Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, which expressed his deep concerns with the practices of the Papacy and the Catholic Church, launched the first salvo in the Protestant Reformation, leading to the formation of hundreds of Christian denominations and sects and initiating a fervor for German nationalism.

Summary of Event

On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, professor of biblical exegesis at the University of Wittenberg, posted on the door of All Saints Church a list of ninety-five theological propositions he offered to debate with any member of the university. Ninety-five Theses[Ninety five Theses] Reformation;Germany Luther, Martin Johann Tetzel Cajetan Charles V (1500-1558) Eck, Johann Frederick the Wise Leo X Staupitz, Johann von Luther, Martin Tetzel, Johann Leo X Staupitz, Johann von Frederick the Wise Cajetan Eck, Johann Erasmus, Desiderius Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)

The Ninety-five Theses were written in Latin and intended as an academic challenge, but they also expressed deep dissatisfaction that Luther, then thirty-three years old, had come to feel about the Church.

The idea for the theses was ignited after the preaching and, in effect, selling of an indulgence by a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, in the area bordering electoral Saxony. An indulgence was a declaration by the Church that individual punishments for past sins were wiped out or reduced both in this life and also in purgatory. The indulgence could be applied to the souls of men already in purgatory but was intended to be offered to those who confessed their sins and had received an actual penance. While an indulgence was not an assurance that the sin would be forgiven, it replaced the penance and could lessen one’s punishment in purgatory. These indulgences were not to be sold but granted by a priest. Monetary offerings by the sinner were considered to be contributions. Yet Tetzel, commissioned by Pope Leo X, offered the indulgence to all who would contribute money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, although some of the money had been secretly promised to a German bishop who was in financial trouble.

In his Ninety-five Theses, Luther denied that the pope could remove any penalties imposed on a person by God, attacked the sale of indulgences as superstitious, and questioned the existence of purgatory as a state of the soul after death. He emphasized the necessity of inner sorrow for sins and questioned the necessity of external acts of piety. The display of Luther’s discontent was not new for the monk, for he had shown his distaste for the practice three years prior to the posting when he lectured before his students in the university.

Although Luther refrained from attacking the power of the pope and basic Catholic doctrines, within two weeks his theses had been translated into German and had spread throughout Germany. His document was soon published so widely that Tetzel and other Dominicans denounced Luther to Rome. Luther also appealed to Pope Leo X, whom he regarded as an enlightened ruler unaware of the excesses of the indulgence sellers. The criticisms that Luther had voiced were the concerned expressions of many. Luther’s theses heightened tensions that were already in existence and from there the rift widened.

With the support of his immediate religious superior, Johann von Staupitz, and the somewhat reluctant support of his secular lord, Frederick III, the Wise, founder of the University of Wittenberg, Luther persevered in his position. A year after the posting of the theses, he appeared at Augsburg before the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan, who first attempted to win him over with kindness but subsequently condemned him. Luther appealed to a general council of the whole Church to hear his case, a respectable tactic after the conciliar movement of the previous century.

Luther’s own ideas became more radical and, in a debate with the Dominican Johann Eck at Leipzig in July of 1519, he proposed several radical theories: that the pope was not supreme in the Church, that papal authority was a human invention, that general councils were capable of error, and that the Bible alone was an infallible authority in religious matters. He declared his obedience to the teachings of Jan Hus, who had been declared a heretic in the previous century. Catholicism;Germany

By this time, Luther had become famous throughout Europe, and fierce arguments raged for and against him. For a time, he received the support of the most renowned humanist thinker of the day, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Luther continued to publish theological treatises in which he denied the theory of the seven sacraments as the Church conceived them, asserted the individual’s total depravity and lack of free will, and proposed that salvation was possible only by complete faith in God, which humans could not achieve by their own efforts but through God’s free gift alone. Luther continued to hope that the Church would be reformed from within by the pope along the lines that Luther had suggested; he desired no break with Rome and continued to live as a monk.

