Monthly Archives: October 2017

What Were Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses?”

The Diet at Worms: Anton von Werner (credit: Wikipedia)

Tomorrow, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses to a church door (Actually, Luther probably got the church janitor to do it, and he probably used glue and not nails, but that is another story…)  So, what were the “Ninety-Five Theses,” anyway?

Well, to tell the truth, the “nailing” of Luther’s document to the church door was no big deal, in and of itself. It was like stapling a poster up at a college bulletin board, or posting a message on Facebook. As a university theology professor, Luther wanted to hold a discussion with church leaders and other academic colleagues, coming up with 95 propositions for debate. Like most university academic discussions, such debates rarely, if ever, “go viral,” even today. Academics normally can not compete with ESPN. However, the big deal was what happened in the following four years, after Luther posted his theses.

In Luther’s day, the Western church was riddled with corruption, and everybody knew it.  Initially, Luther objected to the sale of indulgences, whereby church officials would urge people, who had no access to the Scriptures in their native language, to give money to the church, in exchange for lessening the punishments of loved ones, who were suffering in purgatory. In 1517, Luther still believed in the doctrine of purgatory itself, as acceptable Christian doctrine.

So, Luther was originally tapping into the widespread frustration with the medieval church. For example, from proposition 82, Luther argued that the papacy was more concerned about making money, than actually helping people who were suffering in purgatory:

“Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and 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?

Or even from proposition 86:

“Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

But there were hints that Luther was pressing against something deeper, within the medieval Catholic system, than simply corrupt church practices. Consider the first three propositions:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

Here, Luther shows how he was influenced by Erasmus’ Greek edition of the New Testament, published  just a year earlier, before Luther’s famous 1517 date. “Doing penance,” according to the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, is not the same thing as “repentance.” It was Luther’s study of the Scriptures that forced him to look at reality anew and afresh.

And this is what rattled church leaders.

Luther was hoping for an opportunity to express his views, and defend them. But he soon learned that certain church authorities, who benefited so much from corruption, refused to engage him in authentic debate. One of the few times Luther was allowed to debate his views, almost led to his undoing. At the Leipzig disputation in 1517, his brilliant opponent Johann Eck, forced Luther into a corner. Luther finally had to admit that he was calling into question the infallibility of the church, through its popes and councils.

Now Luther was in trouble. The problem was that Luther’s ideas were starting to catch on with folks outside of the academic community, both among the nobility, and the peasant poor. Luther was a master of the new technology of the printing press, and he put it to use. Luther fought back.

The church leadership simply could not tolerate such dissension. For if Luther would not be silenced, they were concerned that Luther would open the floodgates of false doctrines and heresy to proliferate, and destroy the unity of Christendom through schism. Their fears were not without some warrant. For church authorities, Luther had to be stopped.

But Luther was held captive to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. Luther was far from perfect, but he knew his cause to be just. To him, the very message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was at stake. If he could be persuaded that he had erred, in interpreting the Bible, he was open to correction. But by the time of his grand appearance before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, at the Diet of Worms, in 1521, he had become convinced of the Bible’s teaching, of justification by faith alone, and salvation by grace alone.

His answer to the Emperor, though scholars are not convinced of the actual wording, nevertheless still echoes throughout the course of history:

“Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen.”

The church and world have never been the same since.


…And now… Duh-duh-dahh!! ….. For a rather happy take on Martin Luther and the Reformation, you will not want to miss the “Reformation Polka,” by Baylor University professor of history, Chris Gertz:

The Haunted Legacy of Martin Luther

A warehouse at Auschwitz, storing clothes of camp victims, after liberation in January 1945. How much did Martin Luther’s rhetoric lead to the Holocaust? (Credit: National Archives)

Martin Luther is one of my theological heroes. But like any other fallen human, Luther was far, far from perfect. He was the Reformation’s chief champion of salvation by faith, and faith alone. But he also had a dark side…  (NEWS FLASH)… just like you and me.

As we remember the 500th anniversary of when this obscure monk, turned bible professor at a university in Wittenberg, famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, on Halloween, we mainly think of Luther’s attack on the abuses of the medieval Western church, a corrupt institution that instilled fear and anxiety among the people, and financially profited from such abuses. We also think of Luther’s famous stand for the Scriptures alone (sola scriptura), as the ultimate source of truth. I could go on with praises for Luther. We all owe an immense amount of gratitude to God for raising up a Martin Luther.

Luther was also a man who enjoyed life. He enjoyed good food, and having a good time with friends and family. He was comparatively more jovial than his later Reformed counterpart in Geneva, John Calvin. You could count on having a fun night, out on the town, with Martin Luther. With John Calvin? Well, you would probably be in bed before 9pm.

