Martin Luther

Martin Luther

(1483-1546)

Who Was Martin Luther?

Luther called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. His actions set in motion tremendous reform within the Church.

A prominent theologian, Luther’s desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers.

Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, located in modern-day Germany.

His parents, Hans and Margarette Luther, were of peasant lineage. However, Hans had some success as a miner and ore smelter, and in 1484 the family moved from Eisleben to nearby Mansfeld, where Hans held ore deposits.

Hans Luther knew that mining was a tough business and wanted his promising son to have a better career as a lawyer. At age seven, Luther entered school in Mansfeld.

At 14, Luther went north to Magdeburg, where he continued his studies. In 1498, he returned to Eisleben and enrolled in a school, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic. He later compared this experience to purgatory and hell.

In 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt , where he received a degree in grammar, logic, rhetoric and metaphysics. At this time, it seemed he was on his way to becoming a lawyer.

Becoming a Monk

In July 1505, Luther had a life-changing experience that set him on a new course to becoming a monk.

Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” The storm subsided and he was saved.

Most historians believe this was not a spontaneous act, but an idea already formulated in Luther’s mind. The decision to become a monk was difficult and greatly disappointed his father, but he felt he must keep a promise.

Luther was also driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, and felt that life in a monastery would help him find salvation.

The first few years of monastic life were difficult for Luther, as he did not find the religious enlightenment he was seeking. A mentor told him to focus his life exclusively on Jesus Christ and this would later provide him with the guidance he sought.

Disillusionment with Rome

At age 27, Luther was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a Catholic church conference in Rome. He came away more disillusioned, and very discouraged by the immorality and corruption he witnessed there among the Catholic priests.

Upon his return to Germany, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg in an attempt to suppress his spiritual turmoil. He excelled in his studies and received a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university (known today as Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg ).

Through his studies of scripture, Luther finally gained religious enlightenment. Beginning in 1513, while preparing lectures, Luther read the first line of Psalm 22, which Christ wailed in his cry for mercy on the cross, a cry similar to Luther’s own disillusionment with God and religion.

Two years later, while preparing a lecture on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he read, “The just will live by faith.” He dwelled on this statement for some time.

Finally, he realized the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.

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'95 Theses'

On October 31, 1517, Luther, angry with Pope Leo X’s new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica , nailed a sheet of paper with his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door.

Though Luther intended these to be discussion points, the 95 Theses laid out a devastating critique of the indulgences - good works, which often involved monetary donations, that popes could grant to the people to cancel out penance for sins - as corrupting people’s faith.

Luther also sent a copy to Archbishop Albert Albrecht of Mainz, calling on him to end the sale of indulgences. Aided by the printing press , copies of the 95 Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months.

The Church eventually moved to stop the act of defiance. In October 1518, at a meeting with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg, Luther was ordered to recant his 95 Theses by the authority of the pope.

Luther said he would not recant unless scripture proved him wrong. He went further, stating he didn’t consider that the papacy had the authority to interpret scripture. The meeting ended in a shouting match and initiated his ultimate excommunication from the Church.

Excommunication

Following the publication of his 95 Theses , Luther continued to lecture and write in Wittenberg. In June and July of 1519 Luther publicly declared that the Bible did not give the pope the exclusive right to interpret scripture, which was a direct attack on the authority of the papacy.

Finally, in 1520, the pope had had enough and on June 15 issued an ultimatum threatening Luther with excommunication.

On December 10, 1520, Luther publicly burned the letter. In January 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Diet of Worms

In March 1521, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms , a general assembly of secular authorities. Again, Luther refused to recant his statements, demanding he be shown any scripture that would refute his position. There was none.

On May 8, 1521, the council released the Edict of Worms, banning Luther’s writings and declaring him a “convicted heretic.” This made him a condemned and wanted man. Friends helped him hide out at the Wartburg Castle.

While in seclusion, he translated the New Testament into the German language, to give ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word.

Lutheran Church

Though still under threat of arrest, Luther returned to Wittenberg Castle Church, in Eisenach, in May 1522 to organize a new church, Lutheranism.

He gained many followers, and the Lutheran Church also received considerable support from German princes.

When a peasant revolt began in 1524, Luther denounced the peasants and sided with the rulers, whom he depended on to keep his church growing. Thousands of peasants were killed, but the Lutheran Church grew over the years.

Katharina von Bora

In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who had abandoned the convent and taken refuge in Wittenberg.

Born into a noble family that had fallen on hard times, at the age of five Katharina was sent to a convent. She and several other reform-minded nuns decided to escape the rigors of the cloistered life, and after smuggling out a letter pleading for help from the Lutherans, Luther organized a daring plot.

With the help of a fishmonger, Luther had the rebellious nuns hide in herring barrels that were secreted out of the convent after dark - an offense punishable by death. Luther ensured that all the women found employment or marriage prospects, except for the strong-willed Katharina, who refused all suitors except Luther himself.

The scandalous marriage of a disgraced monk to a disgraced nun may have somewhat tarnished the reform movement, but over the next several years, the couple prospered and had six children.

Katharina proved herself a more than a capable wife and ally, as she greatly increased their family's wealth by shrewdly investing in farms, orchards and a brewery. She also converted a former monastery into a dormitory and meeting center for Reformation activists.

Luther later said of his marriage, "I have made the angels laugh and the devils weep." Unusual for its time, Luther in his will entrusted Katharina as his sole inheritor and guardian of their children.

