In 1517, Martin Luther, a professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany wrote the Ninety-Five Theses for an academic disputation. These propositions, also identified as "Disputation on the Power of Indulgence," began reformations in the Catholic Church which caused division and intensely changed the world. The renowned preacher wrote against indulgence, a system in Catholic Church in which a Christian confessed a sin and received absolution from punishment in hell momentarily although the penitent could satisfy the punishment by performing works of mercy. At purgatory, an individual received absolution of sin unsatisfied before death, therefore, clergy abused this system and benefited by selling indulgence. Luther began vehemently preaching about indulgence when his parishioners claimed they had attained forgiveness without repentance after their return from purchasing an indulgence from Johann Tetzel, commissioned by the Church to preach about and sell indulgences in cities near Wittenberg.
Content of the Ninety-Five Theses
Luther’s first and most famous thesis states, “when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” His foremost Theses discuss Christian repentance as internal struggles with sin instead of an outward sacramental confession. In the Theses five to seven, he states that the Pope can only announce God’s forgiveness in God’s name. Further, he likens punishment in purgatory to fear and despair felt by dying people in Theses fourteen to sixteen. Further, Theses seventeen to 24 states that the spiritual state of people in purgatory is indefinite and he denies that the Pope has power over people in purgatory in Theses 25 and 26. Luther discusses in Theses 27-29 that only God has the power to forgive punishment in purgatory.
Additionally, he states in Theses 30-34 that indulgences give Christians false certainty and he attacks the idea that indulgence makes repentance unnecessary in Theses 35-36 and, in Theses 37, he continues that Christians do not require indulgence to receive benefits provided by Christ. Theses 39-40 explains that purchased indulgence makes repentance difficult hence Christians luck desire for God’s punishment. Luther criticizes indulgence since it discourages works of mercy in Theses 41-47 and sides with the Pope in Theses 48-52 stating that had the Pope known of the preaching in his name, he would burn down St. Peters Basilica.
Theses 53-55 covers restrictions in preaching during the offering of indulgence and goes on to criticizes the Treasure of Merit which misleads the ordinary Christians but places emphasis on the Gospel as the true treasure of the church. The professor further clarifies in Theses 67-80 that indulgence cannot clear the guilt of sin. In Theses 81-91, Luther states that objections would cease should the preachers choose to preach according to his position. In conclusion, Luther urged Christians to imitate Christ even if it brings them pain and suffering.
Martin Luther wrote the Theses for argument in a formal academic disposition and he invited interested scholars to participate in the discussion. Allegedly, on the Eve of All Saints Day, he posted the Theses on the door of the All Saints Church to begin an academic debate. Further, Hans Hillerbrand claimed that Luther intended to instigate a huge controversy because, often, he used the academic nature of the Theses to attack the Church teachings since an author may not own inflammatory ideas in Theses.
Albert of Brandenburg prohibited Luther from preaching against indulgence while in Rome, whereas Pope Leo suggested that he should not distribute the theses anymore. Furthermore, Rome summoned Luther for undermining the Pope’s authority. More problems followed Luther as some people wanted to lynch him, while University of Frankfurt students burnt copies of the theses. Eventually, the authority excommunicated Luther after he refused to recant.
The indulgence controversy began a reformation in the Roman Catholic Church which led to profound social and political changes in Europe although, Luther later termed the controversy insignificant. Through the controversy, a movement Luther headed began and led to a breakaway group from the Catholic church, known as the Protestant Reformation, the origin of the Christian religion of Protestantism. On October 31, 2017, Germans celebrated the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day.
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