ninety five theses impact

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Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

By: Editors

Updated: June 6, 2019 | Original: October 29, 2009

Martin LutherMartin Luther, (Eisleben, 1483, Eisleben, 1546), German reformer, Doctor of Theology and Augustinian priest, In 1517, outlined the main thesis of Lutheranism in Wittenberg, He was excommunicated in 1520, Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg castle church his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (31/10/1517), Colored engraving. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

Born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, Martin Luther went on to become one of Western history’s most significant figures. Luther spent his early years in relative anonymity as a monk and scholar. But in 1517 Luther penned a document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin. His “95 Theses,” which propounded two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds—was to spark the Protestant Reformation. Although these ideas had been advanced before, Martin Luther codified them at a moment in history ripe for religious reformation. The Catholic Church was ever after divided, and the Protestantism that soon emerged was shaped by Luther’s ideas. His writings changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was born in Eisleben, Saxony (now Germany), part of the Holy Roman Empire, to parents Hans and Margaretta. Luther’s father was a prosperous businessman, and when Luther was young, his father moved the family of 10 to Mansfeld. At age five, Luther began his education at a local school where he learned reading, writing and Latin. At 13, Luther began to attend a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. The Brethren’s teachings focused on personal piety, and while there Luther developed an early interest in monastic life.

Did you know? Legend says Martin Luther was inspired to launch the Protestant Reformation while seated comfortably on the chamber pot. That cannot be confirmed, but in 2004 archeologists discovered Luther's lavatory, which was remarkably modern for its day, featuring a heated-floor system and a primitive drain.

Martin Luther Enters the Monastery

But Hans Luther had other plans for young Martin—he wanted him to become a lawyer—so he withdrew him from the school in Magdeburg and sent him to new school in Eisenach. Then, in 1501, Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt, the premiere university in Germany at the time. There, he studied the typical curriculum of the day: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and philosophy and he attained a Master’s degree from the school in 1505. In July of that year, Luther got caught in a violent thunderstorm, in which a bolt of lightning nearly struck him down. He considered the incident a sign from God and vowed to become a monk if he survived the storm. The storm subsided, Luther emerged unscathed and, true to his promise, Luther turned his back on his study of the law days later on July 17, 1505. Instead, he entered an Augustinian monastery.

Luther began to live the spartan and rigorous life of a monk but did not abandon his studies. Between 1507 and 1510, Luther studied at the University of Erfurt and at a university in Wittenberg. In 1510–1511, he took a break from his education to serve as a representative in Rome for the German Augustinian monasteries. In 1512, Luther received his doctorate and became a professor of biblical studies. Over the next five years Luther’s continuing theological studies would lead him to insights that would have implications for Christian thought for centuries to come.

Martin Luther Questions the Catholic Church

In early 16th-century Europe, some theologians and scholars were beginning to question the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It was also around this time that translations of original texts—namely, the Bible and the writings of the early church philosopher Augustine—became more widely available.

Augustine (340–430) had emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority. He also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God. Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs, which would later form the basis of Protestantism.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s practice of granting “indulgences” to provide absolution to sinners became increasingly corrupt. Indulgence-selling had been banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated. In 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The 95 Theses

Committed to the idea that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, Luther vigorously objected to the corrupt practice of selling indulgences. Acting on this belief, he wrote the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” a list of questions and propositions for debate. Popular legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The reality was probably not so dramatic; Luther more likely hung the document on the door of the church matter-of-factly to announce the ensuing academic discussion around it that he was organizing.

The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.

In addition to his criticisms of indulgences, Luther also reflected popular sentiment about the “St. Peter’s scandal” in the 95 Theses:

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

The 95 Theses were quickly distributed throughout Germany and then made their way to Rome. In 1518, Luther was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his opinions before an imperial diet (assembly). A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan produced no agreement. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to recant and returned to Wittenberg.

Luther the Heretic

On November 9, 1518 the pope condemned Luther’s writings as conflicting with the teachings of the Church. One year later a series of commissions were convened to examine Luther’s teachings. The first papal commission found them to be heretical, but the second merely stated that Luther’s writings were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears.” Finally, in July 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (public decree) that concluded that Luther’s propositions were heretical and gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. Luther refused to recant, and on January 3, 1521 Pope Leo excommunicated Martin Luther from the Catholic Church.

On April 17, 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms in Germany. Refusing again to recant, Luther concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” On May 25, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V signed an edict against Luther, ordering his writings to be burned. Luther hid in the town of Eisenach for the next year, where he began work on one of his major life projects, the translation of the New Testament into German, which took him 10 months to complete.

Martin Luther's Later Years

Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1521, where the reform movement initiated by his writings had grown beyond his influence. It was no longer a purely theological cause; it had become political. Other leaders stepped up to lead the reform, and concurrently, the rebellion known as the Peasants’ War was making its way across Germany.

Luther had previously written against the Church’s adherence to clerical celibacy, and in 1525 he married Katherine of Bora, a former nun. They had five children. At the end of his life, Luther turned strident in his views, and pronounced the pope the Antichrist, advocated for the expulsion of Jews from the empire and condoned polygamy based on the practice of the patriarchs in the Old Testament.

Luther died on February 18, 1546.

Significance of Martin Luther’s Work

Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. His writings were responsible for fractionalizing the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation. His central teachings, that the Bible is the central source of religious authority and that salvation is reached through faith and not deeds, shaped the core of Protestantism. Although Luther was critical of the Catholic Church, he distanced himself from the radical successors who took up his mantle. Luther is remembered as a controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, but also because in later life he took on radical positions on other questions, including his pronouncements against Jews, which some have said may have portended German anti-Semitism; others dismiss them as just one man’s vitriol that did not gain a following. Some of Luther’s most significant contributions to theological history, however, such as his insistence that as the sole source of religious authority the Bible be translated and made available to everyone, were truly revolutionary in his day.

ninety five theses impact

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What was the significance of the 95 theses.

What were the 95 Theses?

According to historic legend, Martin Luther posted a document on the door of the Wittenberg Church on the 31 st October 1517; a document later referred to as the 95 Theses. This document was questioning rather than accusatory, seeking to inform the Archbishop of Mainz that the selling of indulgences had become corrupt, with the sellers seeking solely to line their own pockets. It questioned the idea that the indulgences trade perpetuated – that buying a trinket could shave time off the stay of one’s loved ones in purgatory, sending them to a glorious Heaven.

It is important, however, to recognise that this was not the action of a man wanting to break away from the Catholic Church. When writing the 95 Theses, Luther simply intended to bring reform to the centre of the agenda for the Church Council once again; it cannot be stressed enough that he wanted to reform, rather than abandon, the Church.

Nonetheless, the 95 Theses were undoubtedly provocative, leading to debates across the German Lands about what it meant to be a true Christian, with some historians considering the document to be the start of the lengthy process of the Reformation. But why did Luther write them?

Why did Luther write the 95 Theses?


In particular, Luther was horrified by the fact that a large portion of the profits from this trade were being used to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His outrage at this is evident from the 86 th thesis: ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of the poor rather than with his own money?’ Perhaps this is indicative of Luther’s opinion as opposing the financial extortion indulgences pressed upon the poor, rather than the theology which lay behind the process of freeing one’s loved ones from purgatory.

It is interesting to note that Luther also sent a copy of his 95 Theses directly to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg. It appears that he legitimately believed that the Archbishop was not aware of the corruption inherent in the indulgence trade led by Tetzel. This is something which can be considered important later on, for it indicates that Luther did not consider the Church hierarchy redundant at this point.

Why were the 95 Theses significant?

Though the document itself has a debateable significance, the events which occurred because of its publication were paramount in Luther’s ideological and religious development. Almost immediately there was outrage at the ‘heresy’ which the Church viewed as implicit within the document. Despite the pressure upon Luther to immediately recant his position, he did not. This in part led to the Leipzig debate in summer 1519 with Johann Eck.

This debate forced Luther to clarify some of his theories and doctrinal stances against the representative of the Catholic Church. The debate focused largely on doctrine; in fact, the debate regarding indulgences was only briefly mentioned in the discussions between the two men. This seems surprising; Luther’s primary purpose in writing the 95 Theses was to protest the selling of indulgences. Why was this therefore not the primary purpose of the debate?

Ultimately the debate served to further Luther’s development of doctrine which opposed the traditional view of the Catholic Church. In the debate he was forced to conclude that Church Councils had the potential to be erroneous in their judgements. This therefore threw into dispute the papal hierarchy’s authority, and set him on his path towards evangelicalism and the formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Yet it is important to bear in mind that, had the pope offered a reconciliation, Luther would have returned to the doctrine of the established Church.

An interesting point to consider about the aftermath of the 95 Theses is the attitude of the Catholic Church. It immediately sought to identify Luther as someone who had strayed from the true way and was therefore a heretic; it refused to recognise that Luther had valid complaints which were shared by many across Western Christendom. The 95 Theses could have been taken at face value and used as an avenue to reform, as Luther intended. Instead, the papal hierarchy sought to discredit Luther, and keep to the status quo.

What made the 95 Theses significant?

A document written in Latin and posted on a door like most other academic debates, it does not seem obvious when considering the 95 Theses alone to see just how they became as significant as they did.


The translation of the Latin text into German also helped make the document significant. Translated in early 1518 by reformist friends of Luther, this widened the debate’s appeal simply because it made the subject matter accessible to a greater number of people. ‘Common’ folk who could read would have been able to read in German, rather than Latin. This therefore meant that they would be able to read the article for themselves and realise just how many of the arguments they identified with (or did not identify with, for that matter). The translation also meant that these literate folk could read the Theses aloud to a large audience; Bob Scribner argued that we should not forget the oral nature of the Reformation, beginning with one of the most divisive documents in history.

Finally, the 95 Theses can be considered significant because they were expressing sentiments that many ordinary folk felt themselves at the time. There had been a disillusionment with the Church and corruption within it for a great deal of time; the Reformatio Sigismundi  of 1439 is a prime early example of a series of lists detailing the concerns of the people about the state of the Church. By the time of the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521, there were 102 grievances with the Church, something overshadowed due to Martin Luther’s presence at this Diet. Many of the issues Luther highlighted were shared among the populace; it was due to the contextual factors of the printing press and the use of the German language that made this expression so significant.

It would not be surprising if, when posting his 95 Theses on the door of the chapel on the 31 st October 1517, Luther did not expect a great deal to change. At the time, he did not know what such an act would lead to. The events which occurred due to the Theses led to Luther clarifying his doctrinal position in a manner which led to his eventual repudiation of the decadence and corruption within the Catholic Church and his excommunication.

Yet we must remember that whilst the 95 Theses can be considered to constitute an extraordinary shift in the mentality of a disillusioned Christian, they are very unlikely to have achieved the same significance without the printing press. If the 95 Theses had been posted on the 31 st October 1417 , would the result have been the same?

Written by Victoria Bettney


Dixon, Scott C. The Reformation in Germany . Oxford  : Blackwell, 2002.

Dixon, Scott C ed. The German Reformation: The Essential Readings . Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Lau, Franz and Bizer, Ernst. A History of the Reformation in Germany To 1555 . Translated by Brian Hardy. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1969.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations . Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction . Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

McGrath, Alister. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998.

Scribner, Robert. ‘Oral Culture and the Diffusion of Reformation Ideas,’ History of European Ideas 5, no. 3 (1984): 237-256.

“The 95 Theses,” , accessed 29.10.15

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Interesting article! You rightly argue that the Theses were not the finished product but just a step in Luther’s theological development. That makes you think; should we really be celebrating 31 October 2017 as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or should we be remembering a different date?

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How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution

Five hundred years ago, a humble German friar challenged the Catholic church, sparked the Reformation, and plunged Europe into centuries of religious strife.

Some say that the beginnings of the Reformation can be traced back to a thunderstorm in 1505. After surviving the tempest, a promising law student at the University of Erfurt in Germany changed the course of his life. The young scholar’s name was Martin Luther, and the foul weather set him on a collision course with Rome and would trigger a crisis of faith in Western Christianity.

ninety five theses impact

“Portrait of Martin Luther as a Young Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder depicts the Protestant founder as a simple, sincere monk.

Luther came from a well-heeled family in the central region of Saxony. Luther was born in Eisleben in November 1483. Shortly after his birth, the family moved about 10 miles away to the town of Mansfeld. A successful businessman in copper mining and refining, his father, Hans, had young Martin educated at a local Latin school and later at schools in Magdeburg and Eisenach. In 1501, at age 19, he enrolled in the University of Erfurt to continue his studies.

In 1505 he was returning to Erfurt after visiting his parents when a violent thunderstorm arose with raging winds and driving rain. “[I was] besieged by the terror and agony of sudden death,” the young Luther later recalled. In his panic he made a terror-stricken vow to St. Anne. He would join a religious order, he promised, if only she would save his life.

Biographies of the founder of the Protestant Reformation point out that a deep sense of religious turmoil probably shaped Luther’s thoughts long before the storm. Even so, following his safe deliverance from the tempest, Luther kept his promise and, to the dismay of his father, abandoned his legal education to join the strictly observant Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. It was a decisive, stubborn act, mixed with a deep sense of religious vocation—an attitude he would display for the rest of his remarkable and turbulent life.

ninety five theses impact

The engraving above shows Martin Luther writing his protest on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church. It is from a 1518 German broadside marking the first anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses. By then, the image of Luther publicly attacking papal corruption had become a potent 16th-century meme.

A Rising Storm

During his first years at the monastery, Luther did not seem to be especially subversive. He quickly made a name for himself not only with his brilliance as a theologian but also with his meticulous observance of the harsh rules governing life in the monastery; he fasted, prayed, and confessed. Content with just a table and chair in his unheated room, he would rise in the early morning hours to pray matins and lauds. By the fall of 1506 he had gained full admission to the order.

Luther continued his theological education after becoming a monk. In 1507 he was ordained by the Bishop of Brandenburg. In 1508 he taught theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, where he also received two bachelor degrees.

For Hungry Minds

In 1510 Luther’s studies were interrupted by a political crisis that engulfed the Augustinians. The current pope, Julius II, had decided to merge two opposed branches (the observant and nonobservant) of the order, a plan that horrified Luther’s strictly observant monastery. Luther was chosen by his superiors to defend the views of their monastery before the general Augustinian council in Rome.

In late 1510 Luther made his first—and last—visit to Rome. During his stay, the friar followed traditional pilgrimage customs. Among other observances, he climbed the steps of the St. John Lateran Basilica on his knees, reciting the Lord’s Prayer on each step. It is said that during his ascent he was perplexed to find the words of the Apostle Paul coming back to him: “the righteous shall live by faith,” a tenet that would form a central part of his later doctrine. During his stay, Luther found himself unsettled by the corruption and lack of spirituality he saw in Rome. He saw openly corrupt priests who sneered at the rituals of their faith. He later described his visit: “Rome is a harlot . . . The Italians mocked us for being pious monks, for they hold Christians fools. They say six or seven masses in the time it takes me to say one, for they take money for it and I do not.”

After returning to Germany, Luther earned his doctorate in 1512. As a professor, he taught several classes at the University of Wittenberg. The spiritual hollowness he had seen in Rome did not break his faith with the church, but scholars believe it continued to disquiet him.

Nailing a Myth

ninety five theses impact

That Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses helped launch the Reformation is beyond question. Dated October 31, 1517, Luther’s letter to his superiors did include copies of the theses. But did he actually nail them to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church? The historical consensus is . . . probably not. Luther himself never mentioned having done so. At the time, he had no idea his theses would create such a stir and would not have seen the need to carry out such a provocative act. Nevertheless, the legend arose and gained traction.

Luther Enters the Fray

The spark that ignited Luther’s confrontation with Rome was the sale of “indulgences,” which would lessen the impact of, or pardon, a person from their sins. In theory, indulgences were granted by the church on the condition that the recipient carried out some kind of good work or other specified acts of contrition. In practice, indulgences could be bought. The practice was abused by the church, which began relying upon their sale as a way of raising money, especially to pay for costly building projects.

Cameo of Leo X

Cameo of Leo X, pope at the time of Luther’s 1517 revolt.

Rome in the early 1500s was under the spell of the artistic projects of the Renaissance. Around 1515, Pope Leo X published a new indulgence in a bid to fund the reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, entrusting Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, with promoting its sale in Germany.

Enraged, Luther took a stand against the papal actions. On October 31, 1517, he composed his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences , better known as the Ninety-Five Theses. According to tradition, he nailed these to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, although modern historians are somewhat skeptical that such a lengthy document could be posted in this way. Regardless of how the Ninety-Five Theses were distributed, many found Luther’s arguments explosive. He argued that the practice of relying on indulgences drew believers away from the one true source of salvation: faith in Christ. God alone had the power to pardon the repentant faithful. The pontifical council ordered him to retract his claims immediately, but Luther refused.

An Elector for an Enclave

Luther’s reformation was not born in a vacuum, and his fate rested as much on the turbulent politics of the day as it did on pure questions of theology. Wittenberg was part of Saxony, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of territories in central Europe with roots deep in the medieval past. The Holy Roman Emperor was appointed by the heads of its main states, influential rulers known as electors.

At the time that Luther wrote his theses, the elector of Saxony was Frederick the Wise. A humanist and a scholar, Frederick had founded the new university at Wittenberg that Luther attended. Frederick’s response to Luther’s theological challenge was complex. He never stopped being a Catholic, but he decided from the outset to protect the rebel friar both from the fury of the church and the Holy Roman Emperor. When in 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome, Frederick intervened on his behalf, ensuring that he would be questioned in Germany, a much safer place for him than Rome. The church was forced to respect Elector Frederick’s wishes because he would be instrumental in choosing the replacement to the ailing Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

Artifact letters

Letters of indulgence, like this one granted in 1512, sparked Luther’s revolt in 1517.

Safe under the wing of Frederick, Luther began to engage in regular public debate on religious reforms. He broadened his arguments, declaring that any church council or even a single believer had the right to challenge the pope, so long as they based their arguments on the Bible. He even dared to argue that the church did not rest on papal foundations but rather on faith in Christ.

Luther must have realized early on that his reform movement had a political dimension. In 1520 he wrote a treatise, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” It argued that all Christians could be priests from the moment of their baptism, that anyone reading the Scripture with faith had the right to interpret it, and that every believer had the right to assemble a free council. This declaration was revolutionary for the ecclesiastic hierarchy of the time.

Heretics and Heroes

ninety five theses impact

This 15th-century print by Diebold Schilling the Elder depicts the burning of Czech reformist Jan Hus in 1415.

Luther was not the first person to confront the Catholic Church. Writing in the 1370s and ‘80s, Oxford scholar John Wycliffe denounced the wealth of the church, called for a greater emphasis on scripture, and oversaw an English biblical translation. The church condemned Wycliffe, but Oxford University shielded him from arrest. In the 1400s Jan Hus, a scholar at the University of Prague, was exposed to Wycliffe’s works. Hus too believed that scripture was greater than tradition and preached in his native language, Czech. His writings led him to leave Prague for fear of reprisals, but Hus was later arrested in 1414, charged with heresy, and burned at the stake in 1415. Following his death, his followers continued the fight, forming the Hussite movement which spread through what is today the Czech Republic.

Luther in Peril

In January 1521 a papal decree was published under which Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated . Under normal circumstances, this sentence would have meant a trial and, most likely, execution. But these were no ordinary times. Both Frederick and widespread German public opinion demanded that Luther be given a proper hearing. The newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, finally acquiesced and called Luther to come before the Imperial Diet (assembly) to be held that spring in the ancient Rhineland city of Worms.

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On his journey to Worms Luther was acclaimed almost as a messiah by the citizens of the towns he passed through. On his arrival in Worms in April 1521, crowds gathered to see the man who embodied the struggle against the seemingly all-powerful Catholic Church. Once inside the episcopal palace, Luther was met by young Charles V, princes, imperial electors, and other dignitaries. When charged, Luther said that he stood by every one of his published claims.

The Archbishop of Trier urged him to retract his theses, and Luther asked for time for consideration. After a night of reflection, he remained steadfast. His writings, he maintained, were based on Scripture; on his conscience, he declared he could not recant anything “for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He is said to have concluded with the famous words in German: “ Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders —Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Fighting for Faith

ninety five theses impact

Luther’s revolt inspired other religious leaders in cities outside Germany such as Strasbourg, Geneva, Basel, and Lucca. In Zürich Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss leader of the Reformation, persuaded the city council and a large part of the population to accept a full program for the strict observance of the Gospel. Priestly celibacy was abolished. Baptism and the Eucharist were still celebrated as sacraments, but the belief that during the Mass the bread and wine actually turned into the body and blood of Christ was abandoned. In Zwingli’s view, the Eucharist became a symbolic rite in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Sacred music was prohibited, and paintings in churches were destroyed. An army of preachers was chosen to go out into the city and foment this radical new teaching.

The Revolution Spreads

Luther left Worms unbowed, but his life was in peril. Charles V signed an edict naming him and his followers political outlaws and demanded their writings be burned. Seized by his protector, Frederick, Luther was granted sanctuary in the castle of Wartburg until the situation evolved and the danger passed.

ninety five theses impact

Outlawed for having defended his ideas at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther took refuge here in Wartburg Castle, under the protection of Frederick the Wise of Saxony. In this medieval fortress, Luther made his translation of the New Testament into German.

Despite his absence, Luther’s words and writings were spreading like wildfire throughout Germany, thanks in part to the printing revolution. Luther’s declarations at Worms sparked a revolutionary spirit that had been smoldering among the German people, many of who were tired of seeing their earnings gobbled up by the church. Supported by their rulers, also eyeing the opportunity of greater freedom from Rome, a host of reformers came forward in support of Lutheran principles.

Some, to Luther’s dismay, went very much further. Just after Christmas, in 1521, the so-called Zwickau prophets foretold the imminent return of Christ. They wanted to tear down and destroy all religious images, statues, and altarpieces. They even proposed radical changes to the sacraments, the most dramatic of which was their rejection of the rite of baptism for children and a demand that adults be rebaptized. It was from this element that Anabaptism—from the Latin anabaptista , meaning “one who baptizes over again”—grew. Despite savage repression, Anabaptism periodically flared up during the following years.

Another serious threat to the established order was the struggle unleashed by the peasants in 1524 and 1525. The ideas of equality and social justice inherent in Luther’s reform were seized upon by a rural society hungry for change. A revolt erupted across huge swaths of Germany.

