The second and final text under examination in this 500th reformation year is that for which the anniversary is recognized, the 95 Theses or “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”
Indulgences are connected with the sacrament of penance. Technically indulgences remit temporal guilt and punishment for sins that have already been repented of and absolved. There are different kinds of indulgences and can be granted in various ways. The sale of indulgences was a practice that grew during the medieval period, and the occasion for Luther’s disputation was the work of the Dominican indulgence peddler Johann Tetzel (1465– 1519).
Tetzel had been working as a preacher and seller of indulgences for more than a decade, and his most recent campaign was in support of an indulgence initiative to support the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
Unlike the “Disputation against Scholastic Theology” from earlier in 1517, these theses were not intended for formal defense as part of a program of academic study. Rather, wrote Luther, “the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther.”
The first and most famous thesis reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is a powerful statement. It shows that “the entire life of believers” was a foundational concern of the Reformation from its very beginning.
The pope is invoked explicitly for the first time in thesis 5, and this shows how intimately related the indulgence trade and the authority of the pope were. Luther’s opponents were quick to address this connection and amplify the discussion from one raised by a relatively obscure and rural theologian to an attack on the entire edifice of the medieval church.
The discussion also quickly turns to purgatory, the place and/or time of the purgation of imperfections and faults and the imposition of final temporal punishments on believers after death. Tetzel purportedly coined the memorable phrase: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.” This indicated that the purchase of indulgences might not only remit the punishments of believers themselves, but that they might be used to comfort and lessen the sufferings of those who had already died. Luther refers to this in thesis 27: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”
On one level, Luther’s theses are aimed at clarifying and sobering the grandiose claims of “those indulgence preachers.” An example of these is also contained in thesis 75: “To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness.”
What space there is for legitimate use of indulgences is an open question by the end of the work, however. Indulgence letters are “concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man” (Thesis 34), and are dispensable: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters” (Thesis 36).
A key theme is that of assurance, comfort, and certainty. Those who seek these things in pieces of paper and papal power are bound to be disappointed. Thus, writes Luther in thesis 32, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”
Another key theme is that Luther wants to defend the honor of the pope against those who have preached indulgences in his name. The pope must be unaware of the abuses and the ways in which indulgences have fleeced the sheep of his flock. “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep” (Thesis 50). Indeed, “This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity” (Thesis 81).
The doctrine of the “treasury of merits” is also under dispute, and as Luther concludes, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62).