Anti-Semitism

From 1533 to his death in 1546, Luther served as the dean of theology at University of Wittenberg. During this time he suffered from many illnesses, including arthritis, heart problems and digestive disorders.

The physical pain and emotional strain of being a fugitive might have been reflected in his writings.

Some works contained strident and offensive language against several segments of society, particularly Jews and, to a lesser degree, Muslims. Luther's anti-Semitism is on full display in his treatise, The Jews and Their Lies .

Luther died following a stroke on February 18, 1546, at the age of 62 during a trip to his hometown of Eisleben. He was buried in All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, the city he had helped turn into an intellectual center.

Luther's teachings and translations radically changed Christian theology. Thanks in large part to the Gutenberg press, his influence continued to grow after his death, as his message spread across Europe and around the world.

QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Luther Martin
  • Birth Year: 1483
  • Birth date: November 10, 1483
  • Birth City: Eisleben
  • Birth Country: Germany
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Martin Luther was a German monk who forever changed Christianity when he nailed his '95 Theses' to a church door in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation.
  • Christianity
  • Astrological Sign: Scorpio
  • Nacionalities
  • Interesting Facts
  • Martin Luther studied to be a lawyer before deciding to become a monk.
  • Luther refused to recant his '95 Theses' and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
  • Luther married a former nun and they went on to have six children.
  • Death Year: 1546
  • Death date: February 18, 1546
  • Death City: Eisleben
  • Death Country: Germany

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  • Let the wife make the husband glad to come home, and let him make her sorry to see him leave.
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Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Origins of the Reformation Narrative

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C Scott Dixon, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Origins of the Reformation Narrative, The English Historical Review , Volume 132, Issue 556, June 2017, Pages 533–569, https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/cex224

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With the quincentenary of the German Reformation now upon us, it is worth revisiting how, and why, the posting of the 95 theses emerged as such a defining moment in the Reformation story. It is easy to understand why it has assumed pride of place in modern histories. What is less easy to understand, however, is why the theses-posting emerged as the critical moment in the early modern accounts, for there were many other moments with even more drama and proximate significance for the Reformation. Moreover, the posting of theses had little shock-value at the time. Many professors posted academic theses, many reform-minded Christians had questioned indulgences, and many high-profile German intellectuals had written at least one critical piece against Rome. The following article begins with a survey of the origins of Reformation history and traces the incorporation of the theses-posting into the narrative stream. The second section examines the reasons why this act remained so prominent in the Lutheran memory during the two centuries after the Reformation by relating it to a broader analytical framework and sense of self-perception. The final section examines the process of reinterpretation that occurred during the period of late Lutheran Orthodoxy and the early Enlightenment, when scholars started to revisit the episode and sketch out the features of the modern view. The broader aim is to demonstrate how historical conditions can shape historical facts, even when those facts were bound to something as seemingly idealistic as the origins of a new Church.

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The Protestant Reformation, explained

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther changed Christianity — and the world.

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An illustration of Martin Luther. A printing of his works was crowdfunded. (Ulstein Bild/Getty Images)

This week, people across the world are celebrating Halloween. But Tuesday, many people of faith marked another, far less spooky, celebration. October 31 was the 500-year anniversary of the day Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses — objections to various practices of the Catholic Church — to the door of a German church. This event is widely considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The event was celebrated across Germany , including in Luther’s native Wittenberg (T-shirts for sale there proudly proclaim, “Protestant since 1517!”), as well as by Protestants of all denominations worldwide. As the inciting incident for the entire Reformation, Luther’s actions came to define the subsequent five centuries of Christian history in Western Europe and, later, America: a story of constant intra-Christian challenge, debate, and conflict that has transformed Christianity into the diffuse, fragmented, and diverse entity it is today.

This week, Twitter has been full of users discussing Reformation Day. Some have used the opportunity to post jokes or funny memes about their chosen Christian denomination. Others are debating Luther’s legacy, including discussing the degree to which he either created modern Christianity as we know it or heralded centuries of division within Christian communities.

Basically, every protestant on #ReformationDay pic.twitter.com/HiouAT7w5e — Andrew Mullins (@AndrewWMullins) October 31, 2017

While Reformation Day is celebrated annually among some Protestants, especially in Germany, the nature of this anniversary has brought debate over Luther and the Protestant Reformation more generally into the public sphere.

So what exactly happened in 1517, and why does it matter?

What started as an objection to particular corruptions morphed into a global revolution

While the Catholic Church was not the only church on the European religious landscape (the Eastern Orthodox Churches still dominated in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia), by the 16th century, it was certainly the most dominant. The church had a great deal of political as well as spiritual power; it had close alliances, for example, with many royal houses, as well as the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which at that time encompassed much of Central Europe, including present-day Germany.

The church’s great power brought with it a fair degree of corruption. Among the most notable and controversial practices of that time was the selling of “indulgences.” For Catholics of that time, sin could be divided into two broad categories. “Mortal sin” was enough to send you to hell after death, while “venal sin” got you some years of purifying punishment in purgatory, an interim state between life on earth and the heavenly hereafter.

By the 16th century, the idea that you could purchase an indulgence to reduce your purgatorial debt had become increasingly widespread. Religious leaders who wanted to fund projects would send out “professional pardoners,” or quaestores, to collect funds from the general public. Often, the sale of indulgences exceeded the official parameters of church doctrine; unscrupulous quaestores might promise eternal salvation (rather than just a remission of time in purgatory) in exchange for funds, or threaten damnation to those who refused. Indulgences could be sold on behalf of departed friends or loved ones, and many indulgence salesmen used that pressure to great effect.