Luther may have been a theological radical, but he was not a social reformer. On hearing news of these movements, he voiced his opposition. Having left Wartburg Castle in 1522, he upbraided all Christians who were taking part in insurrections against authority. In an essay entitled “Against the Murderous and Robbing Hordes of the Peasants” (1525), he condemned the peasant violence as work of the devil. He called out for the nobility to track down the rebels like they would rabid dogs as, “nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful and devilish than a rebel.” Without Luther’s backing, the radical revolution was dealt a death blow. In May 1525 the peasants were defeated in Frankenhausen, and their leader was executed.

Interior of All Saints Church

Rebuilt in the early 1500s on the site of an earlier church, All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, is where Martin Luther was laid to rest in 1546.

An Unstoppable Force

When the Holy Roman Empire attempted to harden its line against Lutheranism and the wider reform movement at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, the pro-reform German princes dissented, or “protested.” Luther spent the rest of his life consolidating this new “Protestant” movement, whose tenets were spreading across Europe to Strasbourg, Zürich, Geneva, and Basel.

Luther’s efforts created a great rift in Western Christianity and dominated European politics for several centuries as western Europe split into a largely Catholic south and a Protestant north. France straddled the fault line, and for much of the later 16th century was engulfed by religious conflict. The Lutheran doctrine, combined with Tudor power politics, led to England’s ultimate break from Rome in 1534. Years of Catholic-Protestant tensions in England prompted the Pilgrims to embark for the New World in the Mayflower, and laid the foundations for the English Civil War—events that stemmed from the actions of an obscure monk, on an October day exactly five hundred years ago.

Historian and author Josep Palau Orta is a specialist in religion in 16th-century Europe.

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Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) is the central figure of the Protestant Reformation. Whilst he is primarily seen as a theologian, the philosophical interest and impact of his ideas is also significant, so that he arguably deserves to be ranked as highly within philosophy as other theologians in the Christian tradition, such as Augustine or Aquinas. Nonetheless, in Luther’s case this may seem more problematic, as his attitude to philosophy and indeed reason can be hostile and dismissive. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that his position is more nuanced than that, and requires contextualisation: for his objection is only to reason put to certain theological ends, while his own thought is deeply steeped in the philosophical tradition, and contributed to it. At the same time, Luther’s ideas had a fundamental influence on northern European philosophers who came after him, such as Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, and Heidegger, all of whom worked within a broadly Lutheran context, and against the background of central Lutheran assumptions, often inculcated in them through their upbringing and education. [ 1 ]

Several key issues in Luther’s work make him of interest to philosophers and not just theologians or Reformation historians, and will be covered in this entry: his conception of the relation between theology and philosophy, and the place of reason in that relation; his negative conception of Aristotle and the Aristotelian tradition, and his relation to the nominalist alternative; his conception of divine and human freedom; and his conception of ethics and of social and political life. Luther’s influence on subsequent philosophers in the Lutheran tradition is considered in more detail in the separate entry on Luther’s influence on philosophy .

1. Luther’s Life and Works

2. theology and philosophy, 3. luther, aristotle, and nominalism, 4. luther on freedom of the will, 5. luther’s ethics and social philosophy, 6. luther’s influence, abbreviations for references to luther’s works, other works by luther, useful collections of some of luther’s main writings, luther’s life and work, theology and philosophy, luther, aristotle, and nominalism, luther on free will, luther’s ethics and social philosophy, other cited works, other internet resources, related entries.

Luther lived an interesting life in interesting times—where to a significant degree those times were made interesting by his life’s impact upon them. This impact began with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses on 31 October 1517, in which as a young professor at Wittenberg he attacked the Church’s sale of indulgences; this was then followed by various further disputations and disputes as well as published works that defended his increasingly radical position, leading to his excommunication in 1521 and his famously defiant appearance at the Diet of Worms. Managing to escape capture under the protection of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and after a period of seclusion at Wartburg castle, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he continued his teaching, writing and translating; married; and engaged with the complex and fraught swirl of forces unleashed by his work at various levels—in theology, in the Church, in politics, and in society at large. While he had fathered the Reformation, as it has become known, he did not set out to divide the Christian Church, and the movement quickly took on a momentum that he could not control, but which still in certain fundamental ways bears the stamp of his thought.

Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben in the Holy Roman Empire, not into the peasantry as he liked to claim, but into a relatively prosperous mining family. [ 2 ] His father, Hans, gave him a good education, intending for him to become a lawyer and thus assist the family business. In 1501 Luther went from school to the University of Erfurt, where in 1505 he became a Master of Arts, a degree which included the study and teaching of Aristotle, while he was also exposed to nominalism and to humanism. However, rather than continuing with his legal training, later in the same year Luther chose instead to enter the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, much to the annoyance of his father—and as Luther explained it later, on the basis of a vow made in a violent thunder storm to St Anna (the patron saint of miners), that this is what he would do if he was spared. Whatever the truth in this story, in his own mind at least Luther seems to have understood his change of direction as a kind of conversion experience, and the entry into a new type of spiritual life.

However, Luther did not find this life an easy one, later recalling that while he tried to live without reproach and made full use of confession, he still felt that he “was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience” (“Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings”, 1545, WA 54:185/LW 34:336), in spite of the reassurances given him by his mentor Johann von Staupitz (1468–1524), then vicar-general of the observant wing of the Augustinians. This anxiety and fear meant the Luther underwent what he termed Anfechtungen , spiritual trials or temptations, as fears about his salvation could lead him to turn against God, while in later years he felt he was struggling with the devil. Luther was further disturbed by his father’s response when attending the first Mass at which his son officiated upon being ordained in 1507: his father suggested that Luther’s vow to St Anna may have been forced out of him by the devil, causing him to break the commandment to obey one’s parents. Some commentators have speculated that these two difficult relationships with father figures are not unconnected (for a classic but controversial study, see Erikson 1958; see also Roper 2016: 48–49).

As a monk in the monastery at Erfurt and as a temporary lecturer at Wittenberg, Luther’s education continued under his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter (1460–1519) and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen (1465–1532), as he followed a theology curriculum dominated by Ockhamism, studying central texts such as Peter Lombard’s Sentences and commentaries on them by Gabriel Biel and Pierre d’Ailly, Aristotle’s works with Ockham’s commentaries, and major works by Augustine, while also lecturing on some of them. In 1512 Luther replaced Staupitz at the university in Wittenberg as professor of the Bible, a position he was to hold until his death. [ 3 ] Earlier in the same year, Luther made his only excursion beyond German lands, travelling to Rome on behalf of Staupitz; he was later to present this as an experience that began to turn him against the religious rituals and practices he found there, including that of indulgences.

It was this issue of indulgences that in 1517 led Luther to write ninety-five theses intended for debate or disputation on the topic, criticising this widespread practice as selling the remission of sins; this practice had been intensified by the efforts of Pope Leo X to raise funds for a new basilica of St Peter in Rome, efforts that were spearheaded locally by a Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. While according to legend Luther nailed the text of the theses to the church door, in reality it seems he merely sent them to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and perhaps they were posted up on the door by someone else; but it was thanks to printed versions that they soon began to circulate more widely. This condemnation of indulgences was an act of some defiance within the politics of the Church, as was the criticism of the authority of the power of the Pope which Luther associated with it; but earlier in the same year Luther had taken a step of a more intellectually radical kind with another set of theses, that have come to be called his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology , and which grew out of his lectures and reading in previous years, particularly his engagement with Psalms, Paul’s letters, and the works of Augustine and the latter’s attacks on Pelagianism. In this disputation, written with characteristic vehemence, Luther sketched out what may be called an uncompromising Augustinianism in opposition to what are portrayed as the more Pelagian positions of figures such as Scotus, Ockham, and Biel, behind which was said to stand the malign influence of Aristotle. At the heart of this dispute, as we shall see, is the key issue of grace, and whether this can be attained and earned through our efforts by “doing what in us lies” ( facere quod in se est ). This question raised in the context of scholastic theology also provides the intellectual background to Luther’s argument against indulgences in the Ninety-Five Theses , which to him were in effect just another dubious method of gaining merit.

It was against this background that around this time Luther had his so-called “tower experience”, which like the thunder storm, was later portrayed by Luther as a life-changing moment in a way that may be more myth than fact, and is named after the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where it is said to have occurred (1532, WA TR 3 no 3232a–c/LW 54:193–4). In recounting the event, Luther explains that he came to radically re-think how it is that justification and hence salvation is possible for us at all: namely not through our attempts to conform to God’s law, but through faith as a form of “passive righteousness”. From this realization, Luther later claimed (in his preface to the edition of his works published in his life time) that he was freed from his anger against an accusing God, and the anxiety that no such God could ever be known to be placated; instead he now recognised God’s gratuitous love and salvation, bestowed on us through divine grace (1545, WA 54:186/LW 34:336–7).

Luther was able to develop this new position further in another disputation, this time held in Heidelberg in 1518, where thanks to the controversy unleashed by the Ninety-five Theses , he was invited by Staupitz to present his theological ideas to the triennial assembly of the German Augustinians. In this Heidelberg Disputation , Luther continued his assault on “works righteousness”, and developed further an associated attack on free will, while he also presented a contrast that was to prove fundamental to his thinking, between a “theology of glory” and a “theology of the cross”. He associated the former with his opponents, and himself with the latter, arguing that it is only through despair at our failure to gain salvation for ourselves that we are truly made ready to be given salvation through grace. It now became clear to his audience that Luther (who to mark this change in perspective had just previously started signing himself “Luther” in short for “ eleutherios ” or the “freed one”, instead of his family’s actual name of “Luder”) was attempting not merely to confront the Church on the issue of indulgences, but also to question what he perceived to be its misguided theological outlook.

Luther’s position on indulgences, and his challenge to the Pope, had now begun to draw the attention of higher authorities in the Church, and in 1518 he was summoned to Augsburg to meet with the papal legate Cardinal Tommaso de Vio, known as Cajetan, who was investigating the matter. He tried to get Luther to recant, but he refused to back down in any way. In 1519, Luther travelled to Leipzig for another disputation, this time with Johann Eck, a theologian who had earlier criticised his Ninety-Five Theses . The confrontation was a highly charged affair, also conducted in printed pamphlets and associated satirical texts written by supporters, in which Luther again vehemently defended his ground. Eck then travelled to Rome to make his case, hence contributing to the papal decision to issue the bull Exsurge Domine on 15 June 1520, which threatened to excommunicate this troublesome opponent.

Luther’s response was characteristically defiant, later that year burning the bull in front of his supporters in Wittenberg, while himself accusing the Pope of heresy and worse in his reposts which included Against the Cursed Bull of the Antichrist . Having just published his Treatise on Good Works in which he set out his fundamental position on the relation between grace and works, Luther responded to this new situation in three significant writings also published in 1520: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation , The Babylonian Captivity of the Church , and The Freedom of a Christian . The first two texts argue his case against the Pope and key practices of the Church, and the third reflects on how freedom is possible for human beings trapped in sin. Unsurprisingly, given his recalcitrance, Luther’s formal excommunication followed on 3 January 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem . This was followed by a summons from Charles V, the recently elected head of the Holy Roman Empire, for Luther to attend the Diet, or regular imperial assembly, at Worms. Choosing to accept the summons despite the great personal risks involved, knowing that in rather similar circumstances the Czech theologian Jan Hus (c. 1372–1415) had been burnt at the stake for heresy, Luther was once more asked to recant, and once more he refused. It is again doubtful whether he actually uttered the famous words “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”, but he is recorded as summarizing his position by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. (1521, WA 7:838/LW 32:112)

Fearing for his safety after this defiant performance, which did indeed lead to the Edict of Worms declaring him a heretic and an outlaw, Luther was spirited away to the Wartburg castle under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Barring a brief secret visit back to Wittenberg in December 1521, he was based there until he could return openly to the city on 6 March 1522. While at the Wartburg he began his German translation of the New Testament, which would be followed (in serialised fashion) by the Old Testament, and eventually the landmark Luther Bible of 1534/1545. He also responded to criticism in support of the Pope by a Louvain theologian in Against Latomus (1522), re-iterating key elements of his position concerning the relation between sin and grace in forceful language.

As well as responding to attacks from the Catholic Church, in this period Luther began to face increasing challenges from his “own people” within the reform movement itself. [ 4 ] Upon returning to Wittenberg from his relative seclusion, Luther found himself embroiled in controversies over the direction being taken by other figures such as Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541) and Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525), and was caught up in associated theological disputes, while also facing growing political opposition. Luther preached the Invocavit (Lenten) Sermons which restored order to the city, and responded to his fellow reformers in A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to all Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion (1522), and to some of these political difficulties in his pamphlet On Temporal [or secular: weltlicher ] Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed (1523), in which he drew a distinction between two kingdoms or empires ( die zwei Reiche ) in an attempt to make clear where he took the limits of the power of princes to lie. Now no longer a monk, he published On the Estate of Marriage in 1522, and himself married Katharina von Bora in 1525, after she had left her convent with other nuns, convinced by Luther’s arguments against monasticism. The marriage was a successful and happy one, and they were to have six children together, of whom two daughters were to die young, affecting Luther greatly. Meanwhile, theological and doctrinal disputes were to persist for the rest of Luther’s career, on issues such as the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper: Heiliges Adendmahl ) and baptism, both within the evangelical movement involving figures such as the sacramentarian Karlstadt, and the Swiss reformers Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) and Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and outside it with the Anabaptists. On both issues, Luther resisted the accounts of these sacraments as having a mere symbolic value, often arguing that this viewpoint comes from an urge to put reason above the authority of scripture (see, for example, Against the Heavenly Prophets (1525, WA 18:62–125, 134–214/LW 40:79–223), That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body”, Etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527, WA 23:38–320/LW 37:3–150), and Concerning Rebaptism (1528, WA 26:144–74/LW 40:229–62)).

In 1524, Luther faced criticism from a different quarter, as the leading Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus was finally persuaded to engage with Luther’s position in print, and despite Luther’s earlier hopes for his endorsement, [ 5 ] chose instead to focus critically on the latter’s view of freedom which had been initially expressed in the thirteenth of Luther’s theses from the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) and further underlined in Luther’s response to the bull of Leo X (1520). [ 6 ] Erasmus replied to the latter in his A Diatribe or Discussion on Free Will ( De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio )—where “diatribe” here is used not in the modern sense, but in the earlier sense of looking for a consensus on probable opinion through discussion. Luther, however, responded a year later to Erasmus’s intentionally measured and urbane effort with what amounts to a diatribe in the modern form, entitled De servo arbitrio , which may be translated “On the bondage [or slavery] of the will [or free choice]”. Luther’s invective shocked and offended Erasmus, who replied with his two volume Protector of the Diatribe ( Hyperaspistes diatribae ) [ 7 ] in 1526 and 1527, in which Erasmus’s language is almost as intemperate as Luther’s own. As Luther emphasised, at the heart of this dispute lay issues that were central to his thinking, concerning grace, human agency, and divine knowledge and power, played out against the background of Augustine’s earlier disputes with Pelagianism, of which Luther insistently accused Erasmus, much to the latter’s frustration.

Luther was also drawn into controversy of a more political and social kind, as he sought to respond to the events known as the “Peasants’ War” or “Peasants’ Revolt” ( Bauernkrieg ), when in 1525 large areas of central Europe saw agrarian grievances lead to more general disorder, partly fuelled by appeal to reformation ideas, and partly by an appeal to scripture which Luther himself had seemed to champion. Luther first responded with relative moderation in his Admonition to Peace , in which after criticising both the rulers and the peasants, he urged dialogue between the two parties. But the on-going violence led him to take sides with the secular authorities, as the title of his next work made clear: Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants . The vehement tone of this text shocked even Luther’s supporters, and led him to attempt to clarify his position further in An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants , though his basic stance was not much changed, and by then the damage was done. That stance was perhaps politically expedient to ensure continuing support from the princes for his reformation, but it nonetheless continues to raise questions regarding the integrity of his political judgement, and more generally for the significance of his social and political thought. In the same period, Luther sought to instill his form of theology and religious practice on the growing reformed communities through his German Mass (1526) and his catechisms (1529).

In 1530, Luther was drawn into a further Diet, this time at Augsburg but, fearing for his safety, Luther himself remained in Coburg, while his position was represented by his gifted younger protégé Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), who had first joined Luther in Wittenberg in 1518. The aim of the Diet, to be attended by the Emperor Charles V, was to achieve some reconciliation between the Catholic and reformed positions. Luther forwarded his strongly worded suggestions as to how the latter should be represented in his “exhortation”, but Melanchthon opted instead to present a more moderate position to the Diet, in 28 articles later known as the Augsburg Confession . This was part of a process through which Melanchthon sought to mediate and in some respects soften Luther’s own views, not always to the liking of the latter, though their close relationship remained largely intact. The Diet ended in failure and, fearing suppression from imperial forces, Luther wrote his Warning to his Dear German People (1531), in which now he sanctioned armed resistance, arguing that defence of the gospel overrode civil obedience. Instead, however, the list of Lutheran territories continued to grow, forming the League of Smalcalden in 1531. It was a Diet of this League held in 1537 which Luther was to address with his Smalcald Articles ; published in 1538, these contain his last word on confessional and doctrinal issues. He also argued against a council called by the Pope in The Councils and the Church (1539). While still at Coburg, Luther defended some of his practices on translation against critics in On Translating: An Open Letter (1530), particularly the accusation that in Romans 3:28, in the key phrase “faith alone,” the word “alone” is not in Paul’s text. When back in Wittenberg after the Diet of Augsburg, Luther was to lecture on Galatians in 1531, lectures which were published in 1535 and 1538.

In his last years, Luther continued to fight for his legacy, which included his mock-reluctant acceptance of an edition of his collected works to which he contributed an only partially reliable preface on which (as we have seen) some colourful but probably fictional stories of his life were to draw—though for all that it remains a revealing document. These years are marred by his vitriolic attacks on both Turks (and thus Islam) and Jews, in a marked change of tone from his earlier more considered and appreciative reflections, which had included That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523)—although his positive remarks are based on hopes of Jewish conversion, while many of his comments in his unpublished lectures on Psalms had been hostile; partly because those hopes did not materialise, by 1538 Luther was writing Against the Sabbatarians , a polemic which he was to continue to the end of his life in further anti-Jewish texts. [ 8 ]

The end of that life was to come on 18 February 1546, in the town of Eisleben where he had been born. At the burial ceremony in Wittenberg, Melanchthon spoke the eulogy. He noted that while he could not deny the complaint that “Luther displayed too much severity” in dealing with his opponents, nonetheless he cited one of those opponents in response:

But I answer in the language of Erasmus, “Because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician”. (1546 [1834–60: 729–730]; the reference is to Erasmus 1529 [1999: 100])

Whilst there is no doubt that Luther saw himself primarily as a theologian, as we have seen his education also involved significant philosophical aspects, whilst he engaged with philosophical issues and debates throughout his career. Nonetheless, he was concerned to demarcate clearly between the two disciplines, which for him also involved becoming clear about the limitations of reason in relation to matters of faith. In some contexts, this led him to polemicizing against reason and philosophy (most notoriously in his assertion that “reason is the devil’s whore” as it “can do nothing else but slander and dishonour what God does and says” ( Against the Heavenly Prophets , 1525, WA 18:164/LW 40:175)); but as many would now argue, it would be wrong to take such remarks in isolation and out of context, and to thereby characterise his position as “irrationalist” in a broad sense. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that he was keen to keep reason within its proper boundaries and under the right tutelage.

One text that brings out some of the complexities of Luther’s position on these issues is Disputatio de homine (“The Disputation Concerning Man”, 1536). Comprising 40 theses, the first 9 present the view of human beings and our relation to the world proposed by “philosophy or human wisdom”, which is then contrasted with the view taken by theology (see Ebeling 1977, 1982, 1989; but cf. White 1994: 60–81 for criticisms of Ebeling). The position of philosophy is not rejected entirely, but shown to be severely truncated in the light of theology. According to philosophy, a human being is an embodied animal equipped with a reason that relies on sensations or experience; it thus conceives of us in merely mortal terms and in relation to the world around us. Luther agrees that in this context philosophy is right to view reason as

the most important and the highest in rank among all things and, in comparison with other things of this life, the best and something divine,

for in this realm

it is the inventor and guide of all the arts, medicine, law, and of whatever wisdom, power, virtue, and glory human beings possess in this life. (1536, WA 39.I:175/LW 34:137)

Luther thus also agrees that it is reason that makes the fundamental difference between human beings and animals, by virtue of which we are given dominion over the latter, so that reason is “a sun and a kind of god appointed to administer these things in this life” (ibid.). And Luther also asserts that even after the Fall, God did not take away this role for reason, but continued to uphold it, so in this context it remains a divine gift and a fundamental way in which we fit into God’s creation. Thus, set within a worldly arena, Luther here and elsewhere [ 9 ] is happy to affirm the value and function of reason, and philosophy’s high estimate of its significance.

However, Luther then goes on to argue that precisely because philosophy is confined to reason that operates within empirical constraints, [ 10 ] and is unaided by revelation, faith, and scripture, it cannot hope to tell us the whole story about human beings and the world, for which the extra resources available to theology are required, which can thereby put all this in relation to God and so define “the whole and perfect human being” (1536, WA 39.I: 176/LW 34:138). This means that theology can not only treat God as fundamental in its account of efficient and of final causes (as creator, and as the source of eternal happiness and salvation respectively), but it also sees human beings in the light of the Fall and also of grace and salvation, in a way that reason without theology cannot fathom—and if it tries to do so, will distort in a fundamental way.

