In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg. These theses were propositions, written in Latin, that Luther would be prepared to debate with anyone who was willing to debate with him. In these theses Luther targeted the practice of indulgences as well as those who promoted them. Luther said that indulgences were replacing repentance in the minds of the people, and that those who preached them were injuring the Church.
Indulgences were certificates that were supposed to lessen the time of yourself or a loved one in Purgatory, which is an intermediary place between heaven and hell where your sins are said to be purged before you can go to heaven. Pope Leo X was using the money raised by indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
A man named Johann Tetzel became a symbol of the careless doctrine sometimes taught by the indulgence preachers. He preached around, but not in, Luther’s city of Wittenberg. A saying commonly attributed to him regarding indulgences is “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. Luther had preachers like Tetzel in mind when he wrote his ninety-five theses.
Luther spoke as if defending the pope, and in the fiftieth of his theses he said that if the pope knew what the preachers were doing, he would rather see St. Peter’s Basilica go to ashes rather than accept what was going on. Luther seems to think that the pope has good intentions and does not target him at all.
It does not seem like Luther thought that the pope would be upset with the ideas he was expressing in his theses. He also did not condemn the office of the pope altogether, although he said that the papacy had limited jurisdiction. Contrary to Luther’s beliefs about the pope, Leo did oppose him, and Luther found himself in danger of being excommunicated for heresy. Luther eventually was excommunicated in 1521 by a papal bull from Leo.
Luther was probably still developing his ideas when he wrote the ninety-five theses. He did not deny the existence of purgatory, which he would do soon after in his career. He said that good works are more valuable than indulgences, and that false priests sell indulgences. He also spoke against the effectiveness of indulgences to do as the preachers promised. He said that the treasures of the church are not temporal, but the treasure of the church is the gospel. He condemned the emphasis people gave to the indulgences and said that the focus of the people should be on the gospel. Luther upheld the pope in the ninety-five theses, but he would later condemn the office of the papacy altogether.
Luther’s theses were translated into German and, due to the printing press, were distributed all over Germany and eventually all over Europe. Luther’s rhetoric struck a chord in the hearts of many people, especially those who did not want to spend a large part of their money for indulgences. His theses began the movement that would later be known as the Protestant Reformation.