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The Little Monk from the Small Town who Changed the World: Reflections on the ’95 Theses’ on their 500th Anniversary

The date was October 31, 1517, and the setting was the Empire of Germany and the remote northeastern town of Wittenberg ruled by Frederick the Wise, Prince of Electoral Saxony. It was not business as usual in Wittenberg that day, for on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, it was the annual festival of All Saints’ Eve. The following day, November 1, marked the special time of year when the church paid special honor to the dead who had achieved enough holiness to enter the gates of heaven and behold the Lord of glory. (All Souls’ Day on November 2 offered prayers and intercessions for those who were still being sanctified in the postmortem fires of purgatory.)

Not too far away, across the border of Electoral Saxony in Jüterborg, Brandenburg, the Dominican friar John Tetzel and his entourage were preaching the sale of indulgences with the blessing of Pope Leo X and Albrecht, the diocesan archbishop of Mainz. The traffic of indulgences did not actually make its way into Wittenberg, however, because Prince Frederick did not want them competing with the transactional benefits marketing his own prized collection of saints’ relics.

Indulgences had been available in the church since the Middle Ages. In exchange for the giving of alms towards a religious cause, penitent sinners could be remitted part or all of the acts of penance, or temporal discipline, required for their sins. The abundant merit of Jesus Christ and all the saints in heaven’s treasury was at the disposal of the clergy to withdraw and deposit in the spiritual accounts of needy sinners at their discretion. Now, following a papal bull promulgated in 1476, indulgences could even be purchased on behalf of loved ones suffering in purgatory—one of the many forms of late medieval religious devotion that historians have called “the cult of the living in service of the dead.”1 The archbishop of Mainz would receive a portion of the sales to pay off a bank loan funding the special papal permission he had received to acquire a third church position alongside his other two. The rest of the money would go toward the repairing of the beloved Church of St. Peter in Rome, the seat of the papal government going back to ancient times.

Wittenberg in the year 1517 was not a significant town, at least not in comparison to nearby Leipzig and Erfurt and certainly not to more distant Nuremburg, Hamburg, or Strasbourg. In the late 1400s, Frederick the Wise had only begun to change Wittenberg’s fortunes by building a bridge across the Elbe River and constructing a new castle fortress in which to seat the administration of the electoral court. Although the first medieval universities had been established since the eleventh century, Wittenberg had only recently received its very own university along with a printing press in 1502. This definitely helped to stimulate the economic and scholarly development of Wittenberg, but nowhere near the significance caused by the arrival in 1511 of a young, aspiring professor and Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, who would put this small, unassuming market town on the map and change history forever.2

The son of Hans and Margaret born in 1483, young Martin was destined for a prestigious law career made possible by the successful mining business of his working class father. However, on his way back to law school one evening during a terrifying thunderstorm, Luther made a rather hasty vow to his patron saint, St. Anne, to become a monk. After all, if you wanted to get serious about your faith and religion in that time period, and a near-death experience has a way of doing that, you became a monk. The monastic life since ancient times represented (at least in theory) the most zealous Christian discipleship. It required three permanent vows not for the faint of heart, including a life of poverty, lifelong chastity, and humble submission or obedience to the abbot of the community. For their self-inflicted sacrifices of the flesh, fasting, and suffering in pursuit of union with God through growth in virtue, the path of the monastic life was viewed as the surest and quickest way upon death to inheriting the rewards of the celestial kingdom in heaven with Christ.3

Against his family’s wishes, Luther sold back his law textbook and began his monastic career at the Augustinian Cloister in Erfurt in 1505. But rather than finding greater peace with God and assurance of His favor, in the forthcoming years Luther became more aware of his depraved mind and rebellious heart in all his vain strivings, developing an unquenchable sense of terror and despair often referred to in German as “Anfechtungen.”

His monastic superior and spiritual father, Johann Staupitz, tried to encourage Luther with the love of Christ but to no avail. Luther divulged all his secret sins and fleshly inclinations for hours on end in the confessional but walked away doubting the sincerity and completeness of his repentance. He fasted assiduously more than any other monk, so that later on in reflection he quipped that if ever a monk could enter heaven by his discipline, he was that one. A pilgrimage to Rome on behalf of his Order in 1510-11 only left him disillusioned with its squalor, rampant vices, and vapid promises of spiritual blessings exchanged for a series of penitential prayers.

Luther did not experience peace until he became a doctor of theology and began to prepare his own biblical lectures as a new professor at the University of Wittenberg between 1513 and 1519. It was chiefly in lecturing on the book of Romans in 1515-16, and while also reading the anti-Pelagian works of the revered Church Father, St. Augustine, that he discovered “the righteousness of God” in Paul’s epistle as a gift received by faith alone in Christ alone rather than a righteousness whereby He punishes sinners unless they repent and obey His commandments—i.e., a works-based theology of salvation. This was truly good news for Luther and set him on a path to boldly challenge all the traditions and teachings of the late medieval Church, even those advocated by the papacy itself, that burdened the consciences of the German people and conflicted with the central principle of justification by faith alone established on the supreme authority of Scripture.