Luther preached a Gospel of grace, and grace alone…. and for the most part, he lived it.

I am a Martin Luther guy.

But this does not tell the whole story about Martin Luther. Luther had his blind spots, his dark side, if you will. To ignore these shortcomings is to fail to tell the whole story. There are possibly three elements to Luther’s legacy that still haunt the great German Protestant Reformer. Continue reading

Crisis at Marburg

The Reformation gave the church a renewed confidence in the authority of the Scriptures. However, the Reformation also shows us that the interpretation of God’s Word requires diligent study, a hunger for truth, a love for our fellow believers, and humility. Here is why…


"This is my Body... This is my Blood." Matthew 26:26-27. Literal or symbolic interpretation? “This is my Body… This is my Blood.” Matthew 26:26-28. Literal or symbolic interpretation?

Zwingli, with tears in his eyes, extended the hand of fellowship, but Martin Luther steadfastly refused: “Yours is a different spirit from ours“. Luther walked out.  The split was final. The unity of the Protestant Reformation movement was in tatters.

Marburg, Germany. 1529. Martin Luther’s attempt to reform the Roman Catholic church and restore confidence in the Bible “alone” was in full swing. Years earlier, he had nailed his famous 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door, protesting abuses within the church. Four hundred miles away, in Zurich, Switzerland, a young renegade priest, Huldrich Zwingli, was beginning to do the same thing Luther had started in Germany. Both Luther and Zwingli felt that the Church of Rome had lost its way. Christianity needed to return to the Holy Scriptures as the pure…

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Sola Scriptura … Not Nuda Scriptura!

Evangelical Christians, like myself, have a rather curious relationship with “tradition.”

As we remember this year, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, we think of the great Reformation slogan of Sola Scriptura, by “Scripture alone,” where “we,” as in evangelical Protestant believers, reject the notion of Scripture and tradition, to be the final authority for Christian faith and practice. We tell ourselves that we do not need popes or church councils to bind our consciences. We do not need doctrines like purgatory, praying to the saints, etc., that have shaky Scriptural support, at best! We do pretty well with the Bible by itself. Thank you very much.

Or so we think.

As it turns out, there are important Christian beliefs that simply have little in terms of explicit references made in the Bible itself. Instead, these beliefs are firmly embedded in traditions, in how the Bible has been read, that have been passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps some of us Protestants take our rejection of “tradition” a bit too far. Continue reading

Birdwatching … and the Reformation

Pastor Claude Marshall hopes to see one of these one day in the wild, the American Painted Bunting

This past Sunday, one of our church’s pastors, Claude Marshall, participated in a 4-minute video, to talk about his love for bird watching, in an effort to explain how birds sing praises to God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages his disciples to:

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)

Pastor Claude cited the 17th century English Puritan pastor, Thomas Watson, who wrote about how birds sing hymns to God:

“The curious workmanship of heaven sets forth the glory of its Maker; the firmament is beautiful and penciled out in blue and azure colors, where the power and wisdom of God may be clearly seen. ‘The heavens declare his glory (Psalm 19:1)’: We may see the glory of God blazing in the sun and twinkling in the stars. Look into the air, the birds, with their chirping music, sings hymns of praise to God.” (Watson, A Body of Divinity, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, p. 10)

I have been teaching an adult Bible class this fall, on the Protestant Reformation, remembering the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to a church door. I would like to briefly mention some of Thomas Watson’s biography.

Living a century later than Germany’s Martin Luther, and born in 1620, Thomas Watson became associated with the Puritan movement, that originated in the latter part of the 16th century, in England. The Puritans were not happy with Queen Elizabeth’s efforts to find a middle-way between Roman Catholicism and more activist Reformation theology. Puritans, like Watson, wanted the Church of England to move even further away from the influence of Roman Catholicism, to a more “purified” vision of faith.

The Puritans had their opportunity to reshape worship in England in the early to mid 17th century, when King Charles I was removed from power, during the English Civil War. But Thomas Watson spoke out against the new government, that was determined to have King Charles I executed.  For his defense of the king and efforts to restore the monarchy, Thomas Watson was imprisoned. Though released a few months later, Watson eventually lost his pastorate, ironically after the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles I’s son, Charles II. Watson had refused to conform to efforts by the restored monarchy to undo the changes to the Church of England, that were partially implemented by the Puritans, after Charles I’s execution.  After a few years of private ministry, Watson was able to re-obtain a preaching license, and continue his public pastoral ministry, as Puritans were finally granted some toleration, under the monarchial government. Watson eventually died in 1686.

Read more about Thomas Watson at the Banner of Truth Trust. Here is the Claude Marshall video.


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