Luther’s 95 Theses still affect today
Five hundred and one years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. Although these theses were meant to be the topic of scholarly dispute among churchmen, they were written in Latin rather than German, so only those who were educated could read them—they served as the first step towards a wider movement.
According to Dr. Stephen Strehle, the 95 Theses were not intended to lead to a break from the Catholic Church.
“It wasn’t planned to be some sort of revolutionary act at all,” he said. Although the Theses were written in Latin and intended for scholarly dispute, they were taken down, translated into German, and spread with the help of Gutenburg’s printing press, which was a fairly recent invention at the time.
“His rhetoric is popular, he spoke like a very earthy German, not like a typical scholastic,” said Strehle. “So the Germans liked him. He’s very earthy, he appeals to the masses, but what he’s doing, the 95 Theses, is just trying to be a good Catholic. He doesn’t like this cheap grace of selling forgiveness for a price when he’s a pious, Augustinian observant monk who’s trying to reconcile himself with God through typical acts of penance.”
Luther’s main point of contention with the church in 1517 was over indulgences, which were means of reducing the time spent in purgatory after death.
Pope Leo X sold many of them to fund his renovation of St. Peter’s basilica. “[Luther] is scandalized as a good Catholic,” Strehle said. “In The 95 Theses, he doesn’t put forth any really revolutionary doctrines at all, he just wants to restore the place of penance and reconciliation as a means of receiving atonement or forgiveness.”
Although Luther’s problems with the Church in 1517 were not revolutionary, by 1519 he had begun developing key elements of Protestant belief.
“By the time you get to Leipzig in 1519, when [Luther] has his debate with Johannes Eck, he’s now beginning to develop the ‘Priesthood of the Believers’ and he’s referring to the pope as the Antichrist,” Strehle said. According to Strehle, this concept is the most important thing to come from the Reformation.
“This doctrine becomes a foundation and pillar of modern Western civilization; it’s a doctrine that rejects hierarchical authority. It rejects this layer of authority between the believer and God.”
Strehle said this served to empower people and to spiritualize their lives. “The laity now have their own standing before God, so that eventually from Luther will develop these democratic fellowships—the Huguenots, in the 16th century, refer to this doctrine of the priesthood of the believers as fundamental, and in our own country the Puritans are the ones who trumpet democracy and spread it throughout England and New England.”
According to Strehle, the American political system is indebted to the ideals of the Reformation rather than those of the Enlightenment.
“Democracy, federalism, ideas associated with our government really spread through England and New England before any son of the Enlightenment or philosopher was born.”
The lingering effects of the Reformation are undeniable, and today about half of all people in the United States identify as some variety of Protestant. Beyond the spiritual effects of splitting from the church, the Protestant reformation also had social and political effects. Part of the value of studying history is learning and understanding these effects: even half a millennium later, we still feel the effects of Luther’s break from the church.