Note: This is a re-blog of a post I did back in 2018, which itself was inspired by an informal project of translation of Martin Luther's 95 Theses I worked on over the 500th anniversary of the event. I recently had a favorable comment on the post and revisited it. I think it's worth sharing again. The more I think about history, the more grateful I am for Martin Luther's courage all those centuries ago. He changed the world.
A year ago I did a little project, very spur-of-the-moment. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I took the 95 Theses of Martin Luther and translated them from the original Latin. I published them on Facebook, and a little later cleaned up the formatting and put them on this blog: Reformation 500
You never know quite what to expect when you translate something from an old text that you've never worked with before. I came out of that project with a renewed appreciation for Martin Luther's courage and scholarship, and a feeling that he was several centuries ahead of his time. Also, I was impressed by Luther's common sense and yes, humility and restraint. His theses were largely about abuses of clerical authority that, under a system that respected what today we would call "best practices," would have been investigated and dealt with promptly. Very few of them touch on the great doctrines of Grace that shaped the Reformation. All that came later. If Pope Leo X hadn't doubled down on medievalism and papal authority at all costs, there might never have been a Reformation and Luther's bigger ideas might never have been developed or heard.
Reformation Day is a huge matter for Protestants, whether they know it or not. I see my task as an heir to the Reformation and someone who is reasonably literate in history and culture, to re-introduce Protestants to their own heritage. In America, for example, we owe our freedom of thought and expression, and our representative government, in no small part to Martin Luther. So when my Catholic friends, and I have several, start with little passive-aggressive comments on Reformation Day about strife, war and divisiveness, and try to make it all about the candy, it makes me wonder if they really do know their history as well as they think they do. Reformation Day is our Independence Day. Getting pushback from Catholics is a little bit like the "You'll be back" song that King George sings to the Americans in Hamilton. No, that ship has sailed, and I would love to be a fly on the wall as modern Catholics try to figure out how to, well, reform, their church's leadership without giving some credit to the groundwork done by Luther and the other Reformers.
So here's this year's Reformation Day project, and a challenge to my fair-minded Catholic friends: I've taken the 95 Theses and put them in conversational English, going for the simplest boiled-down point in each thesis. My rather free interpretation, but you're welcome to compare to the original Latin and come up with your own. That is the beauty of a free society, and we owe that much to Luther. Pope Leo condemned 41 of the theses and demanded Luther recant them; which of them are so objectionable given the light of history? Are any of them so heretical that they deserved excommunication and the death penalty? Which ones? What would be your response, if you were pope at that time? And going forward, is it acceptable to challenge the papacy with objections that we all have about, for example, covering up abuse and protecting abusive clergy members? Or do we all share those objections? Luther's 95 points still stand, worth revisiting every year, calling Christians to be clear-minded and devoted to Christ, not to inventions of men.
Introduction: Martin Luther here, speaking from Wittenberg where I teach theology. Some points have come up, I'm concerned about getting to the truth of the matter, and I'd like to discuss and debate them. If you can't be here with me to debate over a pint of good beer, contact me via any of the usual social media and let me know what you think.
1. Our Lord Jesus said we are supposed to repent, and that means all Christians, and it should characterize our whole life.
2. This doesn't mean the sacrament known as penance. It's deeper than that.
3. Inner penitence is fine, but it doesn't stop there; it would be meaningless if you don't back it up with actions.
4. We will struggle with sin and need to repent of it until we die and go to heaven.
5. The Pope can't forgive sins, or remove penalties except for those within his official and limited capacity in the Church.