Although justification by faith alone was not the explicit subject matter of the 95 Theses, Luther was in the process of developing his new theological understanding when he posted this now famous document on October 31, 1517, on the doors of Wittenberg’s Castle Church (which also served as the University Church). The timing was intentional, seeing that the theses nailed on the eve of All Saints’ Day addressed the controversial issue of the recent application of indulgences and the saints’ treasury of merit to the dead in purgatory, but what Luther did was not out of the ordinary. After all, Luther was a monastic theologian and academic professor, and posting public theses calling for and advertising a disputation was customary for university faculty.

However, the 95 Theses attacked the ethical credibility (and the coffers) of his archbishop and the pope who had authorized the indulgences. The theses were subsequently translated and printed in German and, unpredictably, brought this “little drunken monk” from Wittenberg, as he was scornfully called, into instant public notoriety, turning him within just a matter of a few years into a national German folk hero, an internationally-known theological celebrity, and the cause of divided religious loyalties in Germany and beyond.

Between 1517 and 1520, the theses had set Luther on a collision course of conflict with the leading clergy and theologians of Germany, and ultimately, with the pope himself who threatened Luther with excommunication in 1520 for refusing to recant. Luther, not so subtly, responded by throwing the papal bull of excommunication along with other documents of canon law into a bonfire at the gates of Wittenberg. Luther was summoned to appear in Rome but was protected by the patronage of Prince Frederick, and on April 18, 1521 he was tried within Germany in the city of Worms before an imperial diet, or council, presided over by Emperor Charles V. The words of his moving speech are now famous and reverberate throughout history for their assertion of conscientious captivity to the supreme authority of Scripture against the profane powers that be:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.4

Subsequently, Luther was not only condemned to the fires of eternal hell as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church. He was also now an outlaw of the Empire of Germany without legal protection should anyone wish to take his life. The movement of religious reform within Germany inspired by Luther would thus have to advance against the will of the Empire and under the condemnation of the ubiquitous late medieval Roman Catholic Church.

In retrospect, the significance of the 95 Theses five hundred years later lies not so much in its content, as its focus was specifically on responding to the preaching and trafficking of Tetzel’s indulgence sales. The theology of Luther’s other sermons and writings of the 1520s and 30s were far more controversial and revolutionary from the standpoint of the whole medieval Catholic theological tradition—not to mention more relevant reading for contemporary Protestants. What makes the theses so important as to mark an historic anniversary is the fact that it was the theses that so provoked the authorities and initiated the path toward conflict, bringing Luther directly into the international spotlight and turning attention to his other developing ideas and reforming activities. It was the theses, after all, that essentially transformed a rather obscure monk in Wittenberg into a scandalous sensation. The harder the Roman Catholic Church flexed its muscles and pressed its claims of authority against Luther, the more obstinate he resisted and pushed back until division was unavoidable, culminating in a formal schism of separate Protestant-Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. (The word “Protestant” first came into use in 1529 as German princes protested the revocation of their religious rights granted in 1526.)

What happened in Germany would be witnessed elsewhere in Europe as various movements devoted to reforming the church on the basis of the authority of Scripture, associated with the likes of Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Thomas Cranmer in England, and John Calvin in Geneva, sprang up throughout the 1500s and transformed entire cultures, literally changing the religious, social, and political landscape of nations. This did not happen without much violence, however, as religious wars engulfed Europe between Protestants and Catholics late into the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, Protestants themselves did not always see eye-to-eye on how to interpret Scripture and reform the Church, and this division was a troubling legacy of the Protestant Reformation that left a sour taste for religion in the minds of later emerging secular philosophers of the Enlightenment.5 On the other hand, modern historians and missiologists also recognize the Reformation’s emphasis on Bible translation and Bible reading freely by all believers as a major catalyst for the creative cultural adaptation and interpretation of the faith that has contributed to the diverse, explosive vitality and growth of Christianity around the world (especially today among people groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America).6

