Timothy J. Wengert, Ph.D. Complete Interview



    Penance is an interesting word simply because in both Latin and in German, there is one word, whereas in English there are three different words. So when you see the word as a translator or as a historian in

    the original documents, you have to always ask the question, are they talking
    about penitence - that is, sorrow for sin - are they talking about the sacrament of

    penance, which is a very important part of indulgences, or are they talking about
    repentance? The folks in the 16th century didn't have that dilemma, because they

    only had one word, whether they talked German or Latin: it was paenitentia
    or Buße in German. It's the only word they had. So we always have to guess what

    it means. But to understand indulgences you have to understand the sacrament of

    penance. As it develops in the Middle Ages, the
    Sacrament of Penance is God's second gracious right given to the church to

    rescue sinners. The first is baptism; unfortunately when you get to be about 7
    years old, and your will kicks in, you can begin to commit sins that basically sin

    away the grace in baptism. So imagine the dilemma of somebody who has sinned

    away their grace of baptism, and are now in a state of sin: how do they get back
    into a state of grace? The problem is so deep because if you die in a state of

    sin - mortal sin - you go directly to hell; you do not pass go, you don't collect
    $200, you're toast. So this becomes really the center of

    late medieval piety: how do I get back into a state of grace, and the answer is
    the sacrament of penance. Penance itself as a sacrament consists of three parts: the first is sorrow for sin, then the second is that you confess your sins privately to a priest, and thirdly, finally, that you do works of satisfaction. The works of satisfaction can only be understood if you understand

    what's happening in penance as opposed to baptism. Sin according to
    medieval theology has two consequences: guilt and punishment. In baptism, all the

    guilt and all the punishment of any sins committed or for which we're responsible
    up until the time of baptism are removed. Both guilt and punishment. Punishment, by

    the way: the word in Latin is poena, from which you actually get paenitentia
    which means a kind of self-punishment for the sins you've committed. So the three parts are: contrition, sorrow for sin out of love of God, confession (confessing to a priest); and the thing about penance which is different from baptism is that although it removes all the guilt of sin, it only reduces the punishment from an eternal one - die in a state of sin, go to hell - to a temporal one, what we might call chastisement or discipline for the sins that we've

    committed. And that temporal punishment has to be satisfied. And so the third

    part of penance is the satisfaction for the temporal punishment remaining for

    sin after one has confessed to a priest and received absolution. It's that

    satisfaction that begins to build up in a person's life, because the rule of

    thumb was, for each mortal sin you commit - that is, a sin that you commit willingly,
    knowingly, against God's law - you chalk up seven years of satisfaction that needs

    to be done. Now, that seven years can be immediately reduced by certain good

    works: almsgiving, prayer, fasting particularly; they're mentioned in the

    Sermon on the Mount by Jesus; and from that then, comes all kinds of other good

    works that a person can do to satisfy the remaining punishment of sin. But at
    seven years, a mortal sin - given the fact that one commits mortal sins of thoughts

    word and deed each day, and quite often it means that that satisfaction, the

    amount of satisfaction needed, multiplies just astronomically, geometrically.

    To understand what the 95 Theses is about, what the sacrament of penance is about, we

    have to understand purgatory. Now, the word purgatory itself, a good Latin word,
    purgatorium, means "place of purgation." What happens for most Christians is

    that they die before they've satisfied all of the penalty that they owe for the

    sins they've committed; they haven't satisfied everything - 7 years per mortal
    sin builds up into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of punishment, depending on how good a sinner you are. That, then: what God has

    done in God's mercy according to late medieval theology is to establish a
    place of purgation where you're purged of the remaining sin in your lives and

    where you satisfy the remaining punishment for those sins that had not

    been taken care of during your life.
    Purgatory, unlike what many Protestants imagine, purgatory has only one exit, and that's to Heaven: you are purged of your sin and then you go to Heaven. You cannot go from purgatory to hell; there's just no way you can do it. The trouble is that the least punishment or purgation that you undergo in purgatory is a hundred times worse than the worst suffering that you might endure here on Earth; it's not a place you sign up for; although in his 95 Theses, Luther actually mentions two saints that he

    knows of who wanted to stay longer in purgatory,
    but the only reason they want to stay longer in purgatory is so that they can get a higher place in Heaven. In any case, purgatory is not a place you sign up for, and moreover, the medieval theologians were pretty sure

    that you didn't know once in purgatory what your fate would be.

