On this day in 1517, German theologian Martin Luther carefully recopied the scroll of his soon to be revealed Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences—a document that would be popularly called the Ninety-Five Theses. The next day he would post the scroll, consisting of a series of propositions that established a theological basis for opposing the sale of indulgences.
Though written in Latin and designed to provoke only a limited academic discussion, Luther’s manifesto would almost immediately be translated into the vernacular and then widely distributed, causing a great public controversy leading to the Reformation. Who would have ever dreamed that in the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, all of Europe would be shaken by the simple act of provoking a series of questions? Certainly not Luther. But in fact, his little academic exercise would lead to a dramatic realignment of men and nations–indeed, he would eventually be excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and become the founder of Protestantism.
But as he prepared the scroll, he certainly had none of that in mind. Indeed, the tone of the document was clearly a moderate call for little more than a bit of dialog and some serious theological investigation. He wrote, “A disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences: out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.”
The theses themselves were not any more incendiary. Instead, they discussed the character and nature of true repentance, the core values of the Gospel, and the essence of the justice and mercy of God. Hardly the sort of material one might expect to cause a furor.
Nevertheless, the faithful Augustinian monk’s attempt to open a dialog was, in the good providence of God, the catalyst for a movement which would ultimately reshape the whole of Western Civilizaton.