The Ninety-Five Theses in Their Theological Significance

by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield

“A poor peasant’s son, then a diligent student, a humble monk, and, finally, a modest, industrious scholar, Martin Luther had already exceeded the half of the life-time allotted to him, when – certainly with the decision characteristic of him, but with all the reserve imposed by his position in life and the immediate purpose of his action – he determined to subject the religious conceptions which lay at the basis of the indulgence-usages of the time to an examination in academic debate.”(2) This singularly comprehensive and equally singularly accurate statement of Paul Kalkoff’s is worth quoting because it places us at once at the right point of view for forming an estimate of the Ninety-five Theses which Luther, in prosecution of the purpose thus intimated, posted on the door of the Castle-Church at Wittenberg on the fateful October 31, 1517. It sets clearly before us the Luther who posted the Theses. It was – as he describes himself, indeed, in their heading(3) – Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Theology, Ordinary Professor of Theology in the University of Wittenberg. And it indicates to us with equal clearness the nature of the document which he posted. It consists of heads for a discussion designed to elucidate the truth with respect to the subject with which it deals – as again Luther himself tells us in its heading. We have to do here in a word with an academic document, prepared by an academic teacher, primarily for an academic purpose. All that the Theses were to become grows out of this fundamental fact. We have to reckon, of course, with the manner of man this Professor of Theology was; with the conception he held of the function of the University in the social organism; with the zeal for the truth which consumed him. But in doing so we must not permit to fall out of sight that it is with a hard-working Professor of Theology, in the prosecution of his proper academical work, that we have to do in these Theses. And above everything we must not forget the precise matter which the Theses bring into discussion; this was, as Kalkoff accurately describes it, the religious conceptions which lay at the basis of the indulgence traffic.

Failure to bear these things fully in mind has resulted in much confusion. It is probably responsible for the absurd statement of A. Plummer to the effect that “Luther began with a mere protest against the sale of indulgences by disreputable persons.”(4) One would have thought a mere glance at the document would have rendered such an assertion impossible; although it is scarcely more absurd than Philip Schaff’s remark that the Theses do not protest “against indulgences, but only against their abuse”(5) – which Plummer elaborates into: “Luther did not denounce the whole system of indulgences. He never disputed that the Church has power to remit the penalties which it has imposed in the form of penances to be performed in this world.”(6) To treat the whole system of indulgences, as proclaimed at the time, as an abuse of the ancient custom of relaxing, on due cause, imposed penances, is to attack the whole system with a vengeance.

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