498 Years Ago Today: An Interview with Carl Trueman on Luther and His 95 Theses

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On October 31, 1517—a Saturday—a 33-year-old former monk turned theology professor at the University of Wittenberg walked over to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion, making the first order of business the proposition that all of life should be marked by repentance. Little did he know that this call for an disputation on repentance would eventually change the course of history through a reformation of the church and the culture.

Below is an interview with Carl Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His 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—is an indispensable resource on appropriating Luther for today.

The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.
The town of Wittenberg (c. 1536), a tiny mud-cottage town in east Germany that served as the capital of Electoral Saxony.
A 1522 printed copy of Luther's 95 theses.
A 1522 printed copy of Luther’s 95 theses.

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.

The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors---made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form---were installed in 1858.
The door of the Schloßkirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany. The original doors were burned in a bombardment in 1760; the current doors—made of bronze and inscribed with the text of the 95 Theses in the original Latin form—were installed in 1858.

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.

A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.
A woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder of Augsburg (c. 1530) showing the sale of indulgences.

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.

Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.
Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Roman Catholic German Dominican friar and preacher.

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.

An engraving from 1520 by Luther's friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.
An engraving from 1520 by Luther’s friend, Lucas Cranach, depicting Luther as an Augustinian monk.

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 Teztel, 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?

Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)
Albert of Mainz, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

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.

A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.
A woodcut by Lucas Cranach commissioned by Martin Luther (1545), depicting the response of German peasants to a papal bull of Pope Paul III.

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.

* * *

The following clip is from the movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes (2003):

And here is Dr. Trueman talking about his book:

*The painting at the beginning of this post is by Greg Copeland (courtesty 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.

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