Enter Martin Luther. A Catholic monk in Wittenberg, Luther found himself disillusioned by the practices of the church he loved. For Luther, indulgences — and the church’s approach to sin and penance more generally — seemed to go against what he saw as the most important part of his Christian faith. If God really did send his only son, Jesus, to die on the cross for the sins of mankind, then why were indulgences even necessary? If the salvation of mankind had come through Jesus’s sacrifice, then surely faith in Jesus alone should be enough for salvation.

In autumn 1517 (whether the actual date of October 31 is accurate is debatable), Luther nailed his 95 theses — most of the 95 points in the document, which was framed in the then-common style of academic debate, objections to the practice of indulgences — to a Wittenberg church door.

His intent was to spark a debate within his church over a reformation of Catholicism. Instead, Luther and those who followed him found themselves at the forefront of a new religious movement known as Lutheranism. By 1520, Luther had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Soon after, he found himself at the Diet (council) of the city of Worms, on trial for heresy under the authority of the (very Catholic) Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At that council, the emperor declared Luther to be an outlaw and demanded his arrest.

Political, economic, and technological factors contributed to the spread of Luther’s ideas

So why wasn’t Luther arrested and executed, as plenty of other would-be reformers and “heretics” had been? The answer has as much to do with politics as with religion. In the region now known as Germany, the holy Roman emperor had authority over many regional princes, not all of whom were too happy about submitting to their emperor’s authority.

One such prince, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, “kidnapped” Luther after his trial to keep him safe from his would-be arrestors. In the years following the trial, and the spread of Luther’s dissent as the basis for a Lutheranism, Protestantism often became a means by which individual princes would signal their opposition to imperial power. And when a prince converted, his entire principality was seen to have converted too. This led, for example, to the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648, in which conflict between pro-Catholic and pro-Lutheran German princes morphed into a pan-European war that killed up to 20 percent of Europe’s population.

As it happens, the term “Protestant” began as a political rather than theological category. It originally referred to a number of German princes who formally protested an imperial ban on Martin Luther, before becoming a more general term for reformers who founded movements outside the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Luther was able to spread his ideas more quickly than ever before due to one vital new piece of technology: the printing press. For the first time in human history, vast amounts of information could be transmitted and shared easily with a great number of people. Luther’s anti-clerical pamphlets and essays — which were written in German, the language of the people, rather than the more obscure and “formal” academic language of Latin — could be swiftly and easily disseminated to convince others of his cause. (The relationship between Luther and the printing press was actually a symbiotic one : The more popular Luther became, the more print shops spread up across Europe to meet demand.)

Luther’s newfound popularity and “celebrity” status, in turn, made him a much more difficult force for his Catholic opponents to contend with. While earlier would-be reformers, such as John Hus, had been burned at the stake for heresy, getting rid of someone as widely known as Luther was far more politically risky.

Luther’s success, and the success of those who followed him, is a vital reminder of the ways politics, propaganda, and religion intersect. Something that began as a relatively narrow and academic debate over the church selling indulgences significantly changed Western culture. Luther opened the floodgates for other reformers.

Although Luther can be said to have started the Reformation, he was one of many reformers whose legacy lives on in different Protestant traditions. Switzerland saw the rise of John Calvin (whose own Protestant denomination, Calvinism, bears his name). John Knox founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Each denomination of Protestantism had its own specific theology and approach. But not all Protestant reformations were entirely idealistic in nature: King Henry VIII famously established the Church of England, still the state church in that country today, in order to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

Nearly all Protestant groups, however, shared Luther’s original objections to the Catholic Church — theological ideals that still define the Protestant umbrella today.

The most important of these is the idea that salvation happens through faith alone. In other words, nothing — not indulgences, not confession or penance, not even good works — can alter the course of a person’s salvation. For Protestants, salvation happens through divine grace received through faith in Jesus Christ. The second of these is the idea that biblical Scripture, and a person’s individual relationship with the Bible, is the most important source of information about God and Christian life. (This is in stark contrast with the Catholic Church, in which a wider body of church teaching and church authority play a major role.)

While it would be too simplistic to say that Protestants as a whole favor individualism and autonomy over established tradition, it’s fair to say that most Protestant traditions place a greater premium on individuals’ personal religious experiences, on the act of “being saved” through prayer, and on individual readings of Scripture, than do Catholics or members of orthodox churches.

Other differences between Catholic and Protestant theology and practice involve the clergy and church. Protestants by and large see the “sacraments,” such as communion, as less important than their Catholic counterparts (the intensity of this varies by tradition, although only Catholics see the communion wafer as the literal body of Christ). Protestant priests, likewise, are not bound by priestly celibacy, and can marry.

That said, for many Christians today, differences are cultural, not theological. Earlier this fall, a study carried out by the Pew Research Center found that average Protestants more often than not assert traditionally Catholic teachings about, among other things, the nature of salvation or the role of church teaching.

Protestantism today still bears the stamp of Luther

Today, about 900 million people — 40 percent of Christians — identify as Protestant around the world. Of these, 72 million people — just 8 percent — are Lutherans. But Lutheranism has still come to define much of the Protestant ethos.

Over the centuries, more forms of Protestantism have taken shape. Several of them have had cataclysmic effects on world history. Puritanism, another reform movement within the Church of England, inspired its members to seek a new life in the New World and helped shape America as we know it today. Many of these movements classified themselves as “revivalist” movements, each one in turn trying to reawaken a church that critics saw as having become staid and complacent (just as Luther saw the Catholic Church).

