English blog

Luther’s 95 theses – a Roman document

09-11-2017 - Posted by Andre Piet

On the day I write this blog (October 31, 2017), it is exactly 500 years since Luther published his famous 95 theses. The beginning of what is called ‘the Reformation’, but in practice, it was the largest schism ever. Luther intended to challenge wrongdoings in ‘the church’ (that is the Roman Catholic church, the only church Luther knew). He wanted to reform this church. The 95 theses weren’t meant to attack the teaching, nor the institution of the church, nor the papal authority. Luther saw formal errors in the selling of ‘indulgences’, the reduction of punishment in the purgatory. The ‘indulgence’ itself, nor the doctrine of the purgatory were called into question. Luther attacked the shallowness of the ‘indulgence’ and denounced the commerce, which had taken over it. Luther resisted the form and so he wanted to re-form.

It isn’t difficult to quote some nice theses of Luther. For example these 62:

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

Or these 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.

Wonderful, but we should realize that when Luther speaks about ‘the Church’, he thinks about the institute of which the pope in Rome is the (deputy) head. And consider also that the abovementioned theses aren’t revolutionary by themselves. Also the pope in Rome would definitely agree with them.

The ‘Reformation’ became well known because of its mottos ‘sola gratia’, ‘sola fide’ and ‘sola scriptura’. Ónly grace, ónly faith and ónly the Scripture. Nothing in Luther’s 95 theses indicates these things. To point out, I want to quote a few of the 95 theses, which were published 500 years ago.

In these 7 Luther states:

God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.

In other words: if you’re not submissive to the priest, and don’t recognise him as God’s deputy, than you have not been forgiven by God. Is that ‘sola fide’?

In these 17 we read:

It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.

The doctrine that the deceased live on as ‘immortal souls’ in the ‘hereafter’ is still intact. And also that believers should first stay in the purgatory, a place of fear and horror, is not in dispute for Luther.

In these 30 Luther writes the following:

No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission.

According to Luther, personal certainty about salvation and forgiveness of sins is impossible. Apparently you only can hope it. It is also known that Luther, until the end of his life, never knew the peace of the full confidence. According to Luther nobody could be sure about it. But in light of this, what do ‘sola fide’ and ‘sola gratia’ actually mean?

In these 32 Luther says:

Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

The, by Luther criticized, indulgence letters, were about reduction of temporary punishments in the purgatory. Luther states that those who teach that these indulgence letters can supply certainty of salvation, are under the everlasting (eternum) judgment. Luther assumed temporary punishments for repentant sinners and an everlasting judgement for the others. Luther didn’t know what eon-ian, in biblical terms is. The Reformation might have the motto ‘sola gratia’, Luther had no idea of God, the Saviour of all mankind. Eventually for Luther the key was the devout performance of man.

After all, in these 71 Luther teaches:

Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.

It should be clear: in the 95 theses, a thorough Roman Catholic man is speaking. ‘Indulgences’ should be based on the papal authority, only then they would be valid. Who speaks against that, Luther says, ‘be anathema and accursed’. The church, as institute, reigned from Rome, speaks with authority. The future motto ‘solo Scriptura’ is still far away.

The publication of the 95 theses of Luther is the historical beginning of the Reformation. But, in all honesty, Luther barely gives the floor to the Scripture and for sure not ‘ónly the Scripture’. In the 95 theses also God’s ‘ónly grace’ doesn’t sound, because the effect of grace turns out completely depending on the cooperation of man. The doctrine of the everlasting hell was the dark setting of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, but also Luther’s document is permeated of it. The churches of the Reformation are fundamentally and in many ways a continuation of ‘Rome’.

Despite all their beautiful Biblical slogans.