Throughout the month of October, I have been highlighting the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg. It was a brave decision that sparked the Protestant Reformation and forever changed church history. In many ways, Luther would go on to re-discover the gospel that had been buried under tradition and politics. And we are all indebted to his sacrifice.
Many people are talking about the 95 Theses this year. Unfortunately, it seems to me that not enough people have actually read them though.
For those who may not know, the 95 Theses are a collection of nearly 100 statements of theological concern. The main topic Luther wrote about was the issue of indulgences – the practice of selling forgiveness of sins or salvation for money. This practice so concerned Luther, that he wanted to host a debate about it. But before any debate could he held, the document was taken off the church door, duplicated in bulk, and widely-distributed, thrusting the monk Martin into the spotlight.
I still remember, in seminary, having to read the 95 Theses for the first time. I was caught off guard by how much of it I disagreed with. For most of my life – throughout my Presbyterian high school upbringing – Luther and his theses were described to me in glowing terms. I had the impression that, in 1517, Luther was practically a full-blown, Gospel-Coalition-type evangelical. Boy, was I wrong!
When he wrote the 95 Theses, Luther was not even yet a Protestant. He was a frustrated Roman Catholic who had some deep-seated concerns. But he was still a Roman Catholic at that time. And his loyalty to the Pope, to the established church of Rome, and to many of its teachings, is obvious as you read the 95 Theses.
Now, I’m not trying to splash cold water on anyone’s Wittenberg Party – but I do think we should be honest about history and consistent in both our criticisms and celebrations of it. As I will point out, Luther himself would even go on to disagree with some of what he wrote in the 95 Theses. (Bravo, Luther!) But in 1517, he thought he was right and boldly wrote accordingly.
Here are a few of the 95 Theses that I disagree with and a brief explanation as to why. (Before any Lutherans Lutherites die-hard fans of Luther get mad, next week I plan to write “On The 95 Theses I Agree With.” So, stay tuned.)
#7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.
In number 7, Luther says that God will forgive your sins – if, and only if, you bow before a priest. Hmmm. Granted, God will never forgive a prideful man or woman. I agree with that. In fact, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” However, Luther insists in this statement that a person must display their humility to the pope (vicar) or a priest in order to be forgiven. Yet Scripture is clear, “there is…one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 2:5)
#16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
Throughout the 95 Theses, Luther wrote a great deal about purgatory. He mentions it, by name, some 15 times. (Purgatory is the belief that there is a place of limbo between heaven and hell that souls can go to. After a time, they can be damned to hell or brought to heaven.) Of course, the idea of purgatory has no biblical foundation whatsoever. I won’t even take the time to argue that.
In 1517, Luther firmly believed in it. By 1522, he began to doubt its existence. (He removed ‘A Pray for the Souls in Purgatory’ from one of his prayer books that he wrote.) And finally, in 1528, Luther refers in one of his sermons to purgatory as an “abomination” thrust onto men by “wicked Popes.”
#38. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said the proclamation of the divine remission.
Here we see Luther’s, naïve respect and appreciation for the authority of the Pope. “Papal remission” is a reference to the Pope’s ability to forgive a person’s sins. In 1517, Luther wrote that this ability should “by no means…be disregarded.” In other words, we should all respect and seek the Pope’s forgiveness. Why? Luther basically says here that whomever the Pope forgives, God forgives. Sorry, Marty. The Pope has no such authority. Even the Pharisees got this issue right, when they said, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) The answer is no one.
#50. 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.
Once again, Luther assumes that the Pope is well-intentioned and that it was the “indulgence preachers” who were the problem. He basically says, “If Pope Leo had any idea what was going on with the sale of indulgences, he too would be flabbergasted, like me, and call the whole thing off.” I appreciate Luther giving another man the benefit of the doubt, but, this time he was wrong. What Luther did not realize was that the sale of indulgences for the sake of building St. Peter’s basilica was Pope Leo’s idea. He knew what was going on and encouraged it. (In the end, it was this very pope who excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church.)
Why do I share all of this? What do I want you to do with this information?
1) Learn some church history. Please! It is fascinating and edifying. Explore the men and women who have gone before us. Read primary sources – their actual writings. As I often say, education is always preferable to ignorance – especially with church history.
2) Realize that history and people are complex. Simplifying complicated issues sounds good, but it is often unhelpful – and the Protestant Reformation and its personalities have layers that deserve to be peeled back. Avoid broad-brush strokes with history.
3) Remember: everyone is growing and learning. In 1517, Luther was wrong about some stuff. He later got it right. Guess what? In 2017, chances are – you and I have some areas that we can grow in and refine. Be humble about your beliefs. Invite dialogue and discussion. And be willing, if necessary, to change them in order to be more in-line with God’s word. That’s what Luther ultimately did, and we should too.