Of these reform and revivalist movements, perhaps none is so visible today in America as the loose umbrella known as evangelical Christianity. Many of the historic Protestant churches — Lutheranism, Calvinism, Presbyterianism, the Church of England — are now classified as mainline Protestant churches, which tend to be more socially and politically liberal. Evangelical Christianity, though, arose out of similar revivalist tendencies within those churches, in various waves dating back to the 18th century.

Even more decentralized than their mainline counterparts, evangelical Christian groups tend to stress scriptural authority (including scriptural inerrancy) and the centrality of being “saved” to an even greater extent than, say, modern Lutheranism. Because of the fragmented and decentralized way many of these churches operate, anybody can conceivably set up a church or church community in any building. This, in turn, gives rise to the trend of “storefront churches,” something particularly popular in Pentecostal communities, and “house churches,” in which members meet for Bible study at one another’s homes.

The history of Christianity worldwide has, largely, followed the Luther cycle. As each church or church community becomes set in its ways, a group of idealistic reformers seeks to revitalize its spiritual life. They found new movements, only for reformers to splinter off from them in turn.

In America, where mainline Protestantism has been in decline for decades, various forms of evangelical Protestantism seemed to flourish for many years. Now evangelicals — particularly white evangelicals — are finding themselves in decline for a variety of reasons, including demographic change and increasingly socially liberal attitudes on the part of younger Christians. Meanwhile, social media — the printing press of our own age — is changing the way some Christians worship: Some Christians are more likely to worship and study the Bible online or attend virtual discussion groups, while in other churches, attendees are encouraged to “live-tweet” sermons to heighten engagement.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

But if the history of Lutheranism is anything to go by, we may be due for another wave of reformation before too long.

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Why Did Martin Luther Post the 95 Theses?

Why Did Martin Luther Post the 95 Theses?

In the little town of Wittenberg, Germany,  on this day, October 31, 1517 , a priest nailed a challenge to debate on the church door. No one may have noticed then, but within the week, copies of his theses would be discussed throughout the surrounding regions; and within a decade, Europe itself was shaken by his simple act. Later generations would mark Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses on the church door as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but what did Luther think he was doing at the time? To answer this question, we need to understand a little about Luther's own spiritual journey.

Martin Luther

As a young man in Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Luther was studying law at the university. One day he was caught in a storm and was almost killed by lightning. He cried out to St. Anne and promised God he would become a monk. In 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery and in 1507 became a priest. His monastic leaders sent him to Rome in 1510, but Luther was disenchanted with the ritualism and dead faith he found in the papal city. There was nothing in Rome to mend his despairing spirit or settle his restless soul. He seemed so cut off from God, and nowhere could he find a cure for his malady.

Martin Luther was bright, and his superiors soon had him teaching theology at the university. In 1515, he began teaching Paul's epistle to the Romans. Slowly, Paul's words in Romans began to break through the gloom of Luther's soul. Luther wrote

My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement 'the just shall live by faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning...This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

The more Luther's eyes were opened by his study of Romans, the more he saw the church's corruption in his day. The glorious truth of justification by faith alone had become buried under a mound of greed, corruption, and false teaching. Most galling was the practice of indulgences -- the certificates the church provided for a fee, supposedly to shorten one's stay in Purgatory. The pope was encouraging the sale of indulgences. He planned to use the money to help pay for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Johann Tetzel was one of the indulgence sellers in Luther's vicinity. He used little advertising jingles to encourage people to buy his wares: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Once Luther realized the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice alone for our sins, he found such practices revolting. The more he studied the Scriptures, the more he saw the need to show the church how it had strayed from the truth.

Reason for the 95 Theses

So, on this day, October 31, 1517 , he posted a list of 95 propositions on the church door in Wittenberg. In his day, this was the means of inviting scholars to debate important issues. No one took up Luther's challenge to debate at that time, but once news of his proposals became known, many began to discuss the issue Luther raised that salvation was by faith in Christ's work alone. Luther initially expected the Pope to agree with his position since it was based on Scripture, but in 1520, the Pope issued a decree condemning Luther's views. Luther publicly burned the papal decree. With that act, he also burned his bridges behind him.

Why Is God Described as a Rock?

Why Is God Described as a Rock?

Read the Full List of Luther's 95 Theses .

Photo Credit: WikimediaCommons

Bibliography:

  • Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  • Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand. New York: Mentor, 1950.
  • Durant, Will. The Reformation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
  • Köstlin, Julius. Life of Luther. New York, C. Scribner's sons, 1884.
  • Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
  • Various encyclopedia articles.

Last updated July 2017.

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Nailed It? The Truth About Martin Luther, the Ninety-Five Theses, and the Castle Church Door

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On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther strode confidently to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, nailed up his Ninety-five Theses, and in one swing of his hammer started what later became known as the Protestant Reformation. The defiant monk, enraged by the sale of indulgences that promised forgiveness apart from repentance, sought to overthrow the Roman Catholic Church with his teaching of justification by grace through faith alone.

Or so the story goes.

This story, however, is not without its holes. Consider the “nail,” the theses themselves, and Luther’s intention.

The “Nail”

The image of Luther nailing the Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church is powerful, and as Protestant heirs of his theological convictions, we appreciate the sense of confidence and finality the image carries.

Unfortunately, this story first shows up over a hundred years after the event. The first image of Luther with a hammer appeared in 1697.

The first image of Luther with a hammer came in 1697.

