However, for Lutherans, today is Reformation Day. 495 years ago on 31 October, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed his "Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. At that time, the door was much like a bulletin board, with all forms of notices posted there--this notice being one for debate on the topic of Indulgences.
Luther's Rose (or Luther's Seal), enshrining the core of our beliefs in Sola Fida, Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptora: Faith Alone by Grace Alone as taught to us in Scripture Alone.
Before I get into more about the Theses, I came across two interesting links in looking for further information on this topic. One from what appears to be a Catholic source, actually speaks very kindly of the Theses, which is encouraging to me and I would like to hear from my Catholic friends to see if this is common sentiment or just someone posting on the internet. Another is an article from The Economist on 17 December 2011, addressing how Luther "went viral" in his day. If you haven't seen the more recent Luther movie, you're missing out. Below you can watch the 95 Theses scene--but seriously, watch the whole movie as soon as possible. It is excellent.
Why did Luther write these 95 Theses in the first place? Briefly, Luther strongly (and rightly) opposed the practice of purchasing the forgiveness of sins and giving false hope to sinners and believers about their salvation and forgiveness being just a few coins away.
Indulgences are pieces of paper you
Luther was rightly outraged that the Church would charge money for a gift freely offered and already paid for by Christ. In order to expose this fraud, Luther, being a scholar, requested a public debate at the University of Wittenberg, with the 95 Theses being the outline of topics for discussion. They also were the challenge to anyone who would come and defend the appalling practice of selling Indulgences.
After posting the 95 Theses, Luther also sent copies to the Archbishop Albert of Mainz (who authorized the selling of Indulgences in his area) and to the Bishop of Brandenburg, Luther's superior. Within two weeks, the Theses had spread across the country with the aid of the printing press. Within two months, copies could be found all over Europe. In January 1518, friends of Luther's translated the Theses from Latin to German, and further distributed them so that even the common man could understand.
Not much happened until Albert of Mainz decided to score some political points with the Pope. As mentioned below, had Albert not made the "big deal" of these theses and that monk he had, Luther would likely have been largely unknown today. The response to Luther, besides greatly angering Johann Tetzel, came on 15 June, 1520 from Pope Leo X in the Exsurge Domine.
Within two years, Wittenberg had turned away from many (what they considered to be heretical) Catholic practices and Luther became much more popular than he ever desired. From testimony of witnesses to his own writings, he never meant to start a "revolution", merely sought to reform what he considered false teachings within the Church he so dearly loved. From there, Luther was excommunicated within a few years, within a decade, the Lutheran Princes issued the Augsburg Confession, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To the credit of the Roman Catholic Church, some of the most egregious practices that Luther opposed have been addressed at least to some extent, but it took centuries for that to occur. By then, they had already severed ties with Luther, and Lutherans, and certainly did not address all concerns that were later laid out in the Augsburg Confession and other portions of the Book of Concord.
To close, I thought I would share a few quotes from those far more eloquent and smart than I.
Some great general commentary on Luther's role in the Reformation from Dr. Gene Edward Veith:
"Luther's goal was to reform the church, but the church repudiated him and what he was trying to do. It is often said that Luther split from the Roman Catholic Church. That is not true. He was thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church. There is a huge difference. Luther was no schismatic. He did not start some new religion on his own authority. He did not dream up some new theology. He was trying to bring the church back to its true nature and its true message, as defined by the Word of God, which the church itself professed to believe.
The Roman Church, in turn, refused to take the concerns seriously, much less give them a genuine hearing. The pope refused to address even the most flagrant abuses that were obvious to everyone. Instead of listening to those who questioned its direction, the Roman Church tried to destroy them. Thus the Roman Catholic Church created Protestantism."
Interesting perspective on what might have been had not a church bureaucrat seized what he thought was an opportunity to gain favor with Rome from Pr. Donavon Riley:
"What happened when Luther posted the 95 Theses on the church door? Nothing. An irrelevant monk posted his theses for academic debate on the church doors in an irrelevant city, in an irrelevant part of Saxony, known for its fish, beer, and prostitutes. Several months later the theses were read by Albrecht, "Bishop" of Mainz, who used them as an [political] opportunity for himself to garner more favors from Rome. If not for him ... Obscurity for our frail friar."
"The World's Most Interesting Reformer..."