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Analysis of the Wittenberg Theses

Daniel J. Castellano


Theses: 1-4 | 5-7 | 8-13 | 14-19 | 20-24 | 25-26 | 27-31 | 32-35 | 36-38 | 39-44 | 45-51 | 52-55 | 56-58 | 59-68 | 69-76 | 77-80 | 81-91 | 92-95

By any standard, Martin Luther’s posting of ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg was a watershed moment in Western history. Like many momentous events, that of 31 October 1517 has become somewhat mythologized, as the eventual consequences of Luther’s dissent are retroactively read into the dispute at Wittenberg. Even the very nature of the document is obscure to many. The ninety-five theses are not a list of ninety-five grievances against the Catholic Church, but a structured argument of linked premises that ultimately results in a denial of the efficacy of indulgences. It is a theological argument, not a complaint against clerical abuses. The very title, Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, immediately reveals the nature of the document. Luther’s intentions are expressed in the following words:

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Whatever else one may say about Martin Luther, there can be little doubt that he sincerely believed he was a true Christian, correcting Scholastic errors that had arisen over the centuries. He makes appeals to earlier Christian tradition, and to human reason; on both of these counts he is not very different from his contemporaries. We will not consider the Wittenberg argument in light of Luther’s later writings, which are of a much more radical ecclesiology, but we will reveal how the seeds of his radicalism were sown in what seems at first to be a rather innocuous argument. This radicalism was not fully expressed by Luther until after he was frustrated in his attempt to win the official Church over to his position. In 1517, Luther was still very much integrated in the institutional Church; we see above that he appeals to his university degrees and ecclesiastical titles, accepting even the name “Father.” His appeal for an open debate seems innocent and naďve in hindsight, as though he did not fully perceive that the implications of his positions were totally incompatible with Catholicism. It is only after he failed to receive the conversion of the hierarchical Church that he turned violently against the clerical establishment, much as he did against the Jews when he failed to convert them, resulting in his polemic, On the Jews and their Calumnies. In his intellectually formative period, Luther was obsessed with the matter of the forgiveness of sin. We see this immediately in the first four theses.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Luther begins with Christ’s exhortation to repentance, and immediately imposes a restrictive definition on the Latin paenitentiam, excluding sacramental penance. In this Luther is correct, because Matthew 4:17 reads in Greek, metanoeite, which refers specifically to a turning around or changing of one’s mind. Luther is not actually saying anything heterodox in the second thesis, because confession (and satisfaction) does not grant repentance, but presumes its existence in the penitent. Catholics must repent of their sins before going to sacramental confession, so the paenitentia that Christ urges us to pursue is not sacramentally administered. The third premise also seems innocuous, and it is informed by Luther’s personal experience in wrestling with temptation. After we repent, and detest our sins, we must nonetheless struggle against the desires of the flesh. In this sense, the penalty of sin is said to remain. We note that Luther has no strong dichotomy between faith and works: he sees external self-mortification such as that practiced by monks as a necessary sign of true repentance.

5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.

These theses may seem a bit more controversial at first, but in fact they are quite ordinary. The fifth thesis is practically a tautology, since an authority cannot remit a penalty that he does not have the power to impose. The powers of “binding and loosing” are inextricably linked. The sixth thesis is consistent with the sacramental formula, “May God forgive…”, and is orthodox in that it allows for cases that are strictly at the discretion of the pontiff, without specifying what these cases are. The sixth and seventh theses indicate Luther has no intent to disparage the authority of the Pope or of priest, but in fact finds them to be essential.

