I've learned about how Luther's 95 Theses were extremely important to the Protestant Reformation and how they really defined the beginnings of Protestantism. According to History.com's article on "Martin Luther and the 95 Theses", the two main points of the theses were "that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds", which would support what I've been taught, as the idea of sola fide is heresy, according to the Catholic church.

However, I read through them, I didn't find that. They really only support the idea that Indulgences aren't right and that the greed found in the Catholic Church at the time wasn't acceptable. Most of them even include references to purgatory (which is heresy in Protestantism), and "works of mercy" and "works of love", which is the language commonly used to refer to the Catholic Church's works necessary for salvation, which Luther was supposed to disagree with (also heresy in Protestantism). What causes this seeming discrepancy? Why are the theses so important if they only address the idea that the Church's greed wasn't right? I understand that was a radical position at the time, given that the Church ruled essentially everything and dissenters were punished, but there is a wide margin between saying greed is bad and breaking away from the Catholic Church and beginning a new denomination.

  • 5
    There are two separate concepts being conflated here. The Ninety-five Theses is considered important because it's held to mark the start of the Reformation, not because of its theological contents per se. The controversy over indulgences did help spark a schism that would widen with serious doctrinal splits like sola fide, but those developed later. At the time of the Theses, Martin Luther still felt himself a "papist". That said, his stance on indulgences was already held to be heretical.
    – Semaphore
    Mar 2 '18 at 1:12
  • 2
    The reformation didn't emerge fully formed from Luther's Theses. He might have settled for reform rather than schism. But the reaction of the establishment (perhaps the overreaction) kicked off a schism leading to further freedom to define doctrinal differences.
    – matt_black
    Mar 3 '18 at 12:10
  • Because it was the spiritual precursor to Windows `95, which changed life as we know it. :-)
    – Lucian
    May 18 at 15:36

The 95 Theses (e) do not only address indulgence and indulgences!

First of all, to avoid a possible confusion, the word indulgences, is a difficult word to understand correctly here. In terms of the Roman-Catholic religion it is not "enjoyment", "pleasure" associated with luxury and greed. In this cases indulgences are letters of absolution, that were on sale at the time. That means whereas before, you had to go to a priest, confess your sins, repent, and then got an absolution from the priest. Now you could just spend some money and be done with it. No more sins on your register and a clean bill of health for your entry ticket into heaven.

Luther was very strongly against this practice. But not because this was a sign of greed of the church. It was a sign of that, to be sure. But it is also and more importantly against core principles of the Christian faith as he came to understand it, and felt that it was seen and practised before. It is therefor a corruption of the one true faith, only coincidentally enriching the church.

That is the core principle here: the church asserted its authority about the faith, claimed to be the only source of salvation and the only source of correct doctrine.

Every single statement in these theses are an attack on that with examples given. So your initial reading of "which is heresy in protestantism" already supports exactly that.

But take also note of how compromising he wrote his provocative statements:

  1. Docendi sunt christiani, quod venie Pape sunt utiles, si non in eas confidant, Sed nocentissime, si timorem dei per eas amittant.
    Man soll die Christen lehren: Der Ablaß des Papstes ist nützlich, wenn man nicht sein Vertrauen darauf setzt, aber sehr schädlich, falls man darüber die Furcht Gottes fahren läßt.
    Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.

He does not say that these indulgences are really and totally bad. They are helpful (not least for the church itself), but no one should put any trust and faith into them.

Luther developed three principles that for him were the key to understand the Christian faith correctly and achieve salvation: sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura (through faith alone, through God's mercy alone, and through the bible alone). Contrast this against the examples given in the theses: it is not possible to by absolution, since you cannot buy God's mercy. It is not possible to give the pope special powers over the rest of Christianity, since he can neither really dictate the faith of the church members nor is his office mentioned in the bible. Even the pope cannot grant you absolution and spare you from hell, etc… That means also the sale of letters of indulgence was the starting point, he argued that not even anyone in the church was able to give out dispensation or absolution at all. That is only God's prerogative or ability.

Being an attack on current practices was not meant as the founding document of a new sect. It was firmly rooted within the church to renew and reform the church, to restore it and bring it back onto the true track.

It is important to know that he did not go to a church door with a hammer in his hand, as so often portrayed. He wrote these theses in Latin and sent them to his superiors. Luther wrote this letter by hand at first, but then he himself ordered a small printing run for the Latin text. But when a translated version got into press things really sped up.

His critique was widely rejected by his authorities, but found his audience anyway. The printing press is key here. One of the arguments in the these is more or less: think for yourself. When people did that, they often found the rest of the arguments quite convincing. Laypersons found the greed and power aspects, theological counterparts the ideological foundation for divergence from the true faith.