6. The Pope may declare sins forgiven, but that is only accurate if God himself has already forgiven them.
7. When God forgives sin, he grants humility to the sinner, who is then able to respect the priest.
8. Only the living are able to repent. Penance doesn't happen when you're dead.
9. The Holy Spirit, through the Pope, grants merciful exceptions for death and necessity.
10. The priests who say the dead must still do penance in Purgatory are wrong and cruel to say this.
11. The bishops must not have been paying attention to let the priests get away with saying this.
12. It used to be that you had to do penance before you were absolved, to make sure you really were sorry for your sin.
13. Dying people, though, are considered already dead, and are absolved from their burden of sin, as is their right.
14. The dying have a great burden of fear because of their sins.
15. This fear itself is equivalent to the torment of Purgatory for those on their deathbeds.
16. Hell is characterized by despair; Purgatory by fear; Heaven by assurance.
17. It's important to grant release of fear and assurance of love to those who are facing death and Purgatory.
18. There is no reason or Scripture that would make us tell dying people they should fear more and have less assurance of love.
19. But we can't prove that those in Purgatory have absolute assurance of salvation. There may be something we don't know.
20. So when the Pope says "full remission of all penalties," he can really only vouch for the penalties that he himself has imposed in his official capacity.
21. This means that the indulgence preachers are mistaken when they say that buying a papal indulgence grants you freedom from all punishment.
22. Actually, the Pope can't forgive a person in Purgatory, unless that absolution was granted in this life.
23. Absolute forgiveness of all penalties could only be granted to a very few, nearly perfect persons.
24. The promises of absolute forgiveness are deceptive, and the majority of people buying indulgences are falling prey to this deception.
25. The Pope's power concerning Purgatory is like any priest or bishop's power over his own church or domain.
26. What power the Pope has over the souls in Purgatory must come from his intercessory prayer for them; his power is not absolute.
27. It is fallible human teaching when the indulgence sellers say "when the coin in the box rings, the soul from Purgatory springs."
28. The one certain thing is that the coin in the box will increase greed and corruption; God alone determines the fate of the soul.
29. Who knows if all souls in Purgatory even wish to be redeemed? There are some legendary exceptions.
30. No man can even be sure he is truly contrite, let alone whether he has received full remission.
31. It is rare for a man to be truly penitent, as well as to truly buy an indulgence.
32. Those who believe they are truly saved because they bought an indulgence will be damned, along with those who taught them this.
33. We must be very careful about the claims that the Pope's pardons are the same as God's work of reconciliation.
34. Those indulgences are only in regards to penalties established by man, not by God.
35. It is anti-Christian to teach that you can buy forgiveness, and bypass true contrition or confession of sins.
36. A truly penitent Christian has a right to forgiveness even if he doesn't buy an indulgence.
37. A true Christian partakes in all the blessings of Christ and the Church as a gift from God, even if he doesn't buy an indulgence.
38. The papal pardon is still not to be scorned, because it is a declaration of divine forgiveness.
39. Very well-educated theologians have a hard time balancing the need for true repentance and the benefits of indulgences.
40. A truly penitent Christian is eager to do penance; but if he can easily buy an indulgence, he can easily come to hate penance.
41. Indulgences should be promoted very carefully, or people will think they are preferable to other acts of Christian charity.
42. Christians need to know that buying an indulgence is not the same as a work of mercy.
43. Christians need to know that it is better to give charity to the poor than to buy an indulgence.
44. This is because giving charity makes the soul grow better, but indulgences do not.
45. Christians need to know that if they neglect the needy to buy indulgences, they bring down the wrath of God on themselves.
46. Christians need to know that they should provide for their own household and only buy indulgences if they have the money to spare.
47. Christians need to know that buying indulgences is a matter of free will, not a command.
48. Christians need to know that the Pope values their prayer more than their money.
49. Christians need to know that they should not trust in indulgences and so lose their fear of God.
50. Christians need to know that the Pope would be angry on their behalf at the scurrilous methods of the indulgence sellers, and would prefer his basilica to be burned down rather than be built with the flesh, blood and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians need to know that the Pope would rather give money to some of them who are needy rather than having them buy indulgences, even if he had to sell St. Peter's to do it.
52. Assurance through indulgences is empty, even if the indulgence sellers or the Pope himself pledges it.
53. It is the enemies of Christ and the Pope who forbid preaching the Word in some churches, so that they can preach indulgences in other churches.