    On Earth, because we understand theology, these medieval theologians would say, you

    do understand, there's only one exit. But when you're actually in that state of

    purgation, you don't know that, because that would allow you to be
    rather secure even under the worst punishment, and say, well, I'm gonna end up in Heaven anyway: I can endure this a little bit longer. No, you actually don't know what - the soul does not know what its final disposition will be while it's

    being punished in purgatory, and that adds to the real terror that

    purgatory represented. So there are two pastoral issues, then, connected to the

    sacrament of penance. The first one is, you want to make sure you die in a state

    of grace, not in a state of sin. And this will mean that particularly the very end
    of life matters will be very important, for which there was then also an added sacrament: the sacrament of last rites or extreme unction, that would also help move your soul from a state of sin to a state of grace, and prepare you then for

    the final judgment. So there's that question: Am I in a state of sin, am I in
    a state of grace; that's the one. But the other is, have I really satisfied God's

    punishment for the sins that I've committed and confessed to a priest. It's
    that uncertainty, then, that is answered by the the practice of indulgences; so

    one may ask - particularly a Protestant would ask - well where is this in the
    Bible? The idea of a place of purgation really comes out of one of the

    Beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
    Medieval theologians took that text quite literally, and said therefore if you come with this punishment

    that still needs to be satisfied for your sin; if you come before God with
    that, you're not yet pure in heart, you have this burden of this satisfaction that remains; and therefore purgatory is a place where you in fact become pure so

    that, once purified, you then are pure in heart, and can see God and have that

    beatific vision for all eternity. Luther doesn't really focus on purgatory in his

    comments, I think for a couple of reasons. The
    first is, once you begin to refocus the role of grace and God's mercy in a

    Christian's life, the question of purgatory simply becomes moot. It's not
    that important. So if you look at most of Luther's life, occasionally he'll

    make some snide comments about purgatory, but it really falls by the wayside; it's

    not that important. And already in his explanation to the 95 Theses written in

    1518 - so, about a year after the theses themselves (his defense of statements in

    the 95 Theses), it becomes clear that he thinks that at the end of life when a
    person is faced again thinking about their sins, faced with death and so on,

    that they experience hell, purgatory, and suffering on earth all wrapped into one.

    So he no longer sees that there's much difference in terms of how a person
    experiences the end of life as a sinner, so that one really is in that moment

    purified of all their sins, satisfies all the punishment, really in an instant: that

    this sense of terror for one sin is experienced existentially. So it simply

    doesn't - because it's so closely related to a medieval understanding of the

    sacrament of penance, and to indulgences, purgatory really
    becomes...is simply not that important for Luther, and he never really spends much

    time talking about it. And furthermore, the debates that they begin to have
    after the 95 Theses are posted with the people that object to them quickly

    focus on other matters, particularly the question of authority of the Pope.

    To understand an indulgence, you have to realize that it's related to our English
    word, to be "indulgent." If a person...so, back up for a moment, and we have to

    talk a little bit about where this all comes from in the early church. If you

    were a fifth century Christian and you committed a heinous public sin that

    everyone knew about, something that would break the community of that particular

    Christian congregation, they would practice a form of excommunication that

    would ban you from the Lord's Supper and sometimes even from the community itself

    for a period of time - for really heinous sins that were known in the community

    that broke the unity of that community would be around 7 years.
    And in some cases we know in the early church a person would then sit at the

    door of the church on a Sunday begging all of the members of that congregation

    for forgiveness, for the deed that they had committed. Now, such

    excommunication didn't really affect a person's relationship to God, but rather

    to the community. If that person begging for forgiveness and for being

    allowed back into fellowship with that Christian congregation; if they

    became mortally ill; or if they showed true deep sorrow for their sin, the

    bishop, or pastor, we would call them now, but the bishop of that congregation
    could be indulgent and shorten the amount of time, reconcile the sinner to

    this congregation earlier than that 7 years that was prescribed. And that

    indulgence had to do with reintegrating a person into a Christian community.

    In the Middle Ages, the whole notion of that penitential

    attitude of that sinner really becomes different, because they now begin to

    define mortal sin not simply as those public sins, but any sin of thought, word

    and deed that is done willfully by the believer against the law of God, and
    these mortal sins then each could rack up 7 years. And they are not simply

    public heinous sins that everyone knows about, but it's all the sin that you
    commit. And the result is that of course you then rack up these hundreds of thousands of years. But in the process, in the Middle Ages, they also

    realize that this is a burden to these Christians as well, and therefore the
    church continues to be indulgent by saying, well, it's true that if you fast

    or if you pray or if you give alms, you really satisfy a certain amount of the

    sin that you've committed; not all of it, but quite a bit of it. But then the
    church can be indulgent: that is to say, allow a particular prayer or your attendance at a worship service, or a particular other religious act, to have

    far more effect. And thereby, they are being indulgent, and allowing, say,

    attendance of a Christian at the anniversary of the dedication of a

    church to be worth two hundred times as much as the normal amount that

    would be satisfied by that religious act.

