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It is our hope these multiple perspectives will only serve to enrich the reader’s consideration of this document.
The document itself, however, is an unlikely candidate for the role of revolutionary text or Protestant manifesto: composed chiefly for an academic disputation on a practice now long-forgotten and scarce understood, the theses are a bit bewildering to the modern reader looking for familiar Reformation slogans.
Indeed, neither of Luther’s two great principles—justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture alone—are to be found in these pages, even though the former had already begun to influence Luther’s thinking and underlies several of his concerns in the are fairly conservative, and Luther hardly expected them to unleash a full-scale reconception of Christian theology and division of the church.
Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.
Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church.
As he walked briskly from the monastery where he lived in Wittenberg, all the way down College Street, it took him only about ten minutes to get to the Castle Church.
He carried a hammer and a copy of the Ninety-five Theses that he wanted to propose as the basis for a public debate.
Such exploitation of the poor infuriated Luther, and in thesis 45, he decries those who, instead of helping the needy, as Christ commanded for the truly penitent, spent all their spare money on indulgences.
More fundamentally, though, Luther worried that indulgences were a form of cheap grace, a way for people to purchase false security for their souls without truly facing the depth of their sin and repenting from the heart.
Moreover, Luther did not compose the on a whim; he had been long wrestling over the indulgences issue and was well aware that by attacking the practice, he would likely be earning himself some very powerful enemies.
Finally, although theses were normally composed for academic disputations only, Luther seems to have intended these at the outset for a wider audience. Wengert notes, the are full of rhetorical flourishes that suggest Luther wanted to reach and persuade many educated readers, and very unusually for such theses, Luther from the first invited scholars from around Germany to respond to the theses in writing.