Luther’s ideas and the movement they generated literally transformed the shape of Germany not just religiously but culturally, politically, and economically as well. Apart from denying the claims of the Roman papacy over matters of religion in Germany, Lutheranism dismantled many of the religious traditions of medieval Catholicism that had hindered people from more direct access to God through Jesus Christ. The intercession of the Virgin Mary and the saints, along with the mediation of priestly confession and the punitive temporal fires of purgatory, were no longer required of sinners on account of the sufficient priesthood, merits, and grace of Jesus Christ who accomplished everything needed for redemption sola Deo gloria. Monasticism, probably the most influential religious institution throughout the entire Middle Ages, effectively disappeared in areas throughout Europe and Great Britain that turned to the Protestant Reformation. Luther himself, a former monk, married an escaped nun, Katherina von Bora, in 1525, defying the idea that ordained priests could not marry, as well as the mentality that godliness was found in taking monastic or clerical vows of celibacy without basis in the Bible rather than living by faith within a marriage and family blessed by Scripture.7 (Ironically, the Luthers’ home in Wittenberg where they raised their children was the former Augustinian Cloister donated to them as a wedding gift by Prince Frederick.) Luther, along with other reformers, fundamentally transformed the medieval definition of vocatio (“vocation” or “calling”) from the revered choice of a cloistered monastic life to that of serving others daily in the world on behalf of God whether as bakers, shoemakers, fathers, or mothers.8 If salvation is not by any works whatsoever, then no work makes a Christian. Faith alone in Christ alone makes a Christian, which makes his or her works exercised through love, whatsoever they are, Christian.

Even more significant to the Protestant Reformation than the 95 Theses and perhaps even more impactful than his other published writings was Luther’s translation of the whole Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German, first the New Testament in the early months of 1522 while sequestered in disguise in the Wartburg Castle, and then the complete Bible by 1534. It was Luther’s desire that the Scriptures be liberated from the tyranny of corrupt interpretations and be allowed to speak the Gospel plainly and freely to the German people, giving them the assurance that their salvation is secure through faith alone in Jesus Christ apart from works. Along with Luther’s doctrine of justification, Luther’s Bible brought people into closer intimacy with God by allowing them to read its sacred words directly in their own language, thus further empowering the cultivation of a more personal relationship with Him. What Luther did for Germans, William Tyndale would attempt for the English people in the 1520s, translating the very first New Testament from Greek into English in 1526. Tyndale would be executed in 1536 near Brussels before his dream of an English Bible became a complete reality, but the legacy of his work lives on today in the King James Version family of translations. We often take for granted having Bibles in our own language and the personal reading of them as a vital part of developing our own intimacy with God, while forgetting the price that was paid by others of past generations who possessed the bold vision to see this happen.

This past May, I had the privilege of co-leading 37 Dallas Baptist University students on a tour of Reformation sites in Germany to study principles of leadership and cultural influence. We visited much larger cities including Nuremburg, Erfurt, and Berlin, but several days were also spent in Wittenberg. Visiting this charming town, where one today can enjoy some coffee or gelato along quiet, stone-paved streets, it is hard to imagine how a religious revolution that would literally transform the world could be traced to such a picturesque and tranquil place. At the Castle Church, I had the opportunity to read aloud to the students from several of the 95 Theses. Although most of us will never probably shake the world as radically Luther did, I reminded the students that God calls us to be faithful in our own spheres of influence and to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us with His Gospel light. I also encouraged the students never to underestimate what God can accomplish with what seems like a rather small, ordinary act done for the sake of the Gospel and for others. As Ph.D. in Leadership Studies student Josh Caesar later reflected after the trip, “How is that God used an obscure man from an obscure town like Wittenberg to cause a movement like the Protestant Reformation to change how we worship and come to God? Luther’s time and opportunity is really another testament to God’s will in bringing up ordinary people from ordinary circumstances into the extraordinary.”

Luther would probably be surprised to know that we are still talking about him and that autumn day in Wittenberg five hundred years later, but who knows what other Luthers out there who will transform the world through one single decision made for the glory of God.
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1Quoted in Peter Marshall, “Leaving the World,” in Reformation Christianity, A People’s History of Christianity, Volume 5, ed. Peter Matheson (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 177.

2Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015), 5-8; Elke Struchenbruch, Lutherstadt Wittenberg: Town of the Reformation, English Edition (Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany: Drei Kastanien Verlag, 2008), 7.

3For Luther’s biography see Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT, and London, UK: Yale University Press, 2015); Michael A. Mullett, Martin Luther (London, UK, and New York, NY: Routledge, 2004); Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Penguin Life (New York, NY: Viking, 2004).

4LW 32: 112-113; It is a matter of some debate whether Luther genuinely said the final words of the speech beginning with “Here I stand…” or if these words were added later.  See Elesha Coffman, “What Luther Said: When Martin Luther stood up for his ideas at the Diet of Worms, did he really say, Here I stand’?” Christian History http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/what-luther-said.html (Accessed October 5, 2017).

5Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, M.A.; and London, U.K.: The Belknap Press, 2012), 368, 376-381; Alistair McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York, NY: Harper One, 2007), 2, 199-241, 461-470.

6McGrath, 136-149; Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 186, 317-318; Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1989).

7Michelle DeRusha, Katharina & Martin: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017);

8Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg, 1957); Robert Kolb, and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 58-64, 112-114; Carl R. Trueman, “Life and Death in This Earthly Realm: Government, Calling, and Family,” in Luther on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2015), 184-189.