    In the 11th century, the Pope then begins - the Bishop of Rome begins to

    promulgate plenary indulgences; that is to say, an indulgence that wipes away

    all the satisfaction that would be demanded for all of the sins that you've
    committed up to a certain point. The plenary indulgence is first proclaimed for those who participate in the Crusades for religious reasons. But that's in the

    11th century; by the 12th or 13th century, you begin to get indulgences for visiting

    the tombs of the apostles in Rome, or at St. James Compostela in Spain, which was

    thought to be the burial place of Saint James. In any case, if you
    suddenly go every 25 years - starts in, say, 1300, 1325, and so on - you get a jubilee

    indulgence, and there too, if you go to Rome, pray at these various places, you

    get a full or plenary indulgence for all of the satisfaction. In the 15th century,

    this visiting of the Apostles' tombs in Rome or St. James Compostela suddenly

    comes to you, in the form of letters of indulgences. It's meant to be - and we need

    to understand this - is to be a really quite remarkable grace that is being
    offered by these indulgence commissioners or preachers of indulgences in the 15th century. Then, however, there is a change that takes

    place in 1476. Pope Sixtus, after whom the Sistine Chapel is named - one of the

    interesting things is, the art of this period from Rome in part is being
    paid for by the indulgences people are buying north of the Alps. In any case, he proclaims for a church in Saintes, France, that if you buy that indulgence, you can

    buy it not only for yourself, but also for your dead relatives, particularly
    father and mother. Well, you know that they were sinners, if you're their child, and you know that they've racked up a lot of sin, and you know now that they're dead that their souls are suffering in purgatory. So starting in 1476 in Saintes,

    France, you can begin to purchase letters of indulgence not simply for yourself

    but also for the souls of those in purgatory.
    Johann Tetzel was a Dominican. He was a commissioner of indulgences, which means he had preached some other

    indulgences earlier on in his career. I think to understand what Luther was

    objecting to - the specific Peter's indulgences - you have to know a little
    bit about the background. And the background has to do with Albrecht, who was from Brandenburg. He became at a very young age a bishop, but it was illegal

    according to church law to hold two archbishoprics, and when the
    archbishopric of Mainz became vacant, he then was selected to be the archbishop

    there; and rather than giving up his other archbishopric of Magdeburg, he then
    paid a fee to the Vatican to allow him to hold these two sees - as well as, there

    was money involved anytime one of these large bishoprics, which was also a
    political entity in the Holy Roman Empire, became available - you always had

    to pay a certain fee. In order to pay that, he took out a loan from the largest

    banking firm in the Holy Roman Empire in Augsburg - the Fuggers had more money than

    than anyone at the time; all of the powerful and rich people borrowed

    money from them - and so he had to pay back this loan. And the way it was

    arranged for him to do this, was to take some of the money raised by a
    Peters indulgence. The ostensible reason for this indulgence, where about 50%

    of the money was supposed to go, was actually to Rome to help to build the
    Basilica of St. Peter's and Paul in Rome; the results of which, although it took

    them almost the entire 16th century to finally build it, can be seen today every
    time Pope Francis presides at something in Rome, it is at St. Peter's.

    And that's the building that was built in the 16th century. The money was
    supposed to go, and publicly was designated to go, there. People didn't know about the backroom dealings of Albrecht; namely, that half of the money

    went to pay for his loan from the Fuggers in order

    for him to have gotten these offices that he then held, as one of the most
    powerful - in fact, the primate of Germany was Albrecht of Mainz. Luther didn't even

    know about that when he criticizes indulgences; he only found out later that
    kind of sordid side. To promulgate this indulgence, Albrecht wanted to use

    Franciscans. They refused: we know already before the Reformation, before the 95

    Theses, that indulgence preaching was not bringing in as much money as it once had.
    There really was a law of diminishing returns. People were very skeptical about these indulgences, and so they weren't giving money. So he turned instead from the Franciscans to the Dominicans, and the head commissioner of indulgences was in fact Johann Tetzel. Most likely the things that he said went far beyond the

    instructions that he had received from the theologians at the Archbishop's
    court. Every time they preached an indulgence, there was an instruction booklet that was made that laid out what the benefits of this particular indulgence were, and also the limitations: what these indulgence preachers couldn't say. Tetzel clearly said things beyond that. The

    famous one, which was probably also already being said before Tetzel came
    along, is this little ditty, "As soon as money is thrown in the chest and the

    cash bell rings, the soul flies out of purgatory and sings!" There were different

    versions of that; and sure enough, I mean he probably said that. He said worse

    things: he said that an indulgence took care of all of not only the satisfaction

    due to sin, which is what an indulgence was supposed to do, but it also
    eliminated the grounds for sorrow for sin, contrition, which meant that the

    first part of the sacrament of penance was being affected by this
    indulgence. It also was clear that the indulgence allowed you to choose your confessor at the end of your life. This is as

    important as what most students do in college where they know there's a tough
    professor and an easy professor: well, this allows you to get the easy professor so you know you get an A. You get the very indulgent, nice confessor for your sins at the end of your life so that you can be assured that your time in purgatory will be much less than if you got the strict fella to do it. Well, Tetzel went around preaching: the descriptions of how he would arrive in a town, all the bells would