A contemporary empiricist or naturalistic philosopher might have little cause to challenge Luther’s assumptions concerning the nature of reason, and so accept this demarcation between philosophy and theology. However, a more rationalistic philosopher might question whether Luther underestimates the a priori capacities of reason, thus giving reason more of a role within the theological realm when it comes to our knowledge of God. In response, Luther makes several related claims. First, while he does not reject such a priori knowledge altogether (which he takes to be innate), he stresses it is severely limited, partly because it can only bring us a rather general knowledge of God, [ 11 ] and partly because it can never lead to the kind of certainty regarding God which can be found through faith and taking seriously his promise to us, particularly when it comes to matters of salvation. [ 12 ] Second, he has theological reasons connected not just to the Fall itself but also to his conception of the “hiddenness” of God, to question the scope of such rational capacities, so that reason knows “that there is a God, but it does not know who or which is the true God” ( Lectures on Jonah (1526, WA 19:206/LW 19:54–55). Third, in attributing these capacities to ourselves, there is the danger of a kind of theological pride which will disastrously distort our proper relation to God. Fourth, to take reason to be capable of more than helping us navigate the world is to misunderstand its function in our epistemic economy, an economy which can ultimately be traced back to God’s design. [ 13 ] Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reason must struggle to make sense of the sheer gratuitousness of God’s forgiveness of our sins, which transcend its sense of justice and fairness, and will as a result lead us to question and doubt that forgiveness, with disastrous consequences. [ 14 ]

For Luther, these limitations of reason can be felt within theology in the kind of puzzlement and perplexity which reason feels when confronted by the scriptures and faith, where such puzzlement combined with an undue estimation of reason can lead to the overthrow of the latter by the former. But viewed from Luther’s perspective, this is clearly unwarranted, as within theology this puzzlement is precisely to be expected and even predicted, given the hiddenness of God on the one hand and the effects of the Fall on the other, as well as God’s desire to humble us. [ 15 ] Luther is thus happy to revel in the apparently paradoxical nature of religious belief, on some accounts going as far as accepting a doctrine of “double truth”: namely that the same proposition might be true in theology and false in philosophy, and vice versa . That he held this view may seem supported by Thesis 4 of the Disputation Concerning the Passage: “The Word Was Made Flesh” (John 1:14)’ of 1539, which states:

The Sorbonne, the mother of errors, very badly laid down that the same thing is true in philosophy and in theology. (WA 39.2:3/LW 38:239)

However, it is more commonly held that in making this claim, Luther has something more moderate in mind, which is suggested by Thesis 1 of this Disputation:

Although the saying “Every truth is in agreement with every other truth” is to be upheld, nevertheless, what is true in one field of learning [ professionibus ] is not always true in other fields of learning. (ibid)

This can be interpreted as holding that realms of truth are diverse, in the sense that some truth can only be stated in certain fields but not others, but nonetheless all truths are consonant with one another (see Gerrish 1962: 53–4; White 1994: Chapter 3; Dieter 2009; Luy 2017: 15–16; and see Bianchi 2008 for a history of this issue).

Nonetheless, even this more modest position means that Luther can claim that there are truths in theology that philosophy cannot grasp or properly articulate in its own terms, and when it tries to do so, will generate what in philosophy appear to be absurdities or aporia—such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Eucharist, both of which require different ways of thinking than is available to philosophers, who can aspire to no more than “creaturely thought” ( The Promotions disputation of Erasmus Alberus , 1543, WA 39.2:254/Appendix to Bielfeldt, Mattox, & Hinlicky 2008: 191–197, 194). [ 16 ] It is in this context that Luther can speak of the language of theology needing to be “new” because it behaves differently from that of the “old” language of philosophy, though not necessarily from the language of ordinary life, which can be more flexible than that of philosophy in certain respects (cf. White 1994: 332–48, Bielfeldt 2002b). Likewise, because the philosopher operates with formal systems of syllogistic logic, which do not sufficiently take into account the special nature of the objects of faith, such logics will also break down when dealing with theological matters. [ 17 ] To philosophy, these problems will wrongly suggest that theology is nonsensical or is grasping at falsehoods, while instead Luther argues it just highlights the limitations of philosophical concepts and methods when dealing with the subject-matter of theology (see White 1994 for more extensive discussion of these issues). As Luther puts it in Disputation Concerning the Passage: “The Word Was Made Flesh” :

St. Ambrose has rightly said that the dialecticians have to give way where the apostolic fishermen are to be trusted. (1539, WA 39.2:4/LW 38:239)

However, having marked out a hierarchy between philosophy and theology in this manner, Luther does not entirely reject a role for reason within theology, when properly understood, and when thereby illuminated by faith so that it becomes “right reason” ( recta ratio ). [ 18 ] Thus, as Gerrish has argued in relation to Luther’s famous statement when asked to recant at the Diet of Worms, that he refused to do so unless “convinced by the testimony of Scripture or plain reason”, Luther did not mean here to set up reason alongside scripture, but rather to accept the evidential authority of rational inferences from it (Gerrish 1962: 24–5). [ 19 ] Likewise, while his doctrine of putting scripture first as the basis for faith ( sola scriptura ) means he has a correspondingly dim view of theological debates carried out at a purely philosophical level, Luther nonetheless accepts the importance of reason to the interpreter and translator of the scriptural texts such as himself. Indeed, part of his grounds for rejecting Erasmus’s humanistic appeal to authority and tradition in matters of interpretation lies in Luther’s confidence in the capacity of reason to make the Bible clear, when properly coupled with faith and the “understanding of the heart” (see Grosshans 2017: 15–17). However, Luther was himself to face the challenge of those (such as the Anabaptists and the Sacramentarians at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529) who interpreted scripture in different ways, and for whom conscience guided by “right reason” was to counsel different responses to such key passages as “For this is my body”, leaving little agreed common ground on which to adjudicate these disputes; some see this situation as ironically generating a kind of scepticism which is the very converse of the certainty which Luther himself craved and claimed to make possible. [ 20 ]

Luther’s conception of the relation between theology and philosophy, faith and reason, may also be seen to influence his corresponding assessment of mysticism. On the one hand, against the perceived rationalism of the scholastics, Luther was clearly attracted to the need for inner experience, and spoke of achieving a kind of union with or participation in God, while attaching great merit to some writings in the mystical tradition, particularly the Theologia deutsch, a late fourteenth-century work which he discovered and twice edited, in 1516 and 1518, wrongly attributing it to Johann Tauler (c. 1300–1361), though it is influenced by the latter’s ideas. At the same time, Luther also distanced himself from mystical writers such as Dionysius, whose theology (like that of the so-called “Zwickau Prophets”) he accused of making the mediating role for Christ redundant (cf. 1537, First Disputation Against the Antinomians , WA 39.1:389–91, translated in Sonntag (ed. and trans.), Only the Decalogue is Eternal , 55–57), while it is debatable whether Luther’s emphasis on the authority of scripture is compatible with a mystical approach (for further discussion, see Oberman 1992: 126–54, and Leppin 2017b).

To the extent that Luther is critical of philosophy and of reason, this hostility is often directed at Aristotle and the Aristotelian tradition in particular; and in general, Luther’s departure from Aristotle marks one of the most philosophically distinctive and interesting aspects of his thinking. As with Luther’s critique of reason, however, some of his more notoriously negative judgements—such as his claim in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology that “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light” (1517, WA 1:226/LW 31:12)—need to be balanced against other more positive judgements, and set in context. Part of that context is the reception of Aristotle’s work itself, as it was interpreted in its own terms, and also placed against the background of Christian thought within the scholastic tradition, where it can be a complex matter to place Luther himself into these debates (see Andreatta 1996, White 1996, Dieter 2001 (discussed in Wicks 2007), Dieter 2017).

Broadly speaking, there are three levels in Luther’s critical engagement with Aristotle and his influence: objections at the institutional level, at the level of general Christian theology, and at the level of Luther’s own theological outlook.

At the institutional level, Luther’s concern was over the place of Aristotle within the universities, which had been cemented through the decision in 1255 of the faculty of liberal arts in Paris to include all Aristotle’s known works within the curriculum. This is the context of Luther’s assertion, in To the Christian Nobility of 1520, that in the universities “the blind pagan teacher, Aristotle, is of more consequence than Christ”, so that the universities “need a good, thorough reformation” (WA 6:457/LW 44:200) in order to replace the centrality of Aristotle’s works with the study of scripture and of the Christian faith—and Luther was not alone in having this concern. He thus argues that Aristotle’s Physics , Metaphysics , De anima , and Ethics should all be removed from the curriculum, while his Logic , Rhetoric and Poetics should be retained in an abridged form without commentary, as aids to speaking and preaching. In this way, Luther clearly hoped, rather than “labouring with persistent industry to comprehend only Aristotle” ( Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses 1518, WA 1:611/LW 1:222), students would have time to devote themselves to the more worthwhile study of the Bible instead. [ 21 ]

Luther’s choice of works to set aside also reveals what he took to be theologically problematic about the content of Aristotle’s philosophy at the second level. In commenting on De anima , Luther objects that it contradicts Christian teaching on the immortality of the soul. He also says that the Physics is fundamentally flawed, elsewhere arguing that this is because Aristotle has no conception of the Biblical account of creation ( Lectures on Genesis , 1535–1545, WA 42:63/LW 1:84). In both areas, Aristotle is hampered by his hylomorphism, his view that matter and form are interrelated, so that in this respect Luther favours Plato over Aristotle.

More interesting, however, is the third level of Luther’s engagement with Aristotle, where his critique focuses on issues central to Luther’s own theology. In To the Christian Nobility , this can be seen in Luther’s response to Aristotle’s Ethics , which is described as being “the worst of all books” as it

flatly opposes divine grace and all Christian virtues, and yet it is considered one of his best works. Away with such books! Keep them away from Christians. (1520, WA 6:458/LW 44:201)

Luther is here contrasting his own account of justification through faith with the idea of justification through works, which he associates with the Aristotelian tradition and traces back to Aristotle’s Ethics . For here, Luther argued, one can find the idea that virtue is something to be developed through our own efforts and instilled in us through habituation, thus making the idea of good works central to the idea of moral improvement. While perhaps plausible in a secular context, once this idea is transposed into understanding our relation to God, Luther took it to be disastrous as it led to the view both that we could act rightly without God’s grace, and that we could to some extent earn his good judgement by doing so, without seeing this grace as unmerited. This, however, is to generate a sense of pride in our own abilities which precisely negates the possibility of good action, for reasons we will consider further in the next section. Luther thus sets his own view in opposition to the Aristotelian one in the Disputation Against Scholastic Philosophy when he writes that “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds”, so that as a result “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace” (1517, WA 1:226/LW 1:12). Luther’s criticisms of Duns Scotus, Gabriel Biel and William of Ockham on these issues elsewhere in the Disputation make clear how he sees them as relating to this fundamental Aristotelian error, while his reference to Augustine’s anti-Pelagianism in the first two theses equally makes clear the theological mistake that Luther sees in all such views. And while Luther does not mention him explicitly in the Disputation , not surprisingly he elsewhere occasionally but strongly criticizes Aquinas for also falling under the baleful influence of Aristotle on this issue. [ 22 ]

It has also been argued by commentators that this radical critique of Aristotle from the perspective of his view of justification and grace also results in a departure not only from Aristotle’s ethics of the virtues, but also some fundamental assumptions of Aristotelian metaphysics, and its commitment to the substance/attribute model. This change in outlook is said to arise out of Luther’s conception of grace as unmerited, so that in attributing righteousness to a person, this is extrinsic to them, a matter of God’s verdict and hence forensic assessment, and so grounded in his relation to the person rather than in the attributes of the person themselves, which from another perspective remain that of the sinner. Viewed in this relational way, the Christian is thus “both justified and sinner” ( simul iustus et peccator ), in a manner that is hard to capture on a traditional Aristotelian substance/attribute model. [ 23 ] However, the so-called “Finnish interpretation” of Luther, which challenges this purely forensic and relational approach to justification, correspondingly makes Luther’s challenge to traditional Aristotelian ontology less radical. On the Finnish interpretation, justification involves actual participation in the divine life, and thus has ontological implications for the justified individual. [ 24 ]

Luther also felt dissatisfied with the Aristotelian framework of substance and accidents, and matter and form, in relation to his distinctive views concerning other aspects of Christian doctrine, particularly concerning the Eucharist, where for example in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church , Luther argues strongly that the Aristotelian assumptions which had structured much of the debate on these matters were wrongly used to support the “babble” of transubstantiation rather than his preferred view of real presence (1520, WA 6:510–511/LW 36:32–4) [ 25 ] —though he also accuses Aquinas of causing difficulties through his misinterpretation of Aristotle, rather than just blaming Aristotle himself (1520, WA 6:508/LW 36:29). In general, Luther’s approach here is that we should take literally the word of scripture which he thinks support his view, rather than fall for using a pre-Christian philosophy which may seem to make the Eucharist more comprehensible, but which really does not, and which anyway is not appropriate goal for what should remain a mystery and a matter of faith.

Through Luther’s engagement with Aristotle, it is also intriguing to try to locate him in the complex patchwork of disputing schools that arose in this late medieval period concerning the proper interpretation of Aristotle’s work, and the challenges it faced. One such challenge was from Ockham’s nominalism or (to use the more contemporary label) “termism”; and Luther was to present himself as belonging to this position. [ 26 ] However, this issue is merely one of a broad spectrum of debates that shaped the wider dispute between the so-called via antiqua and via moderna , where the latter has links to (but cannot be identified with) nominalist approaches. This has led to a considerable amount of scholarly discussion and research, which has brought out how Luther’s education came through the via moderna , but that he also occupied a position that was independent of any school. [ 27 ]

Just as Luther’s distinctive conception of justification and grace plays a crucial role in his debates over the value of Aristotle, so similar issues play a crucial role in his discussion of a related philosophical issue, namely the value and nature of freedom, both human and divine. The central text here is of course The Bondage of the Will , in which as we have seen Luther engages with Erasmus on precisely this issue.

The structure of Luther’s response to Erasmus is largely determined by the structure of Erasmus’s De libero arbitrio , as it attempts to reply to Erasmus point by point. Erasmus’s work begins with a preface and introduction, and ends with a brief epilogue, while in between it has three parts: the first dealing with scriptural texts that Erasmus takes to support free choice; the second dealing with texts that might seem to oppose it; and the third a part which examines Luther’s earlier arguments against free choice in his response to the papal condemnation of 1520. This text is Luther’s Assertio omnium articulorum published in December of that year, in which (following John Wyclif (1324–1384)) he defended and went beyond the claim from the Heidelberg Disputation which had been condemned, namely that “Free will, after the Fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin” (WA 1:354/LW 31:40). [ 28 ] Correspondingly, Luther’s reply to Erasmus has a brief introduction, and then five main parts: the first two discuss Erasmus’s preface and introduction; a third part which questions Erasmus’s use of scriptural passages in support of free choice, and a fourth which uses scriptural passages against it; and a fifth part which challenges Erasmus’s arguments against the position Luther defended in the Assertio , while the final part marshals Luther’s general argument against free choice.

In an introduction heavy with irony and sarcasm (which sets the rhetorical tone for much of the rest of the book, and which so offended the urbane Erasmus), Luther apologies for his delay in replying to Erasmus’s Diatribe , but says that the cause was “neither pressure of work, nor the difficulty of the task, nor your great eloquence, nor any fear of you”, but rather “sheer disgust, anger, and contempt” at the quality of Erasmus’s work, and its “evasive and equivocal nature”:

you fancy yourself steering more cautiously than Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis as you assert nothing while appearing to assert something. (WA 18:601–2/LW 33:17)

Nonetheless, Luther declares, he has seen that he really ought to overcome this aversion and respond to those who have entreated him to reply to Erasmus, as in expressing his views he may succeed in winning over a reader to the truth and the Spirit that informs Luther’s works, where that reader might even be Erasmus himself.

In the first main part, which focuses on Erasmus’s preface, Luther begins by picking up on Erasmus’s statement that outside “the Holy Scripture…and the decrees of the Church” (Erasmus 1524 [1969: 37]), he is cautious in making assertions, and even would prefer the attitude of the Sceptics, who suspend judgement on complex matters such as free will. In response, Luther rises to the bait, where on the one hand Erasmus was clearly contrasting his more modest position with Luther’s own Assertio and sense of conviction more generally, as well as on the other hand making a point of referring to the authority of the Church alongside scripture. Against Erasmus, Luther argues that scepticism is not an appropriate outlook for Christians who are called on to assert their faith as trust in God, while also criticising him for putting any weight on the decrees of the Church, rather than on scripture alone, which Luther insists is clear enough in its essentials and what it tells us, even though the mind of God himself may be harder to fathom, and it may be difficult for us to make philosophical sense of doctrines such as the Trinity. Moreover, Luther criticises Erasmus for his suggestion that it is not in fact necessary for the Christian to try to settle matters relating to free will, particularly given the dangers that attach to speculating on such questions. In response, Luther argues that this issue cannot be avoided and is central, for

as long as [Christians] are ignorant of what and how much they can do, they will not know what they should do; and being ignorant of what they should do, they cannot repent if they do wrong; and impenitence is an unforgivable sin…[so] if we do not know these things, we shall know nothing at all of things Christian, and shall be worse than any heathen. (WA 18:614/LW 33:35)

Likewise, Luther argues, the question of divine foreknowledge and of whether everything happens necessarily is also an issue which cannot be avoided:

For if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them?… [T]his is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutably, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered. (WA 18:619/LW 33:42–3)

Luther then goes on to criticise Erasmus’s suggestion that discussion of these issues should be kept from common ears, for fear of leading people astray and causing strife, responding that the Word of God is not to be supressed, and anyway tumult is to be expected from a doctrine as radical as Christianity. Luther also challenges Erasmus’s claim that the Lutheran position on free will, even if it were true, if widely broadcast would have deleterious effects on the life of the believer, making them more likely to give up any attempts to combat their evil, and to no longer believe in a God who punishes them for what they cannot control. For Luther, however, this is simply to beg the question, as living a better life and believing in God are not things we can bring about in ourselves, but only occur through God. Moreover, on Luther’s account, it is only by recognizing our impotence in these respects, and being thereby humbled regarding what we can do and what we can understand, that we have any chance of standing in the right relation to God at all.

Finally in this part, Luther turns to consider Erasmus’s contention that there is a fundamental paradox in the idea that “whatever is done by us is done not by free choice but of sheer necessity” (WA 18:139/LW 33:64; cf. Erasmus 1524 [1969: 41]), where he makes several key claims that will be developed further in what follows. First, he argues that this is entailed once we accept that our salvation is the work of God, from which it follows that if we do good it is a result of his agency, while if that agency is not present all we can do is what is bad, so that we lack any power of choice in this matter. However, secondly Luther stresses that this does not mean we are compelled or forced to act as we do, so that

by “necessarily” I do not mean “compulsorily” [ coacte ], but by the necessity of immutability (as they say) and not of compulsion,
when a man is without the Spirit of God he does not do evil against his will [ nolens ], as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it, like a thief or a robber carried off against his will to punishment, but he does it of his own accord and with a ready will [ libenti voluntate ]. (WA 18:634/LW 33:64)

Thus, though we lack free choice, we do not lack free will, understood as a force that leads us to act, a force that grows stronger the more it is resisted. At this point, Luther makes his famous use of the traditional simile, that the human will is like a horse that can fall under two riders, Satan or God, who will determine which way it goes, but like a horse it follows either perfectly willingly:

If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills, as the psalm says: “I am become as a beast [before thee] and I am always with thee” [Psalms 73:22–23]. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan will; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it. (WA 18:635/LW 33:65–6)

Luther further argues that as Erasmus himself allows that free choice without the grace of God is “entirely ineffective” (Erasmus 1524 [1969: 41), he does not really disagree with Luther’s position, as

to say that free choice exists, and has indeed some power, but that it is only an ineffective power, is what the Sophists call oppositum in adjecto [a contradiction in terms]. (WA 18:636/LW 33:66)

The only being with genuine free choice, Luther asserts, is God, and it is misleading to apply the term to us, so that it would be best if we did not attach it to human beings at all—or if we must continue to use it, to do so only in relation “to what is beneath him and not what is above him”, where it makes some sense to speak of free choice in a limited sense:

That is to say, a man should know that with regard to his faculties and possessions he has the right to use, to do, or to leave undone, according to his own free choice, though even this is controlled by the free choice of God alone, who acts in whatever way he pleases. On the other hand in relation to God, or in matters pertaining to salvation or damnation, a man has no free choice, but is a captive, subject and slave either of the will of God or the will of Satan. (WA 18:638/LW 33:70)

In the second part of his text, Luther turns to Erasmus’s introduction, where Erasmus had questioned Luther’s position on the grounds that few of the saints, Church fathers, and scriptural authorities have adopted a view of this sort. Luther’s response is that while these authorities may have said there is free choice, in their actions they have not shown they possess it, while they also have all conceived of it in rather different ways, so it is not clear that there is any consensus here at all—and at the same time, Luther argues that the all-important figure of Augustine is on his side, not Erasmus’s as the latter had claimed. Given this confused picture, Luther concludes that as a result, the matter must be settled by appeal to scripture alone, and not by appeal to the authority of previous commentators, or of the Church. Luther thus proceeds to the first main part of Erasmus’s text, in which Erasmus had offered a number of biblical passages that he claimed to support the idea of free choice.

At the beginning of Part Three of his own work, before getting on to these passages, Luther begins with an important critique of the definition of free choice with which Erasmus had started his discussion:

By free choice in this place we mean a power of the human will by which a man can apply himself to the things which lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from them. (WA 18:661–2/LW 33:102–3, citing Erasmus 1524 [1969: 47])

Luther raises various objections to Erasmus’s definition (for Erasmus’s replies, see 1529 [1999: 261–91]). First, he points out that as free choice applies to God and angels, Erasmus is wrong to define it as applying only to human will. Second, he argues it is misleading to apply the term “free” to human choice, as this would wrongly imply that a human being “can do and does, in relation to God, whatever it pleases, uninhibited by any law or any sovereign authority”, which Luther takes for granted is not what Erasmus has in mind. The human will clearly cannot simply do as it pleases when it comes to matters of eternal salvation, as if it operated in a normative vacuum. Rather, the will is obliged by God to act in different ways, so it is only free insofar as it fails to do so because it is “vertible” or “mutable”, by failing to do what is required of it by being turned away from the good, which is hardly a form of freedom to be admired, as Augustine and others have noted. Thus, while Erasmus’s attempted definition confuses matters, Luther argues that the question at issue is therefore whether human beings have the capacity to actively and legitimately turn their will to follow or not follow what God has made it right to do—so Luther says that when he uses “free choice” in what comes next, he will be using it in this way.