By contrast, the first historical accounts of the theses-posting date to the 1540s, and they say nothing about Luther nailing the Ninety-five Theses to the door. Peter Marshall* quotes Philip Melanchthon , Luther’s chosen successor, who recounted that the German monk, “burning with eagerness and piety, issued Propositions concerning Indulgences, which are recorded in the first volume of his works, and these he publicly affixed to the church next to the castle in Wittenberg, on the eve of the Feast of All Saints in the year 1517.”

Melanchthon didn’t report that Luther specifically nailed the theses, but affixed them.

Practically speaking, nails were tremendously valuable prior to the industrial revolution. A blacksmith had to make each one individually. Moreover, from other publicly posted documents that have survived, we know documents were typically glued up. Daniel Jütte recounts how in 1521, officials in Antwerp forbade the posting of anti-Catholic material in public places, and they were specific about how things were typically posted: “Slanderous libel, rondels, or ballads directed against those who are not followers of Luther shall not be written, distributed, or pinned and pasted to church doors or any archways.”

For these reasons, it’s unlikely Luther used a hammer and nail. But that’s the picture that survived. Why? Because an image of the reformer marching through town with a glue pot doesn’t seem as world defining.

Why does this matter? Understanding how Luther affixed the Ninety-five Thesis helps us to make sense of what Luther intended that day 505 years ago. And to answer that question fully, we ought to turn to the source in question: the theses themselves.

From the start, Luther didn’t intend to rend the Catholic Church. His goal was to be a faithful Catholic theologian and to clarify Catholic teaching on an issue he saw within the Church. In 1545, reflecting on his life, Luther stated that in 1517, he was a faithful Catholic who would have murdered in the name of the Pope.

It’s fascinating that the Ninety-five Theses are as famous as they are, as the publication of theses like these was tremendously common. But for reasons Luther never really understood, the Theses became wildly popular, propelling him to international fame. Nevertheless, the theology contained in the Theses ought not to be celebrated as beacons of Protestant light.

It’s at least problematic to date the Protestant Reformation as starting on October 31, 1517, because the theses themselves contain no distinctively Protestant doctrine. Michael Reeves writes : “If the ninety-five theses were meant to be a Reformation manifesto, they were a pretty poor effort: they contain not a mention of justification by faith alone, the authority of the Bible, or, indeed, any core Reformation thought.”

An image of the reformer marching through town with a glue pot doesn’t seem as world defining.

Before Luther, other reform-minded Catholics existed throughout medieval Europe: Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, and others. Bernard of Clairvaux sought to encourage reform in his own day, as did Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. It was common for theologians within the church to be frustrated with its leadership and to call the church to holiness. So, we must conclude that a reformation movement began within the Catholic Church in 1517, but it was later that this movement brought about the Protestant split.

By my judgment, April 26, 1518, was the day Protestantism began. On that date, Luther presented the Heidelberg Disputation , writing,

He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ. For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith. . . . The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Only then was the heart of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone clearly seen.

Luther’s Intention

Luther certainly posted the Ninety-five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church. Yet no evidence from his era implies he nailed them. “Nail, glue, pin—these are minor differences in the historical narrative,” we might say. Why does this question even matter?

Ultimately, getting the details right matters because this guards us against highlighting the wrong parts of the story. By the end of his life, Luther was a valiant defender of the truth. But in 1517, he was an obscure monk who was striving to be faithful to Catholic teaching.

It’s easy for those of us who are sympathetic to Luther, myself chief among them, to think his posting the Ninety-five Theses was intended from the start to be revolutionary. But it wasn’t. The chapel door was nothing more than the community noticeboard. There was likely no fanfare or gathered audience. Posting a series of disputations was the normal course of events for professors in German universities to make the public aware of points of debate he intended to address. Luther simply made use of a common practice.

Painting Luther in 1517 as more heroic than he was does him a disservice. To say he considered the Ninety-five Theses as his great rejection of Catholic teaching doesn’t do justice to how revolutionary his later teaching actually was.

It was when he was forced into a corner after posting the Ninety-five Theses that he found confidence in the gospel. The theology of the theses didn’t bring him that confidence. Rather, the beautiful truth of being justified by faith in Christ alone, as he stated in the Heidelberg Disputation, made him into the reformer we remember. That truth is worth its weight in nails.

*I disagree with Peter Marshall’s conclusion that Luther did not post the theses on October 31.

What Are the Essential Disciplines of a Godly Man?

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In the classic book Disciplines of a Godly Man —now updated with fresh references and suggested resources—seasoned pastor R. Kent Hughes presents an invaluable array of godly advice aimed at helping men grow in the disciplines of prayer, integrity, marriage, leadership, worship, purity, and more.

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Forrest Strickland (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is an adjunct professor of church history at Boyce College and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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October 31, 1517: Luther’s 95 Theses Appear

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is one of the iconic images of the Reformation. In this essay, historians Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert examine the best evidence for and against this famous story. In either case, it is correct to say that Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31, 2017: that is the date listed on the cover letter that he mailed—posted—to local German bishops. 

Essay: “Sources for and Against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses” by Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert, LQ 29 (2015), 373-398. All essays linked in this timeline are offered solely for personal and educational usage.

Text of 95 Theses

Image: Text of 95 Theses

Video: Timothy Wengert, “The Reformation: 500 Years Later"

August 29, 1518: Philip Melanchthon Arrives in Wittenberg

Philip Melanchthon’s addition to the University of Wittenberg in 1518 marked the beginning of Reformation partnership that lasted for more than a quarter of a century. In this reflection on his career, Heinz Scheible introduces readers to Melanchthon and corrects many of the misunderstandings that surround Luther’s longtime colleague and the Praeceptor Germaniae (teacher of Germany). 

