English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Reformation to Enlightenment

Study Guide for the
"Disposition of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"
more commonly known as
"The Ninety-five Theses"

The indulgence being marketed by Tetzel distressed Luther because he saw it as misinforming lay people (i.e., non-clerics) about crucial aspects of God's plan for redeeming fallen humanity - about, in other words, the whole purpose of history, and about the nature (specifically, the Will) of God.  To be misinformed in essentials about the nature of God means that what one ends up obeying is a false image of God.  This constitutes a "mortal sin" (see the note to Thesis 2), and leads (if not corrected) to damnation.  Specifically, Albert's indulgence (as represented by Tetzel) encroached on the sacrament of penance.

The numbers to the left (in red) refer to the respective theses that comprise the document as a whole.

[References to WH are to Matthews and Platt, editors, The Western Humanities, 3rd Ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1993.  These need updating, since this text is now in at least its 5th edition.]

Poenitentiam agite: "Do penance." Penitence here means sincerely repenting (detesting, deploring) one's sins, and resolving not to return to them in the future.
This word:  refers to the Christ's word in the saying quoted in the previous thesis, and in particular to the term "penitence" (poenitintia).  Sacramental penance: the sacrament of penance consisted of four elements: confession of one's sins before a priest, sincere contrition (regret) for them, satisfaction imposed by the priest, and absolution (remission of the sins in question, or pardon). Luther confines himself to citing here the two elements of action (confession and satisfaction) that were to be carried out by the penitent (the person undergoing or receiving the sacrament). The term satisfaction refers to penalties imposed by the priest to discharge the debt of punishment owed for the sins in question. (When carried out, these "satisfy" or fulfill the justice of God. [Compare the language of the honor code regulating duels among the European aristocracy: an insult to one's honor requires "satisfaction," and the insultee acquires the right to choose what that shall be, within the limits of the prevailing code.])  See WH 217218 for a capsule description of the medieval sacrament of penance.  (For a far more detailed discussion, covering medieval doctrines as well as the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of its response [in the Council of Trent] to the Protestant Reformation, consult the article on The Sacrament of Penance in The Catholic Encyclopedia.)
Can you see the connection with asceticism here, and in Thesis 4? (Of course there are ascetics and ascetics! Remember, Pelagius was an ascetic, too. In what points of doctrine would Luther and Pelagius part company?)
"Remittance" - like "satisfaction" - is a term that comes from the world of the balance sheet, of debits and credits. Both guilt and punishment due are conceived as debts that must be paid. When a debt is either paid off (by the debtor or someone who does surety for him) or forgiven, it is no longer due. When the creditor or injured party signifies (directly or through his authorized agent) that the debt is no longer due, he is said to "remit" the sin. (The term "remit" comes from the Latin word meaning "to send back." The custom persists in banking today: when you pay off your house mortgage, the bank will give back to you the loan certificate, now marked paid, along with the deed to the property, both of which it kept in its physical possession until you paid off your debt.)
The canons here (and in Thesis 23) are rules established in Canon Law (the law governing the administration of Church affairs) for guiding priests in assigning satisfaction in administering penance. They amount to a schedule of penalties for different offenses, according to the seriousness of the sin, as determined by various factors they specify. (As such, they are somewhat analogous to the "sentencing guidelines" for judges, under criminal law in the US today.)

Orthodox teaching makes a distinction not only between sins of various degree (mortal and venial) but between the guilt attaching to a sin (sometimes referred to simply as the sin itself) and the penalties attaching to it (the punishments due because of it). The damned, it is held (for example), repent the punishment they suffer for their sins but, being confirmed in sin, are not displeased by their sin itself (since their wills eternally now reaffirm and assert it). Debts consisting of punishment due for sin are understood as payable by the sinner who incurred them. The debt of guilt (the debt of sin per se) is not. It can be discharged only when one of two things occurs:  either it is either "forgiven" (by God the Father) or it is taken on and paid off by another (the Son) whose wealth is sufficiently great to do so. (Can you see the connection to what is referred to in Thesis 33).
After Thesis 52, there does not seem to be a definite overall pattern of organization at work, although there are clearly stretches within which Luther is focusing on a particular theme (e.g., what are the true Treasures of the Church? [Theses 56-68]) or a rhetorical turn (e.g., Theses 81-91, where the move is to point out how the pardons being sold by Tetzel bring the pope into disrepute with the laity by stimulating them to sarcastic impieties that nevertheless seem plausible on the false assumption that the pope supports the sale of such pardons).