Luther’s third objection is that even when we get clear what we are trying to define, Erasmus’s definition is itself unclear, particularly the terms “to apply”, “to the things which lead” and “to turn away”. The only way to understand “to apply” and “to turn away”, Luther argues, is to think that the will is not merely a power that gives rise to action, but at the same time stands between that willing and action, as a capacity for deciding how the will is to be exercised, as a

capacity or faculty or ability or aptitude for willing, unwilling, selecting, neglecting, approving, rejecting, and whatever other actions of the will there are. (WA 18:662–3/LW 33:105)

However, this then means, Luther argues, that on Erasmus’s account, if a human being does “the things which lead” to eternal salvation, this is not just because they have willed these things, but rather have chosen to act on them through exercising this capacity for choice—which is enough to make him a semi-Pelagian, who believes in this capacity for choice even though he disagrees with Pelagius himself over our ability to also know unaided the matters of salvation and thus the good concerning which we are said to choose. Moreover, Luther argues, this view contradicts what Erasmus himself had said previously, namely that “in those who lack grace” the power of the will is “unable to perform the good” (Erasmus 1524 [1969: 49]) and is thus (as Luther puts it) “incapacitated without grace” (WA 18:665/LW 33:108), and so not able to “apply itself” to such matters at all. Luther thus poses a question to Erasmus which he thinks could also be posed to the Scholastics (who are labelled as Sophists throughout this text):

If anyone told you that a thing was free which could operate by its own power only in one direction (the bad one), while in the other (the good one) it could of course operate, though not by its own power, but only by the help of another—would you be able to keep a straight face my friend? (WA 18:665/LW 33:109)

Luther then turns to consider Erasmus’s treatment of the effect of the Fall on the human will, in which Erasmus had distinguished three views on where this left free choice once the Pelagian option is set aside: those that hold human beings can choose to strive towards the good but cannot attain it without grace (co-operative grace); those who hold that left to ourselves we only choose to sin, so that grace alone can enable us to attain the good; and those who hold there is no free choice at all, which is thus said to be “an empty” name—where Erasmus calls this view “the hardest of all”, and is of course the one put forward by Luther himself (as well as John Wyclif in his early work, who Erasmus associated with Luther, an association the latter was happy to accept). [ 29 ] Luther’s strategy in response is to argue that by conceding that human beings without grace cannot will the good, Erasmus has already ruled out the first option even though he is clearly attracted by it, while Luther argues that the second must collapse into the third, as if free choice in humans is always for sin, it always goes in one direction and so is not really choice at all. Luther also makes a diagnostic point, that underlying Erasmus’s confusion here is the idea that while the will cannot will the good unaided, it is not necessarily therefore committed to willing the bad but still has some choice, as it could remain in a “neutral” position between the two; but Luther rejects this picture, as once the will has turned away from the good, it is willing the bad, rather than being in some “middle” or “unqualified” state.

Luther then returns to the passage from Ecclesiasticus 15:14–17 with which Erasmus had prefaced his discussion, to consider how Erasmus uses it to support his view. Luther first considers the opening line, which says that “God… left [man] in the hands of his own counsel”, which might suggest that we are left free to choose; but Luther counters that this only means we are given dominion over the rest of the creatures on earth, while beyond this we remain bound by the commandments of God which are referred to in the next line of the biblical text. However, Luther then considers one of Erasmus’s key arguments, namely that talk of such commandments here and in many other passages also implies we have free choice, for otherwise they would make no sense, and nor would the punishment attached to failing to act on them be warranted, thus raising the problem for Luther of “ought implies can”, and of imputation (cf. Erasmus 1524 [1969: 50]).

In response to the first issue of “ought implies can”, Luther uses this as an occasion to bring out the folly of reason when it considers such matters, because reason thinks it can appeal to our ordinary use of words like “ought” and “must” to infer “can”—but Luther thinks that in fact even in ordinary practice, we can intelligibly tell someone they ought or must do something, knowing full well they cannot, as when a parent does so in order to demonstrate to a child the limitations of their ability, or a doctor in order to demonstrate such limitations to their patient. Luther argues that Scripture, unlike Erasmus, takes our human limitations very seriously, so it is therefore not surprising that such uses of command language abound, where Luther deals with many similar passages in the same way:

The words of the law are spoken, therefore, not to affirm the power of the will, but to enlighten blind reason and make it see that its own light is no light and that the virtue of the will is no virtue,

and he cites Paul as being on his side:

“Through the law”, says Paul, “comes knowledge of sin” [Romans 3:20]; he does not say the “abolition” or “avoidance” of sin. (WA 18:677/LW 33:127)

In response to Erasmus on this issue, Luther thus offers what has been called his “convicting” view of the law, which is designed to reveal our impotence to us, thus provoking the kind of despair and sense of helplessness that can open us up to grace, in accordance with the “theology of the cross”—a process Erasmus would forestall if we took him seriously, and inferred instead that because we fall under the law, we can take steps to follow it through our own choice (cf. WA 18:680–1/LW 33:133).

Luther also deals with the problem of imputation and divine punishment, which seems to arise if we lack free choice: for how can our sins be imputed to us, and how can God allow us to be punished when we cannot do otherwise and he could remove the defect in our will which means we are not saved but are punished? Here Luther appeals to the inscrutability of God’s plans and purposes, into which we are not entitled to probe:

[W]hy that majesty of his does not remove or change this defect of our will in all men, since it is not in man’s power to do so, or why he imputes this defect to man, when man cannot help having it, we have no right to inquire; and though you may do a lot of inquiring, you will never find out. It is as Paul says in Romans 11 [ sic ; the correct reference is 9:20]: “Who are you, to answer back to God?” (WA 18:686/LW 33:140)

Likewise, Luther goes on to argue that when it comes to rewards, these are similarly unearned, where to think otherwise will only lead to a kind of works righteousness.

Finally, in the concluding discussion of this third part of his text, Luther repeats a claim he has made at several previous points: namely, that if Erasmus’s arguments prove anything, they prove too much, by establishing the full-blown Pelagianism Erasmus thinks he can avoid. For, if the arguments from “ought implies can” and from imputation are taken seriously at all, then they would establish that we are not merely free to the limited degree Erasmus claims, but are fully free to do the good, so that “if anything is proved, complete freedom of choice is proved with it”—but this is “a complete subversion” of what Erasmus wanted to show, as he tried instead to argue for the more moderate view that “such a free choice can do nothing good and is in bondage to sin” (WA 18:696/LW 33:156). Luther claims, therefore, that Erasmus’s position undermines itself.

In the fourth part, Luther now considers Erasmus’s arguments challenging those scriptural passages which seem to count against free choice, such as Exodus 9:12: “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. Luther criticises not only Erasmus’s various interpretative suggestions, but also his motives in offering them, which is to try to make God’s actions morally comprehensible to our reason, rather than simply accepting the goodness of God (WA 18:707–8/LW 33:173–4). He goes on to suggest that for our reason to ask for more than this, and to insist that God is constrained by certain moral norms, is to violate God’s omnipotence, thus leading Luther to take clear sides on the so-called Euthyphro dilemma, in adopting a form of voluntarism that may be traced back to Duns Scotus and to Ockham:

He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it, since there is nothing equal or superior to it, but it is itself the rule of all things. For if there were any rule or standard for it, either as cause or reason, it could no longer be the will of God. For it is not because he is or was obliged so to will that what he wills is right, but on the contrary, because he himself so wills, therefore what happens must be right. Cause and reason can be assigned for a creature’s will, but not for the will of the Creator, unless you set up over him another creator. (WA 18:712/LW 33:181)

Luther then follows Erasmus’s discussion, in turning from this text to Paul’s discussion of it in Romans 9:15–18, which raises the issue of divine foreknowledge, and how that relates to free choice in human beings. In considering this issue, Erasmus had made use of the scholastic distinction between the necessity of the consequence and the necessity of the consequent, arguing that while it may be that if God wills something it happens necessarily (necessity of the consequence), it does not follow that this happening is necessary (necessity of the consequent), thus leaving space for free choice (Erasmus 1524 [1969: 66–8]). In response, Luther argues that divine foreknowledge makes this distinction moot: for if we allow this foreknowledge, then what God knows must happen necessarily otherwise he could not know it infallibly in advance; and if God did not have this knowledge,

you take away faith and fear of God, make havoc of all the divine promises and threatenings, and thus deny his very divinity. (WA 18:715/LW 33:186)

Luther thus rejects Erasmus’s attempt to leave any space for free choice, given divine foreknowledge (for Erasmus’s response, see Erasmus 1527 [1999: 493–520]):

If God foreknows that Judas will turn traitor, or that he will change his will to betray, whichever God has foreknown will necessarily come about, or else God will be mistaken in his foreknowing and predicting, which is impossible. (WA 18:722/LW 33:194–5)

After the discussion of some other relevant scriptural passages, Luther returns to consider Erasmus’s motives in resisting what Luther takes to be the plain meaning of these texts in his conclusion of this fourth part—which is that Erasmus wishes to constrain God within the bounds of what is comprehensible to human reason, and so refuses to let God be God. In response, Luther writes:

Human nature [ caro ] does not think fit to give God such glory as to believe him just and good when he speaks and acts above and beyond what the Code of Justinian has laid down, or the fifth book of Aristotle’s Ethics . The Majesty that is the creator of all must bow down to one of the dregs of his creation, and the famed Corycian cavern must reverse its role and stand in awe of the spectators!… [W]hat becomes of the potter’s power to make what he likes, if he is subjected to merits and laws and not allowed to make what he likes, but required to make what he ought? (WA 18:729–30/LW 33:206–7)

Furthermore, Luther argues, if we did try to hold God to human norms of justice, we should be as critical of divine grace and forgiveness, which also violates these norms—or if it does not, and God rewards only those who deserve it, then in the case of someone who receives this reward in full, their goodness must be wholly due to their will, thus denying a role for grace at all (WA 33:733/LW 33:211). Luther argues once again, therefore, that Erasmus’s argument overshoots and so undermines itself.

In the fifth part of his text, Luther moves on to discussing Erasmus’s arguments over the scriptural passages which Luther had used to challenge free choice in his Assertio . In response and in defending his own interpretation of those passages, Luther makes a number of similar points to those used in previous parts, such as: Erasmus ignores the convicting sense of the law (WA 18:736/LW 33:216); he confuses lack of free choice with coercion (WA 18:747/LW 33:233); he treats free choice as if it could occupy normatively neutral ground (WA 18:750/LW 33:237); and his argument overshoots, so that if followed consistently it results in Pelagianism (WA 18:755/LW 33:245). Likewise, in the sixth part, when offering further passages against free choice, Luther again reiterates his earlier arguments, particularly that works in accordance with the law do not justify (WA 18:764/LW 33:258); that the role of the law is to bring knowledge of sin (WA 18:766/LW 33:261); that Erasmus’s position is an unstable form of semi-Pelagianism (WA 18:769–70/LW 33:267–8); that divine foreknowledge and predestination leave no room for free choice (WA 18:772–3/LW 33:272); that free choice is not in a neutral space between good and evil (WA 18:779/LW 33:281–2); and that our dominion over creation does not entail that we have free choice in relation to God (WA 18:281/LW 33:284–5). In the concluding pages, Luther makes vividly clear the underlying spiritual concerns which motivate his position: namely that for salvation to be dependent on the properly used free choice of the believer is to leave the believer in the sort of uncertainty regarding salvation which had plagued Luther’s own earlier spiritual life, and which he was now thankful to have escaped, once he saw that “God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it dependent on his choice and not mine” (WA 18:783/LW 33:289). Moreover, he adds the Christological argument: if human beings had the capacity to save themselves through their choices, Christ would have died in vain.

Luther’s rethinking of these issues of grace and salvation were not seen by him as merely concerning the individual’s relation to God, but also to have wider ethical and social implications concerning the relation of individuals to one another, and of individuals to the community to which they belong. It is thus clear throughout his writings that Luther saw his transition from “justification through works” to “justification through faith” as having a major impact on his conception of ethics and social philosophy.

At the centre of Christian ethics is the commandment to love one’s neighbour; but Luther thinks this is only properly understood and made possible on his account of our relation to God, for a variety of reasons. First, if justification it to be earned through works, our justification remains uncertain in a way that fuels the kind of introspective anxiety that makes it impossible to love the neighbour, by instead turning us in on ourselves. [ 30 ] Second, these works become instrumental in earning our own salvation, thus no longer involving genuine concern for our neighbour but only for our own well-being. [ 31 ] Third, the works that will be our primary focus are religious works such as penance, and thus not ethical ones that concern the neighbour. [ 32 ] Fourth, if we think we can achieve good works without a prior act of grace, this will fuel a pride and sense of self-cultivated virtuousness which will cause us to look down on the neighbour rather than love them, a difficulty that leads Luther to be critical of the kind of virtue ethics associated with the Aristotelian tradition. [ 33 ] Thus, by starting with justification through works we will be unable to truly love the neighbour, for as we have seen, this love will be blocked by a mixture of anxiety about our own salvation and pride at our own achievements, so finally the most we will be able manage in relation to the neighbour is a kind of dutiful obedience of the commandment as a law, which itself gets in the way of a genuine attitude of love.

By contrast, Luther argues, once we move from justification through works to justification through faith, love of the neighbour becomes possible as these obstacles are removed. Instead of feeling both anxious and prideful, the believer is released from this anxiety through the promise of a grace that does not have to be earned, and from their pride by realising that this grace is unmerited. This frees the individual from their self-absorption which had turned them in on themselves, and enables them to face outwards towards the neighbour, who they no longer view as an instrument to their own salvation. In experiencing God’s love of us through grace, and of Christ’s giving of himself for us, we then turn to express this love not only to God, but also to pass on this gift to the neighbour, thereby doing the good works we ought to do in a spontaneous way rather than feeling compelled to act in an imperatival manner. [ 34 ] This shift in perspective is captured by Luther’s famously dialectical claim in The Freedom of the Christian : “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none”, in so far as the Christian is freed from following the law in an instrumental manner and out of fear for its penalties; on the other hand “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (WA 7:21 (German), 7:49 (Latin)/LW 31:344), as the Christian feels a gratitude to God and to Christ that also opens them up to their neighbour, who they serve in love. [ 35 ] Luther thus insists that works still play a fundamental role in the Christian life, but a role that takes a different and healthier form.

Likewise, as Luther made particularly clear towards the end of his life in his dispute with Johann Agricola (1494–1566) in his open letter Against the Antinomians (1539) and associated Disputations (1537–40), whilst the freedom of the Christian means that they are freed from a kind of subjection to the law and fulfilling it plays no role in their salvation, this does not mean that they are somehow outside or beyond the law, and nor does this mean that the preaching of the law should play no part in the life of the Church. As regards the latter point, we have already seen that consciousness of law can play an important “convicting” role in leading to the kind of despair that opens us up to grace. And as regards the former point, while the Christian qua Christian will not feel the law as a constraint or as a vehicle for salvation, this does not mean that the law does not apply to them. Luther also presents himself as occupying a similar middle position when it comes to ceremonial laws (cf. The Freedom of the Christian WA 7:70–3/LW 31:375–77). [ 36 ]

Moreover, Luther’s theological anthropology of course recognizes that we are not just Christian, but also have to deal with the “outer man” or “fallen man” who still requires control, so that the Christian who is also human will find it hard not to see the law as something before which they are required to submit, though they will do so willingly. Likewise and more generally, the Christian lives in a society in which not all are good, so that laws are required in order to constrain the behaviour of the wicked—which alongside its “convicting” use, is the other function of the law in Luther’s account. [ 37 ] Such laws will require authority in those who institute and enforce them, an authority grounded in the important role that these public bodies play in enabling fallen human beings to live together, and thus in fulfilling God’s purposes for the world.

In recognizing how far law and the legitimacy of public authorities and social structures rest on the role of both in furthering the ends of God’s creation, there is an important connection between Luther’s ethics and social philosophy and the theistic natural law tradition. Moreover, Luther forms part of this tradition in frequently arguing on the basis of Paul’s statement in Romans 2:15, that this natural law “is written in the depth of the heart and cannot be erased” ( Against the Antinomians WA 50:471/LW 47:110), so that human beings are naturally born with a knowledge of fundamental moral precepts, which are accessible to us through reason and felt through conscience. However, the Fall has impacted on this knowledge, which is why there can also be a place for a law that is revealed to us, as Moses did to the people of Israel, and preached on that basis, though in doing so what is revealed does not provide us with a new law, but reawakens our awareness of the law that is written on our hearts. [ 38 ] Furthermore, while the decalogue is fundamental and eternal, [ 39 ] other aspects of the law of Moses are more context specific and require further elaboration. [ 40 ] In some discussions, however, Luther distinguishes between the natural law which applies and is known to all and which “even the heathen, Turks, and Jews have to keep if there is to be any peace or order in the world”, and “the law of Christ, and of the gospel, which is not binding on the heathen”, and which requires more than the former law, such as love of the enemy and the willingness “to give up life and property, and let whoever takes it have it”, and thus if necessary to set aside temporal goods ( Admonition to Peace , 1525, WA 18:307–311/LW 46:27–29).

This distinction reflects a wider distinction in Luther’s ethics and social philosophy, between the structures necessary to enable the flourishing of fallen human beings as parts of God’s creation, and a concern with our spiritual lives to which different considerations apply. This distinction is reflected in Luther’s well-known but complex and evolving distinction between “two kingdoms” [ die zwei Reiche ] and the related distinction between “two governments” (or “regiments”) [ die zwei Regimente ]. The worldly or temporal kingdom is where human beings live within the world, which is structured by God to make this possible into three “orders” or “hierarchies” or “estates”, which were the politia or civitas , the oeconomia , and the ecclesia , namely government and state, the household and economic human interactions more generally, and the Church. The individual then has an office or calling or station within these various orders, which because these are divinely ordained are a way for individuals within their station to serve God, and may give some individuals in certain offices authority over others. Within the worldly kingdom, therefore, there are also worldly authorities operating at the political and social level (including within the Church), who should exercise that authority with a view to enabling fallen human beings within God’s creation to live together as well as they can; they therefore do not get that authority from the world, or exercise it on their own behalf, so that in this sense they also fall under divine authority and are subordinated to God’s spiritual kingdom, while nonetheless remaining distinguishable from it in terms of their primary focus, which is “life and property and external affairs on earth” ( Temporal Authority , 1523, WA 11:265–6/LW 45:111–2). By contrast,

[t]he spiritual government or authority [ Regiment oder Amt ] pointed Christians above itself, towards God, to do right and find salvation. (WA 51:241/LW 13:197)

As this is the kingdom of grace, and God’s grace is present in Christ, it is ruled by Christ who brings the gospel and grace to human beings, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. As a spiritual being who is also a citizen of the world, the Christian therefore lives under both governments, as well as a two-fold law, reflected in the distinction between the natural and Christian law outlined above. [ 41 ]

This complex structure obviously raises the question of how these two aspects of the Christian life can be related, and whether they can come into conflict. Luther’s position here is nuanced, as while he distinguishes between these aspects in the way we have seen, he does not treat them dualistically as is sometimes suggested, by separating off the this-worldly from the other-worldly, the temporal from the spiritual, the outer from the inner, or social life from the individual’s relation to God. Rather, in On Temporal Authority , Luther argues that while “no one can become righteous in the sight of God by means of the temporal government” (1523, WA 11:252/LW 45:92), and while Christians who have the Holy Spirit in their heart have no need of such a government to constrain them (1523, WA 11:249–50/LW 45:88–9), nonetheless the Christian who is enabled by God’s love to love the neighbour will thereby be engaged with what this requires of them in the world as a result of this neighbour love, including occupying its various offices and upholding its laws, which can include if necessary exercising force over others. [ 42 ] The Christian will not adopt these practices for their own good, or think that following them counts as a route to their own salvation; but they will see that these practices can be necessary for the good of the neighbour, and that love for the neighbour will therefore involve not withdrawing from the world into spiritual other-worldliness and isolation, but engaging with it.

However, this approach of course gives rise to a further question: namely, under what conditions should the Christian be committed to supporting the secular authorities, particularly when their power is made greater through Luther’s downgrading of the authority of the Church in temporal matters. This issue was made vivid for Luther in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt discussed above. On the one hand, Luther places limits on political obedience, as princes have no absolute authority but are merely the “masks” or larvae of God, and so are themselves constrained to act as God ordained, and so for the good of their people and in accordance with God’s word; the people of a prince who does wrong in these terms are therefore not required to obey him. [ 43 ] Moreover, such princes are not to compel their citizens on matters of faith, which do not fall under their jurisdiction. [ 44 ] On the other hand, as the individual Christian should ultimately have little concern for their own temporal interests, if the secular power acts against those interests, the Christian will not see this as giving them a right to rebel and overthrow the secular power, [ 45 ] while only God can act as its judge and inflict punishment upon those who rule. [ 46 ] It remains a matter of dispute whether Luther succeeded in striking a stable balance here, as on other issues discussed above.

Luther’s thinking exerted a considerable influence not only on his own time and on his immediate contemporaries, but also on those who have come after him. While his most significant impact has of course been in theology, and while it would be wrong to suggest that there is anything like a Lutheran school in philosophy, nonetheless Luther has played an important role for a range of key philosophical figures from Hobbes and Leibniz, to Heidegger. This impact is considered in more detail in a separate entry, as well as his influence on “modernity” more broadly. For a fuller discussion, see the entry on Luther’s influence on philosophy .

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  • [WA TR] D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe , 65 vols in 127. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1883–1929, Abteilung 2: Tischreden vols 1–6.
  • [WA DB] D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe , 65 vols in 127. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1883–1929. Abteilung 3: Die Deutsche Bibel vols 1–12.
  • [LW] Luther’s Works , American edition, 55 vols. St Louis and Philadephia: Concordia and Fortress Press, 1958–86; new series, vols 56–75, 2009–.
  • The Sermons of Martin Luther , edited by John Lenker, 8 vols (Reprint: Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).
  • The Book of Concord , edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000.
  • Only the Decalogue Is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations , edited and translated by Holger Sonntag, Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Press, 2008.
  • Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader , Brooks Schramm and Kirsi Stjerna (eds.), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.
  • A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, Based on Lectures Delivered at the University of Wittenberg, in the Year 1531 , 1531/1575 [1953], Philip S. Watson (ed.), London: James Clark. A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575.
  • Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings , edited by John Dillenberger, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961.
  • The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings , William Russell (trans.), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2017.
  • The Annotated Luther , edited by Timothy J. Wengert et al., 6 vols., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015–17.

Translations have been modified where necessary.

Primary texts

  • Luther, Martin, 1545, “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings” (WA 54:179–87/LW 34:323–38).