Essay: “Luther and Melanchthon” by Heinz Scheible, LQ 4 (1990), 317-339.

Philip Melanchthon (colored woodcut, 1577)

Image: Colored woodcut of Philip Melanchthon (dated 1577) included into a German version of Melanchthon’s 1536 Loci Communes, rare book collection of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Photo by Martin Lohrmann, used with permission. 

June 13, 1525: War and Marriage

Amid the tumult of the Peasants War of 1524/25, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora in a private ceremony in June 1525, a marriage which he viewed as an affirmation of life amid perilous times. Martin and Katie were married over twenty years, until the reformer’s death in 1546. Their relationship was characterized by mutual love and respect. In this essay, Martin Treu describes Katharina’s many major contributions to the Reformation.

Essay: “Katharina von Bora: The Woman at Luther’s Side” by Martin Treu, LQ 13 (1999), 156-178.

“Kattarina Lutterin” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

Image: “Kattarina Lutterin” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

June 25, 1530: Presentation of Augsburg Confession 

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invited his protesting subjects to defend their faith at the 1530 imperial meeting in Augsburg. Composed primarily by Philip Melanchthon, the Augsburg Confession remains foundational for the preaching and teaching of Lutheran churches around the world today. Author Eric Gritsch (d. 2012) was a longtime professor of church history at Gettysburg Seminary and a noted ecumenical theologian. 

Essay: “Reflections on Melanchthon as Theologian of the Augsburg Confession” by Eric Gritsch, LQ 12 (1998), 445-452.

The Diet of Augsburg

Image: The Diet of Augsburg

September 1534: Publication of the German Bible

In a project that began with Luther’s translation of the New Testament (1522), the entire German Bible was published in September 1534. Though it often carries the name “the Luther Bible,” this translation was the work of a team whose members included Luther, Melanchthon, Caspar Cruciger, Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Matthäus Aurogallus, and Georg Rörer. Here Birgit Stolt studies Luther’s great ability to communicate both meaning and feeling. 

Essay: “Luther’s Translation of the Bible” by Birgit Stolt, LQ 28 (2014), 373-400.

Title page to 1541 edition of the German Bible

Image: Title page to 1541 edition of the German Bible

February 18, 1546: Death of Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s death in early 1546 occurred just as new challenges were developing for Lutherans: the Roman Catholic Council of Trent had just begun and Emperor Charles V was about to declare war against his Protestant subjects. In this context, Luther’s longtime colleague Johannes Bugenhagen preached a funeral sermon, which recognized the community’s grief and announced the same gospel that Luther spent his life sharing. 

Essay: “A Christian sermon over the body and at the funeral of the venerable Dr. Martin Luther, preached by Mr. Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, doctor and pastor of the church in Wittenberg,” translated by Kurt K. Hendel. 

Image: Martin Luther 

September 25, 1555: The Peace of Augsburg

Although Emperor Charles won the Smalcaldic War in 1547, an uprising organized by Moritz of Saxony in 1552 eventually brought about the Peace of Augsburg, which granted legal status to the faith of the Augsburg Confession within the Holy Roman Empire for the first time. On the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose region, their religion), local nobility or city councils could choose to embrace Reformation teachings and practices. As examined in this essay by James Estes, Luther had laid the practical and theological groundwork for this cooperation between church and state as early as 1520.

Essay: “Luther on the Role of Secular Authority in the Reformation” by James Estes, LQ 17 (2003), 199-225.

Elector Moritz of Saxony, by Lucas Cranach the Younger

Image: Elector Moritz of Saxony, by Lucas Cranach the Younger

Later 1500s: Reformations outside Germany

From its outset, the Lutheran Reformation was an international movement. Reforms often included translation of the Bible into vernacular languages and new church orders that described how local communities would live out their gospel faith. Lutheran communities especially took root around Germany, Eastern and Central Europe, and Scandinavia. A taste of this diverse witness appears in this essay by Luka Ilić on the “Slovenian Luther,” Primus Truber.

Essay: “Primus Truber (1508-1586): The Slovenian Luther,” LQ 22 (2008), 268-277.

Primus Truber, woodcut by Jacob Lederlein, 1578

Image: Primus Truber, woodcut by Jacob Lederlein, 1578

June 25, 1580: Publication of the Book of Concord

On the fiftieth anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, German Lutherans published the Book of Concord as a way to affirm their faith and close an era of theological controversy. Its contents include the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s catechisms, and the Formula of Concord by second-generation reformers. From a Lutheran Quarterly issue dedicated to the publication of a new English edition of the Book of Concord, Irene Dingel examines the extent to which the Book of Concord met its goals.

Essay: “The Preface of The Book of Concord as a Reflection of Sixteenth Century Confessional Development” by Irene Dingel, LQ 15 (Winter 2001), 373-395.

Image: Title page to a 1580 edition of the Book of Concord, rare book collection of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Photo by Martin Lohrmann, used with permission.

1599: Philip Nicolai Publishes the “King and Queen of Chorales”

Congregational singing quickly became a hallmark of Lutheran worship, with early Reformation hymns composed already in the 1520s by people like Elizabeth Cruciger, Paul Speratus, and Luther himself. In 1599 the pastor Philip Nicolai published a pastoral work for plague survivors and included two hymns with it: Wachet Auf (Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying) and Wie Schoen Leuchtet (O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright), honored respectively with the titles “the king and queen of chorales.” The following essay introduces this Lutheran love of music: “Luther on Music.”

