Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" (1517)
Reprinted in Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation
Edited by Mark A. Noll
Published in 1997
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of transition from the Middle Ages (c. 400 –1400; also called the medieval period) to the modern era. The medieval period had been an era of walls and of faith. Massive stone walls had been built round each little town to protect against the evils of the outside world. Inside these walls, medieval people knew their place. They were craftsmen, noblemen, churchmen, farmers, and knights (noblemen soldiers). They did not question their duties because they were safe and had faith in the way things were run. At that time the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion headed by a pope and based in Rome, Italy) controlled all aspects of social, political, and religious life. It was the largest institution in western Europe and consisted of an elaborate hierarchy (ranks of officials)—the pope, cardinals (officials ranking below the pope), bishops (heads of church districts), canons (legal administrators), priests (heads of local churches), and numerous other clergymen. The pope was considered infallible (always correct), and he was the most powerful ruler in Europe. The Catholic Church was also immensely wealthy, owning vast properties and collecting huge sums in taxes, tithes (one-tenth of church members' income), and other forms of payment from the people.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, the medieval view of the world underwent radical change in response to new discoveries. By the end of the fifteenth century, for instance, Portuguese explorers had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and Christopher Columbus had reached the New World (the European term for the Americas). Renaissance humanists (scholars who revived the literary culture of ancient Greece and Rome) had freed scholarship and the arts from the sponsorship of the church. In so doing, humanists not only redis-covered the individual but also challenged the blind acceptance of authority and encouraged the individual search for truth through reason. Now people were seeking a better way to understand God in terms of their own experience.
Luther questions church
Into this changing world was born Martin Luther (1483–1546). Now known as the father of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was a German priest who single-handedly altered the course of European history. A native of Eisleben, Saxony (a state in Germany), Luther originally planned to become a lawyer. In 1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany, and within four years he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. In 1505 he had just begun the study of law and was on his way to a career in service to the church or to one of the many German princes (rulers of states). Then he abruptly abandoned the university for the disciplined life of a monastery (house for men in a religious order). This dramatic change occurred on July 2, 1505, while Luther was returning to the university from a visit with his parents. Along the way he was suddenly caught in a thunderstorm. As lightning struck nearby, he cried out in terror to his patron saint: "Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk." Just two weeks later, Luther joined the Eremites of Saint Augustine, a religious order in Erfurt. He was ordained a priest within a year.
Luther was no ordinary monk, for he was deeply troubled by the teachings of the church. Since the early Middle Ages, Catholic leaders had taught that the church was the...
(The entire section is 3,237 words.)