Secondary texts

  • Brecht, Martin, 1981 [1985], Martin Luther: sein Weg zur Reformation, 1483–1521 , Stuttgart: Calwer. Translated as Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521 , James L. Schaaf (trans.), Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985.
  • –––, 1986 [1990], Martin Luther: Zweiter Band: Ordnung und Abgrenzung der Reformation, 1521–1532 , Stuttgart: Calwer. Translated as Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532 , James L. Schaaf (trans.), Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990.
  • –––, 1987 [1993], Martin Luther : Dritter Band : Die Erhaltung der Kirche, 1532–1546 , Stuttgart: Calwer. Translated as Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532–1546 , James L. Schaaf (trans.), Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.
  • Carlyle, Thomas, 1841, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History , London: James Fraser. Reprinted 1983, New York: Chelsea House.
  • Ebeling, Gerhard, 1964 [1970], Einführung in sein Denken , Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr. Translated as Luther: An Introduction to his Thought , R. A. Wilson (trans.), Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1970.
  • Erikson, Erik H., 1958, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History , New York: Norton.
  • Helmer, Christine, 2019, How Luther Became the Reformer , Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Hendrix, Scott H., 2015, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer , New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Leppin, Volker, 2010 [2017a], Martin Luther: vom Mönch zum Feind des Papstes Darmstadt: WBG. Translated as Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life , Rhys Bezzant and Karen Roe (trans.), Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.
  • Melanchthon, Philip, 1546 [1834–60], “Oratio in funere D. Martini Lutheri”. Reprinted in Corpus Reformatorum , Carolus Gottlieb Bretschneider (ed.), Halix Saxonum: C. A. Schwetschke, 1834–60, vol 11, 726–734.
  • Metaxas, Eric, 2017, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World , New York: Viking.
  • Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, 1977 [1981], Werden und Wertung der Reformation , J. C. B. Mohl: Tübingen. Revised, abridged, and translated as Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe , Dennis Martin (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511897399
  • –––, 1982 [1989], Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel , Berlin: Severin und Seidler. Translated as Luther: Man Between God and the Devil , Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (trans.), New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Rex, Richard, 2017a, The Making of Martin Luther , Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
  • Roper, Lyndal, 2016, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet , London: Bodley Head.
  • Schilling, Heinz, 2012 [2017], Martin Luther: Rebell in einer Zeit des Umbruchs , München: C. H. Beck. Translated as Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval , Rona Johnston (trans.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Luther, Martin, 1518, The Heidelberg Disputation (WA 1:353–74/LW 31:35–70).
  • –––, 1536, Disputation Concerning Man (WA 39.1:175–80/LW 34:133–44).
  • –––, 1539, Disputation Concerning the Passage: “The Word Was Made Flesh” (John 1:14) (WA 39.2:3–30/LW 38:235–77).
  • Barone, Marco, 2017, Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross , Eugene, OR: Resource Publications.
  • Becker, Sigbert W., 1999, The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther , second edition, Milwaukee, WI: Wisconsin Publishing House.
  • Bielfeldt, Dennis, 1990, “Luther, Metaphor, and Theological Language”, Modern Theology , 6(2): 121–135. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0025.1990.tb00211.x
  • –––, 2002a, “Luther on Language”, Lutheran Quarterly , 16: 195–220.
  • –––, 2002b, “Luther and the Strange Language of Theology: How ‘New’ is the Nova Lingua?”, in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg , Carter Lindberg and David Mark Whitford (eds.), St Louis, MI: Concordia Publishing House, pp. 221–244.
  • Bielfeldt, Dennis D., Mickey Leland Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky, 2008, The Substance of the Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today , Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Bianchi, Luca, 2008, Pour une histoire de la “double verité” , Paris: Vrin.
  • Blanshard, Brand, 1974, Reason and Belief , London: George Allen & Unwin, Chapter 5 (“Reason and Faith in Luther”). [ Blanshard 1974 available online ]
  • Bornkamm, Heinrich, 1959, “Faith and Reason in the Thought of Erasmus and Luther”, in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich , Walter Leibrecht (ed.), New York: Harper, pp. 133–139.
  • Büttgen, Philippe, 2011, Luther et la Philosophie , Paris: Vrin.
  • Dalferth, Ingolf U., 1988, Theology and Philosophy , Oxford: Blackwell, Chapter 7 (“The Law-Gospel Method”), pp. 76–88.
  • Dieter, Theodor, 2009, “Martin Luther”, in Early Modern Philosophy of Religion , Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis (eds.), London: Routledge, pp. 33–46.
  • –––, 2011, “Martin Luther’s Understanding of ‘Reason’”, Lutheran Quarterly , 25: 249–78
  • Ebeling, Gerhard, 1977, Disputatio de homine: Erster Teil: Text und Traditionshintergrund , Tübingen: Mohr.
  • –––, 1982, Disputatio de homine: Zweiter Teil: Die philosophische Definition des Menschen , Tübingen: Mohr.
  • –––, 1989, Disputatio de homine: Dritter Teil: Die theologische Definition des Menschen , Tübingen: Mohr.
  • Forde, Gerhard O., 1997, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 , Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Grosshans, Hans-Peter, 2017, “Reason and Philosophy in Martin Luther’s Thought”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.343
  • Gerrish, B. A., 1962, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hamm, Berndt, 2010 [2014], Der frühe Luther: Etappen reformatorischer Neuorientierung , Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Translated as The Early Luther: Stages in Reformation Reorientation , Martin J. Lohrmann (trans.), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.
  • Heine, Heinrich, 1835 [2007], Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland . Translated as On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany , Howard Pollack-Milgate (trans.), in On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany and Other Writings , Terry Pinkard (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 3–120
  • Hockenbery Dragseth, Jennifer (ed), 2011, The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition , Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Kellerman, James A., 2008, “A Pure Critique of Reason: Reason within the Limits of Sound Theology Alone”, Logia , 17(4): 31–38.
  • Kolb, Robert, 2002, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross”, Lutheran Quarterly , 16: 443–466.
  • Leppin, Volker, 2017b, “Luther’s Mystical Roots”, in Melloni 2017: 157–171. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-010
  • Lohse, Bernhard, 1958, Ratio und Fides: Eine Untersuchung über die ratio in der Theologie Luthers , Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Luy, David, 2017, “Martin Luther’s Disputations”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.285
  • Malter, Rudolf, 1980, Das reformatorische Denken und die Philosophie: Luthers Entwurf einer transzendental-praktischen Metaphysik , Bonn: Bouvier.
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  • Mattes, Mark, 2013, “Luther’s Use of Philosophy”, Lutherjahrbuch , 80: 110–141.
  • McGrath, Alister E., 1989, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; second edition, 1998; third edition, 2005; fourth edition, 2020. doi:10.1017/9781108560702
  • Popkin, Richard H., 1979, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza , Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rex, Richard, 2017b, “Luther Among the Humanists”, in Melloni 2017: 203–220. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-013
  • Steinmetz, David C., 1980, Luther and Staupitz: An Essay on the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation , Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Vercruysse, Joseph E., 1981, “Gesetz und Leibe: die Struktur der ‘Heidelberger Disputation’ Luthers”, Lutherjahrbuch , 68: 7–43.
  • Zur Mühlen, Karl-Heinz, 1984, “Luthers Kritik der Vernunft im Mittelalterlichen und Neuzeitlichen Kontext”, in Lutheriana: zum 500. Geburtstag Martin Luthers , pp. 3–15.
  • Luther, Martin, 1517, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (WA 1:224–8/LW 31:3–16).
  • –––, 1522, “Preface to the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans” (WA DB 7:2–27/LW 35:365–80).
  • –––, 1526, The Disputation Concerning Justification (WA 39.1/LW 34:145–96).
  • Andreatta, Eugenio, 1996, Lutero e Aristotele , Padova: Nuova Vita.
  • Balserak, Jon, 2017, “The Medieval Heritage of Martin Luther”, in Melloni 2017: 141–156. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-009
  • Bielfeldt, Dennis, 2016, “Martin Luther and Ontology”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.351
  • Braaten, Carl and Robert Jenson (eds.), 1998, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation , Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Carlisle, Clare, 2013, “The Question of Habit in Theology and Philosophy: From Hexis to Plasticity”, Body & Society , 19(2–3): 30–57. doi:10.1177/1357034X12474475
  • Dieter, Theodor, 2001, Der junge Luther und Aristotles , Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • –––, 2014, “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian: His Positive and Negative Use of Nominalism and Realism”, in The Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther’s Theology , Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel and L’Ubomír Bakta (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 31–48
  • –––, 2017, “Scholasticisms in Martin Luther’s Thought”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.265
  • Eckermann, Willigis, 1978, “Die Aristoteleskritik Luthers: ihre Bedeutung für seine Theologie”, Catholica , 32: 114–30.
  • Ghiselli, Anja, Kari Kopperi, and Rainer Vinke (eds.), 1993, Luther und Ontologie , Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Society.
  • Grane, Leif, 1962, Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517 , Copenhagen: Gyldendal.
  • –––, 1969, “Luthers Kritik an Thomas von Aquin in De Captivitate Babylonica”, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte , 80: 1–13.
  • –––, 1970, “Die Anfänge von Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thomismus”, Theologische Literaturzeitung , 95: 241–250.
  • Hägglund, Bengt, 1955, Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der occamistischen Tradition , Lund: C W K Gleerup.
  • –––, 1957, “Was Luther a Nominalist?”, Concordia Theological Monthly , 28(6): 441–452.
  • Hampson, Daphne, 2001, Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511487743
  • Janz, Denis R., 1983, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism , Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  • –––, 1989, Luther on Thomas Aquinas , Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Joest, Wilfried, 1967, Ontologie der Person bei Luther , Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Juntunen, Sammeli, 1998, “Luther and Metaphysics”, in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther , Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (eds.), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, pp. 129–160.
  • Kärkkäinen, Pekka, 2017, “Nominalism and the Via Moderna in Luther’s Theological Work”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.266
  • Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti, 2006, “Salvation as Justification and Theosis: The Contribution of the New Finnish Luther Interpretation to Our Ecumenical Future1”, Dialog: A Journal of Theology , 45(1): 74–82. doi:10.1111/j.0012-2033.2006.00296.x
  • Kirjavainen, Heikki, 1984, “Luther und Aristoteles: Die Frage der zweierlei Gerechtigkeit im Lichte der transitiven vs. intransitiven Willenstheorie”, in Luther in Finnland , Mikka Ruokanen (ed.), Helsinki: Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, pp. 111–129.
  • Kohls, Ernst-Wilhelm, 1975, “Luthers Verhältnis zu Aristoteles, Thomas und Erasmus”, Theologische Zeitschrift , 31: 289–301.
  • Kusukawa, Sachiko, 1995, “Law and Gospel: The Reforms of Luther and Melanchthon”, in The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melanchthon , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 27–74.
  • McGrath, Alister E., 1985, Luther’s Theology of the Cross , Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Oberman, Heiko A., 1992, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought , Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • –––, 1963 [2000], The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism , Harvard: Harvard University Press; reprinted Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000.
  • –––, 2003, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough”, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History , 54(4): 641–670. doi:10.1017/S0022046903008005
  • Oehlschläger, Gerhard, 2003, “Der junge Luther und Aristoteles”, LutherJahrbuch , 70: 93–125.
  • Oliva, Adriano, 2012, “Luther et la philosophie: Sur un ouvrage récent”, Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques , 96(2): 293–312. doi:10.3917/rspt.962.0293
  • Osborne, Thomas, 2002, “Faith, Philosophy, and the Nominalist Background to Luther’s Defense of the Real Presence”, Journal of the History of Ideas , 63(1): 63–82. doi:10.1353/jhi.2002.0006
  • Pesch, Otto Hermann, 1967, Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin: Versuch eines systematisch-theologischen Dialogs , Mainz: Grünwald.
  • Vignaux, Paul, 1971, “On Luther and Ockham”, in The Reformation in Medieval Perspective , Steven E. Ozment (ed.), Chicago: Quadrangle Books, pp. 107–118.
  • White, Graham, 1994, Luther as Nominalist: A Study of the Logical Methods Used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of their Medieval Background , Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society.
  • Wicks, Jared, 2007, “Luther and ‘This Damned, Conceited, Rascally Heathen’ Aristotle: An Encounter More Complicated than Many Think”, Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology , 16(1): 90–104. doi:10.1177/106385120701600108
  • Zur Mühlen, Karl-Heinz, 1981, “Luthers Kritik am scholastischen Aristotelismus in der 25. These der ‘Heidelberger Disputation’ von 1518”, Lutherjahrbuch , 48: 54–79.
  • Luther, Martin, 1525, The Bondage of the Will (WA 18: 600–787/LW 33:3–295).
  • Erasmus, Desiderius, 1524 [1969], On the Freedom of the Will , E. Gordon Rupp and A. N. Marlow (trans.), in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation , Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1969, pp. 35–100. Also translated by Peter Macardle in Erasmus 1999: vol 76, pp. 4–90.
  • –––, 1526, Hyperaspistes diatribae adversus servum arbitrium M. Lutheri , translated by Clarence H. Miller as A Warrior Shielding A Discussion of Free Will Against the Enslaved Will by Martin Luther, book one , in Erasmus 1999: vol 76, pp. 91–298.
  • –––, 1527, Hyperaspistes diatribae adversus servum arbitrium M. Lutheri , translated by Clarence H. Miller as A Warrior Shielding A Discussion of Free Will Against the Enslaved Will by Martin Luther, book two , in Erasmus 1999: vol 77, pp. 334–749.
  • –––, 1999, Collected Works of Erasmus , Charles Trinkaus (ed.), Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller (trans.), Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Alfsvåg, Knut, 2015, “Luther on Necessity”, Harvard Theological Review , 108(1): 52–69. doi:10.1017/S0017816015000036
  • Boisset, Jean, 1962, Érasmus et Luther: Libre ou serf-arbitre? , Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Boyle, Marjorie O’Rourke, 1982, “Stoic Luther: Paradoxical Sin and Necessity”, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte , 73: 69–93.
  • Forde, Gerhard O., 2005, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage , Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Fromm, Erich, 2001, The Fear of Freedom , second edition, Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Gaebler, Mary, 2013, The Courage of Faith: Martin Luther and the Theonomous Self , Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Hodgson, Peter C., 2009, “Luther and Freedom”, in The Global Luther: A Theologian For Our Times , Christine Helmer (ed.), Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pp. 32–48.
  • Jenson, Robert W., 1994, “An Ontology of Freedom in the De Servo Arbitrio of Luther”, Modern Theology , 10(3): 247–252. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0025.1994.tb00039.x
  • Kolb, Robert, 2005, Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord , Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Lodone, Michele, 2017, “Erasmus and Luther: Free and Bound Will”, in Melloni 2017: 281–294. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-017
  • Martin, Wayne, 2009, “Ought but Cannot”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , 109(1pt2): 103–128. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9264.2009.00260.x
  • –––, 2010, “The Judgement of Adam: Self-Consciousness and Normative Orientation in Lucas Cranach’s Eden”, in Art and Phenomenology , Joseph D. Parry (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 105–37.
  • McSorely, H. J., 1969, Luther: Right or Wrong? An Ecumenical-Theological Study of Luther’s Major Work, The Bondage of the Will , Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.
  • Massing, Michael, 2018, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind , New York: HarperOne.
  • Pigden, Charles R., 1990, “Ought-implies-can: Erasmus, Luther and R. M. Hare”, Sophia , 29: 2–30.
  • Saarinen, Risto, 2011, “The Lutheran Reformation”, in his Weakness of Will in Renaissance and Reformation Thought , Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 3.
  • Smith, John H., 2011, Dialogues Between Faith and Reason: The Death and Return of God in Modern German Thought , Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, Chapter 1 (“Erasmus vs. Luther: Philo- logos vs. Faith”), pp. 23–44.
  • Trinkaus, Charles, 1999, “Introduction” to Erasmus 1999: vol 76, pp. xi–cvi.
  • Urban, Linwood, 1971, “Was Luther a Thoroughgoing Determinist?”, The Journal of Theological Studies , 22(1): 113–139. doi:10.1093/jts/XXII.I.113
  • Luther, Martin, 1519, Two Kinds of Righteousness (WA 2:145–52/LW 31:293–306).
  • –––, 1520, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (WA 6:497–573/LW 36:3–126).
  • –––, 1520, The Freedom of the Christian (WA 7: 1–38;42–73/LW 31:327–77).
  • –––, 1520, To the Christian Nobility (WA 6:404–69/LW 44:15–114).
  • –––, 1522, A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion (WA 7:676–87/LW 45:51–74).
  • –––, 1522, Invocavit (Eight Wittenberg) Sermons (WA 10.3:1–64/LW 51:70–100).
  • –––, 1523, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (WA 11:245–80/LW 45:75–129).
  • –––, 1525, Admonition to Peace (WA 18:281–334/LW 46:3–43).
  • –––, 1525, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (WA 18:291–334/LW 46:45–55).
  • –––, 1525, An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants (WA 18:357–61/LW 46:47–85).
  • –––, 1526, Whether Soldiers Too Can be Saved (WA 19.2:623–62/LW 46:87–137).
  • –––, 1529, On War Against the Turk (WA 30.2:107–48/LW 46:155–205).
  • –––, 1535, A Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (WA 40.1:40–688 and 40.2:1–184/LW 26:1–461 and 27:1–144).
  • –––, 1537–40. Antinomian Theses and Disputations (WA 39.1:343–584, WA 39.2:124–44, translated in Holger Sonntag (ed and trans), Only the Decalogue is Eternal: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations . Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008).
  • –––, 1539, Against the Antinomians (WA 50:468–77/LW 47:99–119).
  • Alfsvåg, Knut, 2016, “Natural Theology and Natural Law in Martin Luther”, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion , John Barton (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.368
  • Althaus, Paul, 1965 [2007], Die Ethik Martin Luthers , Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn. Translated as The Ethics of Martin Luther , Robert C. Schultz (trans.) Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.
  • Andersen, Svend, 2010, Macht aus Liebe: Zur Rekonstruktion einer lutherischen politischen Ethik , Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • –––, 2018, “Two Kingdoms, Three Estates, and Natural Law”, in Lutheran Theology and the Shaping of Society , Bo Kristian Holm and Nina Javette Koefoed (eds.), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 189–214. doi:10.13109/9783666551246.189
  • Baker, Robert C. and Roland Cap Ehlke (eds), 2011, Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal , St. Louis, MO: Concordia.
  • Bayer, Oswald, 1998, “Nature and Institution. Luther’s Doctrine of the Three Estates”, C. Helmer (trans.), Lutheran Quarterly . 7: 125–59.
  • –––, 1995 [2007], Freiheit als Antwort , Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Translated as Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies , Jeffrey F. Cayzer (trans.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Biermann, Joel D., 2014, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics , Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Bornkamm, Heinrich, 1955 [1966], Luthers Lehre von den zwei Reichen im Zusammenhang seiner Theologie , Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn. Translated as Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology , Karl H. Hertz (trans.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
  • Cargill Thompson, W. D. J., 1969, “The ‘Two Kingdoms’ and the ‘Two Regiments’: Some Problems of Luther’s Zwei-Reiche-Lehre ”, The Journal of Theological Studies , 20(1): 164–185. doi:10.1093/jts/XX.1.164
  • –––, 1984, The Political Thought of Martin Luther , Brighton: Harvester Press.
  • Carty, Jarrett A., 2017, God and Government: Martin Luther’s Political Thought , Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Couenhoven, Jesse, 2017, “The Protestant Reformation”, in The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy , Sacha Golob and Jens Timmermann (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 208–220. doi:10.1017/9781139519267.017
  • Cranz, F. Edward, 1956, An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought on Justice, Law and Society , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Estes, James, 2005, Peace, Order and the Glory of God: Secular Authority and the Church in the Thought of Luther and Melanchthon, 1518–1559 , Boston: Brill.
  • Heckel, Johannes, 1973 [2010], Lex charitatis: Eine juristische Untersuchung über das Recht in der Theologie Martin Luthers , 2nd edn, Cologne: Verlag Böhlau. Translated as Lex Charitatis: A Justistic Disquisition on Law in the Theology of Martin Luther , Gottfried G. Krodel (trans.), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Herdt, Jennifer, 2019, “Natural Law in Protestant Christianity”, in The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Ethics , Tom Angier (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 155–178. doi:10.1017/9781108525077.009
  • Holm, Bo Kristen, 2019, “Luther, Seneca, and Benevolence in Both Creation and Government”, in Apprehending Love , Pekka Kärkkäinen and Olli-Pekka Vainio (eds.), Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society, pp. 287–312.
  • Irwin, Terence, 2007, “The Reformation and Scholastic Moral Philosophy”, in his The Development of Ethics, Volume 1: From Socrates to the Reformation , Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 29.
  • –––, 2012, “Luther’s Attack on Self-Love: The Failure of Pagan Virtue”, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies , 42(1): 131–155. doi:10.1215/10829636-1473127
  • Laffin, Michael Richard, 2016, The Promise of Martin Luther’s Political Theology , London: Bloomsbury.
  • Lazareth, William, 2001, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics , Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Lindberg, Carter, 2003, “Luther’s Struggle with Social-Ethical Issues”, in McKim 2003: 165–178. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521816483.010
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair, 1967, “Luther, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza”, in his A Short History of Ethics , London: Routledge, Chapter 10.
  • McKim, Donald K. (ed.), 2003, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther , Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521816483
  • McNeill, John T., 1941, “Natural Law in the Thought of Luther”, Church History , 10(3): 211–227. doi:10.2307/3160251
  • Meilaender, Gilbert, 1988, “The Examined Life is Not Worth Living: Learning from Luther”, in his The Theory and Practice of Virtue , South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, pp. 100–26.
  • Nitti, Silvana, 2017, “Luther and Political Power”, in Melloni 2017: 241–263. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-015
  • Raunio, Antti, 1998, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology”, in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther , Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, pp. 96–124.
  • –––, 2006, “Divine and Natural Law in Luther and Melanchthon”, in Lutheran Reformation and the Law , Virpi Mäkinen (ed.), Leiden: Brill, pp. 21–61.
  • Saarinen, Risto, 2005, “Ethics in Luther’s Theology: The Three Orders”, in Moral Philosophy on the Threshold of Modernity , Jill Kraye and Risto Saarinen (eds.), Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 195–215.
  • Sanders, E. P., 1977, Paul and Palestinian Judaism , London: SCM Press.
  • Schorn-Schütte, Luise, 2017, “Luther and Politics”, in Melloni 2017: 565–577. doi:10.1515/9783110499025-034
  • Skinner, Quentin, 1978, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume 2: The Age of Reformation , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Part One. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511817892
  • Troeltsch, Ernst, 1912 [1992], Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen , Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Translated as The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches , Volume II, Olive Wyon (trans.), New York: Mcmillan, 1931. Reprinted Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
  • Voegelin, Eric, 1998, History of Political Ideas, Vol. IV: Renaissance and Reformation , in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin , volume 22, David L. Morse and William M. Thompson (eds.), Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
  • Wannenwetsch, Bernd, 2003, “Luther’s Moral Theology”, in McKim 2003: 120–135. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521816483.007
  • Whitford, David M., 2003, “Luther’s Political Encounters”, in McKim 2003: 179–191. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521816483.011
  • Wingren, Gustav, 1942 [1957], Luthers lära om kallelsen , PhD thesis, Lund: C.W.K. Gleerups Förlag. Translated as The Christian’s Calling: Luther on Vocation , Carl C. Rasmussen (trans.), Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1957.
  • Witte, John, 2002, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511613548
  • Wolin, Sheldon S., 2004, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought , expanded edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, Chapter 5 (“Luther: The Theological and the Political”), pp. 127–147.
  • Wright, William J., 2010, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism , Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Boyle, Nicholas, 2008, German Literature: A Very Short Introduction , Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/actrade/9780199206599.001.0001
  • Melloni, Alberto (ed.), 2017, Martin Luther: A Christian Between Reforms and Modernity (1517–2017) , Berlin: De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110499025
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Luther’s Werke , a site with links to the Weimar edition
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Luther

Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle | Augustine of Hippo | Christian theology, philosophy and | Duns Scotus, John | Erasmus, Desiderius | free will: divine foreknowledge and | hiddenness of God | Luther, Martin: influence on philosophy | medieval philosophy | mysticism | Ockham [Occam], William | universals: the medieval problem of | voluntarism, theological | Wyclif, John


I am grateful to the following for extremely useful comments on previous versions of this entry, and for general discussions of Luther that have helped shape the views expressed herein: Maria Rosa Antognazza, David Bagchi, David Batho, Ryan Byerly, Sophie Grace Chappell, Benjamin Crowe, Theodor Dieter, Josh Furnal, Daphne Hampson, Susanne Herrmann-Sinai, Iona Hine, Bo Christian Holm, Volker Leppin, Wayne Martin, Alister McGrath, John Monfasani, Kees van Kooten Niekerk, Rory Phillips, Simon Podmore, Bjørn Rabjerg, Richard Rex, Daniel Roche, and Joe Saunders.