    ring, all the organs in all the churches would be playing, the mayor and other
    city officials and the clerics would meet Tetzel at the door; the Papal coat

    of arms would be processed and hung in the main church along with the

    indulgence bull itself that would sit on a satin cushion - this proclamation

    of this particular indulgence - and all other preaching then was banned, so that
    only preaching would be held in the main church by Tetzel for this indulgence. The indulgences themselves were individually crafted; we have a couple that have come down to us where specific sins would be mentioned. There is one father who had

    accidentally killed his son while trying to butcher a pig, and that apparently

    caused deep pain for the father, and so it's written out specifically

    that this sin is now completely forgiven and that all satisfaction is wiped out.

    Those kinds of things were going on. The indulgence letters themselves were
    printed up ahead of time with blanks where you then could write in the name of the person and the date, and sealed then with a specific wax seal for these letters; it was really quite a big deal in the towns in which Tetzel then came.

    In Wittenberg in those days there were four or five, maybe a few more churches

    and chapels. The Franciscan monastery had a church, the Augustinian monastery where
    Luther lived and worked also had a church, and then there was the main Church for most of its citizens of Wittenberg - a small city, really - and that was St. Mary's in the center of town. But there was also then the Castle

    Church. The Castle Church had been re-dedicated, as I mentioned, by Raymond
    Peraudi on January 17, 1503, and at that time he proclaimed on behalf of the Pope

    that anyone worshiping at the anniversary of this dedication would
    receive a 200-day indulgence. This is the Castle Church, which means it's in

    some ways the private chapel of the Prince of Saxony, Frederick the Elector.
    Within a year there would be at least 6,000 masses that would be said for the

    souls of those dead Electors and Electress that were set up by this
    foundation. The elector had also wanted a university, and that started then in 1502

    so that they didn't have to send him to his cousin in Leipzig who had the
    University of Leipzig, much older. So Peraudi dedicates it, and sure enough, lo

    and behold, on January 17, 1517, according to my re-dating of a sermon of Martin

    Luther, Martin Luther himself is now preaching at this anniversary of the
    dedication. So he's preaching an indulgence himself. It's not just that

    Tetzel is preaching at about the same time in January 1517, in the town where

    Luther was born - in Eisleben - and then in some other towns 30 or 40, 50 miles from

    Wittenberg, but Luther himself is preaching a much more limited 200-day
    indulgence. But in the middle of the sermon, Luther begins to question indulgences. He can't figure out how he can get people to be serious about their

    sins and contrite, sorry for the sins they've committed on the one hand, and
    yet preach this indulgence which really removes the need for sorrow for sin on the other hand. How can he do both at the same time? We know from lLuther's later recollections that the Elector is hopping mad that Luther would pose these questions in a sermon where the Elector

    is hoping to get a 200-day indulgence. I think that that questioning, as much as

    Tetzel's preaching then, motivates Luther to do more research into indulgences.

    So, what Luther does between January 1517 and the 31st of October 1517, is he

    does his homework. He discovers the origins of indulgences which were really
    means of pastoral care in the ancient church, means of reconciling excommunicated sinners with the church early and - being indulgent in terms of

    their ecclesiastical punishment - that it had nothing originally to do with God's
    punishment of our sin, or God's chastisement of us as sinners. He also is

    reading Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus a very important figure in the time. He

    publishes, a year before the 95 Theses in 1516, for the first time a Greek New

    Testament. Luther we know uses that Greek New Testament immediately in his
    lectures on Romans, but he's also reading then the annotations or corrections that

    Erasmus is suggesting for some of the texts. Erasmus questions among other

    things the translation from the standard Latin version of the New Testament of
    Matthew 4:17, where Jesus stands up and says and preaches - and it says

    in the standard Latin version, "do penance." Erasmus notes that the Greek
    word metanoiate doesn't mean "do penance" at all, but rather, have a change

    of mind or a change of heart. And he also comments on the fact that mistakenly,
    people in the Middle Ages - theologians - had used that text as a proof text for

    the sacrament of penance, and Erasmus notes that it doesn't have anything to
    do with penance, and that in the ancient church penance in any case was just this ecclesiastical right that would excommunicate sinners - blatant sinners -

    for a particular amount of time. That's in Erasmus already a year before Luther.
    Luther reads that among other things. He reads in canon law that this whole

    idea of the sacrament of penance and of indulgences had a completely
    different origin than the way in which it was being used. Plus his conversations with the canon lawyers, the church law lawyers - he discovers that

    things just aren't right in terms of the preaching that's going on about
    indulgences, the teaching that had surrounded indulgences. And so he begins

    to formulate theses.
    So what do we know about the 95 Theses? In medieval university life, the way you

    got a degree was by defending theses that your professor had written. If you

    want a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Master of Arts, a Bachelor a Bible, a Licentiate
    in Theology, a Doctor of Theology, or Medicine or Law or any of those degrees, you would publicly defend theses written by your teacher. For example, in

