It was 495 years ago today…

…that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg his Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses.

These were not quite the Protestant thunderblast that they have come to be portrayed as on both sides of the Reformation divide. Rather, Luther’s Disputation is a complex and richly ironic document, arguing from within late medieval Catholicism rather than breaking out of it. Take, for example, thesis 81:

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

“Shrewd questionings” that Luther goes on to quote in full over the following eight theses – all the better for “rescuing the reverence due to the pope”, no doubt.

Or a little earlier:

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

Quite so.

But for an example of how far Luther’s theses are from a prototype for today’s chirpy, self-confident evangelicalism (and indeed much of Actually Existing Lutheranism), here is Luther’s conclusion:

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

When’s the last time you heard a Lutheran pastor or evangelical preacher devote their Reformation Day sermon to exhorting their congregation to “be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace”?

Finally, Luther’s forty-third thesis is one which we all need to hear over and over again (substituting for “buying pardons” whichever spiritually improving activity is most appropriate for us – theoblogging, say):

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.

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