Sunday, October 20, 2013

Examination of the Ninety-Five Theses

As October 31st approaches, the traditional day when Martin Luther supposedly posted on the Wittenberg Church door his 95 points of protest, I thought it would be useful to go through those points.  With so many Christians, and even heretics pointing to Luther as their role model, it seems important to see and understand what it was he was trying to say.
We often have a romanticism that it was the innovative Reformers against the big bad corrupt Church, but reading the history of the time will show that the Reformers were anything but innovators. They did not seek "new paths" but rather the "old paths" (Jer 6:16) .  The Reformers were not rebels out to overthrow the Church and replace it with their own private interpretations.  They opposed the "Papists".  This is an important distinction, since Luther's original 95 points moved from urging the Church to Reform to rejection of the Papists.  And actually, the accurate title for the Ninety-Five Theses is "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", thus showing that Luther had a very specific target and was not initially out to oppose the Church en mass.
I will now post the points line-by-line with an interaction after each.
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
This speaks of repentance.  Luther took issue with the Roman Catholic concept of doing penance as opposed to repentance.  Luther advocated that God called for a heart change, not merely actions of remorse.  The "whole life" of believers should be repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
Continuing with the explanation, Luther argues that true repentance cannot be conferred to a person by another person, such as a priest but rather must be from the heart of the individual.
3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
Luther goes on to say, that true inward repentance would be manifested outwardly.  Interestingly here, Luther seems to agree with much of the book of James...the very book he is often accused of rejecting.
4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Here, Luther touches on sanctification which is not an instantaneous event, but is t process in a persons life and "continues until entrance into the kingdom of heaven".
5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
Luther alludes to the fact that the Pope was advocating remit or forgiveness of sins, especially through the selling or indulgences and the viewing of relics for a fee.  Luther makes it clear that neither pope nor council can forgive penalties except for those they have imposed; which tended more to be civil in nature rather than spiritual.
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
Luther further clarifies that the Pope can only remit guilt only of those things which God Himself does  remit.
7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
Here we see Luther at his early stages still calling the Roman Catholic priests, "vicars" of God and suggesting the person who is forgiven will then be humbled and in subjection to the priests.  This statement should shock those who think of Luther as an out and out rebel.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
This relates specifically to the type of "penance" done to remit sins.  Luther here is arguing that people under the duress of death should not have these requirements imposed upon them.
9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
Once again, Luther is seen not as a pop-hater but as even saying the Holy Spirit acts within the pope in making an exception for the dying not to do penance.
10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
Luther blames individual priests for the teaching that people pay continued penalty in "purgatory".
11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
Luther implies that the teaching of purgatory penalty was a new or added teaching which was never the original teaching of the Church.
12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
According to Luther, absolution, which is the moment of forgiveness was imparted originally after the person did penance.  Whereas, during Luther's time and associated with purgatory priest were teaching that true absolution couldn't come until further penance was doing in purgatory.
13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.
Luther advocates for a complete release from doing any penance after one dies.  This would seem to negate any need or belief in purgatory.
14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
The less love a person had in life, in their soul the more reason they have to fear in death.  An implication that the person is headed for judgment.
15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
Luther is saying that dying and knowing judgment is coming is enough of a penalty without purgatory.
16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
Luther points out the degrees of despair or happiness if we consider states of hell, purgatory and heaven.
17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
Since purgatory was considered the half-way point to heaven and not to hell, Luther surmises things can only get better for people in purgatory no matter what penalty could be imposed.
18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
Luther furthers his concept that purgatory is not a place where people could not continue to inch closer to heaven.
19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.
Luther again implying that purgatory is closer to heaven than hell.
20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.
Luther again makes the distinction that the pope has saddled people with penalties outside the scope of penalties God has imposed.
21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
Luther is saying that the pope cannot forgive sins that God hasn't forgiven, nor can the pope penalize for "sins" God does not penalize.  Thus if a person is not saved according to God, they cannot be saved no matter how many indulgences they purchase.
22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
Again, Luther explains that penalties paid in this life, cannot carry over into purgatory.