    September 1517, Martin Luther writes out 97 theses that are defended by a student

    who is getting a degree of Bachelor of Bible. They are printed, and it was the

    rules of the University of Wittenberg that all theses that were posed for

    public debate at the University had to be posted on the doors of the churches.
    They functioned as the the bulletin board, as what you might say, the website, the official Facebook page of the university. So the fact that Luther

    posted then a month later the 95 theses instead of the 97 that he had

    done earlier which attacked scholastic theology, this was part and parcel of

    medieval university life. It was not Luther trying to attack anybody; it was

    just him following the regulations of the school. In fact, those regulations

    continued after the Reformation. They continued to have theses, and they posted
    them - they posted other things as well. So Luther then, as a doctor of theology, as a

    professor at the University, had the right not only to post theses that would
    be defended by students, but he could post theses that he himself would defend in what were called quodlibetal debates: that is, debates about anything

    whatsoever. Luther by this time was so concerned
    about this misinformation regarding indulgences, that he wanted to start a

    conversation among the intelligencia, among the theologians,
    about indulgences and about, to a lesser degree, the sacrament of penance itself.

    For that, he wrote up these 95 statements which he then probably posted on the

    door of the castle church on the 31st of October 1517. Now, there are some scholars

    to this day who question whether they were posted at all. The first reference

    to the posting comes after Luther's death by Philip Melanchthon, one of
    Luther's colleagues, who wasn't there in 1517. So we don't have necessarily an eyewitness to this. But Melanchthon knew they were theses, and if they weren't posted, figured they were simply because you posted all theses. If Luther did post them, as I believe, it was simply because that's what you did with theses in a medieval university setting. Luther, if he posted them, in my opinion didn't use

    nails or hammer; that first comes out in in depictions from the 18th and 19th
    century, that they used hammer and nails. One picture in the 19th century has a little boy on a ladder actually posting the theses on the door and Luther is standing in front pointing back to the theses. That's because they didn't think that German professors could really understand how to use a hammer and nails by the 19th century. In the 16th century, however, they most likely used wax or paste; that's the way they posted these notices. Just think about it: if you used

    nails for all of the things that got posted - and there were hundreds upon
    hundreds of things posted in a year - the door would have fallen apart eventually. In the 19th century, the Castle Church is refurbished by the

    Prussian King; later the Kaiser, he was called. They took the 95 Theses and cast

    them in bronze, and that is now the door of the Castle Church. Far more

    important than the posting on the door is the posting in the mail.

    Because we have the letter from the Swedish archive in Luther's hand, dated
    the 31st of October 1517, to Archbishop Albrecht saying, you really have to rein

    in Tetzel and these other indulgences preachers for your own sake, because this

    is not good pastoral care of your flock, who are getting misled by these people.
    A very good way to understand what it was that Luther was doing in modern parlance is that Luther sent an email to the archbishop and he attached as an email

    attachment then the 95 Theses. The email itself was received, and we even know the

    date on which it was received - or this this cover letter: on the back of the
    letter, the clerk who received it writes the date 11th of November 1517, when in

    fact that came into the archives in the city of Halle which was one of the
    central cities of the archbishop.

    The theses themselves when you first look at them just seem so random.

    What we've discovered recently is that there is a certain kind of organization

    to them. It begins with a kind of an appeal to the reader, you know, to listen
    to them and to respond if they're able. Then the first four theses which Luther says later in his explanations are not up for debate really reflect his reading

    of Erasmus and canon law, in saying, you know, if you want to understand penitence, it's
    a life-long thing; there is not a, "for a while you're penitent while you're in sin, and then you're in a state of grace and then you no longer have to be sorry for your sin" - no, the entire life of the Christian, Luther says in Thesis One, is one of penitence. Then comes the central thesis that Luther then will prove in

    the rest of the theses, and that's number five where he says the Pope doesn't have
    the kind of authority that these indulgence preachers claim that the Pope has. He has authority over ecclesiastical penalties, but not

    over the penalties for sin imposed by God. The rest of the theses, numbers

    6 through 80, are really just a confirmation or a proof of that, and then Luther
    imagines objections to the way in which indulgences are being preached and so on, which comes in theses 81 to 91; and then finally the last four theses are

    highly charged rhetorically, and are much more like a kind of conclusion to a

    speech that you might imagine that Luther gives. So basically, in
    those 6 through 80 you have different sections where he is proving different parts of his argument to make it clear that the standard theological arguments for indulgences are simply not - they don't hold any water. That's all he wants to prove, is that they're questionable. If I were to take of the 95 the most important, I would say first of all it's the first one: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying 'do penance' (Matthew 4:17)

    wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence." What this

    represents is Martin Luther saying, our Christian life doesn't go anywhere -

    it doesn't get better and better every day in every way - but we stay always
    a sinner before God, always justified by God's grace alone. The second thesis that I think is really wonderful is kind of the flip side of that, if you will: it's Thesis 62, where he says, "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." Underneath what

