Ninety-Five Theses

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Some of this punishment could be handled by taking penitential actions prescribed by the priest, but much of it would remain to be exacted after death.

Accordingly, the medieval church came to increasingly teach the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the faithful must undergo a term (perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years) of purifying torment before they could enter heaven. By doing certain holy acts, like participating in or helping pay for a Crusade, Christians could receive an “indulgence” from the Pope, shortening their time in purgatory or perhaps even skipping it altogether.

, the ringing denunciation of the corruptions of the late medieval church that was to spark the Protestant Reformation.

Luther may or may not have posted them on the church door in Wittenberg (he almost certainly did not nail them, in any case, as later legend would have it), but his dissemination of them on October 31, 1517 marked a turning point not only in Luther’s life but in the life of the whole Christian church.

From Luther's day to the present, October 31, 1517 has been considered the birthday of the Reformation.

At noon on this Eve of All Saints' Day, Luther nailed on the Castle Church door, which served as a bulletin board for faculty and students of the University of Wittenberg, his Ninety-five Theses, as his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgence has been commonly called.Indeed, there does not ever seem to have been an academic disputation in Wittenberg as would normally have followed the proposal of such theses.Most striking of all, Luther took the extraordinary step of sending the to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the leading church authority in Germany, and exhorting him in no uncertain terms to restrain the indulgence preachers.The document itself, however, is an unlikely candidate for the role of revolutionary text or Protestant manifesto: composed chiefly for an academic disputation on a practice now long-forgotten and scarce understood, the theses are a bit bewildering to the modern reader looking for familiar Reformation slogans.Indeed, neither of Luther’s two great principles—justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone—are to be found in these pages, even though the former had already begun to influence Luther’s thinking and underlies several of his concerns in the are fairly conservative, and Luther hardly expected them to unleash a full-scale reconception of Christian theology and division of the church.So who were these indulgence preachers and why was Luther so upset about them?The answer sheds light both on the astonishing depth of the corruption in the late medieval church and on the often misunderstood heart of Luther’s protest against it.Moreover, Luther did not compose the on a whim; he had been long wrestling over the indulgences issue and was well aware that by attacking the practice, he would likely be earning himself some very powerful enemies.Finally, although theses were normally composed for academic disputations only, Luther seems to have intended these at the outset for a wider audience. Wengert notes, the are full of rhetorical flourishes that suggest Luther wanted to reach and persuade many educated readers, and very unusually for such theses, Luther from the first invited scholars from around Germany to respond to the theses in writing.The theology and practice of indulgences had been around for centuries, although it had gotten increasingly out of hand in the decades leading up to 1517.At its root lay a long medieval distinction between guilt and punishment: although true repentance of sins and confession to a priest could give the believer absolution from and therefore from hellfire, sin still demanded some kind of temporal punishment.


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