The following passage comes from from the fifth volume of the authors' Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (1894). After scanning and linking the text, I divided the original into separate paragraphs to make for easier reading. — George P. Landow ]

Martin Luther, the greatest of the Reformers of the Christian Church, whose name is the watchword of Protestantism, and marks a new aera in the history of Europe.

On the 31st of October, 1517, at midday, Luther affixed to the castle church at Wittenberg ninety-five theses, which he proposed to defend at the university, completely denying . . . the merits of indulgences. He declared, in substance, that the command of Jesus to repent implies that the whole life is to be a repentance, not to be confounded with the confession and satisfaction made to a priest. Repentance, indeed, demands with that which is internal an external mortification of the flesh. The power of the papal indulgence can go no further than the penances imposed by the pope himself. The papal indulgence, consequently, can produce no reconciliation with God, nor, in fact, take away the guilt of the smallest daily sin. The pope can only announce and confirm the forgiveness imparted by God. This, indeed, is not to be despised, yet it can be found without the pope’s indulgence where there is true compunction and faith.

The true treasure of the Church is not a treasure of indulgences intrusted to the pope, but is the Gospel of the grace of God. He distinctly held the obtaining of grace to be a thing of immediate relation between the soul and God. In these theses Luther believed that he expressed throughout the mind of the pope, who he supposed was ignorant of the abuses that had been practiced in his name. It seems at first remarkable that Luther gives so little prominence to faith in the theses, and in the sermons on indulgence and grace which appeared simultaneously with the theses, and were meant for the people, Nov. 1517. But a careful study will show that his conception of repentance is that larger Biblical one in which it embraces both penitence and faith. Repentance is sometimes used as synonymous with penitence, and we then speak of repenting and believing, repentance and faith. Sometimes repentance covers both, and then God is said to command men everywhere to repent. Thus, in the 12th art. of the Augsburg Confession, it is said: “Repentance properly consists of these two parts: The first is contrition, or the terrors of a conscience smitten with acknowledged sin. The other part is faith, which is conceived from the Gospel or absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake sins are remitted.” . . .

The influence of the theses was instantly felt far and wide. “ The theses,” says Luther himself, “ ran clear through all Germany in fourteen days, for all the world was complaining about the indulgences; and because all the bishops and doctors were silent, and nobody was willing to bell the cat, Luther became a renowned doctor, because at last somebody had come who took hold of the thing,” Luther, in his frank, artless confidence that the pope would be his most enthusiastic patron, was soon undeceived, but his higher trust was strengthened by the course of events. “If,” said he, “the work be of God, who can overthrow it?” . . .

In 1518 the Augustinian Order held a convention at Heidelberg. All of Luther’s friends counselled him against going thither, as his life was threatened. Luther, faithful to the vow to his order, went, on foot, to the convention. In Heidelberg he disputed on theses in theology and philosophy; on free-will and the fall; grace, faith, justification, and good works. He took ground against Aristotle. An immense audience, not only of students, but of citizens and courtiers, attended the disputation. Among the auditors were Bucer, Bren-tius, and others, destined to play a memorable part in the scenes of the coming Reformation. Meanwhile the principles maintained in the ninety-five theses had provoked the assaults of a number of stanch adherents to the practice of the indulgence traffic; but Luther stoutly defended himself against all of them in his “ Resolutions,” that is, solution of points in dispute concerning the virtue of indulgences; and, still hoping for redress from Rome, sent these to Leo X. His appeal was first of all to holy Scripture, and, next to this, to Augustine, as the profoundest expositor of Scripture among the fathers. While the elector, in the interest of the university, protected Luther, Rome avoided coming to the last extremity.

Last modified 12 October 2015