“Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scriptures.” -Martin Luther
On October 31, 1517, German priest and theology professor Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It was a bold stance in protest of the Catholic Church’s position on the absolution of sin, which ushered in the Protestant Reformation.
My dad was a big fan of Martin Luther. Yes, he knew Martin Luther was full of flaws, but he loved his writings and boldness and, at age 67, he traveled to Germany to study Luther’s writings. The result was El Triunfo de la Fe (The Triumph of Faith), a book he wrote to help the Hispanic world understand theology and how Luther could boldly say in the face of certain death, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
In celebration of the anniversary of this momentous event, I thought you would enjoy a summary of the origins and profound impact of Luther’s theses, as told by my father (See below). You will also get a taste of the type of Bible teaching we offer to our national missionaries spread across 57 countries.
It is that triumph of faith that has led the ministry of LOGOI on a fifty-five-year journey to help “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). So, we boldly ask you to pray and give generously to help Spanish-speaking pastors and leaders on their own journey toward el triunfo de la fe.
Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation
We remember the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when a bull –or decree–, from Pope Leo X announced special indulgences in the villages and towns of Germany. In exchange for a few coins any Catholic could buy forgiveness for his or her sins.
Throughout Germany the skillful preacher Johann Tetzel declared that he held the passports granting souls access to the joys of heavenly paradise. Anyone could be forgiven, he said, regardless of the sin committed. He claimed that the Pope had the power on heaven and earth to forgive sins, and even added that if the Pope forgave, God would be obliged to forgive as well. “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs,” he famously declared.
Father Martin Luther, newly appointed professor of Bible and Theology at the University of Wittenberg, heard the extraordinary offer. "What is this," he asked himself. “How can something that God offers freely by his grace be sold?” The severity of the saving distortion led him to write 95 theses on some sheets of paper and nail them—as was the custom when one wanted to initiate a religious debate—on the door of the town's Cathedral.
Luther assumed that some Wittenberg priests would meet that afternoon and for a few hours discuss the propriety of selling indulgences. Upon reaching a decision, they would proclaim it to the citizens of the city.
Yet not a single priest arrived that afternoon. No debate followed. Instead, a lone journalist arrived, read the theses and, realizing the news value contained in them, ran to the nearest printing press. There were few at the time since the printing press had just been invented. Incredibly, Luther's writings spread from printer to printer. In a matter of weeks, people all over Europe were reading translations of the bold objections of an unknown German priest against the nearly all-powerful Pope Leo X:
Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology and regularly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
5. [We use Luther's enumeration] The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
36. Any truly repentant Christian has the right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
66. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.
86. Again, “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 the poor believers?”
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace. [Acts 14:22]
In those days information was carried by people who traveled. Until the invention of the printing press, almost all information was verbal, lending itself to much distortion. But once a news story was printed, it was true and credible. We can be certain that the coincidence of Martin Luther's protest and the invention of the printing press was providential. To understand what it was like in those days and how long it took to receive information, historian William Manchester tells us:
Trips were measured from Venice, the commercial center of the ancient world. A passenger leaving Venice expected to reach Naples in nine days. Lyon was two weeks away. Augsburg, Nuremberg and Cologne, between two and three weeks. Lisbon could be reached in seven weeks. With luck, a person could reach London in a month, provided there was no storm on the English Channel.
Response to the 95 theses
The impact throughout Europe of the massive distribution of these 95 theses was not what the author expected. Furthermore, it is fascinating to note that the resulting great discussions arose not so much from theologians but from the people themselves. Copies of the theses were sold on the streets of Paris and received with great enthusiasm in England. They were even distributed in Rome under the very nose of the Pope.
From Rotterdam, Holland, after reading them, the great humanist Erasmus wrote to Luther: “I cannot describe the emotion, the true and dramatic sensation that they provoke.” The theses even reached Spain. Overnight, Luther became so well known that every article or book he wrote was coveted by the reading world. The teachings of the Reformation had spread to the people.