Essay: “Luther on Music” by Robin A. Leaver, LQ 20 (2006), 1-21.

“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” by Philipp Nicolai

Image: “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” by Philipp Nicolai

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Are 500 Years Old. Here’s Why They’re Still Causing Controversy

Five hundred years ago , on Oct. 31, 1517, the small-town monk Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door, thus lighting the flame of the Reformation — the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches. Luther’s act is taught as one of the cornerstones of world history, and remains a lasting symbol of resistance five centuries later.

But that’s not actually what happened — or at least that’s the argument of some historians, even as the Protestant world celebrates the anniversary.

“The drama of Luther walking through Wittenberg with his hammer and his nails is very, very unlikely to have happened,” says Professor Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. “The castle church door was the normal noticeboard of the university. This was not an act of defiance on Luther’s part, it was simply what you did to make a formal publication. It would probably have been pasted to the door rather than nailed up.”

Peter Marshall would go even further. A historian of the Reformation at Warwick University, England, he believes there’s a strong case to be made that the Theses were never posted at all, and that the story was invented to suit the political needs of people who came later. “The incident was first recorded nearly 30 years after,” he says. “Luther himself never mentioned it. There was very little discussion of the nailing of the Theses before the first Reformation anniversary of 1617.”

In 1617, with the Thirty Years’ War on the horizon, a local ruler in the Rhineland area had the idea of organizing a centenary celebration to drum up Protestant solidarity, to increase his chances in the forthcoming fight with the Catholic Habsburgs. “It’s a very good example of history being made because of a current need to create a historical event,” says Pettegree, with an air of admiration.

But even if 2017’s big quincentenary isn’t quite what it seems, the legend that has grown up around the story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door follows a precedent of historical events that have been remembered differently from the way they actually happened.

Memorials, whether state-led, socially constructed or personal, often do more than simply commemorate an anniversary.

Over the centuries, that 1517 date has been seen in a number of different ways. During the 400th anniversary in 1917, for example, the First World War was raging. At that time, Marshall says, Germans saw Luther’s posting of the Theses “as a quintessentially German and nationalist action — he was ‘ unser Luther ‘, our Luther.” That idea, in turn, was used to bolster German nationalism and morale during the war.

Over the following decades, the image was co-opted for different political ends. “The Nazis also appropriated the imagery of the posting of the Theses for their own purposes,” Marshall adds. “They saw themselves overthrowing a corrupt old order.”

Ironically, Luther would have hated to be seen as the calculating revolutionary who overthrew the old order, and most historians agree he wasn’t looking to start a “Reformation” in 1517. “Luther always thought of himself as a good Catholic,” Pettegree insists.

Today it’s the Catholic and Lutheran churches, more so than nation states, that are taking the memory of 1517 in their hands. This time last year, on the 499th anniversary, Pope Francis joined leaders of the Lutheran World Federation in Sweden to hold a joint service in a spirit of unity after 500 years of division. “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another,” he told the congregation.

Both churches are keen to use the anniversary to signal a definitive break with the past — another example of the way a memorial can be used for any number of ends.

“I suppose the danger with anniversaries is that they can serve to reinforce myths and entrenched narratives of the past, rather than encourage us to look afresh at historical events and processes,” Marshall says. “And there’s been a fair amount, especially in Germany, of uncritical celebration of the ‘achievements’ or ‘legacies’ of the Reformation — tolerance, liberal democracy, freedom of expression, scientific rationalism. All things Luther would have hated!”

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Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the Church Door

By: Becky Little

Updated: September 1, 2018 | Original: October 31, 2017

Dr Martin Luther, 1483-1546

October 31 isn’t just Halloween , it’s also Reformation Day —the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany in 1517. His theses challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, and sparked the historic split in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation . But 500 years later, scholars aren’t sure that the most dramatic part of the tale is true.

The new consensus is that he mailed his theses to an archbishop on October 31, but he probably didn’t nail them to the door to drive the point home.

The reason this is such a big deal is because the image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door is one of the main historical events people associate with the Reformation. Yet in a recently published book, 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation , Reformation historian Peter Marshall   argues that Luther probably didn’t deliver his theses so theatrically. And according to Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article on Martin Luther’s influence, much of the latest scholarship agrees that the event likely didn’t happen.

“Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened,” Acocella writes . “He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop.”

Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church

The fact that he might’ve mailed his theses rather than nailing them to the church door, while perhaps a bit disappointing, doesn’t change their impact. In the theses, Luther condemned the church’s selling of “indulgences,” which was based on the the idea that people could buy forgiveness for their sins. Instead, he argued that humans could only reach salvation through faith, and that the Bible, not the clergy, was the foremost religious authority. 

These ideas shaped a new branch of Christianity, called Protestantism. Broadly defined, Protestants make up 37 percent of the world’s 2.18 billion Christians, according to the Pew Research Center.

True or not, the iconic image of Luther defiantly nailing his theses to a church door continues to reverberate as a symbol of religious freedom. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. , echoed its symbolic power by placing a list of his demands on the door of the Chicago City Hall. It’s even become something of a meme: The Simpsons once aired a Halloween episode in which Lisa accidentally creates a functioning society in a petri dish, and excitedly observes that “one of them is nailing something to the door of the cathedral.”

