Luther and the 95 Theses

From Justin Taylor’s 1517, a 33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University walked over to the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. In God’s providence and unbeknownst to anyone else that day, it would become a key event in igniting the Reformation.

Carl Trueman—who wrote his dissertation on Luther’s Legacy, teaches on Luther’s life and theology, and is writing a book on Luther on the Christian Life—answered some questions for us.

Had Luther ever done this before—nail a set of theses to the Wittenberg door? If so, did previous attempts have any impact?
I am not sure if he had ever nailed up theses before, but he had certainly proposed sets of such for academic debate, which was all he was really doing on October 31, 1517. In fact, in September of that same year, he had led a debate on scholastic theology where he said far more radical things than were in the Ninety-Five Theses. Ironically, this earlier debate, now often considered the first major public adumbration of his later theology, caused no real stir in the church at all.

What was the point of nailing something to the Wittenberg door? Was this a common practice?
It was simply a convenient public place to advertise a debate, and not an unusual or uncommon practice. In itself, it was no more radical than putting up an announcement on a public notice board.

What precisely is a “thesis” in this context?
A thesis is simply a statement being brought forward for debate.

What was an “indulgence”?
An indulgence was a piece of paper, a certificate, which guaranteed the purchaser (or the person for whom the indulgence was purchased) that a certain amount of time in purgatory would be remitted as a result of the financial transaction.

At this point did Luther have a problem with indulgences per se, or was he merely critiquing the abuse of indulgences?
This is actually quite a complicated question to answer.

First, Luther was definitely critiquing what he believes to be an abuse of indulgences. For him, an indulgence could have a positive function; the problem with those being sold by Johann Tetzel in 1517 is that remission of sin’s penalty has been radically separated from the actual repentance and humility of the individual receiving the same.

Second, it would appear that the Church herself was not clear on where the boundaries were relative to indulgences, and so Luther’s protest actually provoked the Church into having to reflect upon her practices, to establish what was and was not legitimate practice.

Was Luther trying to start a major debate by nailing these to the door?
The matter was certainly one of pressing pastoral concern for him. Tetzel was not actually allowed to sell his indulgences in Electoral Saxony (the territory where Wittenberg was located) because Frederick the Wise, Luther’s later protector, had his own trade in relics. Many of his parishioners, however, were crossing over into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony, where Tetzel was plying his trade.

Luther had been concerned about the matter of indulgences for some time. Thus, earlier in 1517, he had preached on the matter and consulted others for their opinions on the issue. By October, he was forced by the pastoral situation to act.

Having said all that, Luther was certainly not intending to split the church at this point or precipitate the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy into conflict and crisis. He was simply trying to address a deep pastoral concern.

Was Luther a “Protestant” at this point? Was he a “Lutheran“?
No, on both counts. He himself tells us in 1545 that, in 1517, he was a committed Catholic who would have murdered—or at least been willing to see murder committed—in the name of the Pope. There is some typical Luther hyperbole there, but the theology of the Ninety-Five Theses is not particularly radical, and key Lutheran doctrines, such as justification by grace through faith alone, are not yet present. He was an angry Catholic, hoping that, when the Pope heard about Teztel, he would intervene to stop the abuse.

How did that act of nailing these theses to the door ignite the Reformation?
On one level, I am inclined to say “Goodness only knows.” As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements. Nevertheless, it seems to have struck a popular chord, being rapidly translated into German and becoming a bestseller within weeks. The easy answer is, therefore, “By the providence of God”; but, as a historian, I always like to try to tie things down to some set of secondary or more material causes.

Certainly, it was used in a way that appealed to popular anti-clericalism, resentment of the Roman curia, and a desire to stop money flowing out of German speaking territories to Rome. Yet, even so, the revolutionary power of such a technical composition is, in retrospect, still quite surprising.

For those today who want to read the 95 Theses, what would you recommend?
The place to start is probably Stephen Nichols’s edition (with an introduction and notes).

