On Saturday, October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther—a 33-year-old Roman Catholic priest and theology professor at the University of Wittenberg—stood in front of the doors to the Castle Church and nailed a paper with ninety-five theses, handwritten in Latin.
Hoping to spark an academic discussion and to effect change in the church, his first point was that Christ the Lord calls for all of life to be marked by repentance.
Little did he know that this 1,576-word disputation would eventually change the course of history through a reformation of the church and the culture.
Below is an interview with Carl Trueman, who holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History and is professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. Among his books is Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015)—with a foreword by renowned Luther scholar Robert Kolb and an afterword by America’s most famous Lutheran historian Martin Marty.
But before we get to our Q&A, let’s get oriented to the town and church in 16th-century Wittenberg.
Here is a painting from Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was friends with Luther and was a significant Renaissance artist. It is from 1536, nineteen years after Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Castle Church door. The perspective of the town is from the south, across the Elbe River.
The Castle Church is highlighted below:
We can zoom into this painting to blow up just the Castle Church:
Cranach also gives us a woodcut of the Castle Church itself, with much more detail, this time from the opposite perspective of the north (facing the Elbe River). We’ve highlighted in red the door where Luther is said to have nailed his theses:
Here is what the church looks like today with the old doors superimposed over it:
The original doors were burned in 1760 during a bombardment. In 1858, bronze doors were installed that have the Latin 95 Theses inscribed upon them. So this is what you would see if you visited the site today:
And here’s a closer view:
With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Trueman.
What was the function of the Castle Church in the town of Wittenberg?
The Castle Church (Schlosskirche) of All Saints was attached to the Elector’s castle in Wittenberg and served both as a church and as the university chapel where the professors would preach and where degrees were awarded.
Was it the only church in Wittenberg?
There was another church in the town—the Stadtkirche of St. Mary’s—where Luther preached his famous Invocavit sermons on his return from the Wartburg in 1522 and which helped stabilize the reformation and consolidate his authority.
On a more sinister note, the Stadtkirche also has a famous Judensau—an anti-Jewish carving in the stone wall to warn Jews to keep out. It remains today as a reminder of Germany’s dark past.
What were Luther’s roles at this time?
Luther was a man of numerous vocations.
He was not only a monk but also a university professor. This meant that he had for some years been lecturing on books of the Bible which had caused him to wrestle with the teaching of Scripture.
But he was also a priest, which meant that he had pastoral and sacramental duties toward the people of Wittenberg and thus constantly had to ask himself how theology applied in practice to ordinary people.
This combination of theological and practical reflection fueled his questioning of Johann Tetzel’s approach to indulgences.
Had Luther ever done this before—nail a set of theses to the Wittenberg door? If so, did previous attempts have any impact?
I am not sure if he had ever nailed up theses before, but he had certainly proposed sets of such for academic debate, which was all he was really doing on October 31, 1517. In fact, in September of that same year, he had led a debate on scholastic theology where he said far more radical things than were in the Ninety-Five Theses.
Ironically, this earlier debate, now often considered the first major public adumbration of his later theology, caused no real stir in the church at all.
What was the point of nailing something to the Wittenberg door? Was this a common practice?
It was simply a convenient public place to advertise a debate, and not an unusual or uncommon practice. In itself, it was no more radical than putting up an announcement on a public notice board.
What precisely is a “thesis” in this context?
A thesis is simply a statement being brought forward for debate.
Luther was bothered by the use of “indulgences.” What was that?
An indulgence was a piece of paper, a certificate, which guaranteed the purchaser (or the person for whom the indulgence was purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the financial transaction.
At this point, did Luther have a problem with indulgences per se, or was he merely critiquing the abuse of indulgences?
This is actually quite a complicated question to answer.
First, Luther was definitely critiquing what he believes to be an abuse of indulgences. For him, an indulgence could have a positive function; the problem with those being sold by Johann Tetzel in 1517 is that remission of sin’s penalty has been radically separated from the actual repentance and humility of the individual receiving the same.