The delivery method of the 95 Theses is not the only aspect of Luther’s life that scholars are reexamining. Historians have also been delving into his brutal anti-Semitism. In addition to the theses, Luther wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies , in which he posited that Jews were a menace to Germany. Scholar Dietz Bering , whose new book explores Luther’s anti-Semitism, told Public Radio International that Luther advocated burning Jewish synagogues and homes, confiscating Jewish money, forcing Jewish people into servitude, and expelling Jewish people from Germany.

Many of his fellow Protestants rejected these ideas at the time, but in the early 20th century, the Nazi Party would use them to demonstrate that anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany. Speaking on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Luther’s anti-Semitism is part of his theological legacy, and should never be glossed over, reports the Times of Israel .

“That is, for me,” Merkel said, “the comprehensive historical reckoning that we need.”

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  1. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

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  2. Martin Luther 95 Theses: 2017 Marks the Reformation's 500th Anniversary

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  3. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

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  4. The 95 Theses: A reader's guide

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  5. Why Did Martin Luther Post the 95 Theses?

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  6. The Protestant Reformation

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COMMENTS

  1. Ninety-five Theses

    Johann Tetzel See all related content → Ninety-five Theses, propositions for debate concerned with the question of indulgences, written (in Latin) and possibly posted by Martin Luther on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517. This event came to be considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

  2. Ninety-five Theses

    Luther sent the Theses enclosed with a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz, on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Reformation and commemorated annually as Reformation Day.

  3. Martin Luther and the 95 Theses

    Early Life Martin Luther Enters the Monastery Martin Luther Questions the Catholic Church The 95 Theses Luther the Heretic Martin Luther's Later Years Significance of Martin Luther's...

  4. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    The 95 Theses. Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him ...

  5. Martin Luther's 95 Theses

    Martin Luther 's 95 Theses of 31 October 1517, although they have since come to represent the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, were not written to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church but were simply an invitation to clergy to debate any or all of the propositions listed.

  6. Martin Luther posts 95 theses

    October 31 Martin Luther posts 95 theses This Day In History October | 31 Choose another date 1517 Martin Luther posts 95 theses This Day in History: 10/31/1517 - Martin Luther...

  7. 1517 Luther Posts the 95 Theses

    Sometime during October 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a...

  8. Martin Luther

    Martin Luther was a German monk who forever changed Christianity when he nailed his '95 Theses' to a church door in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Updated: Sep 20, 2019 Photo: Stock...

  9. PDF The Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther October 31, 1517, Wittenberg

    The Ninety-Five Theses The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences Posted: October 31, 1517 The Eve of All Saints Day Castle Church Wittenberg, Germany For oral debate on November 1, 1517 Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the

  10. Luther's Ninety-Five Theses and the Origins of the Reformation

    Luther's nailing of the theses to the church door was just one scene in a narrative cycle—as it is, for instance, in the Danish image prepared for the celebrations of 1717, in which Luther is depicted posting the theses, burning the papal bull, and translating the Bible . 26 At the time, in fact, there was good reason to play down the ...

  11. Martin Luther

    Luther posts the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), Wittenberg, on October 31. This event will come to be considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—the split of Western Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. 1518.

  12. Martin Luther's 95 Theses: How the World Will Mark 500 Years

    The date was Oct. 31, 1517, and Luther had just lit the fuse of what would become the Protestant Reformation. His list of criticisms, known as the 95 theses, would reverberate across world history.

  13. The Protestant Reformation, explained

    October 31 was the 500-year anniversary of the day Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses — objections to various practices of the Catholic Church — to the door of a German church. This...

  14. Why Did Martin Luther Post the 95 Theses?

    Updated Jun 29, 2023 In the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, on this day, October 31, 1517, a priest nailed a challenge to debate on the church door. No one may have noticed then, but within the week, copies of his theses would be discussed throughout the surrounding regions; and within a decade, Europe itself was shaken by his simple act.

  15. Nailed It? The Truth About Martin Luther, the Ninety-Five Theses, and

    Unfortunately, this story first shows up over a hundred years after the event. The first image of Luther with a hammer appeared in 1697. The first image of Luther with a hammer came in 1697. By contrast, the first historical accounts of the theses-posting date to the 1540s, and they say nothing about Luther nailing the Ninety-five Theses to the ...

  16. Ninety-Five Theses.

    Luther (1483--1546), a German priest and professor of theology, became the most important figure in the great religious revolt against the Catholic Church known as the Reformation.

  17. 1517-1617

    October 31, 1517: Luther's 95 Theses Appear Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg is one of the iconic images of the Reformation. In this essay, historians Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert examine the best evidence for and against this famous story.

  18. Luther's 97 Theses

    published on 06 December 2021 Martin Luther's 95 Theses, credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation in Europe, have become a cultural touchstone since he posted them 31 October 1517, but the little-known 97 Theses, posted only a month earlier, are equally significant in the development of Luther's (l. 1483-1546) vision and theology.

  19. Did Martin Luther Nail His 95 Theses to the Church Door?

    Five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, the small-town monk Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 Theses to the door, thus lighting the flame of the...

  20. Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the ...

    Prisma/UIG/Getty Images. Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The fact that he might've mailed his theses rather than nailing them to the church door ...

  21. Martin Luther

    Martin Luther OSA (/ ˈ l uː θ ər /; German: [ˈmaʁtiːn ˈlʊtɐ] ⓘ; 10 November 1483 - 18 February 1546) was a German priest, theologian, author, hymnwriter, professor, and Augustinian friar. He was the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, and his theological beliefs form the basis of Lutheranism.. Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. He came to reject several ...