Nevertheless, if you really want to understand Luther’s theology, and why it is important, you will need to look beyond the Ninety-Five Theses. Probably the best place to start would be Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology.

Questions about Abortion

I received this from someone earlier today:

“I am probably going to get flak for this but there have been two questions I have been dying to ask for over 30 years around abortion? First why is the church and government asking a woman to have a kid knowing full well they can’t afford them or in no way want them? What about the thousands of teenage pregnancies that occured because of a wild party or drunk night? What about the cost to society of bringing yet another unwanted kid in this crazy world?
Mainly like to know why they are against abortions yet at the same time support the arms race an nuclear war which will wipe out humanity? That does sound a bit hypocritical. Just a few thoughts. Feel free to comment. I consider myself a moderate an big brother has no right to tell us whether or not to keep a potential kid or not. I am however totally against abortions after 6 weeks.”

Here was my response:

1) Why is the church and government asking a woman to have a kid knowing full well they can’t afford them or in no way want them?

Answer: Well the current government is very pro abortion, but to answer your question: Because a child is infinitely precious, made in the image of God and does not deserve to die just because parents made foolish choices. For parents who cannot afford the child, there is such a thing as adoption. There are a great many adults who for various reasons are unable to have children and who would desperately love to have the joy of raising a child. They are on waiting lists for years just hoping that they are given the go ahead to adopt. Lack of finance is no excuse for murder.

2) What about the thousands of teenage pregnancies that occured because of a wild party or drunk night?

Answer: As above.

3) What about the cost to society of bringing yet another unwanted kid in this crazy world?

Answer: What about the cost to society of being murderers? Who said they are unwanted? You do.. and maybe their parents do, but not those who love children and would be overjoyed to raise a child in a loving atmosphere.

4) Why are they against abortions yet at the same time support the arms race an nuclear war which will wipe out humanity?

Answer: Actually, the idea about having nuclear weapons is to have such an arsenal available that no other nation would dare use their nuclear weapons against them. For example, the reason North Korea is NOT using its weapons against the USA right now as you are reading this, is because they know USA also has such weapons, enough to wipe them out. While having nuclear weapons, our hope and prayer is that they will never need to be used. The reason we sleep sound tonight in the USA is because thankfully, though many nations hate us, no one is insane enough as to take us on militarily with nuclear weapons for the simple reason that they know we have more than enough to retaliate, should such a thing occur. Believe me, if the USA discarded every nuclear weapon it has, and say Iran got one (or more)… the USA would not last another 24 hours.

Bear in mind too that to attack with a nuclear weapon is really a suicidal act, because that country (or their friends) would simply retaliate in like kind. To quote from one of Sting’s songs, “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology. What might save us, me, and you, is if the Russians love their children too.”

Being FOR LIFE means standing against abortion and (in this hostile world) having enough weapons on hand so that no one is foolish enough to send a nuclear weapon our way. There is no inconsistency… we just hope nuclear weapons never ever need to be used.

5) 6 weeks?.. Why would killing a 5 week old baby be ok?

Love for God and for Each Other

If we truly love God it will show itself in our genuine love for one another. The one who does not love does not know God, Pastor Bruce Brock teach on this vital theme. Along the way, Pastor Bruce deals with a number of false concepts about God’s love, and by means of the Scripture, points us to the real thing found in Christ. Pastor Bruce leads a Reformed congregation in Tucson, Arizona called Faith Community Church.

Love for God and for Each Other from Faith Community Church on Vimeo.

Luther on “Faith”

“Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, information pills they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. “Faith is not enough,” they say, “You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.” They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, “I believe.” That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn’t come from this `faith,’ either.

Instead, faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.

Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do.”

An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

Legitimate exceptions for abortion?