23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
Luther is pointing out that if the pope could wipe out the guilt of a person, such people would be few as most are very corrupt.
24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.
Most people aren't going to be able to buy their way into heaven; or better yet no one can buy their way in and nor can the pope sell such an entrance.
25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
Luther points out that the popes authority beyond this life is limited if not at all existent.
26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.
The pope can pray on a person behalf but not much more than that; his authority and power of penalty in the afterlife is non-existent.
27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
This is direct reference to Johann Tetzel's slogan which Tetzel would use to urge people to purchase indulgences.
28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
Luther sarcastically says gain is made when indulgences are purchased but that gain has nothing to due with the salvation of the person, that is in the power of God alone.
29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
Luther implies that perhaps some within purgatory may not even care whether they are freed.  He references a legend wherein Severinus and Paschal said they were willing to endure purgatory for others, thus it may not be that everyone there wants to leave...especially if they were there so that others need no be.
30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
Although this seems to contradict the Reformed/Calvinistic concept of salvific assurance.  Keep in mind, this is the early stage of Luther's understanding.
31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
Luther implies that just because a person buys an indulgence doesn't mean they are penitent and most likely that they are not penitent and are instead just trying to find and easy way in.
32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
This is strong language by Luther and hits at the heart of selling indulgences.
33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;
It seems Luther continues to allow the pope to pardon a person but not by the same authority as God pardons.
34. For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.
This further clarifies that Luther allows for the pope to pardon some sins for a sacramental reason but distinguishes this from God's pardon.
35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
Luther is bold to claim that selling indulgences without true repentance isn't "Christian".
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
This undercuts the entire indulgence campaign and is perhaps a prelude to Luther's advocacy of justification by faith alone.
37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
This a a clearer restatement of point #36.
38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.
Again Luther grants the right of pope and Church to remit some sins but appears to exclude the ultimate determination of one's salvation.
39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
Luther again states that true contrition has nothing to do with pardons.  A truly humbled person will be contrite whether he is pardoned or not.
40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].
Luther states that a true contrite person loves or understands the need for penalties whereas liberal or free-pass pardons cause a person to hate any penalty.
41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
Free-passes attempt to bypass the process of sanctification and will cause people to look for the easy way out instead of sanctification.
42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.
Still Luther seems to imply the selling of indulgences are acceptable as long as they are not tied to salvfic detmination or compared to works of mercy.
43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
Buying pardons will negate real morality and love.
44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
A clearer restatement of point #43.
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
Again, Luther seems to allow for indulgences as long as a person doesn't negate every day charity to humanity.
46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
Luther alludes to the practice of some people who would spend money on pardons and neglect the necessities of their family; such as buying food.
47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
Yet again, Luther seems to allow for the buying of pardons, out of "free will".
48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.
Luther continues to allow for buy pardons but tempers it with qualifications.
49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
More allowance for buying pardons.
50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
Luther alludes to the real reason the indulgence selling campaign began; to fund the building of St. Peter's church in Rome.  Luther implies that the pope didn't realize the practice of the priests and that the pope would not approve.  This is later shown to be untrue. The campaign had the full support of the pope.
51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
Luther implies that the pope desires to help repay the people who gave money to the priests for the building of St. Peter's church; yet we know this wasn't the "wish" of the pope.
52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
Another clear statement that the pardons can't be used for buying salvation.
53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
The practice was, that services in some churches would be suspended while the priests urged people to come to a nearby service in which they would hear a sermon on how they could buy these letters of pardon.
54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
Sometimes, the services of a church consisted of a presentation of the pardons as sort of a commercial, which as Luther says here would sometimes be longer than the actual sermon.
55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
Luther was upset that so much fanfare was given to the presentation of the selling or pardons.
56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
Luther mocks the notion that indulgences come from some vague "treasure of the Church".
57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.
Luther sarcastically claims that the "treasures of the Church" aren't tangible.
58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.
Luther alludes that the real treasures of the Church do not require pardons or pope to function.
59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
Luther continues to determine what the pope and priests mean by "treasures of the Church", comparing it to past meanings.
60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure;
Luther makes allusion to the treasure being the Church's ability to assist a believer.