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

Here we see Luther’s first major departure from the thought of his contemporaries, yet this is nonetheless clothed in very orthodox motivations. Luther is quite correct to say that canonical penances, indeed all of canon law and the authority of the Pope, is binding only on the living. For this reason, indulgences for the souls in Purgatory are given only as petitions to God that He may remit their punishment. Luther’s thirteenth thesis is a half-truth; the dead are released from canonical rules, but it does not follow that they are freed from all penalties. God, in His justice, certainly retains the right to exact a penalty for those sins for which no penance was done. Luther theorizes that the doctrine of Purgatory arose from the abuse of imposing canonical penances after death. Whatever value this may have as a historical theory, it misrepresents the theological basis of Purgatory, which rests not on the canonical penances, but on satisfaction of divine justice. Unfortunately, indulgences for the dead used the language of canonical penances as a measure of the penalty that would be remitted if God granted the indulgence. This and other confusions of language and practice made it possible for Luther to advance this misguided argument, and for others to erroneously insist that canonical penances could be imposed after death, or that the Pope had authority over the dead. Although we must reject Luther’s conclusion, even here he performs a valuable service to the Church in forcing a clarification of the distinction between canonical penances for the living and the pains of Purgatory, and between indulgences for the living and those for the dead. We may note that the twelfth thesis is historically correct, but has no real relevance to Luther’s argument, unless he insists that even the living must do penance prior to absolution.

14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.

18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.

These theses provide some insight into Luther’s view of the abodes of the soul. His speculation revolves around the themes of increasing or decreasing love and fear. This argument seems to presume that the soul invariably has knowledge of its true state, contrary to the nineteenth thesis, otherwise the fourteenth thesis is highly dubious. Those who have little love of God may nonetheless foolishly approach death without fear, and conversely the Church is filled with examples of saints, beginning with St. Paul, whom Luther so much admired, who have approached death with much fear and trembling before God. Truly, even the saints know fear because of their small imperfections, but it is fallacious to extrapolate “the smaller the love, the greater the fear.” The fifteenth thesis reflects Luther’s own obsessive scrupulosity. For him, the fear of God may well have approached the horror of despair, and later reached it, forcing him to abandon hope in the Church’s forgiveness of sins, but most are not so scrupulous. On the contrary, it would seem that those who feel the least horror for their sins are most culpable and thus would require the greatest chastisement. Luther’s model of fear as the substance of punishment is a generalization of his personal experience that misunderstands the positive role of fear without despair in the Christian life. Nonetheless, it is worthy of comment that Luther does believe in the existence of Purgatory, and he does allow for the possibility of penalties there beyond fear. Although we reject his simple antithesis between love and fear, there is a real truth underlying his depiction of the various abodes in terms of their relative assurance of safety. He curiously speculates that those in Purgatory might not know whether they are damned or to be included eventually among the blessed, without denying that all in Purgatory are saved. In other words, the soul will not be able to tell whether it is in Hell or Purgatory. This possibility is not demonstrated as fact, but merely cited as not refuted “by reason or Scripture.” We might see here a denial of the value of Sacred Tradition, but Luther has appealed to tradition elsewhere, as with the practice of canonical penances, so the omission of mention of tradition here is not a denial of its value, nor atypical for Catholics, many of whom supposed that all Tradition might be contained in Scripture, at least indirectly.

20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;

22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.

23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.

24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

In the previous set of theses, Luther had attempted to establish that there is a penalty of horror suffered by those in Purgatory. This is unproven, but even if we accept it as an axiom, it does not follow that an indulgence for the dead cannot include all penalties, for it is within the power of God to illumine the soul so that it knows it will be saved, and thereby loses the supposed penalty of fear. Of course, it is necessary to emphasize that the Pope may grant this full indulgence, or any indulgence for the dead, only by way of petition to God. The twenty-second thesis recapitulates previous arguments about canonical penances, which we have already addressed, and the next two theses follow from the fallacy of the twentieth.

