Martin Luther's 95 Theses

A description of the events leading up to and during the publication of Martin Luther's 95 theses, all useful notes for the study of the German Reformation in depth (sources paper).

  • Created by: Tiula
  • Created on: 12-04-11 13:38

Condition of the Late-Medieval Catholic Church

Problems that led to Martin Luther publishing the 95 Theses:

  • many parish priests were illiterate peasants; they often barely knew how to perform a church service
  • pluralism (when one person held more than one post, e.g. they were priest/bishop of more than one place, which meant that they could not devote enough time to their duties)
  • absenteeism (when a parish priest/bishop was away from their parish for a lot of the time)
  • lack of spiritual support
  • indulgences
    • huge amounts of money left Germany to go to Rome (not just indugences: papal taxes, dispensation fees, buying of relics etc.) ==> anti-Papal feeling 
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How Indulgences Worked:

One needed a certain amount of "grace" or goodness in order to enter heaven.

The perfect or near perfect lives of Jesus, Mary and the saints meant that there was a lot of "excess grace" which the Pope could give out as he wished.

The Pope gives out this grace to those who buy indulgences, pieces of paper signed by the Pope, in order to remit their sin.

As buying an indulgence was a good work in itself, it put more grace back into the reserve, so the process renewed itself.

With your sins remitted, you would spend less time in Purgatory.

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95 Theses

  • inner repentance was a continuous process, so the single act of buying an indulgence would not relieve the sinner
  • true contrition welcomed punishment, those who bought indulgences clearly were trying to avoid it. Therefore, buyers of indulgences were not truly repentant
  • he questioned the power of the Pope to remit sin. In Luther's view, the Pope could only remit sin for breaking the Church's law, not God's.
  • Luther stated that one cannot buy indulgences on behalf of those in purgatory, as one can never be certain if they really are repentant.
  • if the Pope could remit sin, why didn't he do it for everyone on account of love?
  • giving to the poor was a better use of a Christian's money
  •  the building of a church in Rome was not a just cause for taking money from Germans
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Why did Luther's ideas become so widespread?

Luther's ideas were not new. Jan Hus had suggested similar things, but had been burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. So what was so different about Luther?

  • Papal anticlericalism (the lack of popularity of the papacy)
    -- several bad Popes had come and gone, e.g. Pope Alexander VI who had fathered several illegitimate children and Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope.
  • The ideological climate was right:
    -- Christian humanism was becoming more widespread, it provided an ideal climate receptive to many of his ideas
    -- the invention of the printing press meant that Luther's ideas travelled quickly and cost much less.
    -- growth of literacy meant that more people could read Luther's books (estimated 3-4% of Germans could read by 1500)
  • The Church was under attack from Islam and it was hard to stop Luther
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