61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.
Again, Luther allows the pope to have some temporal authority.
62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
Luther clarifies that the treasure is the Gospel.
63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
Luther indicates that the treasure may be offensive to some because it exalts the in-exalted.
64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
Luther contrasts the Gospel with the indulgences and shows why the "last" would prefer the indulgences over the Gospel.
65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
Luther demonstrates here with contrast to #66 that the Gospel is the catching men into riches whereas the indulgences are for catching the riches of men.
66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
Luther demonstrates here with contrast to #65 that the Gospel is the catching men into riches whereas the indulgences are for catching the riches of men.
67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
Luther again sarcastically speaks of the indulgences as bringing financial gain to those selling or false gain to those buying.
68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.
True gain is the Cross.
69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
Luther again accepts the selling of pardons and even implies that bishops a bound to allow it.
70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.
Luther implies that although selling of pardons is acceptable, that bishops must monitor that people are being taken advantage.
71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
This will come back to bite Luther in coming days, since here he seems to not only accept the selling of pardons but curses people who would deny the selling of pardons.
72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
Again, Luther seems merely to want less corruption in the selling of pardons but not the end of the practice.
73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
Luther sides with the pope in thundering against those who would impede the selling of pardons.
74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.
Luther appears to merely want to root out corruption but not end the selling of indulgences.
75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God — this is madness.
This is reference to how some priest would claim that buying indulgences would even absolve a person even if they had sexual relations with Mary herself.
76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.
If pardons can't even remove guilt against venial or non-damning sins (if there were such), then it is amazing Luther continues to support their sell on any level.
77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.
Another allusion to claims that were being said about the indulgences' power.
78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.
Luther contrasts the tools at the pope's service; such as the Gospel compared to the weak power of indulgences.
79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
Reference to the papal coat of arms as having more worth and power than the Cross.  see link.
80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.
Luther denounces such talk and those who allow it.
81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.
Common people were beginning to see the hypocrisy in the indulgences and Luther is saying it was getting difficult to defend the pope.
82. To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”
Luther references the reasoning, if the pope has the power to forgive people out of purgatory; then why doesn't he just do so out of love instead of requiring money?
83. Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”
This is reference to endowments or funds set up to hold masses for the dead, but if the pope has or could simply redeem people out of purgatory, then why still maintain the endowments?
84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”
Again, a clearer reference to the question of why salvation is to bought rather than bestowed simply out of love.
85. Again: — “Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”
A reference to how the morality rules weren't even being practiced  among the living yet being imposed on the dead.
86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Questioning the hypocrisy of taxing the poor for the socialistic building campaigns of the rich.  See, even Luther was a free-market, non-interference of government man.
87. Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”
Or what about those who gain full remission without the pope's indulgences? Will he grant to them?
88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”
Another argument for the pope simply granting remission and participation out of love -- there is implication that the pope can't do so even when taking money, thus he can't do at all.
89. “Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?”
More questions of the popes intentions with the indulgences and their power to actually do as is claimed.
90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.
Luther is saying he can no longer defend the pope against the questioning of the people, if the pope backs the practice of the typical pardon seller.
91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
Again Luther implies selling pardon's is acceptable but that the popoe merely needs to end corruption in the practice.
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!
Luther implies that the indulgences don't really being peace, certainly not peace to the heart, mind or soul.
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
Luther advocates for preaching the Cross, even where the cross is not being preach from the pardon sellers.
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
Luther points Christians to Christ.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
Luther alludes that there is no easy way, that pardons don't bring peace but that Christians will experience tribulation and troubles.
The point of this review is to show that the Ninety-Five Theses, while remarkable for Luther's time, were often contradictory in waving from supporting the pope to false illusions that the pope had the people's best interests in mind, to blaming the pardon sellers alone.
Christians and heretics often like to point to Luther's nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses on that Church door in 1517 as their own rallying cry, but if they actually read what Luther wrote, they may find they don't really agree with least not this initial Luther.  And as Luther matures, I think the heretics will find even less commonality with him, since Luther denounced the heretics and innovators of his own time so much so that he called for their violent oppression (see link).

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