    Luther is concerned about is not only that in fact we are sinners, but that
    God's grace and not an indulgence purchase is what actually rids us of

    our sin; that God declares us righteous for the sake of Christ alone. And the
    final thesis comes at the end; it's one of these rhetorically charged theses, and

    it again reflects his main point where he says, "Christians must be

    encouraged diligently to follow Christ their head through penalties death and
    hell." And then 95 continues, "And in this way they may be confident of

    entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through the
    false security of peace" (that is, the peace of indulgence buying). You know that old gospel hymn "Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine"? What I used to tell my students

    was that that hymn could not have been written without the Reformation. The
    notion that we have assurance from Christ's lips about our forgiveness, about our standing before God, comes really from Luther's

    discovery or rediscovery of this gospel of the glory and grace of God.

    So I mentioned that I think it's more important that the theses were
    mailed than that they were nailed, and let me say a little bit about who they were mailed to and why that's so important. Albrecht was the Archbishop of Mainz, which was the central archbishopric in the Holy Roman

    Empire. Here's just an excerpt from that letter; he says to the archbishop, "Under

    your most distinguished name and title, papal indulgences are being disseminated
    among the people for the construction of St. Peter's in Rome. In these matters, I don't find so much fault with the cries of the preachers, which I haven't heard, but I do bewail the people's completely false understanding gleaned from these

    fellows, which they spread everywhere among the common folk."
    Luther is concerned about what people are hearing in preaching. That really is

    his worry; he's not really worried about the authority of the Pope, he
    doesn't really question it, he just assumes there are limitations. Unfortunately his opponents who are much more papalist in their understanding, or

    curialists as they're called, who understand that the Popes have a really
    almost unlimited authority in the church - they don't agree with him at all. But Luther himself thinks, no, if the Pope hears about this, he'll say, "Oh my goodness gracious, this is terrible what they're saying that I can do; of course the Pope can't have this authority over purgatory that people say I have, or

    can't have authority over God's chastisement for sin." Luther thinks that
    about the Pope; but what he wants to do is have the archbishop rein in these indulgence preachers not simply for theology's sake, but also because of bad preaching. I think if Luther were alive today, if he were to write 95 Theses, they would be to attack bad preaching in

    our day. There are these charlatans who in the name of Christianity are

    preaching what it is now called a prosperity gospel, and there is quite
    frankly nothing worse or more the opposite of true Christianity than what is being belched out on the airwaves and by these

    prosperity preachers in these church-growth McChurches! That is bad
    preaching that misleads the people by imagining that somehow our economic

    well-being is connected to our standing before God. That simply isn't
    true now, and that's what Luther goes after in his day. Do you know what Luther says in the middle of the 95 Theses - and he says it also in the letter to Albrecht - he says one of the consequences of this kind of preaching of indulgences, that people should buy these letters of indulgences, is that the poor are neglected. And another one of my favorite theses actually is precisely those from

    45 onwards for about five or six theses where Luther says, if you pass by a poor

    person on your way to buy an indulgence, you are not buying God's mercy, but God's
    wrath. You're not buying an indulgence at all. The same thing he says then in the

    95 Theses, and it's one of Luther's continual themes, that he's worried about
    the poor in our world, and what should be done in his world, and what should be

    done for them. And I would say the same ought to be true today: that if Luther
    were there, he would attack the way in which we have, in our own society and around the world, abandoned the poor for the sake of economic gain. The

    prosperity gospel is not something that is limited to Joel Olsteen

    and some few mega churches here and there. In my travels around the world

    talking about the Reformation and teaching people, I have found and
    discovered pastors who have been negatively affected by the prosperity

    preacher down the street in Brazil, in South Africa, in parts of Asia, all over

    the place, people that I know who are faithful preachers of the gospel who are

    being drowned out by this kind of preaching. And in some ways that's

    what Luther was worried about, that the gospel itself was being drowned out by
    these false claims of these indulgence preachers. So I think it's all over the place, particularly the prosperity gospel is a very alluring message in a world

    where we more and more measure our well-being, and actually our being, by

    what we have, what we own, how we are able to use our economic power to do this

    that or the other. And when people see this in poor countries, they want to
    actually emulate this kind of message, I think, in many places. So I would say that that is one thing that Luther for sure would react against. I think

    there's another way, though: that many in the church have lost the ability to name

    sin as sin. That we tend to think of of sin as a mere blemish; that

    if we just use the right kind of Clearasil or whatever the latest
    product is, we can kind of get rid of these blemishes we call sin. What Luther realizes, and it's reflected in that first thesis of the 95 Theses, is that