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How Martin Luther Changed the World

By Joan Acocella

Luther8217s reforms succeeded because of his energetic charismatic personality.

Clang! Clang! Down the corridors of religious history we hear this sound: Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar, hammering his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, in Saxony, and thus, eventually, splitting the thousand-year-old Roman Catholic Church into two churches—one loyal to the Pope in Rome, the other protesting against the Pope’s rule and soon, in fact, calling itself Protestant. This month marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s famous action. Accordingly, a number of books have come out, reconsidering the man and his influence. They differ on many points, but something that most of them agree on is that the hammering episode, so satisfying symbolically—loud, metallic, violent—never occurred. Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened. He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop. Furthermore, the theses were not, as is often imagined, a set of non-negotiable demands about how the Church should reform itself in accordance with Brother Martin’s standards. Rather, like all “theses” in those days, they were points to be thrashed out in public disputations, in the manner of the ecclesiastical scholars of the twelfth century or, for that matter, the debate clubs of tradition-minded universities in our own time.

If the Ninety-five Theses sprouted a myth, that is no surprise. Luther was one of those figures who touched off something much larger than himself; namely, the Reformation—the sundering of the Church and a fundamental revision of its theology. Once he had divided the Church, it could not be healed. His reforms survived to breed other reforms, many of which he disapproved of. His church splintered and splintered. To tote up the Protestant denominations discussed in Alec Ryrie’s new book, “ Protestants ” (Viking), is almost comical, there are so many of them. That means a lot of people, though. An eighth of the human race is now Protestant.

The Reformation, in turn, reshaped Europe. As German-speaking lands asserted their independence from Rome, other forces were unleashed. In the Knights’ Revolt of 1522, and the Peasants’ War, a couple of years later, minor gentry and impoverished agricultural workers saw Protestantism as a way of redressing social grievances. (More than eighty thousand poorly armed peasants were slaughtered when the latter rebellion failed.) Indeed, the horrific Thirty Years’ War, in which, basically, Europe’s Roman Catholics killed all the Protestants they could, and vice versa, can in some measure be laid at Luther’s door. Although it did not begin until decades after his death, it arose in part because he had created no institutional structure to replace the one he walked away from.

Almost as soon as Luther started the Reformation, alternative Reformations arose in other localities. From town to town, preachers told the citizenry what it should no longer put up with, whereupon they stood a good chance of being shoved aside—indeed, strung up—by other preachers. Religious houses began to close down. Luther led the movement mostly by his writings. Meanwhile, he did what he thought was his main job in life, teaching the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. The Reformation wasn’t led, exactly; it just spread, metastasized.

And that was because Europe was so ready for it. The relationship between the people and the rulers could hardly have been worse. Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, was dying—he brought his coffin with him wherever he travelled—but he was taking his time about it. The presumptive heir, King Charles I of Spain, was looked upon with grave suspicion. He already had Spain and the Netherlands. Why did he need the Holy Roman Empire as well? Furthermore, he was young—only seventeen when Luther wrote the Ninety-five Theses. The biggest trouble, though, was money. The Church had incurred enormous expenses. It was warring with the Turks at the walls of Vienna. It had also started an ambitious building campaign, including the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. To pay for these ventures, it had borrowed huge sums from Europe’s banks, and to repay the banks it was strangling the people with taxes.

It has often been said that, fundamentally, Luther gave us “modernity.” Among the recent studies, Eric Metaxas’s “ Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World ” (Viking) makes this claim in grandiose terms. “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white,” he writes. “And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.” The other books are more reserved. As they point out, Luther wanted no part of pluralism—even for the time, he was vehemently anti-Semitic—and not much part of individualism. People were to believe and act as their churches dictated.

The fact that Luther’s protest, rather than others that preceded it, brought about the Reformation is probably due in large measure to his outsized personality. He was a charismatic man, and maniacally energetic. Above all, he was intransigent. To oppose was his joy. And though at times he showed that hankering for martyrdom that we detect, with distaste, in the stories of certain religious figures, it seems that, most of the time, he just got out of bed in the morning and got on with his work. Among other things, he translated the New Testament from Greek into German in eleven weeks.

Luther was born in 1483 and grew up in Mansfeld, a small mining town in Saxony. His father started out as a miner but soon rose to become a master smelter, a specialist in separating valuable metal (in this case, copper) from ore. The family was not poor. Archeologists have been at work in their basement. The Luthers ate suckling pig and owned drinking glasses. They had either seven or eight children, of whom five survived. The father wanted Martin, the eldest, to study law, in order to help him in his business, but Martin disliked law school and promptly had one of those experiences often undergone in the old days by young people who did not wish to take their parents’ career advice. Caught in a violent thunderstorm one day in 1505—he was twenty-one—he vowed to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, that if he survived he would become a monk. He kept his promise, and was ordained two years later. In the heavily psychoanalytic nineteen-fifties, much was made of the idea that this flouting of his father’s wishes set the stage for his rebellion against the Holy Father in Rome. Such is the main point of Erik Erikson’s 1958 book, “ Young Man Luther ,” which became the basis of a famous play by John Osborne (filmed, in 1974, with Stacy Keach in the title role).

Today, psychoanalytic interpretations tend to be tittered at by Luther biographers. But the desire to find some great psychological source, or even a middle-sized one, for Luther’s great story is understandable, because, for many years, nothing much happened to him. This man who changed the world left his German-speaking lands only once in his life. (In 1510, he was part of a mission sent to Rome to heal a rent in the Augustinian order. It failed.) Most of his youth was spent in dirty little towns where men worked long hours each day and then, at night, went to the tavern and got into fights. He described his university town, Erfurt, as consisting of “a whorehouse and a beerhouse.” Wittenberg, where he lived for the remainder of his life, was bigger—with two thousand inhabitants when he settled there—but not much better. As Lyndal Roper, one of the best of the new biographers, writes, in “ Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet ” (Random House), it was a mess of “muddy houses, unclean lanes.” At that time, however, the new ruler of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, was trying to make a real city of it. He built a castle and a church—the one on whose door the famous theses were supposedly nailed—and he hired an important artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder, as his court painter. Most important, he founded a university, and staffed it with able scholars, including Johann von Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustinian friars of the German-speaking territories. Staupitz had been Luther’s confessor at Erfurt, and when he found himself overworked at Wittenberg he summoned Luther, persuaded him to take a doctorate, and handed over many of his duties to him. Luther supervised everything from monasteries (eleven of them) to fish ponds, but most crucial was his succeeding Staupitz as the university’s professor of the Bible, a job that he took on at the age of twenty-eight and retained until his death. In this capacity, he lectured on Scripture, held disputations, and preached to the staff of the university.

He was apparently a galvanizing speaker, but during his first twelve years as a monk he published almost nothing. This was no doubt due in part to the responsibilities heaped on him at Wittenberg, but at this time, and for a long time, he also suffered what seems to have been a severe psychospiritual crisis. He called his problem his Anfechtungen —trials, tribulations—but this feels too slight a word to cover the afflictions he describes: cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists. Most painful, it seems, for this passionately religious young man was to discover his anger against God. Years later, commenting on his reading of Scripture as a young friar, Luther spoke of his rage at the description of God’s righteousness, and of his grief that, as he was certain, he would not be judged worthy: “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”

There were good reasons for an intense young priest to feel disillusioned. One of the most bitterly resented abuses of the Church at that time was the so-called indulgences, a kind of late-medieval get-out-of-jail-free card used by the Church to make money. When a Christian purchased an indulgence from the Church, he obtained—for himself or whomever else he was trying to benefit—a reduction in the amount of time the person’s soul had to spend in Purgatory, atoning for his sins, before ascending to Heaven. You might pay to have a special Mass said for the sinner or, less expensively, you could buy candles or new altar cloths for the church. But, in the most common transaction, the purchaser simply paid an agreed-upon amount of money and, in return, was given a document saying that the beneficiary—the name was written in on a printed form—was forgiven x amount of time in Purgatory. The more time off, the more it cost, but the indulgence-sellers promised that whatever you paid for you got.

Actually, they could change their minds about that. In 1515, the Church cancelled the exculpatory powers of already purchased indulgences for the next eight years. If you wanted that period covered, you had to buy a new indulgence. Realizing that this was hard on people—essentially, they had wasted their money—the Church declared that purchasers of the new indulgences did not have to make confession or even exhibit contrition. They just had to hand over the money and the thing was done, because this new issue was especially powerful. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar locally famous for his zeal in selling indulgences, is said to have boasted that one of the new ones could obtain remission from sin even for someone who had raped the Virgin Mary. (In the 1974 movie “ Luther ,” Tetzel is played with a wonderful, bug-eyed wickedness by Hugh Griffith.) Even by the standards of the very corrupt sixteenth-century Church, this was shocking.

In Luther’s mind, the indulgence trade seems to have crystallized the spiritual crisis he was experiencing. It brought him up against the absurdity of bargaining with God, jockeying for his favor—indeed, paying for his favor. Why had God given his only begotten son? And why had the son died on the cross? Because that’s how much God loved the world. And that alone, Luther now reasoned, was sufficient for a person to be found “justified,” or worthy. From this thought, the Ninety-five Theses were born. Most of them were challenges to the sale of indulgences. And out of them came what would be the two guiding principles of Luther’s theology: sola fide and sola scriptura .

Sola fide means “by faith alone”—faith, as opposed to good works, as the basis for salvation. This was not a new idea. St. Augustine, the founder of Luther’s monastic order, laid it out in the fourth century. Furthermore, it is not an idea that fits well with what we know of Luther. Pure faith, contemplation, white light: surely these are the gifts of the Asian religions, or of medieval Christianity, of St. Francis with his birds. As for Luther, with his rages and sweats, does he seem a good candidate? Eventually, however, he discovered (with lapses) that he could be released from those torments by the simple act of accepting God’s love for him. Lest it be thought that this stern man then concluded that we could stop worrying about our behavior and do whatever we wanted, he said that works issue from faith. In his words, “We can no more separate works from faith than heat and light from fire.” But he did believe that the world was irretrievably full of sin, and that repairing that situation was not the point of our moral lives. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger,” he wrote to a friend.

The second great principle, sola scriptura , or “by scripture alone,” was the belief that only the Bible could tell us the truth. Like sola fide , this was a rejection of what, to Luther, were the lies of the Church—symbolized most of all by the indulgence market. Indulgences brought you an abbreviation of your stay in Purgatory, but what was Purgatory? No such thing is mentioned in the Bible. Some people think that Dante made it up; others say Gregory the Great. In any case, Luther decided that somebody made it up.

Guided by those convictions, and fired by his new certainty of God’s love for him, Luther became radicalized. He preached, he disputed. Above all, he wrote pamphlets. He denounced not only the indulgence trade but all the other ways in which the Church made money off Christians: the endless pilgrimages, the yearly Masses for the dead, the cults of the saints. He questioned the sacraments. His arguments made sense to many people, notably Frederick the Wise. Frederick was pained that Saxony was widely considered a backwater. He now saw how much attention Luther brought to his state, and how much respect accrued to the university that he (Frederick) had founded at Wittenberg. He vowed to protect this troublemaker.

Things came to a head in 1520. By then, Luther had taken to calling the Church a brothel, and Pope Leo X the Antichrist. Leo gave Luther sixty days to appear in Rome and answer charges of heresy. Luther let the sixty days elapse; the Pope excommunicated him; Luther responded by publicly burning the papal order in the pit where one of Wittenberg’s hospitals burned its used rags. Reformers had been executed for less, but Luther was by now a very popular man throughout Europe. The authorities knew they would have serious trouble if they killed him, and the Church gave him one more chance to recant, at the upcoming diet—or congregation of officers, sacred and secular—in the cathedral city of Worms in 1521. He went, and declared that he could not retract any of the charges he had made against the Church, because the Church could not show him, in Scripture, that any of them were false:

Since then your serene majesties and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, plain and unvarnished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the scriptures or clear reason, for I do not trust in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything.

How Martin Luther Changed the World

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The Pope often errs! Luther will decide what God wants! By consulting Scripture! No wonder that an institution wedded to the idea of its leader’s infallibility was profoundly shaken by this declaration. Once the Diet of Worms came to an end, Luther headed for home, but he was “kidnapped” on the way, by a posse of knights sent by his protector, Frederick the Wise. The knights spirited him off to the Wartburg, a secluded castle in Eisenach, in order to give the authorities time to cool off. Luther was annoyed by the delay, but he didn’t waste time. That’s when he translated the New Testament.

During his lifetime, Luther became probably the biggest celebrity in the German-speaking lands. When he travelled, people flocked to the high road to see his cart go by. This was due not just to his personal qualities and the importance of his cause but to timing. Luther was born only a few decades after the invention of printing, and though it took him a while to start writing, it was hard to stop him once he got going. Among the quincentennial books is an entire volume on his relationship to print, “ Brand Luther ” (Penguin), by the British historian Andrew Pettegree. Luther’s collected writings come to a hundred and twenty volumes. In the first half of the sixteenth century, a third of all books published in German were written by him.

By producing them, he didn’t just create the Reformation; he also created his country’s vernacular, as Dante is said to have done with Italian. The majority of his writings were in Early New High German, a form of the language that was starting to gel in southern Germany at that time. Under his influence, it did gel.

The crucial text is his Bible: the New Testament, translated from the original Greek and published in 1523, followed by the Old Testament, in 1534, translated from the Hebrew. Had he not created Protestantism, this book would be the culminating achievement of Luther’s life. It was not the first German translation of the Bible—indeed, it had eighteen predecessors—but it was unquestionably the most beautiful, graced with the same combination of exaltation and simplicity, but more so, as the King James Bible. (William Tyndale, whose English version of the Bible, for which he was executed, was more or less the basis of the King James, knew and admired Luther’s translation.) Luther very consciously sought a fresh, vigorous idiom. For his Bible’s vocabulary, he said, “we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street,” and, like other writers with such aims—William Blake, for example—he ended up with something songlike. He loved alliteration—“ Der Herr ist mein Hirte ” (“The Lord is my shepherd”); “ Dein Stecken und Stab ” (“thy rod and thy staff”)—and he loved repetition and forceful rhythms. This made his texts easy and pleasing to read aloud, at home, to the children. The books also featured a hundred and twenty-eight woodcut illustrations, all by one artist from the Cranach workshop, known to us only as Master MS. There they were, all those wondrous things—the Garden of Eden, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob wrestling with the angel—which modern people are used to seeing images of and which Luther’s contemporaries were not. There were marginal glosses, as well as short prefaces for each book, which would have been useful for the children of the household and probably also for the family member reading to them.

These virtues, plus the fact that the Bible was probably, in many cases, the only book in the house, meant that it was widely used as a primer. More people learned to read, and the more they knew how to read the more they wanted to own this book, or give it to others. The three-thousand-copy first edition of the New Testament, though it was not cheap (it cost about as much as a calf), sold out immediately. As many as half a million Luther Bibles seem to have been printed by the mid-sixteenth century. In his discussions of sola scriptura , Luther had declared that all believers were priests: laypeople had as much right as the clergy to determine what Scripture meant. With his Bible, he gave German speakers the means to do so.

In honor of the five-hundredth anniversary, the excellent German art-book publisher Taschen has produced a facsimile with spectacular colored woodcuts. Pleasingly, the book historian Stephan Füssel, in the explanatory paperback that accompanies the two-volume facsimile, reports that in 2004, when a fire swept through the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, in Weimar, where this copy was housed, it was “rescued, undamaged, with not a second to lose, thanks to the courageous intervention of library director Dr. Michael Knoche.” I hope that Dr. Knoche himself ran out with the two volumes in his arms. I don’t know what the price of a calf is these days, but the price of this facsimile is sixty dollars. Anyone who wants to give himself a Luther quincentennial present should order it immediately. Master MS’s Garden of Eden is full of wonderful animals—a camel, a crocodile, a little toad—and in the towns everyone wears those black shoes like the ones in Brueghel paintings. The volumes lie flat on the table when you open them, and the letters are big and black and clear. Even if you don’t understand German, you can sort of read them.

Among the supposedly Biblical rules that Luther pointed out could not be found in the Bible was the requirement of priestly celibacy. Well before the Diet of Worms, Luther began advising priests to marry. He said that he would marry, too, if he did not expect, every day, to be executed for heresy. One wonders. But in 1525 he was called upon to help a group of twelve nuns who had just fled a Cistercian convent, an action that was related to his reforms. Part of his duty to these women, he felt, was to return them to their families or to find husbands for them. At the end, one was left, a twenty-six-year-old girl named Katharina von Bora, the daughter of a poor, albeit noble, country family. Luther didn’t want her, he said—he found her “proud”—but she wanted him. She was the one who proposed. And though, as he told a friend, he felt no “burning” for her, he formed with her a marriage that is probably the happiest story in any account of his life.

One crucial factor was her skill in household management. The Luthers lived in the so-called Black Monastery, which had been Wittenberg’s Augustinian monastery—that is, Luther’s old home as a friar—before the place emptied out as a result of the reformer’s actions. (One monk became a cobbler, another a baker, and so on.) It was a huge, filthy, comfortless place. Käthe, as Luther called her, made it livable, and not just for her immediate family. Between ten and twenty students lodged there, and the household took in many others as well: four children of Luther’s dead sister Margarete, plus four more orphaned children from both sides of the family, plus a large family fleeing the plague. A friend of the reformer, writing to an acquaintance journeying to Wittenberg, warned him on no account to stay with the Luthers if he valued peace and quiet. The refectory table seated between thirty-five and fifty, and Käthe, having acquired a large market garden and a considerable amount of livestock (pigs, goats), and now supervising a staff of up to ten employees (maids, a cook, a swineherd, et al.), fed them all. She also handled the family’s finances, and at times had to economize carefully. Luther would accept no money for his writings, on which he could have profited hugely, and he would not allow students to pay to attend his lectures, as was the custom.

Luther appreciated the sheer increase in his physical comfort. When he writes to a friend, soon after his marriage, of what it is like to lie in a dry bed after years of sleeping on a pile of damp, mildewed straw, and when, elsewhere, he speaks of the surprise of turning over in bed and seeing a pair of pigtails on the pillow next to his, your heart softens toward this dyspeptic man. More important, he began to take women seriously. He objects, in a lecture, to coitus interruptus, the most common form of birth control at the time, on the ground that it is frustrating for women. When he was away from home, he wrote Käthe affectionate letters, with such salutations as “Most holy Frau Doctor” and “To the hands and feet of my dear housewife.”

Among Käthe’s virtues was fertility. Every year or so for eight years, she produced a child—six in all, of whom four survived to adulthood—and Luther loved these children. He even allowed them to play in his study while he was working. Of five-year-old Hans, his firstborn, he wrote, “When I’m writing or doing something else, my Hans sings a little tune for me. If he becomes too noisy and I rebuke him for it, he continues to sing but does it more privately and with a certain awe and uneasiness.” That scene, which comes from “ Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval ” (Oxford), by the German historian Heinz Schilling, seems to me impossible to improve upon as a portrait of what it must have been like for Luther to have a little boy, and for a little boy to have Luther as a father. Luther was not a lenient parent—he used the whip when he felt he needed to, and poor Hans was sent to the university at the age of seven—but when, on his travels, the reformer passed through a town that was having a fair he liked to buy presents for the children. In 1536, when he went to the Diet of Augsburg, another important convocation, he kept a picture of his favorite child, Magdalene, on the wall of his chamber. Magdalene died at thirteen. Schilling again produces a telling scene. Magdalene is nearing the end; Luther is holding her. He says he knows she would like to stay with her father, but, he adds, “Are you also glad to go to your father in heaven?” She died in his arms. How touching that he could find this common-sense way to comfort her, and also that he seems to feel that Heaven is right above their heads, with one father holding out a hand to take to himself the other’s child.

One thing that Luther seems especially to have loved about his children was their corporeality—their fat, noisy little bodies. When Hans finally learned to bend his knees and relieve himself on the floor, Luther rejoiced, reporting to a friend that the child had “crapped in every corner of the room.” I wonder who cleaned that up—not Luther, I would guess—but it is hard not to feel some of his pleasure. Sixteenth-century Germans were not, in the main, dainty of thought or speech. A representative of the Vatican once claimed that Luther was conceived when the Devil raped his mother in an outhouse. That detail comes from Eric Metaxas’s book, which is full of vulgar stories, not that one has to look far for vulgar stories in Luther’s life. My favorite (reported in Erikson’s book) is a comment that Luther made at the dinner table while in the grip of a depression. “I am like a ripe shit,” he said, “and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.” It takes you a minute to realize that Luther is saying that he feels he is dying. And then you want to congratulate him on the sheer zest, the proto-surrealist nuttiness, of his metaphor. He may feel as though he’s dying, but he’s having a good time feeling it.

The group on which Luther expended his most notorious denunciations was not the Roman Catholic clergy but the Jews. His sentiments were widely shared. In the words of Heinz Schilling, “Late medieval Christians generally hated and despised Jews.” But Luther despised them dementedly, ecstatically. In his 1543 treatise “On the Ineffable Name and the Generations of Christ,” he imagines the Devil stuffing the Jews’ orifices with filth: “He stuffs and squirts them so full, that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes, it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.” Witness the death of Judas Iscariot, he adds: “When Judas Schariot hanged himself, so that his guts ripped, and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss . . . and afterwards together they ate the shit.” The Jews’ synagogues should be burned down, he wrote; their houses should be destroyed. He did not recommend that they be killed, but he did say that Christians had no moral responsibilities to them, which amounts to much the same thing.