Justin Taylor has put together an article entitled “Exceptions for Abortion?” which contains much wisdom about this very sensitive subject. He writes:

I assume by now that most readers are aware of the controversy regarding comments by candidate Richard Mourdock, who is running for Senate, when asked about the issue, he responded:

This is that issue that every candidate for federal, or even state, office faces, and I too stand for life. I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view and I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have [for abortion] is in that case [where] the life of the mother [is threatened]. I struggled with it for a long time, but I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen.

President Obama, through a spokesperson, “felt those comments were outrageous and demeaning to women.”

There are many angles to this story, including media ignorance, media malfeasance, political clumsiness, bioethics, and Christian witness.

Many members of the media pounced on the story, reporting that Mr. Murdock said that rapes were intended by God. Al Mohler has an important commentary on this today. He writes:

The controversy over his statements reveals the irresponsibility of so many in the media and the political arena. The characterizations and willful distortions of Mourdock’s words amount to nothing less than lies.

A couple of liberal writers have recognized the same. See, for example, Kevin Drum’s “Richard Mourdock Gets in Trouble for His Extremely Conventional Religious Beliefs” and Amy Sullivan’s “Why Liberals Are Misreading Mourdock.” Continue reading

Mormonism’s real issue

The real issue with Mormonism: “God is an exalted man” – by Dr. James White ( and is an exalted man. . . . That is the great secret. . . . We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea. . . . [H]e was once a man like us.” ~Joseph Smith

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:1?2).

“God is not a man” (Num. 23:19; Cf. 1 Sam. 15:29).

“Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me” (Is. 43:10; Cf. 44:6, 8).

The following words are the most often quoted non-Scriptural teaching of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)—most often quoted, that is, in LDS Church literature itself:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.

In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.

These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.

These words come from the infamous “King Follett Funeral Discourse,” delivered by Smith on April 7, 1844. They represent the final, developed form of Smith’s theology of God, a theology that underwent massive change between the founding of the Church almost exactly fourteen years earlier. In fact, it is quite plain that Smith did not hold to this radical denial of historic Christian doctrine when he founded the LDS Church in 1830. But sometime in the mid 1830s his views became more and more radical until they reached this final stage shortly before his murder in the Carthage City jail June 27th, 1844. These words, though never canonized, obtained quasi-canonical status by their constant repetition in the teachings of the LDS leadership over the next decades. A quick review of the writings of the LDS leaders all the way up to the modern period will find these words repeated more often than any other teaching of Joseph Smith.

In postmodern times, where fuzziness of thinking and inaccuracy of thought has become the hallmark of so much dialogue, and in particular, in the realm of religion, clear delineation of belief and doctrine has become outdated and unpopular. There is an automatic suspicion of anyone who seeks clarity in confession and doctrine. Such persons must be insecure or, even worse, may be on the road to some kind of fundamentalism—closed-minded individuals holding old-fashioned ideas of universal or objective truths. So with the recent resurgence of Mormonism in the United States, spurred partly by an aggressive, if less-than-doctrinally-oriented advertising campaign on billboards and the Internet, partly by the rise to national prominence of Mormon bishop and returned missionary Willard Mitt Romney, the public discourse on the nature of Mormonism and its teachings has been anything but focused upon accuracy of definition. In fact, the idea that the LDS faith is simply a somewhat odd variant of Christianity has been accepted widely without much fuss or bother. Only those most radically out-of-step with the modern world would actually ask, “But, what is the core of the LDS faith and its teachings? Is it really an expression of Christian faith, or a radical departure from it?”

Until recent times, dialogues with Mormons did not focus upon establishing that Mormonism had a radically different doctrine of God than Christianity: that was a given. But over the past thirty years a definite move toward ecumenism and “mainstreaming” has been present, and Mormonism now seeks to redefine “Christian” so that it can be stretched to encompass the complete negation of its own most central assertion: that there is one true and eternal God, unchanging, without beginning and without end, unique, without dependence upon prior forces or powers. Continue reading