    we're stuck in sin. The way I would say it is, that we're addicted to sin. Worse
    than being addicted to sin, however - and Luther also says this later on when he confronts Erasmus in 1525, he says, not only are we addicted to sin, but we're

    heavy into denial. We imagine that things are going well, that sin is not really a

    big problem, and one of the reasons that the church's message falls on deaf ears
    is because our ears in a sense have been filled with the lie that everything is okay - that I'm okay and you're okay, as that book from the 70s proclaimed, and

    that we're all just getting better and better every day in every way. What
    Luther reminds us of, what he would remind us of if he were a preacher in today's world, is precisely that we're enthralled,

    captive to sin and evil, that we can't get out of it by ourselves, and

    that's where Christ's mercy and grace comes. Not only are we in denial

    about sin, we're also heavy into denial about death,
    just like the alcoholic is in denial about his or her alcoholism. There was a

    book written a generation ago by Carl Becker called "The Denial of Death,"
    a sociologist describing Western - in particular, American society -

    and its ability to deny that people actually are dying. We're still heavy

    into denial about those things; heavy into denial about evil in the world; and
    how evil actually lurks in not only every human heart, but in every human

    society and culture. All of those things are the very things that Luther is

    beginning to attack in his 95 Theses as he sees bad preaching really blind

    people or make people deaf to the real situation in their lives. On the flip

    side of that, of course, is that we also are in denial about the nature of God's
    grace: that God really does want to forgive us, to proclaim us righteous, and

    that's why he says in that Thesis 62, you know, the real treasure of the church is
    that glorious gospel of God's grace.

    One imagines that the 95 Theses suddenly made Luther a household name. It didn't.

    It was written in Latin; there may have been a translation, but as far as we know
    there was never a printing of a German version of the 95 Theses until after

    Luther's death. In fact when Luther hears that a translation has been made, he

    writes back to a friend of his in Nürnberg and says, don't bother with the
    translation, I'll write something else. And lo and behold, he did: in March or April, he publishes from the Wittenberg press a very simple document called a

    sermon; you'd almost call it an essay on indulgences and grace. It's written in

    German. It immediately makes Luther a household name, because it is republished

    within two years about 20 times. It's all over the place, it's in German, and it's

    being read to - perhaps 10% of the people read and could read in those days -
    but it's being read aloud in the pubs and on the street corner and in families and homes; you'd get the one reader to come. It's all over

    the place, and it turned Luther into the first living best-selling author the
    world had ever seen. We think about Luther and the printing press, and think

    Gutenberg invented the printing press, and then you wonder why it takes 60, 70
    years for somebody like Luther to arise. Part of it is that there are improvements in printing that are taking place at the very time that Luther is beginning to teach and publish. But the other thing is that the phenomenon of a best-selling author is absolutely new; nobody knew what to make of this. Luther

    didn't know he had done this; he just publishes something. Tetzel reads this
    thing, writes his own rebuttal in German: it's never republished. And that tells you the difference: it is, you have to imagine Luther like the story of

    the Emperor's New Clothes; suddenly a little boy
    in the crowd says, "He has no clothes!" And everybody says, my goodness gracious, the emperor has no clothes. Luther says what so many people

    had been thinking, worrying about, didn't know - what do we make of these
    indulgences? Is this really what the Christian life is all about? Is this how we go about receiving God's grace and mercy through

    the indulgence of the Bishop of Rome? Luther blows that all out of the water,
    so that in this essay at one point he even says: "So you may ask, should I even

    bother buying indulgences? I say to you, flee from them, run from them as quickly

    as your little legs will carry you!" I mean, these are radical kinds of things to

    say, and it's very clear that Luther suddenly via the printing press - but the

    German printing press (the 95 Theses written in Latin for scholars, yeah they
    were talking about it but nobody else was until this sermon is published), and then Luther becomes, just...well, he is the best-selling author for the next 10-15 years

    Not only did this happen by accident, but Luther really is a kind of
    genius. As soon as he realizes the power of publishing and his own ability to

    communicate - after all, by this time, 1518, he'd been a parish pastor/preacher for

    at least four or five years, he'd been a professor, he knew how to use not only
    the Latin language but also German - and he just falls into this, and he

    understands how to use this material. But he also at the same time begins a
    friendship with Lucas Cranach, Sr. who lives in Wittenberg.

