Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: Michael Mullett Defines the Role of the 95 Theses in the Lutheran Reformation

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The Man and the Theses: an introduction

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is rightly regarded as the founder of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation--the religious, political, cultural and social revolution that broke the hold of the Catholic Church over Europe. Luther was born in Eisleben in eastern Germany in 1483. Though in later accounts of himself he liked to dwell on the lowliness of his origins, in point of fact his father had made good in the mining industry, while his mother was from a professional bourgeois background.

Historians today tend to be sceptical about claims made some years ago by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to the effect that the young Luther was haunted by a psychological collision with his parents, especially with his formidable father, and that he later transposed that conflict on to the fear of God's judgement that was to haunt him as a monk. What is sure, though, is that the young Luther had to stand up for himself to defy his father, who wanted him to train for the legal profession, and assert his own desire to seek his everlasting salvation. In 1505, with that aim in mind, he got his own way when he entered the monastery, in Erfurt in Saxony, of the Augustinian Eremites, a strict order noted for its academic interests and pastoral concerns.

He was ordained priest in 1507 and proceeded to take up the academic focus of his order, becoming doctor of Sacred Scripture in 1512 and, at the same time, assuming a professorship of the bible at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in the Electorate of Saxony. Meanwhile, Luther's monastic years were haunted by a dark shadow of acute anxiety as he sought, without any sense of success, to win God's favour and forgiveness for his (largely imagined) sins through many acts of self-mortification.

Yet in lectures on Scripture texts, the Psalms of the Old Testament and the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans in the New, Luther gradually found assurance that sinners won acceptance from God the Father--were 'justified'--not actively, through their good deeds, but passively and simply by faith that Christ had died on the Cross to save them. However, by his own testimony, it may have been some years, perhaps not until as late as 1519, that he actually appropriated those insights fully to his own condition. In the midst of that process, in 1517, came the 95 Theses against Indulgences, a document showing that Luther's practical appropriation of 'justification by faith alone' was far from fully formed at that point in time and that, although Luther disparaged papal indulgences as media of final forgiveness of sins, he was still placing considerable onus on the responsibility of the individual to secure remission of sins through contrition for them.

In the years to come, the breach that the 95 Theses opened up with the papacy by challenging its claimed divinely-endowed power to pardon widened inexorably, leading to Luther's excommunication in 1520 and his outlawry as an impenitent heretic at the Diet (German parliament) in 1521. In the same year, in the most dangerous passage of his life, Luther secured protection and a safe hiding place from the ruler of Saxony, the Elector Frederick the Wise. In the years to come, following Erederick's death in 1525, Luther resettled as professor at Wittenberg (and a married family man from 1525) and became the builder of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation. Its church structures were to be incorporated in the 'Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony' of 1528 and its doctrines were formulated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530.

Martin Luther is a figure of titanic greatness in the history of religion, a man of insurmountable courage, a writer and preacher of vast output and great depth, with the most powerful sense of the immediacy of the divine. His character was marred by intense violence of emotion and language against all who disagreed with his religious views and he manifested rising bigotry against the Jewish people; he could be opportunistic and full of duplicity in advancing his cause. …