Luther’s Early Thought

Martin Luther had not yet fully developed his ideas on Protestantism when the 95 Theses were published in 1517. The 95 Theses were concerned with the perceived sale of Indulgences during the reign of Pope Leo X. Leo X offered an Indulgence to anyone who would contribute money for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This appears to be a sale of Indulgences for money, but in fact it was simply a donation to the Church that was repaid in an Indulgence. In the 95 Theses, Luther did not object so much to the idea of Indulgences as to the pardon-preachers who were indeed selling them.

Luther still had trust in the Pope when he wrote the 95 Theses. He did not blame the Pope for abusing the use of Indulgences, he blamed the pardon-preachers. In Theses 50 and 51 Luther upheld the Pope, saying:

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

It is clear from these that Luther was trying to defend the Pope to some degree. He was basically saying that if the Pope knew what was going on with the pardon-preachers he would definitely stop the reconstruction of the Basilica and reimburse the public.

Luther also did not deny the efficacy of the Indulgences themselves. In Theses 71 and 72, he said:

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

His arguments were not against the pardons themselves, but the “hawkers” who were selling them.

At the time of the writing of the 95 Theses, Luther’s more radical ideas had not yet developed. He had not yet denied the power of the Pope, and he had not yet denied the efficacy of the Indulgences. Luther would move on to deny all of these things in the future, but at this point he was still working out his ideas.


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