The 95 Theses:
After some serious reflection, and without consulting any of his friends, Luther resolved upon a public act of unforeseen consequences. He chose the orderly and usual way of a learned academic disputation. So, on the memorable 31st of October, 1517, he fastened to the doors of the castle-church at Wittenberg, ninety-five Latin Theses on the subject of indulgences, and invited a public discussion. At the same time he sent notice of this to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and to Bishop Hieronymus Scultetus, to whose diocese Wittenberg belonged. He chose the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), because this was one of the most frequented feasts, and attracted professors, students, and people from all directions to the church, which was filled with precious relics.
No one accepted the challenge. No discussion took place. The professors and students of Wittenberg all agreed with the practice of indulgences. But history itself seems to have taken up the discussion and defense. Within a few weeks, the Theses were copied, translated, printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe. The speedy circulation of the Theses was due to the perfect freedom of the press. There was no censorship or copyrights. Luther’s Theses found an enthusiastic response from liberal scholars and enemies of monastic obscurantism, from German patriots who longed for freedom from Italian rule, and from thousands of ordinary Christians waiting for a man who would give utterance to their feelings of anger against existing abuses, and to their desire for a pure, scriptural religion.
On the other hand, the Theses were strongly attacked and condemned by the Episcopal and clerical hierarchy. Luther, then still a poor emaciated monk, was at first frightened by the unexpected effect. Many of his friends worried. One told him, “You tell the truth, good brother, but you will accomplish nothing; go to your cell, and say, God have mercy upon me." The main opponents of Luther were Tetzel of Leipzig, Conrad Wimpina of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, and the more learned and formidable John Eck of Ingolstadt, formerly a friend of Luther, but now his irreconcilable foe. They injured their case in the public eye by their weak defense. They could produce no support for their doctrine and practice of indulgences from Scripture or the Greek and Latin Fathers. They relied solely upon exaggerated views on the Pope’s authority. They even went so far as to advocate papal infallibility, which was still an open question in the Roman Church, and remained so until 1870.
Luther gathered nerve. He felt that he had begun this business for the glory of God and was ready to sacrifice even his life for his honest conviction. He now began to develop his formidable polemical power, especially in his German writings. He had full command over the vocabulary of common sense, wit, irony, slander and abuse. Unfortunately, he often resorted to coarse and vulgar expressions which, even in that semi-barbarous age, offended men of culture and taste.
He debated fiercely against the authority of the Pope. This brought him into a direct conflict with the Pope, though he still hoped for a favorable hearing from Leo X, whom he personally respected. He dedicated to Leo a defense of his Theses in May of 1518.
By October, 1518 he was summoned to appear before the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan. They had three interviews (Oct. 12, 13, 14). Cajetan assured Luther of his friendship, but still demanded a retraction of his errors and absolute submission to the Pope. Luther resolutely refused. Cajetan threatened him with excommunication, already with the papal mandate in his hand. Cajetan dismissed Luther with the words,”Revoke or do not come into my presence again.”
Luther made his escape from Augsburg, with the aid of an escort provided by friends. He rode a worn-out horse. He reached Wittenberg on the first anniversary of his 95 Theses. He immediately published a report of his conference and wrote a letter to the Elector exposing Cajetan’s unfairness. Before he left Augsburg, he left an appeal to the Pope with Cajetan – “for the Pope ill-informed to the Pope to be better informed.” He quickly appealed to the Pope for a general council, and thus fully expected the papal sentence of excommunication.
But before this final judgment, one more attempt was made to silence Luther. Pope Leo sent his nuncio, Karl von Militz. On his journey, Militz discovered a wide-spread and growing sympathy with Luther. He held a conference with Luther in the house of Spalatin at Altenburg on January 6, 1519. He was very polite and friendly. He blamed Tetzel for the scandal that the Theses had caused. He used all his powers of persuasion to convince Luther not to divide the Holy Catholic Church.
Militz and Luther agreed that the matter should be settled by a German bishop instead of going to Rome. Luther promised to ask the pardon of the Pope, and to warn the people against the sin of separating from the holy mother-church. After this agreement they partook of a social supper, and parted with a kiss. Miltitz must have felt very proud of his masterpiece of diplomacy.
In a letter to the Pope, dated March 3, 1519, Luther expressed deep humility and denied that he ever desired to injure the Roman Church, which was over every other power in heaven and on earth, save only Jesus Christ the Lord over all. Yet he repudiated the idea of retracting his conscientious convictions.
At the same time, Luther continued a careful study of history and found no trace of popery and its extravagant claims before the hallowed Council of Nicaea. He also discovered that the Papal Decretals and the Donation of Constantine were forgeries. He wrote Spalatin on March 13, 1519, saying, “I do not know whether the Pope is Antichrist himself or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”