As for the 95 Theses, Pope Leo soon realized that if he wanted to fill his coffers with the sale of indulgences, he would first have to stop the mouth of the restless theology professor from Wittenberg. The Pope, given his power and position, believed that this would be easy: he could simply declare him a heretic and burn him at the stake.
The Pope's first action was to deliver the 95 Theses to Prierias, the official censor of the Vatican. After studying them he wrote a document that he dedicated to Leo X:
The only infallible authority for Christians is the church (since the letter of the Holy Scriptures is dead), and the church, that is, the priests, are those who have the spirit of interpretation; the Holy Scriptures themselves derive their strength and authority from the church.
Upon receiving a copy, Luther forcefully replied: “The Word of God, the entire Word of God, and nothing but the Word of God is the only authority.” It is interesting, furthermore, to note that it would be under that platform that Luther would proceed through the eight years it took to carry out the Reformation. So certain was he of the truth of the Bible and that the God who cannot lie was its invisible author, that in the years to come Luther would always counter any argument made to him regarding his positions simply by quoting the Holy Bible.
Luther had sent a copy of his theses to the Archbishop of Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg, Germany's most prominent ecclesiastical figure. He attached a letter dated October 31, 1517, asking the archbishop to put an end to the abuses in the preaching of indulgences:
“Forgive me, most reverend father in Christ and most illustrious prince, that I, a remnant of men, am so reckless that I dare to address this letter to the summit of your sublimity…. Under its very clear name, papal indulgences are circulated for the factory of Saint Peter, of which I do not denounce the exhortations of the preachers, since I have not heard them, but I regret the very false ideas that the people conceive because of them..."
In the letter Luther simply wishes to humbly explain his actions, never aiming to raise the ire of the church. Note how the signature included his credentials, since he did not know if the archbishop even knew who he was: “From Wittenberg 1517, on the eve of All Saints. Martin Luther, Augustinian, Doctor of Sacred Theology.”
Albert immediately sent word to Rome of what the intrusive priest was doing, asking for instructions on how to respond, since Luther's action immediately affected the sales of indulgences. It was from prosperous Germany that Pope Leo X and Archbishop Albert sought to obtain rich treasures by selling indulgences.
Luther was unaware of the monetary interests, that half of the profits from these sales of indulgences went to Albert's private coffers and the rest to the Pope, under the pretext of the rebuilding of St. Peter's Cathedral –one of the most scandalous operations in church history. What he did know was that one of the most significant expressions of Christian piety—how forgiveness of sins was obtained—was being violated by this shameful sale of indulgences.
In his sermon on the subject, on October 31, 1516, he stated: “To preach that such indulgences can rescue souls from purgatory is to have too much temerity”; also: “The Pope is too cruel if, in fact having the power to free souls from purgatory, he does not grant free of charge to those who suffer what he grants for money to privileged souls”; and in expression of his true fear: “Be careful! May indulgences never engender in us a false security, a guilty inertia, the ruin of interior grace!”
In the face of the spiritual ignorance of the people, Luther asked himself: “How is it that they dare to sell something that God offers freely by his grace?” And he responded by writing his 95 theses in protest. Although we must remember that these theses were only questions for discussion—not detailed answers—we found in them the great themes that would come to form the doctrinal bases of the Reformation of the 16th century.
The Protestant Reformation thus began, without malice, on October 31, 1517, in the city of Wittenberg, Germany. Since Luther followed the Bible, “it did not occur to him that his positions would be taken as heretical.” His intention was not to challenge the Pope, but as theologian and pastor he saw that the people were deceived with the sale of indulgences and other few but significant teachings. Was not Saint Peter himself rebuked by Paul at the first council of Jerusalem? Luther's intention was like that of Saint Paul: to unite the church under glorious biblical truth.
By Dr. Les Thompson, summarized from his book El Triunfo de la Fe (The Triumph of Faith), published by Editorial Portavoz.