25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

This may merely be a misstatement by Luther, but he actually overstates the case for the Pope in claiming that he has authority over Purgatory. The proper analogy is that the Pope has authority over the Church on earth in the way a bishop has power over his diocese. From this we can understand the power of the keys, and what Luther means in the twenty-sixth thesis. He does not issue a radical denial that the Pope possesses the power of the keys, but only that this power grants him authority over the abodes of the soul. The power of the keys consists in the fact that the Church is the sole means of entry into Heaven, and the Pope and bishops have the ability to include or exclude people from the Church. It is in this indirect way, expressed by ecclesiastical communion or excommunication, that the Pope and bishops wield the power of the keys to Heaven over their respective jurisdictions. This is not the same as the power to declare someone saved or damned, or to decree the measure of their punishment in Purgatory, which authority they do not possess, as Luther correctly asserts. Luther acknowledges that the Pope is correct in granting remission to souls in Purgatory by way of intercession.

27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.

Luther attacks a crass saying current in his time, and answers it sufficiently with his twenty-eighth thesis. This does not imply that all linkage of indulgences with donations is avaricious, but it does distinguish the efficacy of payment in completing the petition for an indulgence from the efficacy of God’s power, which alone releases the soul from Purgatory, at a time which may or may not coincide with payment, since God is not bound to grant an indulgence for the dead immediately, or at all. He alludes to a legend of two saints who supposedly wished to endure the pains of Purgatory for the benefit of the faithful. Now, when we petition for a soul to be relieved of the penalties of Purgatory, we are asking that he be remitted the punishment due to his personal sins. If he wishes to suffer for the sins of another, and God grants that desire, we do not impede this wish by remitting the punishment for his own sin, but rather help to fulfill it. A man cannot suffer on behalf of another if his suffering is serving only to satisfy his own debt. By annulling his debt, God frees the man to offer any further suffering for others, so Luther’s objection to indulgences on this ground does not hold. The thirtieth thesis is applicable to those living who obtain indulgences for themselves. Correctly, Luther stresses that true contrition is a necessary condition for receiving a plenary indulgence, and it is a rare thing for a man to be perfectly contrite. It is misleading, therefore, to equate the reception of the indulgence with the payment of the donation, for very few people have the contrition necessary to actually receive a plenary indulgence.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.

As shocking as the thirty-second thesis may be, it is quite correct. Except by a special revelation from God, no man on earth can be perfectly assured of salvation. To believe oneself sure of one’s salvation is to commit the mortal sin of presumption, and a teacher who leads others to mortal sin is himself mortally culpable. The letters of pardon cannot assure men of salvation since they presume true repentance if they are to be full pardons. If a pardon is partial, it can only be received if the man is not damned. Luther does not condemn letters of pardon, but warns against misconstruing them as talismans that prevent damnation. In the thirty-fourth thesis, he repeats the error of limiting the pardons to penalties appointed by man, but he is correct insofar he means that the grace of repentance is not among the graces of pardon. The thirty-fifth thesis is correct.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.

Here we find the first significant doctrinal deviation on the matter of indulgences. Luther maintains that every Christian has a right of full remission of culpa et poena if he is truly contrite. This is untrue; an act of perfect contrition remits all guilt and the penalty of eternal damnation, but not the penalty of Purgatory, which can be remitted through penances on earth, via the mortifications of the flesh Luther espouses. Earlier, Luther made a point of indicating that penances were formerly issued prior to absolution. This reflects his view that this penance is an outward sign of the contrition necessary for absolution. At this point we are playing with words. If we define true contrition as including the penances of self-mortification, then Luther’s thirty-sixth thesis would be correct. In that case, however, it would not prove the redundancy of letters of indulgence, since these could remit the obligation to endure self-mortifying suffering, which is precisely what Catholics hold. The thirty-seventh thesis is less defensible, and is much too vague to be appropriately addressed, except to remark that God has always distributed His graces unequally. The last thesis cited may seem to be a weak attempt to hide contempt of the Pope’s authority, though in fact it is quite plausible that Luther sincerely believed he was not impugning papal authority in any way, or rendering it impotent. Luther was quite fatalistic, and it was perhaps no small matter for him to grant that the Pope could infallibly declare that divine remission had been offered.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