This is hair-raising, but what makes Luther’s anti-Semitism most disturbing is not its extremity (which, by sounding so crazy, diminishes its power). It is the fact that the country of which he is a national hero did indeed, quite recently, exterminate six million Jews. Hence the formula “ From Luther to Hitler ,” popularized by William Montgomery McGovern’s 1941 book of that title—the notion that Luther laid the groundwork for the slaughter. Those who have wished to defend him have pointed out that his earlier writings, such as the 1523 pamphlet “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” are much more conciliatory in tone. He seemed to regret that, as he put it, Christians had “dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs.” But making excuses for Luther on the basis of his earlier, more temperate writings does not really work. As scholars have been able to show, Luther was gentler early on because he was hoping to persuade the Jews to convert. When they failed to do so, he unleashed his full fury, more violent now because he believed that the comparative mildness of his earlier writings may have been partly responsible for their refusal.

Luther’s anti-Semitism would be a moral problem under any circumstances. People whom we admire often commit terrible sins, and we have no good way of explaining this to ourselves. But when one adds the historical factor—that, in Luther’s case, the judgment is being made five centuries after the event—we hit a brick wall. At the Nuremberg trials, in 1946, Julius Streicher, the founder and publisher of the Jew-baiting newspaper Der Stürmer , quoted Luther as the source of his beliefs and said that if he was going to be blamed Luther would have to be blamed as well. But, in the words of Thomas Kaufmann, a professor of church history at the University of Göttingen, “The Nuremberg judges sat in judgment over the mass murderers of the twentieth century, not over the delusions of a misguided sixteenth-century theology professor. . . . Another judge must judge Luther.” How fortunate to be able to believe that such a judge will come, and have an answer.

Luther lived to what, in the sixteenth century, was an old age, sixty-two, but the years were not kind to him. Actually, he lived most of his life in turmoil. When he was young, there were the Anfechtungen . Then, once he issued the theses and began his movement, he had to struggle not just with the right, the Roman Church, but with the left—the Schwärmer (fanatics), as he called them, the people who felt that he hadn’t gone far enough. He spent days and weeks in pamphlet wars over matters that, today, have to be patiently explained to us, they seem so remote. Did Communion involve transubstantiation, or was Jesus physically present from the start of the rite? Luther, a “Real Presence” man, said the latter. Should people be baptized soon after they are born, as Luther said, or when they are adults, as the Anabaptists claimed?

When Luther was young, he was good at friendship. He was frank and warm; he loved jokes; he wanted to have people and noise around him. (Hence the fifty-seat dinner table.) As he grew older, he changed. He found that he could easily discard friends, even old friends, even his once beloved confessor, Staupitz. People who had dealings with the movement found themselves going around him if they could, usually to his right-hand man, Philip Melanchthon. Always sharp-tongued, Luther now lost all restraint, writing in a treatise that Pope Paul III was a sodomite and a transvestite—no surprise, he added, when you considered that all popes, since the beginnings of the Church, were full of devils and vomited and farted and defecated devils. This starts to sound like his attacks on the Jews.

His health declined. He had dizzy spells, bleeding hemorrhoids, constipation, urine retention, gout, kidney stones. To balance his “humors,” the surgeon made a hole, or “fontanelle,” in a vein in his leg, and it was kept open. Whatever this did for his humors, it meant that he could no longer walk to the church or the university. He had to be taken in a cart. He suffered disabling depressions. “I have lost Christ completely,” he wrote to Melanchthon. From a man of his temperament and convictions, this is a terrible statement.

In early 1546, he had to go to the town of his birth, Eisleben, to settle a dispute. It was January, and the roads were bad. Tellingly, he took all three of his sons with him. He said the trip might be the death of him, and he was right. He died in mid-February. Appropriately, in view of his devotion to the scatological, his corpse was given an enema, in the hope that this would revive him. It didn’t. After sermons in Eisleben, the coffin was driven back to Wittenberg, with an honor guard of forty-five men on horseback. Bells tolled in every village along the way. Luther was buried in the Castle Church, on whose door he was said to have nailed his theses.

Although his resting place evokes his most momentous act, it also highlights the intensely local nature of the life he led. The transformations he set in motion were incidental to his struggles, which remained irreducibly personal. His goal was not to usher in modernity but simply to make religion religious again. Heinz Schilling writes, “Just when the lustre of religion threatened to be outdone by the atheistic and political brilliance of the secularized Renaissance papacy, the Wittenberg monk defined humankind’s relationship to God anew and gave back to religion its existential plausibility.” Lyndal Roper thinks much the same. She quotes Luther saying that the Church’s sacraments “are not fulfilled when they are taking place but when they are being believed.” All he asked for was sincerity, but this made a great difference. ♦

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Luther’s Ninety-five Theses: What You May Not Know and Why They Matter Today

ninety five theses impact

More By Justin Holcomb

ninety five theses impact

For more accessible overviews of key moments in church history, purchase Justin Holcomb’s new book, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014) [ interview ]. Additionally, Holcomb has made available to TGC readers an exclusive bonus chapter, which can be accessed here . This article is a shortened version of the chapter.

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event on October 31, 1517, when the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther (1483–1586) were nailed on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in protest against the Roman Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the “church’s camp” or “Luther’s camp” but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about Scripture and justification. Regarding Scripture, he argued the Bible alone ( sola scriptura ) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. Regarding justification, he taught we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than relying partly on our own self-improvement.

Forgiveness with a Price Tag

These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-five Theses, even though this document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so it was substituting a false hope (that forgiveness can be earned or purchased) for the true hope of the gospel (that we receive forgiveness solely via the riches of God’s grace).

The Roman Catholic Church claimed it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring to the sinner some of the merits of the saints. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the long, intense struggle Luther himself had experienced over the issues of salvation and assurance. At this point of collision between one man’s gospel hope and the church’s denial of that hope the Ninety-five Theses can be properly understood.

Theses Themselves

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He didn’t believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; he just believed they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

As well as their duty to others:

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

Luther’s attitude toward the pope is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he’d gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the church’s power:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve and strengthened his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther and, in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.

Ongoing Relevance

Although the Ninety-five Theses doesn’t explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of grasping and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Roman Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. He longed for the hope and security that only the good news can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from saving union with God. Further, Luther’s focus on the teaching of Scripture is significant, since it provided the foundation on which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and, perhaps most notably, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him. The outspoken courage Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas (Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, glory to God alone)—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.

Is there enough evidence for us to believe the Gospels?

ninety five theses impact

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is author with his wife, Lindsey, of God Made All of Me , Is It My Fault? , and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault . Justin also has written or edited numerous other books on historical theology and biblical studies. You can find him on Facebook , Twitter , and at .

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The ninety-five theses.

by Dr. Jack Kilcrease


Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that the sinner is free from eternal punishment, he is still subject to temporal punishment. Temporal punishment is simply the temporary suffering that all sin merits irrespective to forgiveness. If a person possesses heartfelt sadness at having violated the will of God (what Roman Catholic theology calls “contrition”) they will have already partially fulfilled the temporal punishment due to their sin. If they are merely repenting because they fear God’s judgment (what Roman Catholic theology calls “attrition”), then they will be subject to the full weight of temporal punishment.

In order to fulfill temporal punishment due to sin, the priest assigns penance after he has absolved the believer of sin. The priest decides how much penance to assign on the basis of an educated guess regarding the level of contrition experienced by the sinner. The more contrition the sinner feels (as opposed to mere attrition), the less penance should be assigned. To the extent that the sinner does not complete all penance given to him, or the priest makes a mistake regarding how much penance should be assigned, the sinner will have to endure the sufferings of purgatory in the next life to fill in the deficit.


Indulgences were invented partially as a way to solve the problem of the inexact nature of penance. Because the pope has access to the “Treasury of Merits” (i.e., the great reserve of the merits of Christ and the saints), he can release persons from the need to perform penance whenever he so chooses. This power extends to this life as well as the next (i.e., purgatory). He can do this by attaching a promise of indulgence to any action a sinner might take. By the time of the Reformation, the pope had attached this promise of the abrogation of penance to the payment of a fee. The pope also decreed that people could  make a payment for their dead relatives in purgatory, thereby shortening their sufferings.

The specific occasion of the outbreak of the Indulgence Controversy was Johann Tetzel’s sale of indulgences in northern Germany. This sale was authorized by Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Pope Leo X. Albrecht had recently paid the pope to make him archbishop of the region.  In order to repay the loan Albrecht had taken out to cover the bribe, the pope offered him the option of allowing the sale of indulgences in his region of Germany and splitting the profits with the Vatican. Specifically, the papacy was interested in selling indulgences at this time as a way of paying for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although indulgences were not sold in Saxony, many people in Wittenberg traveled to the nearby regions and purchased them.


Lastly, Luther argued that the pope does not have any power over purgatory.  If we believe that the pope does, argued Luther, it raises the uncomfortable question of why he does not simply empty purgatory for the sake of mercy, rather than demanding a fee.

The Motto of the Reformation: VDMA

Jack Kilcrease is a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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The Controversial Church Practice of Selling Indulgences

Martin luther and the creation of the ninety-five theses.

  • Content of the Ninety-Five Theses
  • Impact of the Theses to the Church
  • Oppositions to the Theses
  • Consequences of the Theses to Society

Key Facts And Information

Let’s find out more about the ninety-five theses.

ninety five theses impact

The Ninety-Five Theses, also known as 'Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences', were a series of propositions by Martin Luther in 1517. Challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the nature of penance, the usefulness of indulgences, and the authority of the Pope, Luther's theses sparked a theological debate that led to the Protestant Reformation .  Luther argued that faith alone, not deeds, leads to salvation, a radical departure from the Church's belief at the time. Luther's theses effectively questioned the Church's practice of selling indulgences - pardons for sins - asserting that it fostered a false sense of spiritual security. This seminal work heralded a period of religious and political transformation in Europe.

  • During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church initiated selling indulgences as a means for the faithful to gain absolution for their sins. In an attempt to cleanse their souls and shorten their time in purgatory or even those of their loved ones, the believers would purchase these indulgences. 
  • The funds raised by the Church through this practice were often used for various purposes, including funding the construction of majestic cathedrals, supporting the clergy, and even financing wars and crusades. 
  • Selling indulgences was a contentious issue that created a chasm within the Church. Believers were taught that indulgences could remit the temporal punishment of sins, reducing the penance one had to do. This practice was built upon the belief that the Church held a treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints that could be transferred to believers to aid their salvation.
  • Critics argued that indulgences had been twisted into a financial transaction, far removed from their spiritual origins. They contended that this practice commodified grace and exploited the fears of the faithful, who believed they could buy their way into Heaven or reduce the suffering of their departed loved ones in Purgatory. 
  • Martin Luther was one of the most vocal critics of the Church's corrupt practices. This controversy of selling indulgences would ultimately lead to the creation of the Ninety-Five Theses.
  • Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony, 1483, was an influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. He was an accomplished scholar, receiving his theology doctorate from the University of Wittenberg in 1512. Serving as a professor at the same university, he became increasingly disturbed by the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences. 

ninety five theses impact

  • The Church's doctrine of Purgatory, where sinners were tormented in flames until their sins were forgiven and allowed to join paradise, has no foundation in the Bible. Even so, where was the Pope's justification in Scripture?
  • Martin Luther's deep-seated frustration with the Church's practices culminated in the creation of the Ninety-Five Theses, formally titled "Disputation on the Power of Indulgences". Tradition holds that Luther pinned his paper to the Wittenberg Church door on 31 October, All Saints Eve, 1517; however, contemporary study disputes this account. 
  • Later, Luther's friend and coworker Philip Melanchthon, who was not even at Wittenberg then, spread the legend of Luther and the church door. Nevertheless, academics agree that Luther would have been known for spectacular actions like nailing his arguments to the church door. 
  • Luther penned the Theses in Latin, intending to serve as talking points for a theological debate among academics. However, their translation into German and subsequent printing and dissemination led to widespread public discussion, reaching a much larger audience than Luther had initially intended. 
  • The Ninety-Five Theses was not just a scholarly treatise but a bold declaration challenging the corruption Luther perceived within the Church. Each of the ninety-five statements that composed this document was a direct critique of the Church's practice of selling indulgences, the idea that one could essentially buy their way to salvation. 

Inside the Ninety-Five Theses

  • Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses radically re-evaluated the Church's teachings. Its core principle declared that salvation could not be bought, but rather was a gift from God, received through faith. 
  • The Theses criticised the selling of indulgences and examined the Church's approach to sin and confession. Theses 5-8 challenged the belief that the Pope had the power to forgive sins, asserting instead that only God could do this. Luther argued that priests merely offer a sacramental sign of forgiveness, but God alone absolves individuals from their sins.

ninety five theses impact

  • The theses critiqued the Church's commercialisation of salvation, with theses 45-51 directly criticising the practice of selling indulgences, stating, "Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath."
  • In Theses 62-66, Luther challenged the Church's claim that salvation could be achieved through good works. He contended that faith alone was crucial for salvation, laying the groundwork for a central tenet of Protestant theology. 
  • Theses 92-95 held the concluding and resonant message, urging Christians to follow Christ, who entered paradise through a life of humility, self-denial, and faith. 
  • Luther's work was not merely a list of arguments, but a call to reform, to return to the teachings of Christ and the Bible, highlighting Scripture as the ultimate spiritual authority. This revolutionary document sparked a robust debate about the Church's practices, playing a pivotal role in shaping the Protestant Reformation.

Impact on the Church

  • Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses sparked widespread debate upon their publication. His central argument that faith alone could lead to salvation contradicted the Church's teachings and shook its foundations. His extreme opposition led to his excommunication and laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
  • Luther's teachings spread rapidly throughout Germany and other parts of Europe in the early 16th century as people began to read and discuss his ideas. Many people were attracted to Luther's emphasis on salvation through faith alone and his criticism of the sale of indulgences and other practices of the Roman Catholic Church, which led to the formation of new religious communities and the establishment of churches outside of the Catholic Church.
  • The implications of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were immense and multi-faceted. Notably, they challenged the absolute authority of the Pope, which was a central pillar of the Catholic Church's power. Luther argued that the Pope had no power over Purgatory and insisted that the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints had no foundation in the gospel.
  • The Theses also promoted the idea of a "priesthood of all believers", which suggested that Christians did not need a priest to act as an intermediary with God. This was a radical shift from the Church's hierarchical structure and emphasised personal spiritual development and individual interpretation of the scriptures.
  • Furthermore, the Ninety-Five Theses catalysed a wave of reformist movements across Europe. They sparked the Swiss Reformation led by Huldrych Zwingli, the Reformation in France spearheaded by John Calvin , and the English Reformation that eventually led to the establishment of the Church of England. 
  • As such, Luther's bold challenge against the Church's practices did not merely create a temporary ripple but instead instigated a tidal wave of religious, cultural, and societal transformations that are still felt today.

Oppositions to the Ninety-Five Theses

  • Luther's Ninety-Five Theses faced significant opposition from various quarters. To begin with, the Catholic Church, unsurprisingly, represented the most vehement opposition. The Church hierarchy saw Luther's act as challenging papal authority and the established religious order. Pope Leo X condemned the Theses as heretical, and Luther was eventually excommunicated in 1521.
  • Another source of opposition came from within the monarchy. Many rulers, especially those closely aligned with the Church, feared Luther's ideas would destabilise their kingdoms and incite social unrest. Notably, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared Luther an outlaw at the Diet of Worms.
  • Moreover, Luther also faced resistance from other reformers who did not agree with all of his teachings. This resulted in significant fracturing within the Protestant movement, leading to the development of different Protestant traditions. These oppositions, far from suppressing Luther's movement, further highlighted the Ninety-Five Theses' profound impact on Europe's religious landscape.

Consequences to Society

  • The Ninety-Five Theses had profound societal implications, triggering changes far beyond religion. They ignited a spirit of critical inquiry and individualism among the people, encouraging them to question traditional authority and paving the way for the Enlightenment era .
  • Education was prioritised as literacy became necessary to read and interpret the Bible, leading to a significant increase in literacy rates across Europe. The need for accessible copies of the Bible also spurred advancements in printing technology, delivering a significant boost to the publishing industry.
  • Furthermore, the Theses bred a new wave of political thought. Luther's challenge to the papal authority unintentionally gave rise to the concept of separation of Church and state, a principle that remains a cornerstone of many modern democratic societies. Simultaneously, the shift in power dynamics led to the rise of nation-states, as monarchs and rulers seized the opportunity to consolidate their power, free from papal interference. This shift is considered a critical factor in the end of feudalism and the dawn of the modern era.
  • Lastly, the social fabric was inherently transformed. The Theses led to the Protestant work ethic, a sociological theory that connects Protestantism with hard work, diligence, and frugality. This ethic profoundly influenced the development of capitalism, contributing to the economic transformation of Europe. 
  • The implications of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were not confined to religious reformations. The Theses left an indelible footprint on educational norms, political structure, economic theory, and social customs, making them a pivotal event in world history.

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Why 1517? The Ninety-Five Theses in Context

By Yvonne Petry


Any list of historic events or people includes Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 as one of the top ten historic changes in world history. The spark that Luther struck with the Ninety-Five Theses lit a fire across Western Europe, found a receptive audience among fellow clergymen and scholars, but also knights, urban middle class, and unhappy peasants. The German Reformation began in Wittenberg, where Luther taught, but within a few years spread throughout Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, then to England and Scandinavia. Over the next forty years, entire nations broke from the authority of the Roman church and redrew the map of Europe.

Martin Luther himself recognized the impact of the events of 1517. Looking back to that year thirty years later, by which time Luther was in his sixties, he wrote that

I was a preacher, a young Doctor of Theology, as they say. I began to dissuade the people from lending an ear to the shouts of the indulgence-sellers. I told them that they had better things to do and that I was sure that in these matters I had the pope on my side. … What I did toppled heaven and consumed earth by fire. [1]

One of the big questions historians ask about the history of church reform is: why did Martin Luther succeed when others before him had failed? One of the most common answers to this question is that, by 1517, European society had begun to change in fundamental ways, but the church as an institution had not.  

Late Medieval Christianity

In order to understand what happened in 1517, it is vital to begin by examining the social history of the Christian Church prior to the Reformation. Medieval Christianity was vibrant in many ways. For the peasants, who comprised the vast majority of the population, Christianity was part of village life. They did not understand complicated doctrines concerning the Trinity or the nature of Christ. Rather, they participated in the ritual life of the church, a life that was shared communally. They called on the saints for healing or protection; they watched the priest elevate the sacred host, believing he was doing something miraculous; they went on pilgrimages to view relics; they feasted and fasted according to the church calendar; and they relied on the sacraments of the church to carry them from cradle to grave and into the next life.

Most people did not worry about their salvation – after all, they were being watched over by the saints, and they had priests, monks, and nuns were praying for their souls. They understood that after death, people went to purgatory for a final cleansing or “purging” of their sins, on the path upward to heaven. Scholastic theology – called scholastic because it came out of the medieval universities – suggested that if individuals did their best, God would recognize their efforts and help them on their way.  

The Sacrament of Penance and the Sale of Indulgences

To understand the issue with indulgences, it is also important to know something about the sacrament of penance, which was the way in which the church promised people absolution of their sins. It involved three actions: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Priests used books called penitentials which listed the appropriate action that would give satisfaction for any given sin. Typical acts of penance included fasting on bread and water, repeating the Ave Maria or Lord’s Prayer, giving alms, or visiting a shrine. Because acts of penance were often inconvenient, it became increasingly common to buy an indulgence rather than perform an act of penance.

Penitential practices evolved slowly over several centuries. Indulgences were first used during the crusades and promised remission of sins to those who fought in the Holy Land. Popes then began to issue them to those who made pilgrimages to Rome. By the fourteenth century, funds raised from indulgences were being used to repair and build churches. In 1343, Pope Clement VI began to speak of the treasury of merits, the concept that the church possessed surplus merits that could be purchased. In 1476, Sixtus IV said that indulgences could be used to help souls in purgatory; in other words, indulgences became transferable from one person to another.

With these developments, penitental practices also began to sound quite financial. In fact, scholastic theologians borrowed metaphors from the expanding money economy and the new science of bookkeeping. It was as though individuals had their own bank accounts with debits (sins) and credits (merits). Each sin committed depleted the account; fortunately, the Church possessed an inexhaustible reserve of surplus measured. As God’s representative on earth, the pope was the chief financial officer of the whole operation. By the late fifteenth century, increasing numbers of “pardoners” roamed around Europe, selling indulgences; we find one such individual in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1476) .

The penitential system was based on the assumption that sin was quantifiable, and that the Church possessed the surplus merits to allow individuals to indulge in those merits in order to receive pardon for their own or others’ sins. Whatever we may think of this system, it did possess a sort of logical coherence. And it was accepted as valid for many centuries.

In summary, by the late Middle Ages, a picture emerges of tight-knit village communities, held together by festivals, by rituals, and processions, and more or less assured that the sacraments of the Church, including the sacrament of penance, would enable them to go to heaven. However, long before the Reformation began, it was clear that there were cracks appearing in the edifice of the institutional church.  

The Church as Institution

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Christian Church was not only the most important religious institution at the centre of European culture, society, and political life. Over many centuries, the Church had also become thoroughly wedded to the hierarchical class structure of Western Europe. In other words, the Church hierarchy mirrored the social hierarchy, with some bishoprics remaining in the hands of the same noble family over generations.

The office of the pope was a hugely important political position, and medieval popes repeatedly claimed authority over kings and emperors. Papal power reached its peak during the twelfth century, but then slowly began to erode. By 1309, political instability in Rome and political manoeuvering by Philip IV of France resulted in the pope leaving Rome for southern France, where his successors would remain for the next seventy years. The Avignonese popes tended to serve the interests of the French kings. Efforts to return to Rome resulted in the Great Schism in 1378 when two rival popes claimed precedence; efforts to resolve the Schism in turn led to a period where three men claimed to be pope. This institutional chaos ended only in 1417.  

Early Reformers

Beginning in the fourteenth century, there was general recognition that the Church needed reform at many levels. In fact, nearly two hundred years before Luther was born, Oxford Professor John Wycliffe (1320–1384) was outspoken in his criticism of the wealth of the church, the immorality of the clergy, and practices such as the veneration of saints. In the 1380s, he began translating the Bible into English and saw the need to make it available in the vernacular languages. The Czech scholar Jan Hus (1369–1415) translated Wycliffe’s work and ideas and introduced his program of reform in Bohemia.

At the Council of Constance of 1414–1418, one agenda item was the ending the Schism. Another item was the investigation of the ideas of Wycliffe and Hus. Both men were declared heretics by the Council: Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic, and the Council ordered that Wycliffe’s remains were to be exhumed and burned. Nevertheless, the Church would be increasingly criticized and ridiculed – and the new generation of popes just added to the problems.

