On October 31, it will be 494 years since Martin Luther penned his 95 statements and famously attached them to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in Electoral Saxony.
Luther’s Life Leading Up to the 95 Theses,
from Lutheranism 101
Martin Luther was born into an average middle class German family. His father was a successful and pragmatic businessman who wanted his son to have a good education and career. Luther entered the University of Erfurt law school at the wishes of his father and received his master’s degree in 1505, but he was unhappy with his circumstances. Then, unexpectedly, when returning to the university after a trip home, Luther encountered a severe thunderstorm and a lightning bolt struck near him. In terror of death and divine judgment, Luther cried out, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!” (Okay, so maybe this story can’t be completely substantiated, but it has been included in most major Luther biographies.)
After this turn of events, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505. Although Luther dedicated his life to the disciplines of the monastery, he still felt uncertainty and doubt about his salvation. He regularly engaged in fasting, flagellation, and confession, but still he experienced continual deep spiritual despair. To distract him from his depression, Luther’s supervisor, Johann von Staupitz, ordered that Luther pursue a degree in theology. So, after being ordained as a priest, he started theological studies at the University of Erfurt in 1507.
At the University of Erfurt, Luther was exposed to the current humanist ideology. His studies were influenced by the dominant philosophy of returning “Back to the source!” that is, the original texts in each area of study. For theologians like Luther, that meant the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. After receiving his doctorate in theology in 1512, he became professor at Wittenberg University. For Luther, this became a period of intense study. He prepared and gave lectures on Psalms (1514–15), Romans (1515–16), Galatians (1516–17), and Hebrews (1517–18). It was in his study that Luther encountered the words of Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith.” According to Luther himself, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” This marked the turning point for Luther.
While professor at the University of Erfurt, Luther also was priest at Wittenberg’s City Church. During this time, the popes were often more concerned with political questions than with the duties of their office as supreme governors of the Roman Catholic Church. They led wars and were more interested in their position as princes of the territory of the church state and the enlargement of their political powers. Wars and huge building projects like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome were costly, and so the raising of money became an issue. It was a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church to raise money by selling indulgences, a piece of paper stating their sins were forgiven. Unfortunately, there were some in the church who took advantage of the poor in the selling of these indulgences. John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was notorious for this practice. On October 31, 1517, when Tetzel came to a town near Wittenberg to peddle these indulgences, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, or propositions, condemning this practice and other abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. (This event might be familiar to you if you have seen images of Luther nailing a piece of paper to a wooden door.)
Luther’s intent by posting his theses was not to break away from the Roman Church, but to stimulate academic debate and draw attention to the practices of the Church. For Martin Luther, the problem was deeper. It was not primarily the morality of the clergy, nor even its ineptitude, but rather how the Church thought and taught about salvation that got him interested in the reform of the Church. He ultimately wanted to convince the Church of its errors, thus reforming its doctrine. The Ninety-five Theses were quickly printed through the availability of the printing press (see p. 174) and spread all over Germany.
Want more information about Luther? Check out the selection of resources here.
If you like your history set to music, may I introduce you to the historyteachers. Here is their lesson on Luther and the Reformation, using outtakes from the movie Luther,
Celebrating the Reformation at Home or Among Friends
Reformation is a great time to explore the heritage of Luther and the Lutheran reformers. It’s also a great time to get together with friends and family and celebrate the lighter side of being a Lutheran. Here are just a few ideas:
The Reformation Polka
Luther leads the tune in this little cartoon video of the Reformation Polka:
Also, check out the Reformation party ideas from our friends at Old Lutheran, including:
- Make a “Diet of Worms Cake” (using Gummy Worms) and bring it to your Reformation celebration – recipe found here.
- A beef barbecue, also known as a Papal Bull Roast.
- Play “Pin the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door”
- Run a “Throw Indulgences in the Trash” relay
- Have a special showing of the movie “Luther” at church or in your home.
These and other ideas, including a pattern for carving a Luther Reformation Day Pumpkin, are at Old Lutheran.