Pardons are now considered from a more practical viewpoint, that of edifying the faithful. Granting that the pardons are in some way genuine and efficacious, Luther nonetheless finds, as have later Popes, that a too liberal granting of pardon causes people to despise penalties. As an Augustinian, Luther was only too well aware of how essential suffering is to the Christian life, and he goes so far as to affirm, “True contrition seeks and loves penalties.” This is correct, for one who is truly sorrowful for having offended God wishes to be scourged and allowed to make reparations for his sins. On the other hand, if pardons are too readily available, the desire for self-mortification can be undermined, impeding true contrition. This tension makes difficult the judicious dispensing of pardons. Luther recommends an emphasis on works of mercy and love; indeed, these are often made conditions of indulgences in recent times. Every Christian should take the forty-fourth thesis to heart. While we should not despise God’s pardons, for all are in need of His mercy, we should not mistake the remission of a penalty for an actual improvement in the state of one’s soul.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.

47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.

48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

These theses are evidently concerned with social justice. The first four of these aim to protect Christians from being victimized by simoniacs. The forty-ninth thesis is correct if by “trust” we understand the sin of presumption, not a mere belief in the efficacy of pardons. The last two theses cited are a moral challenge to the Pope; it cannot be determined from this document alone whether Luther really held the Pope to be culpable for the simony associated with indulgences. The Pope was not part of the intended audience of the Wittenberg theses, though they would certainly be read by his defenders, including bishops. Luther makes a definite linkage between simony and the building of St. Peter’s, and indirectly asks the Pope to take an unambiguous stand by abolishing the simoniacal sale of indulgences, regardless of economic consequences. At least formally, he gives the Pope the benefit of the doubt.

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

Luther laments that the Word of God, by which he primarily means Sacred Scripture, is neglected in liturgy so that indulgences may be preached. Any faithful Christian should share such sorrow to the extent it is grounded in fact. Thus the middle theses are indisputable; in the fifty-third Luther takes care to profess his allegiance to the Pope against the simoniacs. The fifty-second is the usual admonition against presumption. In the fifty-fifth thesis we have a less veiled challenge to the Pope, for he must certainly know that the Pope did not intend for the Gospel to be celebrated with a hundred processions. This sarcastic irreverence casts doubt on the sincerity of previous disavowals of papal culpability, which we will nonetheless continue to take at face value.

56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.

57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.

A meandering discourse on the “treasures of the Church” begins here, peppered with sarcastic witticisms, such as the well-placed barb of the second thesis above. The fifty-eighth thesis is plainly false; the merits of Christ and the saints are treasures of the Church. Luther creates a fictitious divide between Christ and His Church on earth. Even if we agreed that the merits of Christ and the saints work grace independently of the Church on earth, they are still treasures of the Church since they are given to the Church, the sole means of salvation. Luther apparently has more of an institutional view of the Church, rather than seeing her as the Mystical Body of Christ. It is worth clarifying that all of the sanctifying graces are mediated through the Catholic Church, so Luther’s ecclesiology is certainly false.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ's merit, are that treasure;

61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.

66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.

67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.

68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

In the remainder of this brief discourse, Luther identifies the “treasures of the Church” out of which the Pope grants indulgences as the “keys of the Church” received from Christ. This follows from his fallacious belief that indulgences can only remit canonical penances, though even if that were the case, justice would demand that this temporal debt be satisfied, and for this too the merits of Christ and the saints may be offered. The “true treasure” of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel, and this is contrasted with the “treasures of indulgences,” here referring not to the “keys of the Church,” since Luther would not speak ill of a gift of Christ, but to the simoniacal spirit. The Gospel preaches the abject humiliation and self-emptying of the Son of God, while the simoniacs preach gain of wealth. Here Luther abandons all moderation of language with regard to indulgences, and speaks of them as though they were always evilly administered.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.

70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.

71 . He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness.

