Martin Luther’s 95 thesis and the origin of Protestantism

October 31, 1517 is considered the day of the beginning of the Reformation. On this day, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in the city of Wittenberg. Now this fact is disputed: perhaps Luther simply sent the text of his theses to various church leaders, they were distributed and served as an impetus to the movement for the renewal of the church.

Perhaps the Reformation can be called a revolution in Christianity, but Luther himself, as well as Ulrich Zwingli (148 4–1531) or Jean Calvin (1509–1564) and other reformers of the 16th century, did not intend to introduce any innovations. They believed that they were returning to the true teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostolic church order distorted by the papacy.

Who was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther was born in the family of a former peasant, who became a mining metallurgist, and eventually a prosperous burgher. When the boy was 14 years old, he was sent to the Franciscan Catholic school, after which, at the behest of his parents, he began to study law at the University of Erfurt. From an early age, the boy was attracted to theology, along with friends he sang church songs under the windows of wealthy townspeople.

  • In 1505, against the will of his parents, Martin left the Faculty of Law and entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt. A year later, the young man took monastic vows, and in 1507 he was ordained a priest.
  • In 1508, he was sent to teach at one of the newly established institutes in Wittenberg, where he became interested in the philosophical writings of Bishop Augustine, one of the prominent figures of the Christian church.
  • During one of his trips to Italy in 1511, Luther came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church abused its position universally, issuing indulgences for money. It was a crisis of faith, with which he could not cope for a long time.

Soon after the trip, Luther received a doctorate in theology and began to teach a lot. At the same time, he was very thoughtful and painstakingly studying the Bible texts. As a result of his theological research, Luther formed his own beliefs about how a believer should serve God, which was much at odds with what the Catholic Church professed.

95 theses and the beginning of the Reformation

The beginning of the Reformation can be considered Martin Luther’s 95 thesis. In the years of 1515–1519, the people were already beginning to rise a wave of discontent with the activities of the church, but there were no open speeches – everyone was afraid to fall out of favor with the Pope.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther hung out on the doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church a document consisting of 95 theses criticizing the papacy and indulgences (forgiveness of sins for money). In his message, nailed to the door of the parish, he announced that the church is not an intermediary between God and man, and the Pope cannot give absolution of sins since a person saves his soul not through the church, but through faith in the Creator.

At first, Luther’s theses were left without due attention from the Pope, who considered that this was one of the manifestations of monastic wars (the strife between different church parishes), which were not uncommon in those days. Meanwhile, Luther, enlisting the support of the Roman prince Frederick the Wise, continued to spread his views on the activities of the Catholic Church. Only when the Pope sent his emissaries to him, the theologian agreed to stop criticizing the established church principles.

Content of 95 theses

In the first seven theses, Luther argues that the repentance, to which Jesus Christ calls, is not performed in the act of the sacrament, but lasts the whole life of the Christian and ends only with entering the Kingdom of Heaven (the 4th thesis). The true absolution of sins is not committed by the pope, but by God himself (the 6th thesis).

In the following ten theses, Luther criticizes the Catholic dogma of Purgatory, which seems to obliterate the meaning of death (the 13th thesis).

In theses 21–52, Luther proves the invalidity of indulgences, for only God (or, more correctly, His will) knows our salvation (the 28th thesis is the basis of monergism). Besides, having bought an indulgence, the sinner has no guarantees that he is really saved (the 30th thesis). The purpose of indulgences is not acquired by the purchase of dismissive letters, but by sincere repentance (the principle of Sola fide).

In the following 20 theses, Luther approves the priority of the Word of God and the Gospel of indulgences (the 55th thesis). In the last 20 theses, Luther argues that the pope of Rome has no special right to absolve oneself of sins (the 75th thesis). Otherwise, why has he still not absolved everyone? (the 82nd thesis) Luther also does not consider the construction of the temple of St. Petra is an excuse for indulgences (the 86th thesis).

In conclusion, he lays the foundation for the theology of the cross, according to which the sky should not be entered with money, but with sorrows (94th–95th theses).

Excommunication of Luther from the Church

One of the key events of the Reformation period was the Leipzig Dispute, held in 1519. Johann Eck, an outstanding theologian and ardent opponent of Luther, summoned one of the reformer’s associates – Karlstadt – to a public debate in the city of Leipzig. All the theses of Eck were constructed in such a way as to condemn the ideas and beliefs of Martin Luther. Luther was able to join the dispute and defend his position only a week after the start of the dispute.

Martin Luther, in opposition to the opponent, insisted that the head of the church is Jesus Christ, and the papal church was consecrated only in the 12th century, not being, thus, the legal substitute for God on earth. The dispute between the two opponents lasted for two days, and a large number of people witnessed it. The debate of the parties resulted in the fact that Luther broke off all contact with the papal church.