Second, it would appear that the Church herself was not clear on where the boundaries were relative to indulgences, and so Luther’s protest actually provoked the Church into having to reflect upon her practices, to establish what was and was not legitimate practice.
Was Luther trying to start a major debate by nailing these to the door?
The matter was certainly one of pressing pastoral concern for him.
Tetzel was not actually allowed to sell his indulgences in Electoral Saxony (the territory where Wittenberg was located) because Frederick the Wise, Luther’s later protector, had his own trade in relics.
Many of his parishioners, however, were crossing over into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony, where Tetzel was plying his trade.
Luther had been concerned about the matter of indulgences for some time. Thus, earlier in 1517, he had preached on the matter and consulted others for their opinions on the issue. By October, he was forced by the pastoral situation to act.
Having said all that, Luther was certainly not intending to split the church at this point or precipitate the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy into conflict and crisis. He was simply trying to address a deep pastoral concern.
Was Luther a “Protestant” at this point? Was he a “Lutheran”?
No, on both counts.
He himself tells us in 1545 that, in 1517, he was a committed Catholic who would have murdered—or at least been willing to see murder committed—in the name of the Pope. There is some typical Luther hyperbole there, but the theology of the Ninety-Five Theses is not particularly radical, and key Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by grace through faith alone, are not yet present. He was an angry Catholic, hoping that, when the Pope heard about Tetzel, he would intervene to stop the abuse.
So how did that act of nailing these theses to the door ignite the Reformation?
On one level, I am inclined to say “Goodness only knows.” As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements. Nevertheless, it seems to have struck a popular chord, being rapidly translated into German and becoming a bestseller within weeks. The easy answer is, therefore, “By the providence of God”; but, as a historian, I always like to try to tie things down to some set of secondary or more material causes.
The time was right for some kind of protest: anticlericalism, economic strain on all classes of society, and a growing resentment of tax money flowing south to Italy all helped to create an environment in which various groups—peasants, knights, nobility, intellectuals—all saw in Luther’s protest something with which they could sympathize.
Yet, even so, the revolutionary power of such a technical composition is, in retrospect, still quite surprising.
So what happened after he nailed the theses to the church door?
As to what happened next, well, the debate (ironically) did not. But the theses were translated into German and within weeks were circulating throughout Saxony. They became a popular rallying point of protest, despite the fact that most of the readers would not really have understood them.
Procedurally, Albrecht of Mainz, the bishop responsible for this specific indulgence sale, sent an official complaint to Rome but, in an era of slow communication, this took time to arrive. This bought Luther precious months to continue to develop his theology.
The next big event is really the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place at a regular chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order in April 1518. It was there that Luther was really able to put his emerging theology on public display.
How important was the printing press in spreading Luther’s reforms?
The printing press is crucial. For the first time in history, news and ideas can be transmitted in a stable form across vast areas of land and throughout populations.
Of course, most people could not read. But Reformation pamphlets often had graphic (sometimes even pornographic) woodcuts which communicated even to the illiterate who were the good guys and who were the bad. Thus, we have the possibility of mass movements and of the arrival of “popular opinion.”
Cheap print also fueled the rise of literacy, which was to be vital in the spread and establishment of Protestantism in the long term.
For those today who want to read the 95 Theses, what would you recommend?
The place to start is probably Stephen Nichols’s edition (with an introduction and notes).
Nevertheless, if you really want to understand Luther’s theology, and why it is important, you will need to look beyond the Ninety-Five Theses. Probably the best place to start would be Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church.
For Trueman’s recommendations on reading about the life of Luther, see this post for his recommended biographies.
This is a historically informed painting by Greg Copeland (courtesy of Concordia Publishing House) and can be found in Paul Maier’s excellent book for older kids, Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World.
Many thanks to animator and creative director Jorge R. Canedo Estrada for help with the graphical help on the city and church in Wittenberg.