Learning Luther: The 1518 “Explanations” of the 95 Theses, 1 of 2, By Paul R. Hinlicky

In October we begin our exploration of Luther’s “Explanations” of the Ninety Five Theses, LW 31:77–252.

Much of the 1518 treatise titled in English, “Explanations,” is occupied with Luther’s scholarly study of canon law. As such the contemporary reader enters a strange new world in reading it. But in his own day Luther sought to discover the origin of the extra-biblical practice of granting indulgences and to trace its historical evolution into the practice which he knows in his own times. He is motivated by the response of his own parishioners to the preaching of the “indulgence merchants.” Today, he charges, the “simple” or “common” people understand purgatory as God’s retributive justice extracting satisfaction for sin in the pains of sinners who will, nevertheless, be saved in the end. And they understand “plenary,” or full, indulgences as a papal prerogative to remit these punishments by providing a compensatory satisfaction, so that “when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” (as John Tetzel actually preached).

Consequently, Luther’s tedious (for us but not for his contemporaries) study of canon law showed that originally indulgences were freely granted by local churches for those penitents who had once apostatized under persecution. Normally, they were required to spend seven years demonstrating their repentance before being readmitted to the Eucharistic fellowship of the church – a rigorous practice to be sure. But the merciful church could also suspend its own disciplinary requirement ahead of time and end the period of exclusion. Such was the origin of indulgences. Indulgences were then administered locally, applied to genuine penitents living not dead, and restored to ecclesiastical fellowships. The scholarly, historical, and critical excavation Luther accomplished in the Explanations caused the scales to fall from the eyes of many readers who were taught and so thought that the pope possessed a quasi-divine “fullness of power” to cancel divine punishments whether not or the person where living or dead, penitent or not, in exchange for financial contributions –the traditional “almsgiving” component of repentance along with contrition (sorrow over sin) and fasting (bodily self-discipline).

There are many nuggets of pure gold for us to be found in the Explanations, but we can spare the would-be reader from the tedious work of hacking through the jungle of canon law and its interpretation that the scholar Luther executed for enlightenment in those days. Instead, I will provide page citations from Volume 31 of Luther’s Works for those who would go there to study something mentioned in particular – though I warn you that you will need time and a machete to make your way! Instead, here we will focus in this study with two shorter excerpts, the explanation of Thesis 7 this month, and of Theses 62 and 63 in November. In our introductions I will provide the necessary background for understanding them.

We can begin with something mentioned last time. Just as the aforementioned preoccupation with canon-law also shows, the Luther of the Ninety-Five Theses was more “catholic” than the pope – not really a stretch in the case of the Florentine Medici, Leo X. Even though Luther praised Leo X in the Explanations as a “good” pope, the compliment was in pointed contrast to his immediate predecessor, Julius II, the “warrior pope.” History has not been so kind to Leo X, other than as a patron of Renaissance art. Ludwig Pastor, the pre-Vatican II historian of the popes, called his papacy “a severe trial permitted by God to overtake Christendom,” for Leo was “not equal to the serious duties of his high office” who “never gave a serious thought to reform on the grand scale which had become necessary.” The “Roman Curia” remained “as worldly as ever” and Leo himself “who was absorbed in politics and worldly pleasures… in amusements, music, the chase, and buffoonery.”1

Be that as it may, in the 1518 Explanations, the Catholic monk Luther professes “certainty” about the existence of a post-mortem “purgatory” (126) even if he existentially stresses the present experience of it in lifelong repentance. He writes about true purgatory existentially as the feeling of dread, which works a spiritual purgation of desire (132, 153) until the penitent fully surrenders (134) to pure love of God, that is, love for God’s sake not one’s own (137). Such love for God is the goal (144–5).

As mentioned, throughout the Explanations the catholic Luther repeatedly honors the pope (145, 152, 162, 234, 247) and names Leo X  (155) as a “good” pope (177). He also professes honor of the Virgin Mary and holds to the pious opinion of her immaculate conception (252, 173). He grounds his entire argumentation in the doctrine of the venerable catholic Saint Augustine and his doctrine of Christian love as greatest of all (184). He can speak of “Mother Church” (215) and point out that he has only dared to criticize the indulgence preachers because there is as yet no decided doctrine on the very obscure matter of indulgences. Thus his critique is put forward in expectation that someday a “general council” will convene to decide the church’s doctrine on this question (154, 174).

