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  • WORKS OF MARTIN LUTHER -
    A DISPUTATION OF DOCTOR MARTIN LUTHER ON THE POWER AND EFFICACY OF INDULGENCES (THE NINETY-FIVE THESES) TOGETHER WITH THREE LETTERS EXPLANATORY OF THE THESES - INTRODUCTION


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    “A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” F11 is the full title of the document commonly called “The Ninety-five Theses.” The form of the document was determined by the academic practice of the Middle Ages. In all the Mediaeval University the “disputation” was a well established institution. It was a debate, conducted according to accepted rules, on any subject which the chief disputant might elect, and no student’s education was thought to be complete until he had shown his ability to defend himself in discussions of this kind. It was customary to set forth the subject which was to be discussed, in a series of “theses,” which were statements of opinion tentatively advanced as the basis of argument.

    The author, or some other person whom he might designate, announced himself ready to defend these statements against all comers, and invited all who might wish to debate with him to a part in the discussion. Such an academic document, one out of many hundreds, exhaling the atmosphere of the Mediaeval University, is the Disputation, which by its historical importance has earned the name “The 95 Theses.”

    The Theses were published on the Eve of All Saints (October 31), 1517.

    They were not intended for any other public than that of the University, F12 and Luther did not even have them printed at first, though, copies were forwarded to the Archbishop of Mainz, and to Luther’s own diocesan, the Bishop of Brandenburg. The manner of their publication too was academic.

    They were simply posted on the door of the Church of All Saints-called the “Castle-church,” to distinguish it from its neighbor, the. “Town-church” — not because more people would see them there than elsewhere, but because that church-door was the customary place for posting such announcements, the predecessor of the “black-board” in the modern German University. It was not night, but mid-day F13 when the Theses were nailed up, and the Eve of All Saints was chosen, not that the crowds who would frequent the next day’s festival might read them, for they were written in Latin, but because it was the customary day for the posting of theses. Moreover, the Feast of All Saints was the time when the precious relics, which earned the man who “adored” them, long years of indulgence, F14 were exhibited to worshipers, and the approach of this high feast-day put the thought of indulgences uppermost in the minds of everybody in Wittenberg, including the author of the Theses. F15 But neither the Theses nor the results which followed them could be confined to Wittenberg. Contrary to Luther’s expectation and to his great surprise, F16 they circulated all through Germany with a rapidity that was startling. Within two months, before the end of 1517, three editions of the Latin text had been printed, one at Wittenberg, one at Nurnberg, and one as far away as Basel, and copies of the Theses had been sent to Rome.

    Numerous editions, both Latin and German, quickly followed. Luther’s cotemporaries saw in the publicatiola of the Theses “the beginning of the Reformation,” F17 and the judgment of modern times has confirmed their verdict, but the Protestant of today, and especially the Protestant layman, is almost certain to be surprised, possibly deeply disappointed, at their contents. They are not “a trumpet-blast of reform;” that title must be reserved for the great works of 1520. F18 The word “faith,” destined to become the watchword of the Reformation, does not once occur in them; the validity of the Sacrament of Penance is not disputed; the right of the pope to forgive sins, especially in “reserved cases,” is not denied; even the virtue of indulgences is admitted, within limits, and the question at issue is simply “What is that virtue?”

    To read the Theses, therefore, with a fair degree of comprehension we must know something of the time that produced them, and we must bear two facts continually in mind. We must remember that at this time Luther was a devoted son of the Church and servant of the pope, perhaps not quite the “right frantic and raving papist” F19 he afterwards called himself, but as yet entirely without suspicion of the extent to which he had inwardly diverged from the teaching of Roman theology. We must also remember that the Theses were no attempt at a searching examination of the whole structure and content of Roman teaching, but were directed against what Luther conceived to be merely abuses which had sprung up around a single group of doctrines centering in the Sacrament of Penance. He sincerely thought that the teaching of the Theses was in full agreement with the best traditions of the Church, F20 and his surprise that they should have caused so much excitement is undoubtedly genuine and not feigned. He shows himself both hurt and astonished that he should be assailed as a heretic and schismatic, and “called by six hundred other names of ignominy.” F21 On the other hand, we are compelled to admit that from the outset Luther’s opponents had grasped far more completely than he himself the true significance of his “purely academic protest.” 2. Penance and indulgence . — The purpose of the disputation which Luther proposed to hold was to clear up the subject of the virtue of “indulgences,” and the indulgences were the most striking and characteristic feature of the religious life of the Church in the last three Centuries of the Middle Ages. F22 We meet them everywhere — indulgences for the adoration of relics, indulgences for worship at certain shrines, indulgences for pilgrimages here or there, indulgences for contributions to this or that special object of charity. Luther roundly charges the indulgence-vendors with teaching the people that the indulgences are a means to the remission of sins. What are these indulgences?