Earlier attempts to criticise the recent developments of the church were indeed often centred on finances, when coming from laypeople and centered on some doctrinal teachings when coming from clergyman. But both were confined to oral spheres of influence. Like priests preaching against the church or princes arguing against bishops on in meetings. Now you had a foundational critique on the most glaring misgivings, widely disseminated thanks to the printing press, the discussion also held in the people's language, and all that on a solid foundation of deduction from the highest authority against the pope: the bible.

The resistance of the higher church authorities to anything he mentioned was one key, popular support for a now widely informed, understanding and empowered public was the other factor.


Martin Luther wasn't against "Indulgences." He was against the "Sale of Indulgences".

It was not "expressed," only "implied," that if "the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds," the church should not be "selling indulgences." Because those "indulgences" were tokens of "good deeds" and not of "faith."

If so, by selling "indulgences" the Catholic Church was selling something it had no title to, in order to trick people into donating money. Then the Catholic Church was a seriously corrupted organization that needed to be replaced by something better.


There is another story behind this, which demonstrated in 1517 what most might think is a modern phenomenom.

The 95 theses were written in 1517. Supposedly, Luther didn't nail them to the church door, he posted them on a bulletin board outside of the church, and sent copies to the church leaders. These comments were directed at Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was selling indulgences to help fund Pope Leo X's pet project: rebuilding St Peter's Basilica in Rome. As the resident theologian, Luther's original intent appears to have been to generate a scholarly discussion amongst church elders for what he saw was the commercialization of faith.

Indulgences, in that time frame, were a written document that gave forgiveness for sins committed, or forgiveness for sins that might be committed in the future, in return for a monetary contribution. Originally, they were hand written, in a time when not many people had the ability to write and those that could were kept very busy, so they were fairly rare, likely reserved for a few wealthy people. With the written indulgence, you didn't have to beg for forgiveness, you just turned it in and were forgiven.

But, note the date - 1517. Something else had happened, about 60 years earlier - Gutenberg had created the first printing press with moveable, reusable type. As a direct result, both the time required to produce a document, and the cost of producing that document, plummeted.

One of the first heavy users of the printing press was the Catholic Church, who was employing legions of scribes to copy scripture and other church documents. And, yes, indulgences went from something that was fairly rare due to the high cost of having it written, to something that could be turned out in the hundreds of copies, for little more than the cost of the paper. By 1517, the printing presses were cranking out indulgences as quickly as the presses could operate. Now, they could be produced at such a rate as to be salable to anyone, not just a select wealthy few, and friar Tetzel was marketing them to everyone.

That's when indulgences began to get out of hand... the church slipped into using them as a money generating tool, because they were now so easy to create. This is what Luther objected to - that the church was generating profit from what should be faith.

However, the story doesn't end there, and in the remaining tale can be found the other great impact of the 95 theses.

Luther not only sent copies to the church leaders, he also gave out copies to friends. Some of those friends had access to... a printing press. And, yes, they had copies printed up. Quite a few copies, as it turned out.

This Economist article describes what happened next.

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther's friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther's friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

Thus, Luther experienced in 1517, what we think of today as 'going viral'.. an individual's words or creations resonating with a large number of people, because they could be communicated to a lot of people.

Luther's 95 theses are not only important for what they said, they are important in showing the power of mass communications. Luther wasn't the first person to raise these issues, but he was the first one to have his thoughts communicated en masse... courtesy of the printing press. With printed copies all over Europe, he couldn't be silenced, or burned at the stake as a heretic without serious repercussions for the church. Too many people had read the theses, and agreed with them.

Thus, began the first full fledged public relations war. Seeing the power of mass communcations, Luther embraced it wholeheartedly, and invented the pamphlet, a short document written in German, not Latin, so locals could understand it, and being a single folded sheet, it could be produced in a couple of days, when publishing a printed book could take over a month.

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

Luther also became a prodigious author. The church responded by holding the first organized book burnings... of his published works.

It is true that simply printing the 95 theses didn't bring about the Reformation... but Luther's words, because they resonated with so many of the general population, became a rallying point. The situation went from 'I don't really like the church' to 'let's get rid of the church and start our own'.

For another take on this most interesting story, review the 'A Matter of Fact' episode of the James Burke series The Day the Universe Changed.


You have two questions in one - the title and the last sentence. I am answering to the last one.

There were some people before, who tried to explain to the Catholic Church that the greed is bad and to remain in it. Gus, Wycliffe.

But what was hard in 14th century, at Wycliffe's life, became impossible in 15'th. Wycliffe was not killed or expelled. Gus was burnt and declared to be an heretic. It was not real at Luther's time to try to make the Church be honest and to remain in it. Or alive. The only way to change the Church these times was from outside. And eventually, the threat to lose all influence to Protestants, made the Catholic Church to become less rigid and to change.

There is absolutely nothing strange in it.

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