The Joyce Hill Column
The Five-Hundredth Anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses:
31 October 1517
This year marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, traditionally regarded as initiating the Reformation. It was on 31 October 1517 that this list of propositions for academic debate (the ‘theses’) was sent by Luther, along with a covering letter, to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz. More dramatically, Luther is also supposed to have nailed a copy of them to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, acting in his capacity as doctor of theology and professor at Wittenberg’s still quite new university, founded by Frederick of Saxony as recently as 1502. I use the phrase ‘supposed to have nailed’ because it is quite likely that, if he did indeed nail a copy on the church door, which was actually the normal way of announcing theses for academic debate, this was probably not done until sometime in November, and in fact may never have been done at all.
Still, it makes for a vivid scene and was often illustrated in the art promoting the Reformation. Sending a copy to the Archbishop with an accompanying letter — which certainly did happen — was perhaps too mundane a detail to convey the significance of the moment when the story of Luther’s part in the Reformation came to be told in later years. He always claimed that the theses were never meant to bring about a split within the church, but the challenge that they expressed quite quickly spiralled into a theological revolution that tore Europe apart.
At the heart of it all was Luther’s developing theology of salvation, which he had been pondering for some years, particularly through his study, since 1515, of the Epistle to the Romans. The surviving lecture notes from his courses on Romans, and also on the Psalms (on which he began lecturing in 1513), show his growing conviction that Christians are justified by faith, that all righteousness comes from God, and that it is Scripture that reveals all we need to know about our faith. Within this lay a fundamental challenge to the church’s claim to have the authority to mediate between man and God and it posed some profound questions about many established religious practices, including the saying of prayers and masses to influence what happened to the dead in Purgatory, not to mention the doctrine of Purgatory itself.
What brought matters to a head was a sale of indulgences, backed by Pope Leo X, to raise money to complete the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was not alone in thinking that such a ‘sale’ of divine grace (money in return for being let off years in Purgatory) was a vulgar commercialisation needing urgent reform. But in his case it played into his radical insights on the theology of salvation, and so he drew up the now-famous list of ninety-five theses covering the whole range of issues he was grappling with, and sent them to Albrecht, who happened to be his own Archbishop.
Although Luther’s status meant that he was fully entitled to initiate public academic debate — and indeed had done so in the prescribed way on earlier occasions — powerful churchmen responded in a heavy-handed way to this particular set of theses, and each side then pushed the other into increasingly entrenched positions. Luther became more and more of a rebel, and so the Reformation took hold, whatever his real motives may have been on that fateful October day five hundred years ago.