestant churches celebrate October 31st as "Reformation Day", indicating the importance of that date and Luther's actions on it in 1517 vis. the Reformation churches and communities. This date, then, has been widely regarded as the beginning of the Reformation. However...

In all likelihood, it never happened. Luther never nailed his theses on indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg.

Skeptical? I was, when I first heard of this theory not long ago. Nonetheless, I ask you to indulge me (pun intended) for a few moments...

This argument was first made in 1961 (yes, over 40 years ago) by a Jesuit priest and Luther scholar (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) in Germany named Erwin Iserloh. Fr. Iserloh argued that the generally-held narrative was in fact a legend. He made his case based on a variety of arguments, some of which are as follows:

1. The first written account of Luther's nailing his theses came from Phillip Melanchthon, which he wrote in 1548 three years after Luther was dead and over 30 years after the fact. Furthermore, Phillip wasn't even in Wittenberg in 1517 -- he was called there in 1518 -- meaning that he was not an eyewitness.

2. Following from this, then, Luther never refers to the alleged event. In fact, he was initially unhappy with the fact that his theses were being spread around Germany; we know from his writings that he had given copies to friends, but that they were to be used for scholarly discussion, not widespread public debate.

3. We do know from historical records that Luther mailed his theses to his Archbishop, the attached cover letter being very respectful in tone towards Luther's ecclesiastical superior. In other words, Luther did not seek to publicly attack the current doctrine of indulgences (at least not yet), but rather he followed the canonically-correct procedure and mailed his theses to his superior.

4. Luther also stated in private correspondence after 10/31/1517 that not all of the theses were his opinions. In other words -- and again contrary to widespread belief -- the 95 theses are not an articulation on Luther's own theology of indulgences, at least not in their entirety. This is seen in that around the same time he wrote a Treatise on Indulgences, which I have read in english translation, and which -- by and large -- is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching on indulgences. Besides the importance of this in and of itself, it corroborates the argument that Luther did not post his 95 theses, in that to do so would mean he was intending for public "consumption" ideas he did not hold to himself, while knowing that they would be circulated exactly as his ideas.

What does this mean? That in the fall of 1517, Luther was far from the defiant rebel commonly seen by both Catholics and Protestants. Instead, he was a faithful son of the Church who sought a theological discussion on some notions concerning indulgences. It can also be shown that Luther's teaching on indulgences (at this point) was not heretical from a Catholic perspective, but in fact could have been a very positive factor, if it had ever become widely known.

Finally, most Luther scholars (regardless of church affiliation) today accept Fr. Iserloh's argumentation; while this may not have reached the popular level, those who are heavily involved in studying Martin Luther's thought generally agree that Luther never posted the 95 theses.

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