Despite contemporary popular belief to the contrary, Martin Luther was not “spoiling for a fight” when in 1517 he sent his 95 theses to his bishop, Albrecht of Mainz. He was requesting an orderly discussion of many Church practices, notably the sale of indulgences. Albrecht was not pleased to receive the correspondence; as noted in the last post, he himself was compromised by debt which he hoped to repay with a portion of the profits. However, he sympathized with certain of Luther’s points, even more surprising since Albrecht had purchased the bishop’s chair in Mainz, a sin known as simony. While Luther was well informed of the indulgence abuses, it is not clear if he knew that Albrecht had indulged in a purchase of his office.
While Luther’s passions were driven by concerns for the universal Church, discussion of them began as a local attempt. It took Albrecht some time to respond, primarily because of his conflicted feelings. Luther at the time was a popular and gifted Scripture scholar, head of theological studies at the University of Wittenberg and the vicar general of eleven monasteries in the region. The bishop could hardly ignore the public work and influence of this Augustinian monk, but for conflicting reasons he was confused about how to proceed, and he passed the letter and theses to the theology faculty of the University of Mainz, which also deliberated for quite some time. It would be June of 1518 before true organized discussion took place, and by this time passions had been inflamed such that “debate” suffered at the hands of polemic.
[The actual 95 theses conflicted just about everyone who read them. If you have never read them yourself, here is the list of propositions, and ask yourself how you would have responded if you were a catechist or church officer at that time.]
In the year following the October 1517 local release, Luther corresponded with friends, passing along copies of the theses. One of its readers, a Humanist and printer Christopher Scheurl, was impressed and set about to reprint the theses in for bulk distribution “without the fussy legality of needing to obtain copyright permissions.” [Metaxas, p. 123f] Translated from Latin into German, more printers in Germany produced volumes that eventually spread to diverse readers and populations throughout Europe. The invention of the printing press less than a century before had made possible a sixteenth century version of “going viral.” From our own time, we know that social media reaches friend, foe, and the indifferent alike. Luther would write to Scheurl later stating that the printer’s taking of matters in his own hand had put Luther at a disadvantage, as the theological issues of the theses had outraced Luther’s opportunity to define them or develop them further.
By March 1518, Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the greatest of the Renaissance thinkers, had come to possess a copy. Another made its way to [St.] Thomas More, future Chancellor of England at the service of Henry VIII prior to England’s break from Rome. Henry himself read the theses and was angered and disturbed; in 1521 the king was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” for his writings against Luther. Closer to home, a copy made its way to Johannes Tetzel, the Dominican friar and promoter of the sale of indulgences that had so enraged Luther in the first place. Predictably, Tetzel was enraged. His work was not progressing well. As he and Bishop Albrecht were discovering to their chagrin, the cities of Mainz and Wittenberg had been “played out” by a series of indulgence sales prior to Tetzel’s. In truth, there was a growing popular cynicism in Luther’s region to the degree that the elector Frederick of Saxony refused to permit Tetzel to engage his region for fear of troubling his citizenry.
But Tetzel discovered another indicator of trouble with the threat of more serious upset of the Church. Observing how Luther’s theses had been promulgated by printed pamphlets, Tetzel decided to fight fire with fire with a rebuttal pamphlet of his own. When he sought printers to contract for the work in Luther’s town of Wittenberg, none would take the offer, an indication that Luther enjoyed the support of the printers’ guild—in fact, university students there burned 800 copies of Tetzel’s work printed elsewhere in a city square public bonfire. Luther correctly ascertained that the act would be blamed upon him; in truth, he was quite unprepared—academically and personally—for what was shaping up as a major confrontation with the Church.
Meanwhile, Luther’s bishop Albrecht finally received a report on the theses from the faculty of the University of Mainz, which by now had come to realize what a hot potato it was asked to evaluate. With more than an abundance of caution, the faculty stated that the Wittenberg University faculty was within its rights to discuss and debate the matters of the 95 theses. But as to the questions raised by the theses, it was best to let the pope decide. Albrecht, upon their advice, wrote to Rome [and no doubt Tetzel communicated as well]. The mind and apparatus of the papacy would now begin serious involvement in what we refer to today as the Reformation.