76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

Luther takes care to affirm the truth of apostolic pardons, even going so far as to anathematize anyone who disagrees. Given Luther’s notorious scruples, it seems impossible that he would deliberately lie about this. In this case, he really does believe in the efficacy of pardons, in his peculiar way outlined previously, but objects to the frivolous administering of such pardons by commissaries. Once again, we have a veiled challenge to the Pope, asking him to condemn the abuse of pardons as forcefully as he condemns their obstruction. A likely explanation of this tension in Luther’s view of the Pope is the coupling of a belief in papal authority with a strong suspicion that the current Pope is countenancing abominable abuses. He is correct in affirming that apostolic pardons, despite the formula culpa et poena, do not remit guilt, since guilt is remitted by the contrition which is a necessary condition for receiving the pardon.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.

78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.

79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.

Two accusations of blasphemy are made; the first is unfounded. Luther is forced into the position expressed in the first two theses by his insistence that pardons remit only canonical penances, and that the “treasures of the Church” do not refer to the merits of Christ. Once it is acknowledged that the indulgences can remit all penalty due to sin, it is clear that no greater grace can be given by any Pope, since true contrition comes only from God. The second accusation is a much graver matter, for we must never tamper with the doctrine of the single Redemption at Calvary. Indulgences have efficacy only by virtue of the Cross of Christ, without which there would be no saints. Further, the cross set up by preachers of indulgences is only a symbol of the indulgences; it cannot effect an indulgence. It is blasphemous to equate the worth of this cross with that of Christ, and the teachers of the Church who permit such talk will be held accountable.

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

82. To wit:—“Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”

83. Again:—“Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”

84. Again:—“What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul's own need, free it for pure love's sake?”

85. Again:—“Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”

86. Again:—“Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”

87. Again:—“What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”

88. Again:—“What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”

89. “Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”

90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.

91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.

Some of these objections are answerable, but that is not the main point. The Church’s practices regarding indulgences were sufficiently confusing to make these objections possible and viable, and until that is changed, mere force or authority will not resolve the matter, but simply accentuate the tension between clerical authority and common sense. We may ask to what extent the objections attributed to the laity are really those of Luther. This is not fully answerable, but we can see Luther’s biting wit and intellectual sophistication throughout the objections, as well as his theme of doing things for pure love’s sake. He does adopt the voice of a layman, pretending not to know answers to questions resolved in the earlier theses. The most scandalous aspects of the practice of indulgences are that they are too freely given, their efficacy is exaggerated, the necessity for contrition is downplayed, and they are granted in exchange for money. This last aspect is really the root of all the other abuses; in order to generate revenues, it is necessary that many indulgences be sold, and this in turn requires that their efficacy be exaggerated and spiritual requirements be neglected in order to maximize demand. A fair portion of the revenues was directed toward the building of St. Peter’s, so Luther naturally attributes the Pope’s apparent tolerance of abuses to monetary interest. He does not directly accuse the Pope, but forces the purveyors of indulgences either to admit the force of his arguments, acknowledging that they do not represent the Pope, or to identify the Pope as a co-conspirator.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

These final words best encapsulate the intentions and spirit of Martin Luther in 1517. Though there is a very mild streak of populism in his writing, we find mainly the voice of a scrupulous Augustinian monk who is genuinely concerned with abuses that seem to strike at the heart of Christian experience and the theology of redemption. A Catholic can read these theses and share Luther’s dismay at the apparent trivialization of the way of salvation. Instead of Christ’s narrow gate, salvation appears to be something easily obtained, for a worldly price. Luther corrects most of the theological errors underlying the abuses, and creates a few of his own in the process. These errors, rather than the existence of abuses, are Luther’s main motive for writing. He is the first to acknowledge that all men are grave sinners, yet he will not endure the eradication of monastic virtues among the clergy in exchange for crass worldliness.

See also: Origins of Original Sin | Hesychasm of Gregory Palamas

© 2001, 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.