The theologian’s speech from Erfurt stirred the masses, spontaneously began to organize whole movements that demanded church changes and the abolition of monastic vows.

Special support for Luther’s idea was found among the nascent layer of capitalists, because the papal church strongly suppressed the economic independence and entrepreneurial activity of the people, condemning personal savings.

In 1521, the Roman emperor Charles V issued the so-called “The Worms edict” (decree), according to which Martin Luther was declared a heretic, and his work was to be destroyed. Everyone who supported him could henceforth be excommunicated from the papal church. Luther publicly burned the imperial decree and announced that the struggle against the papal dominance is a matter of his life.

Patron of Luther, Frederick the Wise, secretly sent a theologian to the distant castle of Wartburg, so that the Pope could not find out about the location of the traitor. It was here, while in voluntary imprisonment, Luther began to translate the Bible into German. It must be said that at that time people did not have free access to biblical texts: there were no translations into German, and people had to rely on the dogmas dictated by the church. The work of translating the Bible into German was of great importance to the people and helped the theologian to establish himself in his convictions regarding the Catholic Church.

The development of the Reformation

The main idea of the Reformation, according to Luther, was the non-violent restriction of the powers of the Pope, without war and bloodshed. Nevertheless, the spontaneous actions of the masses at that time were often accompanied by pogroms of the Catholic parishes.

In retaliation, the imperial knights were sent, some of whom, however, took the side of the instigators of the Reformation. This happened because the social significance of knights in a prosperous Catholic society has greatly decreased compared to ancient times, the soldiers dreamed of regaining their reputation and privileged position.

The next stage in the confrontation of Catholics and reformers was the peasant war under the leader of another spiritual figure of the Reformation, Thomas Muntzer. The peasant revolt was unorganized and soon suppressed by the forces of the empire. Nevertheless, even after the end of the war, the Reformation supporters continued to promote their vision of the role of the Catholic Church among the people. All their postulates the reformers combined in the so-called “Tetrapolitan Confession”.

At this time, Luther was already very sick and could not defend his vision of non-violent Reformation in front of other participants in the protest movement. On February 18, 1546, he died in the city of Eisleben at the age of 62.

Basic principles of Protestantism

The main principles of the Reformation were expressed in Latin and called Five Solae, reformers opposed to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of the time.

  • Sola Scriptura. Only the Bible is the source of Christian doctrine. The church tradition (ordinances of cathedrals, works of the fathers of the church, etc.), either admit to the extent that it does not contradict the Bible, or – in the radical currents of the Reformation – completely reject it. There is no independent authority in the Bible.
  • Sola Fide. Only by faith man is saved. Salvation cannot be a good deed, it is given by God as a gift – as a response to an act of faith. As for good deeds, they are not conditions for salvation, but the result of faith.
  • Sola gratia. Only by grace, the actions of God save. Human nature has lived an original sin, therefore by own efforts the person cannot find salvation.
  • Solus Christus. Only Christ is worthy of worship.
  • Soli Deo Gloria. The glory is only to God: not the Pope, not the saints, not even the Mother of God, can abolish Christ but also cannot be objects of worship.
Of these five basic principles, many features of Protestant dogma and practice can be derived:
  • The denial of veneration
  • The reduction in the number of sacraments (and in some currents, even a complete rejection of them)
  • The lack of clear boundaries between priests and laymen (pastors are not mediators between God and people, but all only preachers and teachers, laymen are required to study the Bible and be active members of the church)

The Sola Scriptura thesis had a particularly serious impact: the free, unrelated interpretation of the Bible was one of the reasons for the fragmentation of Protestantism and the emergence of many denominations, after all, all the leaders of the Reformation – Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Muntzer (1489–1525), and Jean Calvin – equally understood the Bible.

The Reformation without Luther

Adherents of the idea of the Reformation began to be called Protestants, and those who followed the theological teaching of the Matrix of Luther – Lutherans.

The Reformation continued even after the death of its ideological mastermind, although the imperial army dealt a serious blow to the Protestants. The cities and spiritual centers of Protestantism were devastated, many followers of the Reformation were behind bars, even the grave of Martin Luther was destroyed. Protestants were forced to make significant concessions to the Catholic Church, however, the ideas of the Reformation were not forgotten. In 1552, the second major Protestant war began with the imperial forces, which ended in the victory of the reformers. As a result, in 1555, between the Catholics and Protestants, the Augsburg religious world was concluded, which equalized the rights of representatives of Catholicism, Protestantism, and other denominations.

The Reformation, which began in Germany, affected to a varying degree many European countries: Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and France. The authorities of these states were forced to make concessions to the growing popular masses, which demanded freedom of religion.

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