Did Martin Luther’s 95 Theses represent a serious challenge to the Roman Catholic Church?

During the years 1517 to 1520, Luther’s 95 Theses spread rapidly across Germany. The These were originally written as an attack against Johann Tetzel’s selling of Indulgences, which were ‘permits’ that could be purchased from the Church to gain salvation. Obviously you cannot ‘buy’ salvation from God, so Luther clocked on that the Church was pulling a fast one. The publication of Luther’s 95 Theses was a serious challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. One comes to this conclusion because of Luther’s developing ideas and the reaction that they prompted from the Church.

Luther’s 95 Theses can be seen as a serious challenge to the church due to Luther’s developing and evolving ideas. Luther’s Theses initially attacked Indulgences, but over the next two years they appeared to develop and attack the papacy as a whole. This development could be blamed on people such as Cardinal Catejan and John Eck, who spurred him on to develop his ideas in response to their alacritous debate. Catejan, who was a renowned biblical scholar, was under orders to arrest Luther if he refused to recant at Augsburg in 1518, but decided to engage in debate with him after granting an imperial guarantee for Luther’s safety. This debate developed Luther’s ideas further, as it was here that he began to develop the idea of ‘sola fide,’ or faith alone. Luther argued that faith was the only thing needed for salvation, which directly combated the idea of Indulgences. For Luther, all that was needed for salvation was the ‘word of Christ.’ He also openly expressed the view that the Pope could make mistakes. It appears that the 95 Theses displayed only the beginning of Luther’s ideas, and his debate with Catejan caused them to develop.

The Leipzeig debates in 1519 too pushed Luther to develop his ideas further. For the past eighteen months, the Dominican Church had been attacking Luther through the use of pamphlets. At the debate, hosted by Duke George of Saxony, John Eck persuaded George to grant Luther safety, in order to engage in a debate with him. Eck previously believed that Luther had attacked the papacy, and the debate between the two of them led to the development of Luther’s ideas on this matter. Eck provoked Luther by discussing Luther’s views on papal authority, saying that he shared similar views to the heretic Jan Hus, who was burned in 1415. As Luther ‘understood the snare,’ he ‘raged’ and in this impassioned frame of mind, divulged his feeling that there was no evidence for the papacy in scripture. He used these ideas to attack and undermine Eck, and some development can be seen in his thought process, which began with the publishing of the 95 Theses. Development can be seen in his ideas, as this was the first instance in which he seriously challenged the papacy as whole, and not just clerical abuses, which he addressed in the Theses. He went on to denounce papal authority and claimed that the only authority within the Church lay in the general council. This was a group of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. The council was subservient to scripture, and also condemned Jan Hus. Luther went on to incriminate himself further by saying that they should not have killed Hus, and that his views were based on scripture. In Wittenberg, people began to support Luther, on which the debate had a great affect, as he was forced to express ideas in defence that would outline his new theological ideas and theories. Here Luther’s idea of ‘sola scriptura’ can be seen to develop, beginning with the serious challenge that he presented to the Roman Catholic Church in the form of the 95 Theses.

The severity of the papacy’s reaction to the Theses is also telling. After the meeting at Heidelberg in 1518, Leo ordered that Luther should be brought to Rome and executed, seeing him as a direct threat to the Roman Catholic Church. Leo’s quick change of thinking demonstrates how seriously the 95 Theses were taken by the papacy, insinuating that they were seen to be a serious challenge. Despite the intervention of Frederick the Wise, Leo still asked Catejan to arrest and make Luther recant at Augsburg. Leo took action against Frederick, even though he needed his vote for the imperial election, demonstrating the severity of the matter, and of the 95 Theses, as it had lead to the formation of Luther’s ideas that began to threaten the Church. Leo’s continued failed attempts to capture Luther lead to the papal bull Exsurge Domine, stating that the Church must protect itself from the ‘wild boar’ that threatened it. This action was taken, as forty-one of Luther’s views were deemed heretical and were seen to be a serious threat to the Church itself, the structure of the papacy, and the thoughts and beliefs of those within it. Very serious stuff.

On the flip side, some people thinking the Theses were not to be taken too seriously. Luther belonged to a conservative, middle class family. His mother in particular as deeply devout, and from a young age he was taught that God was the ultimate judge, and that prayer was a way of communicating with him. His mother Margarethe also taught him the importance of good deeds and the parables in the Bible. As he came from a deeply religious family, it can be argued that Luther would not want to the Church to change completely, but alter some aspects within it for the better. It can be argued that the main reason Luther was angry was due to Tetzel’s selling of Indulgences, and not so much the papacy. Luther also did not originally intend for the Church to be reformed. From his perspective, the Theses were intended to inspire debate and discussion at Wittenberg University. This shows that the 95 Theses were not a serious threat, purely as Luther claims that he did not intend them to be. The university was known to have theological debates, and generate new ideas, so the prospect of Luther wanting to incite one does not mean that the Theses were a threat in any way, as it could appear that he was participating in a perfectly normal practice. Perhaps if the Pope had halted the selling of Indulgences, Luther’s ideas would not have developed or spread. Luther also wrote the Theses in an enraged ad impassioned state, implying that he could have exaggerated his true feelings. Luther later stated that he did not expect the Theses to spread, and that he would have not written some things if he knew that they were going to. This erratic thinking could imply that he did not think about the Theses seriously, and that they were not intended to be taken seriously.

   Despite Luther’s erratic feelings towards the Theses and his upbringing, the 95 Theses can be seen to be a serious challenge to the Church. Considering the reaction that Luther’s developing ideas prompted from the Church, it is hard not view the 95 These as a serious challenge to the Church.[1]

Thanks for reading!

All information taken from:

[1] A. Grundy, Religion and state in early modern Europe, (London, Pearson Education, 2015).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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