On, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a hand-written document to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg entitled, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which is better known today as “Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.” Though Luther was a highly religious and devout Catholic monk, earning his doctoral degree in biblical studies, his intent on nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door was motivated by a desire to reform the Catholic Church by addressing and correcting what he viewed as corruption, of which, the buying and selling of Indulgences was at the heart. Luther’s theses also brought into question papal authority along with the Catholic Church’s doctrines concerning salvation.
Not long after Luther nailed the document to the church door, it had been copied, translated, and published throughout Europe thanks to the revolutionary invention and rise of the printing press. Irrespective to Martin Luther’s original intention of the Ninety-Five Theses, this document ultimately lead to the Catholic Church’s excommunication of Luther, and has become a key identifier of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses did not necessarily originate with the idea of “Religious Revolution,” but was originally intended as a sincere, academic disputation among Luther and his colleagues. Archbishop Albert of Mainz espoused the selling of Indulgences in order to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Archbishop Albert hired Johann Tetzel, a Catholic monk, to sell the Indulgences in Germany, which was home to Martin Luther. Throughout his theses Martine Luther scorned the ideas behind Indulgences, referring to them as “human doctrines” (thesis # 27), “greed and avarice” (thesis # 28), and a “false security of peace” (thesis #95). In the early Catholic Church, an Indulgence was, in essence, a good work performed by a Catholic in order to lessen their time, or a deceased relative’s time, in purgatory. When one purchased an Indulgence from the Catholic Church, it was viewed as a financial sacrifice reflective of one’s contrite heart, keeping in mind that the level of monetary giving for the Indulgence was given preeminence over the level of the more ambiguous contrition which may have resided in the heart of the one purchasing the Indulgence. It was through a combination of doubts which arose in Luther’s heart, consisting of (1) the validity of the lucrative Indulgences, (2) the immorality of papacy he witnessed first-hand in Rome, and (3) the teaching of the Apostle Paul, “The just shall live by faith,” which Luther understood as meaning individuals were solely responsible for their faith in Christ without the need of papal intervention, which were the driving forces behind Luther’s Catholic reform.
Undoubtedly, Luther anticipated resistance from the Catholic Church. As the effects of Luther’s theses continued to snowball, the level of resistance which ensued found Luther at the Diet of Worms with Emperor Charles V, on January 28, 1521. This meeting was Luther’s pivotal chance to recant his teachings and apologize to the Catholic Church, or to stand firm and continue to defend his Theses. The meeting concluded with Luther’s tireless defense, as he solemnly declared, “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Shortly thereafter, on, May 25, 1521, Emperor Charles V issued the Edict of Worms which put a ban on all of Martin Luther’s writings and demanded his capture. During this time, Luther hid in the castle of Wartburg for about a year. Eventually, Luther was able to come out of hiding and enter public sight once again largely due to the fact that the Emperor was preoccupied with other political concerns and due to the overall acceptance of Luther by the public. The historical impact of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in Christendom has demonstrated the importance of bringing issues of religion and faith under scrutiny, as well as serving as an example of the price one must be willing to pay if one’s conscience runs contrary to the politics and authorities of the day.