The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses: History or Legend

The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses: History or Legend

Giancarlo Pani, SJ

The year 2017 sees the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. According to traditional historiography, on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on Indulgences to the church door. The fact is attested by a single document written by Melanchthon in 1546 following the death of the reformer.

But in 1517 he was not in Wittenberg and various details about the text are contradicted by facts. The historian Erwin Iserloh has demonstrated that the posting of the theses is not a historical fact, but a legend; moreover, it contradicts the reformer’s intention.

On October 31, Luther did write to the bishops involved concerning a pastoral issue of faith and conscience: the preaching of indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s is deceptive because it guarantees salvation. No one is sure of their own salvation, hence a bishop must preach the Gospel and works of charity, not indulgences.

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