    Their history is connected, on the one hand, with the history of the Sacrament of Penance, on the other with the history of the development of papal power. The Sacrament of Penance developed out of the administration of Church discipline. In the earliest days of the Church, the Christian who fell into sin was punished by exclusion from the communion of the Church. This excommunication was not, however, permanent, and the manner could be restored to the privileges of Church-fellowship after he had confessed his sin, professed penitence, and performed certain penitential acts, chief among which were alms-giving, fasting and prayer, and, somewhat later, pilgrimage. These acts of penitence came to have the name of “satisfactions,” and were a condition precedent to the reception of absolution. They varied in duration and severity, according to the enormity Of the offense, and for the guidance of those who administered the discipline of the Church, sets of rules were formulated by which the “satisfactions, or “penances” were imposed. These codes are the “Penitential Canons.” F23 The first step in the development of the indulgence may be found in the practice which gradually arose, of remitting some: part of the enjoined “penances” on consideration of the performance of certain acts which could be regarded as meritorious.

    The indulgences received a new form, however, and became a part of the regular Church admonition, when the popes discovered the possibilities which lay in: this institution for the advancement of their own power and the furtherance of their own interests. This discovery seems to date from the time of the Crusades. The crusading-indulgences, granted at first only to those who actually went to the Holy War, subsequently to those also who contributed to the expense of the expedition, were virtually the acceptance of this work as a substitute for any penance which the Church might otherwise require. As zeal for the, Crusades began to wane, the indulgences were used more and more freely to stimulate lagging interest; their number was greatly increased, and those who purchased the indulgences with money far outnumbered those who actually took the Cross. Failing in their purpose as an incentive to enlistment in the crusading armies, they showed their value as a source of income, and from the begginning of the 14 th Century the sale of indulgences became a regular business.

    About the same time a new kind of indulgence arose to take the place of the now somewhat antiquated crusading-indulgence. This was the Jubileeindulgence, and had its origin in the Jubilee of 1300. By the Bull Antiquorum Habet Fide, Boniface VIII. granted to all who would visit the shrines of the Apostles in Rome during the year 1300 and during each succeeding centennial year, a plenary indulgence. F24 Little by little it became the custom to increase the number of these Jubilee-indulgences Once in a hundred years was not often enough for Christians to have a chance for plenary forgiveness, and at last, unwilling to deprive of the privileges of the Jubilee those who were kept away from Rome, the popes came to grant the same plenary indulgence to all who would make certain, contributions to the papal treasury. F25 Meanwhile the Sacrament of Penance had become an integral part of the Roman sacramental system, and had replaced the earlier penitential discipline as the means by which the Church granted, Christians forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. The scholastic theologians, had busied themselves with the theory of this Sacrament. They distinguished between its “material,” its “form” and its “effect.” The “form” of the Sacrament was the absolution; its “effect,” the forgiveness of sins; its “material,” three acts of the penitent: “confession,” “contrition,” and “satisfaction.” “Confession” must be by word of mouth, and must include all the sins which the sinner could remember to have committed; “contrition” must; be sincere sorrow of the heart, and must include the purpose henceforth to avoid sin; “satisfaction” must be made by works prescribed by the priest who heard confession. In the administration of the Sacrament, however, the absolution preceded “satisfaction” instead of following it, as it had done in the discipline of the early Church. F26 To justify this apparent inconsistency, the Doctors further distinguished between the “guilt” and the “penalty” of sin.

    F27 Sins were classified as “mortal” and “venial.” F28 Mortal sins for which the offender had not received absolution were punished eternally, while venial sins were those which merited only some, smaller penalty; but when a mortal sin was confessed and absolution granted, the guilt of the sin was done away, and with it the eternal penalty. And yet the absolution did not open the gate of heaven, though it closed the door of hell; the eternal penalty was not to be exacted, but there was a temporal penalty to be paid.

    The “satisfaction” was the temporal penalty, and of satisfaction was in arrears at death, the arrearage must be paid in purgatory, a place of punishment for mortal sins confessed and repented, but “unsatisfied,” and for venial sins, which were not serious enough to bring eternal condemnation. The penalties of purgatory were “temporal,” viz., they stopped somewhere this side of eternity, and their duration could be measured in days and years, though the number of the years might mount high into the thousands and of thousands.

    It was at this point that the practice of indulgences, united with the theory of the Sacrament of Penance. The indulgences had to do with the “satisfaction.” F29 They might be “partial,” remitting only a portion of the penalties, measured by days or years of purgatory; or they might be “plenary,” remitting all penalties due in this world or the next. In theory, however, no indulgence could remit the guilt or the eternal penalty of sin, F30 and the purchaser of an indulgence was not onty expected to confess and be absolved, but he was also supposed to be corde contritus , i.e., “truly penitent.” F31 A rigid insistence on the fulfillment of these conditions would have greatly restricted the value of the indulgences as a means of gain, for the right to hear confession and grant absolution belonged to the parish-priests. Consequently, it became the custom to endow the indulgence-venders with extraordinary powers. They were given the authority to hear confession and grant absolution wherever they might be, and to absolve even from the sins which were normally “reserved” for the absolution of the higher Church authorities.

