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The Ninety-Five Theses (original Latin: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) were written by Martin Luther in 1517 and are widely regarded as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism, and the sale of indulgences.
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The background to Luther's Ninety-Five Theses centers on practices within the Catholic Church regarding baptism and absolution. Significantly, the Theses reject the validity of indulgences (remissions of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven). They also view with great cynicism the practice of indulgences being sold, and thus the penance for sin representing a financial transaction rather than genuine contrition. Luther argues that the sale of indulgences was a gross violation of the original intention of confession and penance, and that Christians were being falsely told that they could find absolution through the purchase of indulgences.
All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, in the Holy Roman Empire, where the Ninety-Five Theses famously appeared, held one of Europe's largest collections of holy relics. These had been piously collected by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics supposedly allowed the viewer to receive relief from temporal punishment for sins in purgatory. By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly "including vials of the milk of the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger [of Jesus], and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod."
As part of a fund-raising campaign commissioned by Pope Leo X to finance the renovation of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, began the selling of indulgences in the German lands. Albert of Mainz, the Archbishop of Mainz in Germany, had borrowed heavily to pay for his high church rank and was deeply in debt. He agreed to allow the sale of the indulgences in his territory in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Luther was apparently not aware of this. Even though Luther's prince, Frederick III, and the prince of the neighboring territory, George, Duke of Saxony, forbade the sale thereof in their respective lands, people in Wittenberg traveled to purchase them. When these people came to confession, they presented their plenary indulgences for which they paid, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins, since the document promised to forgive all their sins. Luther was outraged that they had paid money for what was theirs by right as a free gift from God. He felt compelled to expose the fraud that was being sold to the people. This exposure was to take place in the form of a public scholarly debate at the University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses outlined the items to be discussed and issued the challenge to any and all comers.
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs." He insisted that since forgiveness was God's alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
On the same day, Luther sent a hand-written copy, accompanied with honourable comments, to the archbishop Albert of Mainz and Magdeburg, responsible for the practice of the indulgence sales, and to the bishop of Brandenburg, the superior of Luther. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly "searching, rather than doctrinaire." Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"
Within two weeks, copies of the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe. In January 1518 Christoph von Scheurl and other friends of Luther translated the Ninety-Five Theses from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied them, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press.
On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a rebuttal to Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, a papal encyclical titled Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"), from its opening words. This document outlined the Magisterium of the Church's findings of where the pope believed Luther had erred.
As early as October 29, 1521, the chapel at Wittenberg began to turn away from private Masses.[clarification needed] In 1522, much of the city began celebrating Lutheran[clarification needed] services instead of Roman Catholic services. Luther's popularity grew rapidly, mostly because the general Roman Catholic church members were dissatisfied with the corruption and "worldly" desires and habits of the Roman Curia.
As the Reformation progressed, another element drew adherents to the ideas and practices that gradually became known as Lutheranism. Luther and others had urged that greater balance be observed in the attention given to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, along with the long-accepted sources of tradition and reason in the formation of doctrine. This concept, called sola scriptura, offered a basis for querying the tight hold Catholic prelates then had over both the content of faith, and over potentially abusive corollary practices like indulgential penance (the sale of indulgences). As availability of the recently invented movable type printing press spread, literacy also grew among a populace now able to own books, including Bibles. The laity, now able to read and examine traditional creedal content, was encouraged to test its fidelity to Scriptures; the Bible began to take on the character of an ur-text for faith; and a new emphasis on personal piety resulted. This required a different kind of internal balance between the new, wider accessibility of texts, and the need for informed interpretation of the Scriptures: attendance at public preaching and lecturing events grew. It also allowed individual ownership of a previously more contained theological process, so that individuals found themselves more invested in understanding and living out their faith.
Placing his theses on a door as Luther did was not a new process, but his publication of his objections was paradigmatic of the resultant shift from internal to extramural debate on matters that had previously been taken as given.
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