The priest is God's vicar insofar as the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the priest is a vicar of the pope. See note 5 above.
Thesis 7 says, then, that remission of guilt, though it is done only by God, is something God has for his own reasons chosen to do only for those who submit themselves to the Church, and, as part of doing this, participate in the sacraments (here, specifically, the sacrament of penance, though communion is also a part of what is comprehended here).  In other words, there is no salvation outside the Church.  (Cf. Thesis 38.)
Later, Luther doesn't abolish the priesthood.  Rather, he declares the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers."  (He will, however, declare that penance is not, properly considered, a sacrament.)
Plenary remission means full remission. (In Thesis 23 the synonymous formula "entire remission" is used.) Luther concedes the power of the Pope to remit all penalties of only the restricted class of temporal penalties imposed in the sacrament of penance or due under the canons of governing the assignment of satisfactions in penance (in the case of sins committed but not yet dealt with by receiving the sacrament of penance).
Neither other penalties (for example, those actually due for souls in purgatory) nor guilt attaching to sins (even venial sins  Thesis 76) are within the power of the Pope to remit. But all indulgences are issued by the Pope. Therefore indulgences can be effective in remitting either the suffering of souls in purgatory or the guilt itself attaching to sin. Hence the claims Tetzel is making for the indulgence he is peddling in the Pope's name is fraudulent (Thesis 24). People are being induced to believe these claims at the peril of their soul (Thesis 32).

Note that Luther's tactic in the Ninety-five Theses is to assume that the Pope is unaware of the doctrinal errors being preached in his name by a "mad" servant, who is betraying his master. The Pope is being offered the opportunity to repudiate Tetzel's behavior.

Note that Luther concedes here that it is possible for some rare individuals to pass directly to heaven. But he does not go so far here as to claim what the Church had long insisted on, namely, that the saints die in a state of excess of merit, which then passes into the Treasury of Merit, out of which merits can be drawn to substitute for the temporal penalties that would otherwise be due for sin.
One of the jingles attributed to Tetzel went like this. (The rhymes, incidentally, are basically the same in German and English.)
"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from Purgatory springs."

Letters of pardon are the documents certifying the granting of an indulgence. (See also Thesis 52.)
The inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God is the divine grace conveyed in the blood of Christ shed in the Crucifixion.
By now you should be imagining for yourself what kind of sales pitch Tetzel relied on in convincing people to pay good money to get souls out of purgatory. Whose souls would he be pointing to? How would he paint them?
Compunction is a synonym for "contrition," "regret," "repentance." (See note on "penitence" at Thesis 1.) Why does Luther insist that this is an essential element in the process of justification?
Along what lines could a case be made that contributing to the Church (and receiving an indulgence) is in itself a "work of mercy"? (What, supposedly, would the Church be using the contribution to support? [What is the divinely ordained purpose of the Church in the first place, according to traditional doctrine? What is its role in history?])
Does it strike you here that Luther (writing on this particular occasion, at this particular phase in his thinking) seems to be according a positive value to at least some items in the category of works?
Here we find a claim that must have resonated strongly with those who resented the flow of capital from the German North to Italy.
Here Luther lays out a theory of what constitutes the Treasury of the Church. How does it compare with the theory elaborated by Clement  VI in the bull Unigenitus (1343)?
Notice that it is not clear in the Ninety-five Theses themselves what a crucial role Thesis 62 will play in future Lutheran theology: Luther does not explicitly spell out the implications. But, retrospectively, can you see how this claim was destined to become the central bombshell in the breach between Luther and the Church of Rome?
What does Luther mean here by the phrase "men of riches"? Is he referring to people with lots of money and property? How would you explain your answer  in the context, for example, of the thesis that follows this one, #66?
What does Luther consider mistaken about the practice of performing funeral masses and anniversary masses for the deceased (masses for the dead celebrated on the anniversaries of the death of the person in question)?

In what sense is it a confidence game to accept money for performing such services?

Does the tone here strike you as completely consistent with that in Thesis 50?
If we read this thesis carefully in the context of #92, which immediately precedes it, and which is couched in grammatically parallel form, what are we to understand as the sense of the included claim that "there is no cross"?
Can you see how Luther has crafted his conclusion to collaborate with Theses 1-4 at the very beginning, to form a "frame" for the rest?

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