    The demand for contrition was somewhat more difficult to meet. But here too there was a way out. Complete contrition included love to God as its motive, and the truly contrite man was not always easy to find; but some of the scholastic Doctors had discovered a substitute for contrition in what they called “attrition,” viz., incomplete contrition, which might have fear for a motive, and which the Sacrament of Penance could transform into contrition. When, therefore, a man was afraid of hell or of purgatory, he could make his confession to the indulgence-seller or his agent, receive from him the absolution which gave his imperfect repentance the value of true contrition, released him from the guilt of sin, and changed its eternal penalty to a temporal penalty; then he could purchase the plenary indulgence, which remitted the temporal penalty, and so in one transaction, in which all the demands of the Church were formally met, he could become sure of heaven. Thus the indulgence robbed the Sacrament of Penance of its ethical content.

    Furthermore, indulgences were made available for souls already in purgatory. This kind of indulgence seems to have been granted for the first time in 1476. It had long been held that the prayers of the living availed to shorten the pains of the departed, and the institution of masses for the dead was of long standing; but it was not without some difficulty that the Popes succeeded in establishing their claim to power over purgatory. Their power over the souls of the living was not disputed. The “Power of the Keys” had been given to Peter and transmitted to his successors; the “Treasury of the Church,” F32 i.e., the merits of Christ and of the Saints, was believed to be at their disposal, and it was this treasury which they employed in the granting of indulgences F33 but it seemed reasonable to suppose that their jurisdiction ended with death. Accordingly, Pope Sextus IV, in 1477, declared that the power of the Pope over purgatory, while genuine, was exercised only permodum suffragii , “by way of intercession.” F34 The distinction was thought dogmatically important, but to the layman, who looked more to results than to methods, the difference between intercession and jurisdiction was trifling. To him the important thing was that the Pope, whether by jurisdiction or intercession, was able to release the soul of a departed Christian from the penalties of purgatory. It is needless to say that these indulgences for the dead were eagerly purchased.

    In filial love and natural affection the indulgence-vender had powerful allies. 3. The Indulgence of 1515. — The XCV Theses were called forth by the preaching of the “Jubilee Indulgence” F35 of 1510, which was not placed on sale in central Germany until 1515. The financial needs of the papacy were never greater than in the last years of the XV. and the first years of the XVI. Century, and they were further increased by the resolve of Julius II. to erect a new church of St. Peter, which should surpass in magnificence all the churches of the world. The indulgence of 1510 was an extraordinary financial measure, the proceeds of which were to pay for the erection of the new Basilica, but when Julius died in 1513, the church was not completed, and the money had not been raised. The double task was bequeathed to his successor, Leo X. On the 31st of March, 1515, Leo proclaimed a plenary indulgence for the Archbishoprics of Magdeburg and Mainz, and appointed Albrecht, of Brandenburg, who was the incumbent of both sees and of the bishopric of Halberstadt as well, Commissioner for the sale of this indulgence. By a secret agreement, of which Luther was, of course, entirely ignorant, one-half of the proceeds was to be paid to the Fuggers of Augsburg on account of moneys advanced to the Archbishop for the payment of the fees to Rome, and of the sums demanded in consideration of a dispensation allowing him to occupy three sees at the same time; the other half of the proceeds was to go to the papal treasury to be applied to the building of the new church. The period during which the indulgence was to be on sale was eight years.

    The actual work of organizing the “indulgence-campaign” was put into the hands of John Tetzel, whose large experience in the selling of indulgences fitted him excellently for the post of Sub-commissioner. The indulgencesellers acted under the commission of the Archbishop and the directions of Tetzel, who took personal charge of the enterprise. The preachers went from city to city, and during the time that they were preaching the indulgence in any given place, all other preaching was required to cease. F36 They held out the usual inducements to prospective buyers. The plenary nature of the indulgence was made especially prominent, and the people were eloquently exhorted that the purchase of indulgence-letters was better than all good works, that they were an insurance against the pains of hell and of putptory, that they availed for all satish tions, even in the case of the most heinous sins that could be conceived, F37 “Confessional letters” F38 were one of the forms of ‘this indulgence. They gave their possessor permission to choose his own confessor, and entitled him to plenary remission once in his life, to absolution from sins normally reserved, etc.

