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Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic and Outlaw

Luther the Priest

When he posted his theses, Luther was a thirty-four-year-old priest and professor of theology at Wittenberg University, a provincial institution that had been founded only fifteen years earlier. In the mythology that later grew around Luther as a Protestant hero, most depictions of him posting his theses show a defiant monk swinging his hammer against the church door. The scene depicted here is probably more accurate: an assistant posts the theses while Luther discusses them with a colleague. A devout Catholic priest and theologian, Luther composed his theses not as an attack against the Catholic Church, but as an invitation to a disputation, or scholarly debate, on the selling of papal indulgences and other issues that had attracted his concern. Posting a notice for such an event on the doors of the church, which was affiliated with the university, was a common practice at the time.

A small crowd has gathered to watch as Martin Luther directs the posting of his 95 theses, protesting the practice of the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.
Wilhelm Baron von Löwenstern, Anfang der Reformation Luther lässt 95 Sätze gegen den Ablass an die Schlosskirche zu Wittenberg anschlagen den 31 October 1517 (Luther has 95 Theses against indulgences posted on the Castle Church at Wittenberg, October 31,1517). Stuttgart, 1830. Prints and Photographs Division.

"When the Coin in the Coffer Rings..."

Yet beneath the academic form of Luther's theses lay a potentially explosive critique of church practice. The Catholic Church had granted indulgences since the Middle Ages to penitent Christians as a form of absolution after they fulfilled proscribed conditions such as prayer or fasting, but by Luther's time the church was selling indulgences outright as a source of revenue. The indulgence document shown below includes a space to fill in the name of the "contributor." As a priest, Luther thought selling indulgences weakened his flock's personal motivation to seek divine grace and exploited their sacred quest for salvation for the profane ends of power and wealth. Luther was especially angered by the flagrant hawking of indulgences in German lands by the papal agent Johannes Tetzel, who is credited with the phrase, "When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs." For Luther, this monetization of faith was an abuse of church practice in his jurisdiction that he was duty-bound to report to his superiors. He did so on the same day he posted the theses, including a copy of them with a letter to his archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz.

Fund-raising form for certifying contribution, with license to select a confessor, including the form of absolution.
Catholic Church, Subcommissarius in Negotio Cruciatae, Indulgentia (Indulgence). Germany, 1482. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Albrecht met Luther's letter with silence, for the priest from Wittenberg had touched on a sensitive nerve in high-level church administration in both Rome and Germany: Pope Leo X and Albrecht were dividing the proceeds from the sale of indulgences to finance the lavish construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and to pay Albrecht's debts. More important, the Holy See quickly discerned in Luther's theses a broader challenge to its its authority, as the power to grant indulgences ultimately rested with the pope. Gradually a conflict took shape in which the church's resistance strengthened Luther's growing apprehension that the Roman Church had grown corrupt and removed from its flock. In this context, the theses were transformed from an academic debate agenda into a manifesto of church reform.

The Fronts Harden at Leipzig

The Roman Church's initial response to Luther's theses followed the scholarly and deliberative pattern he had established. Rome dispatched high-ranking clergy and theologians to debate Luther in disputations and offer him the opportunity to retract or mollify his views. The disputation at Leipzig in July 1519, documented here, was a turning point. In debates with the formidable theologian Johannes Eck, Luther stood his ground in what the church interpreted as a direct challenge to its authority. Eck was later instrumental in urging Pope Leo to issue the papal bull, or edict, condemning Luther's views as heresy and threatening him with excommunication.

Cover page of a record of the Leipzig Disputation, printed in Fraktur and Roman text
Johann Eck, Disputatio . . . eiusdem D. Iohannis Eccij & D. Martini Lutheri Augustiani q[uae] cepit IIII Iulij (Debate . . . between Dr. Johannes Eck and Dr. Martin Luther, Augustinian, which began July 4). Erfurt: Matthes Maler, 1519. Reformation Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Forging Alliances

Leipzig emboldened Luther in his criticism of the church, which he now paired with calls to reform Germany's secular institutions. A number of Germany's many nobles bristled under Roman influence and saw Luther as a potential champion of German freedom from it. Although Luther did not yet advocate a complete break from Rome, he sought support from the nobles to combine a radical reform of the church with a reform of German society. In one of the most important works of the early Reformation, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther argued that the state and its institutions should wield authority over the church.

Cover page in printed Fraktur with elaborate ornament in margins
Martin Luther, An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: von des Christlichen Standes Besserung (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation: Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate). Wittenberg: Melchoir Lotter d.J., 1520. Martin Luther Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.