A Slow Shift from Catholicism: Reflections on Luther’s 95 Theses


128756_imagnoWorldviews do not shift overnight. This is apparent in the life of Martin Luther. What can we learn from this great reformer of the 16th century with regard to discipleship and evangelism in our pluralistic culture and world at-large?

As a result of the deceptive work of selling indulgences culminated by the hand of Johann Tetzel, Martin Luther wrote and nailed his 95 Theses  on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. He did this as a formal call to debate Tetzel in hopes to eradicate his erroneous song: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of Purgatory springs.”

When I set out to read through Martin Luther’s 95 Theses for the first time, I expected to be overwhelmed with strictly Protestant teachings and doctrines with ardent refutations of nearly all of the errant doctrines of the Roman Catholicism of his day. This was a bit naïve, I admit, since Luther’s 95 Theses were written at a fairly early stage in his discovery of Christ. More than anything, I believe the Theses show us how spiritually and theologically tumultuous this time was in Luther’s life, yet how important for the Church.

Luther’s 95 Theses are full of indirect and direct affirmations of the Roman Catholic teachings of the day. This is surprising since it is through this document that the Protestant Reformation was sparked. Even though there are elements of Protestantism embedded in the Theses, it is clear that Luther had yet to nail it! (Please forgive the horrible pun.) In Luther’s defense, he only had access to a published Greek New Testament (1516) for one year, before publishing his Theses. There are many theses that convey Protestant themes, but for the sake of time, I believe I can make my point by showing three theses that show a shift from Roman Catholicism. After this, I will show examples of how Luther had yet to abolish all Roman Catholic thought from his mind.

Three Theses Showing Shift

Thesis 6 – “The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God; or, at most, he can remit it in cases reserved to his discretion. Except for these cases, the guilt remains untouched.”

Though in the second half of this thesis, Luther seems to demonstrate submission to the pope’s authority, or at least recognition of it, he makes a striking statement in this thesis. Contrary to what was coming from Rome, Luther is setting the stage for the Protestant belief in the intercession of Christ on behalf of sinners. This is a major sever with Rome, despite Luther’s polite caveat. The only way for the sins of man to be forgiven is in the work of Christ on behalf of the sinner. The only intercession that can exist between God and man is through Jesus Christ. The pope has no authority to grant remission of sins; that authority belongs solely to God, the one sinned against.

Thesis 62 – “The true treasure if the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

This thesis indicates a truth pertinent to all of Protestantism and evangelical Christianity—the truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the fullest expression of God’s glory and grace, is the “true treasure of the church.” This is a crucial shift away from Roman Catholicism’s merit system of salvation, which treasured ancient relics and shrines not to mention the dreaded indulgences, aka the treasures of the day (thesis 66)

Thesis 76 – “We assert the contrary, and say that the pope’s pardons are not able to remove the least venial of sins as far as their guilt is concerned.”

Though Luther seems to be very lenient toward the papacy, this assertion sets the stage for salvation by grace through faith alone. The guilt of sinners can only be pardoned by the sufficient and propitiatory work of Christ Jesus.

Not So Fast!

It is clear through the majority of these theses that Luther was disgusted with the abuse of the indulgence system in the Catholic Church along with the degree of intercessory authority that was given to the pope. However, it is clear that there were elements of Catholicism that Luther had yet to lay aside. He hangs on to the idea of purgatory and is slow to deny papal authority; although he does refute the power the medieval Catholic Church had given to the pope (21-22). Theses 25-26 indicate that Luther did not believe that the pope held the keys to the kingdom as was taught in the Catholic Church. However, he still holds that the pope does hold authority over souls in purgatory, as he is able to “grant remission on account of intercessions made on their behalf.”

Luther also clearly held Mary in the highest of regard. Thesis 75 says, “It is foolish to think that papal indulgences have so much power that they can absolve a man even if he has done the impossible and violated the mother of God.” This dangerous doctrine concerning Mary of Roman Catholicism clearly had not yet been refuted by Luther.

I think it is possible that Luther was seeking reform in the Catholic Church and in fear of ruining such efforts; he was overly gracious to the pope. It is also possible that he was still uncertain where he stood on many of these doctrines (i.e. purgatory, the indulgence system, the authority of the pope, the role of Mary) at this point, though he knew change was necessary. Of course, these are mere postulations and of a true answer, we will never know.

Gospel-Centered Change

Nevertheless, it is clear through a reading of Luther’s 95 Theses that he opposed certain aspects of the Catholic Church, while remaining true to many others. He had yet to completely shift away from Roman Catholicism. Luther was a bold voice calling for full reliance on the authority of the Bible alone. This was a small seed that grew into the glorious Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s slow shift from Catholicism shows us how formative doctrinal or cultural teachings are on a person. This has wide implications for our discipleship and evangelism. We cannot expect someone to completely shift their worldview or biblical understanding in a matter of moments or days even. It takes time and serious thought and discussion to eradicate erroneous thinking and believing (or lack thereof). So, in your evangelism and in your ministry, be patient. It was the power of the gospel that consumed Luther’s mind and soul. And it is only through the gospel and faithful witness of the Scriptures that can bring about life-altering and radical transformation in a person’s mind, worldview, or biblical understanding.

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