    The indulgences for ‘the dead were zealously proclaimed, and the duty of purchasing for departed souls released from the pains of purgatory was most urgently enjoined. So great was the power of the indulgence to alleviate the pains of purgatory, that the souls of the departed were said to pass into heaven the instant that the coins of the indulgence-buyer jingled in the money-box. F39 4. Luther’s Protest . — The Theses were Luther’s protest against the manner in which this indulgence was preached, and against the false conception of the efficacy of indulgences which the people obtained from such preaching. They were not his first protest, however. In a sermon, preached July 27th, 1516, F40 he had issued a warning against the false idea that a man who had bought an indulgence was sure of salvation, and had declared the assertion that souls could be bought out of purgatory to be “a piece of temerity.” His warnings were repeated in other sermons, preached October 31st, 1516, and February 14th, 1517. F41 The burden of these warnings is always the same: the indulgences lead men astray; they incite to fear of God’s penalties and not to fear of sin; they encourage false hopes of salvation, sad make light of the true condition of forgivencss, viz., sincere and genuine repentance.

    These warnings are repeated in the Theses. The preaching of indulgences has concealed the true nature of repentance; the first thing to consider is what our Lord and Master Jesus Christ means,” when He says, “Repent.”

    F42 Without denying the pope’s right to the power of the keys, Luther wishes to come into the clear about the extent of the pope’s jurisdiction, which does not reach as far as purgatory. He believes that the pope has the right to remit “penalties,” but these penalties are of the same sort as those which were imposed in the early Church as a condition precedent to the absolution; they are ecclesiastical penalties merely, and do not extend beyond the grave; the true penalty of sin is hatred of self, which continues until entrance into the kingdom of heaven. F43 The Theses are formulated with continual reference to the statements of the indulgence-preachers, and of the Instruction to the Commissaries issued under the name of the Archbishop of Mainz. F44 For this reason there is little logical sequence in the arrangement of the Theses, and none of the attempts to discover a plan or scheme underlying them has been successful.

    F45 In a general way it may be said that for the positive views of Luther on the subjects discussed, Theses 30-37 and 42-52 are the most vital, while Theses 92-95 are sufficient evidence of the motive which led Luther to make his protest. 5. Conclusion. — The editors of this Translation present herewith a new translation of the Theses, together with three letters, which will help the reader to understand the mind of Luther at the time of their composition and his motive in preparing them. The first of these letters is that which was sent, with a copy of the Theses, to Albrecht of Mainz. The second and third are addressed respectively to Staupitz and Leo X., and were written to accompany the “Resolutions,” F46 an exhaustive explanation and defense of the Theses, published in 1515, after the controversy had become bitter. 6. Literature . — (a) Sources. The source material for the history of indulgences is naturally widely scattered. The most convenient collection is found in KOEHLER, Dokumente zum Ablassstreit, Tubingen, 1900. For the indulgences against which Luther protested, see, beside the Editions of Luther’s Works,KAPP, Schauplatz des Tetzelischen Ablass-Krams, Leipzig, 1720; Sammlung einiger zum pabstlichen Ablass gehorigen Schriften,Leipzig, 1721; Kleine Nachlese zur Erlauterung der Reformationsgeschichte, Leipzig, 1730 and 1733; alsoLOESCHER, Vollstindige Reformationsacta,I, Leipzig, 1720. (b) Secondary Works. Beside the general works in Church History and History of Doctrine, see the Lives of Luther, in German especially those of Kostlin-Kawerau, Kolde, Berger and Hausrath; in English those of Beard, Jacobs, Lindsay, Smith and McGiffert; alsoBOEHMER, Luther im Lichte der neueren Forschung, 2d ed., Leipzig, 1910.

    On the indulgences in their relation to the Sacrament of Penance, H.C. LEA, History of Confession and Indulgence, especially Vol. III, Philadelphia, 1896;BREIGER, Das Wesendes Ablasses am Ausgang des Mittelalters, Leipzig, 1897, and Article Indulgenzen in PRE.s IX, pp. 76 ff. (Eng. inSCHAFF-HERZOG V., pp. 485-88);GOTTLOB, Kreuzablass und Almosenablass, Stuttgart, 1906 (especially valuable for the origin of indulgences).

    On the indulgences and the XCV Theses,KOESTLIN, Luther’s Theologie, Leipzig, 1883 (Eng. Trans. byHAY, The Theology of Luther, Philadelphia, 1897);BRATKE, Luther’s XCV Thesen und ihre dogmengeschichtlichen Vorausset-zungen, Gottingen, 1884;DIECKHOFF, Der Ablassstreit dogmengeschichtlich dargestellt, Gotha, 1886;LINDSAY, History of the Reformation, I, New York, 1906;TSCHACKERT, Entstehung der lutherischen und reformierten Kirchenlehre, Gottingen, 1910.

    On the financial aspects of the indulgence-traffic,SCHULTE, Die Fugger in Rom, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1904.

    CHARLES M. JACOBS.

    ALLENTOWN, PA.

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