In 1520, he published three important pamphlets: An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation (Luther) (address to the Christian nobility of the German nation), Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (Luther) (the freedom of the Christian person), and De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium Captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium, De (Luther) (the Babylonian captivity of the Church). In these treatises, Luther strongly attacked abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. While calling for papal reform, he blamed the Papacy, and he urged secular rulers to reform the Catholic Church by force if the pope and bishops failed to do so. Leo X, who had shown little interest in Luther’s case at first, officially condemned him as a heretic in the papal bull Exsurge Domine, which Luther subsequently burned in a public ceremony. In January of 1521, Luther was excommunicated from the Church.

The Diet of the empire was sharply split between princes friendly to Luther and those opposed to him. When Luther appeared before the Diet held at Worms Worms, Diet of (1521) in April, 1521, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to persuade him to recant, but Luther made his famous appeal of the primacy of conscience and then went into hiding. The emperor managed to obtain condemnation of Luther for heresy at a subsequent rump session. Luther was then banished as an outlaw of the empire, and his civil rights in the country were terminated. It was too late, however, to stop those who endorsed Luther’s ideas, for he had appealed to all classes of people and had increasingly gained a following of supporters.

Remaining in seclusion within Warburg Castle, Luther prepared a new translation of the Bible Bible;German translation of into German, which revealed his extraordinary literary ability. The invention of the printing press made the text more readily available, Printing;and availability of Bible[Bible] and the translation of the Bible into German enabled many more people to read the Scriptures. Emerging a year later, Luther came to be regarded as the patriarch of the new movement for Protestantism. Until his death in 1546, he sought to curb what he regarded as the excesses of his followers.


The northern half of Germany had answered his trumpet call to break with Rome under the secular leadership of princes. A nationalist movement ensued, and Luther’s contributions of his written word and open defiance became part of German culture and fueled the activism of both nationalism and religious reform. Hundreds of priests and nuns renounced their vows and embraced the new theology that claimed to reform the Church along biblical lines. Many married, as Luther had in 1525.

Lutheranism Lutheranism soon gained wide acceptance in Germany and Scandinavia. The evolution of Protestantism in Switzerland and the Netherlands followed different paths, but the whole movement was indebted to Luther for hammering in the revolution when he posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dillenberger, John, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. New York: Anchor Books, 1961. Contains the complete text of the Ninety-five Theses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erikson, Erik H. Young Man Luther. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962. A psychoanalyst looks at Luther’s formative years. One of the classic psychoanalytic biographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKim, Donald K., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Anthology of essays by noted scholars covering Luther’s theology, moral thought, skill with words, direct effects, and lasting legacy, among other topics. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004. Subtle and balanced portrayal of Luther’s theology and its cultural context, explaining the importance of the debates in which he intervened as well as tracing the ultimate results of that intervention. Luther’s character receives an equally nuanced treatment. Includes maps and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. A biography written by one of the foremost Reformation scholars of the twentieth century. Delves into Luther’s mind and places his thoughts and theories within the context of the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberman, Heiko A. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. Edited by Donald Weinstein. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Posthumous collection of essays revisiting debates on Luther’s anti-Semitism and arguing that medieval religious thought was essential to both Calvin’s and Luther’s understandings of Christianity. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ozment, Steven. Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1992. This work traces the origins of the Protestant movement and ties it to values found in Western culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelikan, Jaroslav. Obedient Rebels. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. An American Lutheran scholar argues that Luther was faithful to Catholic tradition in his Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wengert, Timothy J., ed. Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2004. Anthology of essays focused on the practical value of Luther’s teachings for daily life. Discusses a range of issues, both doctrinal and secular, to give a full portrayal of Luther’s thought and its applications. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, index.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

1499-1517: Erasmus Advances Humanism in England

Apr.-May, 1521: Luther Appears Before the Diet of Worms

1523: Gustav I Vasa Becomes King of Sweden

June, 1524-July, 1526: German Peasants’ War

Feb. 27, 1531: Formation of the Schmalkaldic League

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

1545-1563: Council of Trent

Sept. 25, 1555: Peace of Augsburg

Apr. or May, 1560: Publication of the Geneva Bible

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History