By the fifteenth century, the Italian city states were embroiled in endless warfare amongst themselves, yet produced some of the most stunning art and architecture in Western history. The Renaissance popes were men of their time and waged war, plotted against their neighbours, hired Michelangelo and Raphael to decorate their homes, and began rebuilding St. Peter’s. They did not heed the growing calls for reform.  

Meanwhile, in Northern Europe …

By the fifteenth century, there was a clear cultural and religious disconnect between northern Europe and Italy. Northern Europeans in the Low Countries and the German states had slowly invented their own religious practices, known as the devotia moderna or Modern Devotion. Groups such as the Beguines emerged, women who wanted to live communally without taking the restrictive vows of the nuns. Schools were founded by the Brothers of the Common Life who taught a new form of introspective Christianity that had more to do with meditating on one's sins, and less with processing around the church with a consecrated host. One of the classic works of Christian devotion, The Imitation of Christ, was written during this time.

Moreover, humanist scholars were beginning to question scholastic theology, considering it too narrow. Italian humanists had rediscovered their own Roman heritage in the works of Cicero, but Northern humanists turned their attention to studying the Bible in the original languages. As he studied the original Greek text of the New Testament, the Dutch scholar Erasmus realized that in some places the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) was inaccurate. Among other things, he noticed that in Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 the Greek term metanoeite was used. The Vulgate translated this as “do penance.” In his annotations, Erasmus (1466–1536) pointed out that a more accurate translation would be “repent.” The combination of the new humanistic learning and the desire for a more interior spirituality meant that for many people in towns and cities, the traditional rituals and practices of the Church began to feel rather hollow. During this period, there was a significant increase in anticlerical sentiment, expressed in pamphlets and satires that ridiculed the clergy for their greed, lack of morals and lack of education.  

The Impact of the Printing Press

The most important development that undergirded this shifting cultural climate in Northern Europe was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1450. It ushered in a technological revolution matched only by the computer revolution of our day. For the first time in Western history, mass communication was possible. Within fifty years of the invention of movable type, print shops appeared all over Europe in towns and cities, producing books, broadsheets, pamphlets, and images.

Also for the first time in Western history, a literate middle class began to emerge; it would become the engine of the Reformation. Because reading is a solitary pursuit, that literate middle class was necessarily more individualistic, and it is obvious that by the early sixteenth century, people were beginning to worry about their salvation. For both scholars and the new literate middle class, the traditional answers that the Church provided began to sound empty and unsatisfying. The fact that many of the priests, especially those in rural areas, could not read also led to dissatisfaction.

In summary, criticism of the Church increased in the early sixteenth century – not so much because it was more corrupt than it had been, but because the expectations of the laity were higher than they had been, and by all accounts, the Church was not responding to those shifting expectations.

In May 1512, at the Fifth Lateran Church Council, just five years before Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo declared:

I see that unless by this council or some other means we place a limit on our morals, unless we force our greedy desire for human things … to yield to the love of divine things, it is all over with Christendom.

These words would be prophetic.  

Martin Luther Enters the Scene

Martin Luther, son of a Saxon miner, was born in Eisleben in 1483. He was one of that generation of devout Germans who began worrying about his salvation. He had attended a school run by the Brothers of the Common Life. He became a monk and was scrupulous about confessing his sins and performing all the acts of penance required – so much so that his fellow monks ridiculed him. To ease his conscience, Luther’s confessor Johann Staupitz (1460–1524) encouraged him to become a scholar of the New Testament. It may very well be that Luther would not have become the man he did without Staupitz’s friendship and encouragement.

In 1512, Luther received his doctorate and became a professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg. It had been founded just a few years earlier, in 1502, by the prince of the region, Frederick III the Wise, Duke of Saxony. He encouraged scholars and artists, especially those interested in the new humanistic learning, to come to his territory, and Luther thrived in this atmosphere. [2] At the time he wrote the Ninety-Five Theses , he was a thiry-four year old monk, priest, and professor.  

In Wittenberg, in the person of Luther, the issue of the sale of indulgences as an example of a corrupt and outdated Church practice came to a head. To understand what happened, it is important to know the political context. The German-speaking lands were not a unified country, but a conglomeration of small principalities united under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. The title of emperor was an elected position, and there were seven princes in Germany who had the right to vote, including Luther’s prince, Frederick of Saxony. Needless to say, holding one of the elector positions was politically desirable, especially when elections became imminent. In 1516, the current emperor, Maximilian I, was rather old.

One of the elector positions – that of the Archbishop of Mainz (the highest ecclesiastical office in the Empire) – was vacant in 1516. The Hohenstaufen family was eager to place one of their own in the position. However, their candidate, Albrecht, was underage, and not an ordained priest. There were ways around this, however, if one could get a dispensation from the pope, and popes were in the habit of granting such dispensations, at a cost.

The Pope in question was Leo X, a member of the wealthy and powerful Medici family. Among other activities, he was continuing the building of St. Peter's in Rome. Leo X agreed to sell the office of archbishop to Albrecht for a large sum of money. The family negotiated a loan to pay for it. In order to pay back the loan, they struck a deal with the Pope. They agreed to allow access to the papal indulgence sellers to their territory, with the understanding that the profits of the sale would be shared. Albrecht of Mainz would use his share to pay off the family debt, and the Pope could carry on his building programme.  

The Ninety-Five Theses

Indulgence sellers such as Johann Tetzel (1465–1519) were hired, and the sale was conducted among the German peasantry. Luther was certainly aware of indulgences before this time, but it was sales techniques used by Tetzel that brought the matter to his attention. Luther began to question the practice of selling indulgences and in response wrote the Ninety-Five Theses.

The first two of the Ninety-Five Theses state:

  • When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  • This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

Clearly, Luther was using Erasmus' Greek New Testament and had read his commentary.

In subsequent theses, Luther questioned the ethics of encouraging peasants to buy indulgences rather than give alms or buy food for their family. He also questioned the authority of the Church to forgive sins, a right that surely belonged to God alone. It is also important to recognize that Luther, a priest and a monk, was raising these issues as an insider. He noted in Thesis 81 that the “unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult for even learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.”

Did Luther post The Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg? Scholars have been debating this issue for the last four decades. [3] Those who question it point out that the earliest reference to him doing so was written approximately thirty years later, by his colleague Philip Melanchthon (1495–1560), who was not present in 1517. Other scholars argue that posting notices to debate at a University was such a normal thing to do that it would not have been considered noteworthy at the time. What we do know is that the Theses were printed and circulated around Europe within a period of two months. We also know that Luther sent a copy to Albrecht of Mainz, who now held the most important ecclesiastical position in the empire. He was not aware of the deal that Albrecht had made with the Pope, or that Albrecht was himself profiting from the indulgence sale.  

The Church's Reaction

Albrecht sent his copies to the theologians in his city and a copy to Rome. There were church officials sent to debate and correct Luther’s mistaken views: Cardinal Cajetan met with him and then a few months later, Johannes Eck (1486–1543). At each interview, Luther refused to back down – his response to his critics was always along the lines of “show me in the Bible where I'm wrong”.

Leo X issued a bull of excommunication in June of 1520, stating that

we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth…We likewise condemn … and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin.

In other words, it was decreed that Luther’s books should be burned. He responded by calling the pope the Antichrist and burning the bull in Wittenberg, two months after he received it.

At the imperial Diet of Worms in spring 1521, presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Luther’s views were declared heretical, and he was made an outlaw. The Edict stated that

we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.  

Luther in Hiding

As a heretic and an outlaw, Luther could certainly have suffered the same fate as Hus. What saved him was his prince, Frederick, and the fact that Emperor Charles needed the support of his German princes, because he was fighting a costly war in Italy against France. Frederick spirited him away and placed him in hiding for a year. He spent that year in Eisenach making the first German translation of the Bible, using the new scholarly tools of the humanists.

Meanwhile, Luther's ideas had touched a nerve all over Europe. While Luther was in hiding, others in Wittenberg picked up the gauntlet. On Christmas Day 1521, Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt (1486–1541) celebrated mass in the German tongue, without clerical vestments, and gave communion in both kinds to parishioners who had not confessed. Propagandists like Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) produced anti-Catholic broadsheets, including The Passion of Christ and Antichrist , which took scenes from the life of Christ and contrasted them with activities of the current pope.  

Salvation by Grace

The years between 1519 and 1521 were seminal for the Reformation. Historians do not know exactly when Martin Luther had his “tower experience” in which he turned traditional salvation theology on its head. It was likely sometime in 1519, as he was studying Romans 1:17, that Luther began to believe that salvation came through God's grace, not through human effort. In other words, humans did not need to earn God’s favour; God would forgive them in spite of their sinfulness. In a series of three treatises published in 1520, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation , and The Freedom of the Christian, Luther laid out some of the most important features of what would become the Protestant position on many issues.  

Celibacy, Marriage, and Katharina von Bora

One of the most radical social changes for the institutional church was the abandonment of the idea of clerical celibacy. As Luther worked on a new theology of salvation, he also examined the theology around the priesthood, celibacy and marriage. In two treatises On the Estate of Marriage in 1519 and 1522, he made the bold claim that marriage is holy. For a thousand years, the Christian Church had taught that marriage was for the weak, that it was a second-best option, going back to Paul. Luther's views were pragmatic, but also realistic. His views on marriage were directly related to his views on the monastic life. He argued that only a select few were called to a celibate life.

As in other things, Luther's views resonated with the laity. German villagers knew that their priests had housekeepers, maids, cooks, girlfriends, and concubines. As long as the priest paid a fine for his misdeeds, the Church looked the other way. For Luther, the solution was simple – let the priests marry. In his Address to the Christian Nobility , he argued quite pragmatically that priests needed housekeepers to look after them. To put them together and expect them to be celibate was like putting fire to straw and thinking it would not burn.

For several years, his friends urged Luther to marry, as an example to others. But Luther stated on more than one occasion that he would not himself marry. However, theology became reality when, in 1523, nine nuns at a convent in Nimbschen became persuaded of the Lutheran message and asked for Luther’s assistance so they could escape. Luther had promised all nine Cistercian nuns that he would help them escape and find them suitable marriage partners. After two years, all of the nuns had married except for Katharina von Bora (1499–1552), a young woman from a minor noble family. Marriage to Luther was Katharina's idea. While it is obvious that Luther married Katharina out of a sense of responsibility for her and not out of any personal desire, he would later come to value her as a companion, praising her abilities and speaking kindly and fondly of her and of the goodness of the estate of marriage.  

Reformation as Political and Social Rebellion

Within a decade of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses , the Reformation became both a political revolt and social rebellion. It is possible that the Reformation might have remained a debate among theologians and clergy. The fact that it did not, is a reflection of the power of the institution of the Church in early modern society. As noted previously, the church hierarchy was identical to the social hierarchy. Thus, all over Europe the bishop, landlord, and nobleman were the one and the same person. As a result, a lot of anger was directed against the Church because its officials were also the landowners, and city councils expelled (by violence or otherwise) the traditional elites, who were in many cases both bishop and lord, and began replacing them with representatives from the artisan class.

As with a lot of social change, the Reformation quickly became violent. Churches were ransacked, priests attacked, statues broken, and chalices stolen wherever the Reformation took hold on the continent. This was in part an attempt to purge the churches of statues, relics, and images that were thought to be irrelevant, but also an attack on the wealth of the church.

The most widespread violence occurred during the German Peasants’ War. Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525), sometimes considered the first communist, took Luther’s message and made it political – he spread his message of the “freedom of the Christian” and “priesthood of all believers” throughout Germany. The Twelve Articles of the Peasants asked for freedom to name their own pastors, and they also objected to excessive taxes, penalties against hunting, and the status of serfdom that landlords were trying to reinstate.

It ended, as most peasants’ revolts did, in failure, with tens of thousands of peasants and artisans dead at the hands of imperial soldiers.

The Reformation also became political. The German princes used Luther’s ideas to fight for their independence from the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther, for his part, appealed to the princes as political allies. Philip of Hesse organized a league of Lutheran princes. This led to three decades of warfare, concluding with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 which allowed each prince to determine the religion in his territory.

Rulers around northern Europe, most notably Henry VIII of England, used the Reformation to declare their independence from Rome and establish the first national churches. In many Protestant countries, this was accompanied by the confiscation of Church lands and estates.  

Fragmenting the Reformation

The Reformation did not result in simply the separation of Protestants from the Catholic Church, but in the development of many types of Protestantism. This was inevitable. The Catholic Church was right to argue that authority needed to be vested in the pope or chaos would erupt – because it did erupt. By placing all authority in the Bible rather than in the traditions of the Church and its decrees, the door was opened for a plethora of interpretations. In 1529 at the Marbourg Colloquy (which was an attempt by one of the German princes to create a unified Protestant front for military purposes), Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (1483–1531) nearly came to blows over interpretations of the Lord’s Supper.

While all Protestants agreed on many issues, disputes arose very quickly regarding the interpretation of scriptures, the sacraments, the structure of the church (Episcopal or Presbyterian), and the role of the church in society. There were also divisions over whether to read certain statements literally or metaphorically, over the extent to which the New Testament ought to be a role model for the Church, and how to make decisions on issues on which the Bible is silent. These divisions eventually led to the spectrum of churches that we have with us today: Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Anabaptist.

Within about ten years after Luther's writing his Ninety-Five Theses , Egidio da Viterbo words from 1512 had become prophetic – it was all over for Christendom. The Christian Church, the landscape of Europe, and the self-understanding of Europeans, would never be the same.

Further Reading

Dixon, Scott. Contesting the Reformation. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.Greengrass, Mark. Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648. New York: Viking, 2014.

Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.Heal, Bridget and Ole Peter Grell, eds. The Impact of the Reformation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.Hendrix, Scott. Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015.

Karant-Nunn, Susan. The Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany . London: Routledge, 1997.Kolb, Robert et al, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Leppin, Volker and Wengert, Timothy. “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses .” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 373-98.

MacCulloch, Diarmid. Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. London: Penguin, 2003.

Marty, Martin. October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016.

McKim, Donald K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mjaaland, Marius Timmann. The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy and Political Theology. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016.Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Ozment, Steven. Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1992.Payton, James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther: 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Pettegree, Andrew. The Reformation World. London: Routledge, 2000.

Plummer, Marjorie Elizabeth. From Priest's Whore to Pastor's Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation . Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.

Rittgers, Ronald. The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Tracy, James. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics and Community. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Wallace, Peter. The Long European Reformation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Wandel, Lee Palmer. The Reformation: Towards a New History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, ed. Convents Confront the Reformation: Catholic and Protestant Nuns in Germany . Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1996.

Wengert, Timothy. Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary and Study Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

*This Table Talk was given at Luther College at the University of Regina on February 7, 2017.

[1] Preface to the complete edition of Luther's Latin Works (1545), trans. Andrew Thornton, from “Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545” in vol. 4 of Luthers Werke in Auswahl , ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967), pp. 421-428,  accessible online .

[2] As a faculty member at a young university, I find that there are interesting parallels to be drawn. In 1963, University of Regina faculty wrote the Regina Beach Manifesto, which stated that the goal of a liberal arts education is not merely the transition of past wisdom, but that scholars are critics of society, and "examiners of institutions and ideas." This same spirit of social criticism characterized the University of Wittenberg in the first decades of the sixteenth century.

[3] A useful summary of the debate is provided by Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert in their recent article, “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, ” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 373-98. They conclude (p. 390) that “there are equally good arguments for and against the posting of the Theses .”

Ninety-Five Theses

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Analysis: “Ninety-Five Theses”

Across the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Luther addresses many pressing issues involving contemporary Christian belief. These include penance , sin, the limits of the pope’s spiritual powers, church corruption, purgatory , and salvation. At the center of it all are five main points:

1. Sincere repentance of sin is a lifelong, personal, emotional, and difficult process for every Christian.

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2. The pope cannot absolve one’s sins through an indulgence or any other action, nor can he reduce the amount of time a soul spends in purgatory.

3. Indulgences can do good by instructing a Christian on how they should perform penance, but some priests have abused and overemphasized indulgences for the sake of greed.

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4. Corrupt priests and theologians have misled people into believing that indulgences alone are enough to save their souls, which has caused false beliefs about Christian doctrine to spread and has harmed opinions about the pope among others.

5. The abuse of indulgences is the fault of certain members of the clergy, not the pope or the church as a whole.

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  • Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide

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  • Title page, Copyright
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Luther’s First Reformation Writings
  • pp. xiii-xlvi
  • The Ninety-Five Theses
  • The Letter to Albrecht
  • A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace
  • Study Guide
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    Today's Christianity was significantly impacted by Martin Luther's 95 Theses.Before the 95 Theses were published in 1517, Catholicism was the dominant religion in Europe. The 16th-century document ...

  8. Ninety-five Theses

    The Ninety-five Theses (95 Theses) or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther.The Theses is retrospectively considered to have launched the Protestant Reformation and the birth of Protestantism, despite various proto-Protestant groups ...

  9. Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction ...

    The book is simply constructed with introductions and notes for each of the writings, as well as a study guide with questions for individual or group reflection and conversation. 978-1-5064-0194-2. Religion. By almost any reckoning, the Ninety-Five Theses ranks as the most important text of the Reformation, if not in substance at least in impact.

  10. How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution

    That Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses helped launch the Reformation is beyond question. Dated October 31, 1517, Luther's letter to his superiors did include copies of the theses.

  11. Martin Luther

    This impact began with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses on 31 October 1517, in which as a young professor at Wittenberg he attacked the Church's sale of indulgences; this was then followed by various further disputations and disputes as well as published works that defended his increasingly radical position, leading to his ...

  12. How Martin Luther Changed the World

    Down the corridors of religious history we hear this sound: Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar, hammering his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church ...

  13. Luther's Ninety-five Theses: What You May Not Know and Why They Matter

    If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event on October 31, 1517, when the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther (1483-1586) were nailed on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in protest against the Roman Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just ...

  14. Ninety-Five Theses Summary and Study Guide

    Instead, the 95 theses were meant to start an academic debate. Luther's main concern in the "Ninety-Five Theses" is indulgences, ... Although Luther and his supporters would have a large impact on the history of Christianity, in the "Ninety-Five Theses" Luther is not arguing to change Christianity or get rid of the pope.

  15. PDF The Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther October 31, 1517, Wittenberg

    The Ninety-Five Theses The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences Posted: October 31, 1517 The Eve of All Saints Day Castle Church Wittenberg, Germany For oral debate on November 1, 1517 Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the

  16. Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses

    Michael Mullett defines the Theses' role in the Lutheran Reformation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) is rightly regarded as the founder of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation - the religious, political, cultural and social revolution that broke the hold of the Catholic Church over Europe. Luther was born in Eisleben in eastern Germany in 1483.

  17. The Ninety-Five Theses

    I n the 95 Theses, Luther's response to indulgences was several fold. First, it must be understood that at this point Luther's teaching on justification was not completely developed and so at first he did not reject the very idea of indulgences, as he later would. Instead, Luther argued that the Latin Bible (also called the Vulgate ...

  18. Ninety-Five Theses

    The Ninety-Five Theses, also known as 'Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences', was a series of propositions by Martin Luther in 1517. ... These oppositions, far from suppressing Luther's movement, further highlighted the Ninety-Five Theses' profound impact on Europe's religious landscape. Consequences to Society.

  19. Why 1517? The Ninety-Five Theses in Context (Y. Petry)

    Introduction. Any list of historic events or people includes Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 as one of the top ten historic changes in world history. The spark that Luther struck with the Ninety-Five Theses lit a fire across Western Europe, found a receptive audience among fellow clergymen and scholars ...

  20. Ninety-Five Theses Essay Analysis

    Analysis: "Ninety-Five Theses". Across the "Ninety-Five Theses," Luther addresses many pressing issues involving contemporary Christian belief. These include penance, sin, the limits of the pope's spiritual powers, church corruption, purgatory, and salvation. At the center of it all are five main points:

  21. Project MUSE

    Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide. Book. by Timothy J. Wengert. 2015. Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers. View. Buy This Book in Print. summary. By almost any reckoning, the Ninety-Five Theses ranks as the most important text of the Reformation, if not in substance at least in impact.

  22. PDF Summary of Ninety-Five

    J. Grimm's book, Ninety-Five Theses, delves into the historical context and theological significance of Luther's bold act, exploring how it set off a chain reaction of events that would forever change the course of Western Christianity. To fully understand the impact of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, it is essential to consider the

  23. Catholic-Protestant relations

    Catholic-Protestant theological dissent was birthed in 1517 with the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses which outline ninety-five objections against Catholic doctrine. These included distinction between clergy and laity , the Roman Church's monopoly on scriptural interpretation , the sale of indulgences , the nature of salvation ...

  24. Nineteen Eighty-Four

    Nineteen Eighty-Four (also published as 1984) is a dystopian novel and cautionary tale by English writer George Orwell.It was published on 8 June 1949 by Secker & Warburg as Orwell's ninth and final book completed in his lifetime. Thematically, it centres on the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of people and behaviours within society.

  25. Chapter 2 The Evolution of Print Media.pdf

    Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, which criticized the Catholic Church's practices, were printed and widely distributed, igniting ... The Legacy of Print Media The evolution of print media from the Gutenberg press to the present day has had a profound impact on society. It has transformed how we share information, communicate ideas, and ...

  26. Strategic analysis of Vietnam Airlines

    The aviation industry is currently encountering significant challenges, including political conflicts, fuel price fluctuations, and inflation, as it strives to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vietnam Airlines, a prominent player in the aviation industry in Southeast Asia, has shown remarkable resilience and adaptability. Their effective strategies have not only revitalized ...

  27. ‎The AI Daily Brief (Formerly The AI Breakdown): Artificial

    A daily news analysis show on all things artificial intelligence. NLW looks at AI from multiple angles, from the explosion of creativity brought on by new tools like Midjourney and ChatGPT to the potential disruptions to work and industries as we know them to the great philosophical, ethical and practical questions of advanced general intelligence, alignment and x-risk.

  28. Thesis

    A thesis (pl.: theses), or dissertation (abbreviated diss.) , is a ... The examination board often consists of three to five examiners, often professors in a university (with a Masters or PhD degree) depending on the university's examination rules. Required word length, complexity, and contribution to scholarship varies widely across ...

  29. Vliv spalování posklizňových zbytků rýže na zdraví obyvatel ve

    At the same time, air pollutants produced by biomass burning and their impact on human health are described. In the analytical part of the thesis, data on the concentration of five air pollutants (NO2, CO, O3, PM2.5 and PM10) are processed. Four types of relative risk of death associated with PM exposure are analysed.