54. It's an injustice to God's word to spend more time in a sermon about indulgences than about the Scripture.
55. If indulgences are promoted extravagantly, surely the Gospel, which is much more important, must be preached even more extravagantly - and surely the Pope knows this.
56. The true treasures of the church are not known to God's people as they should be.
57. They are not temporal in nature, because indulgence sellers often do not distribute them freely but only gather them.
58. They are not the merits of Christ and the saints.
59. Saint Lawrence spoke of the poor as being the treasures of the Church, in the language of his time.
60. With some confidence we can say that the keys of the Church, through Christ's merit, are that treasure.
61. For the Pope's power alone is sufficient for remission of ecclesiastical penalties.
62. But the true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel.
63. But this treasure is the most hateful, for it makes the first to become last.
64. However the treasure of indulgences is most appealing, for it makes the last to become first.
65. The treasury of the Gospel is the net with which they used to fish for men of wealth.
66. The treasury of indulgences is the net with which they now fish for the wealth of men.
67. Sellers of indulgences promote them as having much grace, because they bring in much wealth.
68. But they are small indeed compared to the grace of God and the Cross.
69. Bishops and curates are required to give indulgence sellers full access.
70. But all the more should they carefully screen what the indulgence sellers say to their flock, to make sure it does not depart from the Pope's message.
71. Let him be cursed who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons.
72. But let him be blessed who is on guard against the greed of those who sell indulgences.
73. Just as the Pope, who strongly condemns those who turn the work of granting pardon into a fraud.
74. Much more strongly does he condemn those who convert holy love and truth into a fraud.
75. To pick an outrageous example, the man who said indulgences could absolve the man who raped the mother of God - impossible, and insane!
76. On the contrary, papal indulgences cannot absolve the least of the venial sins.
77. To say that St. Peter, if he lived now, could not grant greater indulgences, is blasphemy, both against St. Peter and the Pope.
78. On the contrary, the Pope has far greater powers, such as the Gospel, spiritual graces, and gifts of healing.
79. It is blasphemous to raise up the Papal cross for selling indulgences as equal to the Cross of Christ.
80. The Church officials who spread these messages must be held to account.
81. As an educated man I wish to defend the Pope from pointed questions by the laity, but this careless preaching of indulgences makes it difficult.
82. For example, "Why doesn't the Pope empty out Purgatory because the souls there are suffering, not because he needs the money for his church?"
83. And, "Why does he allow payments set up for funeral masses to continue, since it is wrong to keep praying for the redeemed?"
84. And, "Why do they let a bad guy pay money to rescue a good guy's soul, why not rather free the soul because it's the right thing to do for love of the good guy?"
85. And, "Why did they suddenly dust off these penitential canons that everyone had forgotten about and were no longer in use, when they can make money from them?"
86. And, "Why doesn't the Pope, who has plenty of ready cash, use his own money to build the Basilica of St. Peter instead of using the money of poor believers?"
87. And, "What can the Pope forgive for those who are already entitled to forgiveness because of their perfect humility and contrition?"
88. And, "Why doesn't the Pope give out these blessings a hundred times a day, instead of just once?"
89. "If the Pope wants souls to be pardoned rather than money, why does he suspend previously granted indulgences, if they still work?"
90. All these objections by the laity are well-thought-out, and deserve a fair answer, not forceful repression, or it will damage the reputation of the Church and the Pope, and make Christians unhappy.
91. So indulgences ought to be carefully taught according to the Pope's instruction, and there would be no problem.
92. Away with the prophets who say, "Peace, peace," yet there is no peace.
93. Blessing on those who say to Christ's people, "Cross, Cross," and there is no cross.
94. Christians should be exhorted to follow Christ, their head, through punishments, death, and hell.
95. So they may have confidence to enter the heavenly kingdom through many tribulations, rather than with the false security of peace.