He argues throughout that “the pope is on my side” (117, 145, 169, 171–2, 196, 200, 204, 206–7, 209, 221, 244) – not on the side of the “flatterers,” that is, the “indulgence merchants” in Germany (151, 180–2, 187, 233) who maximize supposedly papal power in order to lend credentials to their trafficking in indulgences. He positions himself as a true defender of a true pope, as “general” bishop, a pastor of pastors and peoples. Thus, he explicitly rules out open defiance of the pope and counsels external submission to his authority even if he rule otherwise. He only allows for inward or conscientious resistance to false teaching which one must continue protest by withholding approval (234, 239, 246). It is to be noted that the catholic Luther thus sides with medieval conciliarism and its more modest doctrine of papal authority as a pastoral arrangement of local, that is, the Latin-speaking churches. Yet he emphatically affirms the papacy, so understood.

It is thus noteworthy that throughout the Explanations Luther remarks on his vocation as a theologian within this ecclesiastical arrangement. His duty is publicly to withhold approval for false doctrine and rather to expose it by rational critique. The opening preface to the Explanations is a brief but notable sketch of Luther’s understanding of theology as a churchly discipline resourced in the Holy Scriptures which distinguishes conscience-claiming articles of faith by proving or disproving them “on the basis of the judgment of reason and experience” (83).

Scripture is source and reason with experience is the method, but the task is to expose “mere opinions” and confirm articles of faith by “testing everything” (83, 146–7, 219). Repentance is an article of faith. What does “repentance” mean? “[H]itherto many theologians have been permitted to corrupt almost the whole Scripture with their daring distinctions and double meanings recently fabricated…” But the theologian seeks and establishes “the true and real significance” of biblical words about repentance as a universal command and life-long vocation (87). The theologian’s duty is to attain clarity (139) about what is to be believed, for this provides to faith certitude (122–3, 217). One who is unsure of what repentance means can hardly walk this arduous walk.

This clarity and certitude is not the result of simplistic proof-texting, however. The theologian asks and finds “good reasons” in demonstrating by reason and experience the clear meaning of Scripture as God’s clear conscience-claiming word (158–60, 167, 217, 250). This is so much the case that conscientious dissent cannot be silenced by fiat; it must receive good reasons. The historian Martin Brecht emphacizes the “fundamental significance” of this point for Luther: if “opinions can no longer be expressed without danger, it is to be feared that the Inquisition will arbitrarily accuse people of heresy, while failing to pay attention to real heresies.”2 One must give good reasons, which are rationally persuasive and experientially salient in establishing Christian doctrine and identifying deviations.

For Luther, of course, Christ as our righteousness is God’s good reason for the statements of Scripture that are clear and significant for establishing articles of faith that can and do bind consciences (210–11, 232). In making this argument in the Explanations, Luther appears as a humanist scholar, to be sure, opposing scholasticism as a method which puts logic before rhetoric (162, 237–8). But as a theologian, Christ the savior who unites the penitent to His own cross to impart to her His resurrection life is the norm by which Scripture is rightly interpreted.

So the theology of the cross (225, 227) enters the controversy at just this theological juncture to argue that true penitents welcome the cross laid upon them by God just because it conforms them to Christ. Properly interpreted, canon law itself sees the difference between the guilt of sin, which God alone forgives by grace through the “merits” of Christ crucified, and the punishment due to sin. But further, for Luther the divine “punishment” which is the cross of Christ laid on the believer God requires for our true good, the Pauline “wasting away” of the old “outer nature” like the cocoon from which the new life of the butterfly will someday emerge.

That leaves only the temporal punishments required by civil or ecclesiastical authorities, which can be relaxed or enforced as practical judgment requires (103, 241). In this light, Luther reduces the practice of buying and selling indulgences in his day to virtual absurdity. Since true penitents welcome the cross that God lays upon them as divinely given for their ongoing purification, the kind of indulgences being sought and bought today are not for these true penitents but only for nominal Christians, “sluggards” (112, 151, 180–2, 187, 233) who fear the punishment but not the sin. Such indulgences are actually “demeritorious” (150). They are works of the religion business (117), not the business of the Kingdom of God (206). They are sold as “simony” (201, 237; cf. the figure of Simon in the Book of Acts who wanted to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter).

Luther reduces the business to absurdity also from this side. If the pope indeed had such power to release from divine punishment by the satisfaction provided in the surplus merit of the saints, and if divine punishment were cruel and retributive not fatherly and reparative, surely he would empty purgatory for free rather than for filthy lucre (166)! But true evangelical preaching does not magnify punishment to make auditors fear it, but rather magnifies sin, so that penitent hate it (241).

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2015/16 via these reading guides by Paul R. Hinlicky. The synod has kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.


  1. Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, Vol. 7, 3rd edition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and St. Louis: Herder, 1950), 2–6.
  2. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 162.

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