    Clearly they eat together often, he's invited over to Cranach's house; they
    become really best friends in many ways. And Cranach is this amazing artist, and he

    begins then, first of all, to depict Luther. One of his famous depictions is

    of Luther as a monk in 1519 or so, 1520, so you can see his tonsor - but over the

    top of his head is a dove. And so you get this idea of Luther being directly
    inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the same period of time as the fight

    really becomes not over indulgences but over papal authority and power, you begin
    to see some very negative depictions of the Pope. One that comes out that Philip

    Melanchthon and Martin Luther provided then the captions for is called "The
    Passion of Christ and Antichrist." By this time then the papacy in Rome is

    understood as the Antichrist, and so you have in one side by side woodcut Jesus
    washing the feet of the of the disciples, and then the Pope's foot being kissed by

    a king, as the contrast between these two. It's that kind of thing that allows

    a visual depiction of these differences. Another really great example of how then

    visual art becomes part of the developing Reformation comes much later
    and I think it's done then by Cranach's son, Lucas Cranach, Jr., and you have on

    the one side Luther depicted in the pulpit in Wittenberg preaching,

    pointing to Christ like John the Baptist ("behold the lamb of God who takes away
    the sin of the world") on half of the woodcut, and on the other half of the woodcut, you have this very plump Dominican in the pulpit also preaching

    but preaching indulgences, and you see a parade of the indulgence cross with the

    papal arms and so on. And on the one side it's Christ who is showing his wounds to
    the Father, that's where Luther is preaching about the Lamb of God; on the other side you have St. Francis showing his wounds and the wrath of God coming down upon the indulgence preachers. I mean, that clearly is a later depiction of how they understood what Luther was doing in his preaching and teaching: on the one side, preaching the cross of Christ and the salvation through the Lamb of God, and then this false indulgence preaching on the other.

    When I think of analogies between the 16th century, what happened in the
    in the Reformation with the publishing of and distribution of the 95 Theses and the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace in our own day, I think of one positive example that is very close to what happened in the 16th

    century: the so-called Arab Spring, where people are suddenly tweeting and

    Facebooking and doing all of this stuff that causes changes in government across

    northern Africa. And nobody knew this could happen, would happen - but suddenly

    you have all of this kind of thing happen just overnight. It's very similar

    to this publication of this Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. Nobody knew: Luther
    didn't, the Pope didn't, the archbishop - nobody knew that this was going to happen, and suddenly you had really the creation of a public, of people that were interested in what was going on and eager for the next thing to

    roll off the printing presses. That kind of sense. And that's very similar to what

    we saw happen in that so-called Arab Spring. What is very different even in

    that Arab Spring but certainly in other kinds of modern media matters, are the
    fact that Luther always thought collectively. He never thought

    individualistically. This is one of the mistaken ways that the Reformation is
    understood, that it's kind of the revolution of the individual against all of these darkened powers of the dark ages, you know, these church

    ecclesiastical powers or other powers - and so, you know, you have this

    call to individuals. Luther - if somebody had told him that's what the Reformation

    was going to be, he would have probably become apoplectic. I can only imagine,
    given his harsh language that he sometimes used, the kind of language he would use to describe that. Luther never thought that way; he never thought Christianity was an individualistic thing at all. It always took place in community. One great example of this is when Luther is writing a little tract

    about prayer, and he describes his own prayers. Now, he prayed alone, individually

    in his study probably morning and evening; but he

    mentions, he says, "If I have time when I want to pray, I go to the church where

    there are other people." This is so different from the way we imagine

    prayer. We imagine, well, if I'm gonna pray, I get into my closet and shut my door
    and pray to the Father in secret. Luther prayed that way, but he thought prayer

    was far more effective to be in community with other people. This had
    been his whole life of prayer. He understood the Psalms and the Lord's Prayer to not simply be individualistic things at all. In fact, he even makes the comment, "We pray not my father in Heaven but our Father in Heaven." And so the one

    fundamental difference between our own society and our own age, particularly
    Western culture, is this notion of individualism, as if our relationship to

    God is simply a matter of what I think or what I decide, and whether

    I'm going to have this relationship - and well and good if occasionally I show up
    where there's some other people, like-minded people, in a building somewhere - Luther couldn't imagine that kind of individualistic, individualizing

    of Christianity. In fact, one of his favorite verses, which we really didn't
    notice until quite recently, one of his favorite verses from the Bible is Colossians 2:23 where Paul goes after what Luther translated as self-chosen

    spirituality: that sense that the self chooses what spiritual, does its own

    thing, you know, meditates on its own apart from other people.
    No, Luther couldn't imagine that kind of a Christian life. Christian life is lived in community; it's lived around the the Lord's table as we participate

    together as Christians in the Lord's Supper,
    in worship together praying for one another. Luther thought that was the greatest thing about prayer in church, is that we're not only just praying to God for our own things, but that we looked around and saw other people and prayed for them, and we prayed in common. Having never Tweeted, I don't know what a Tweet from Martin Luther would look like very well! Maybe one of those theses that I mentioned, "The entire life of the

    Christian is one of penitence." I think one of the things that really threatens

    Christianity today is the notion of a before and after in Christianity. I think
    it's what was threatening the Christian faith in Luther's day: that we kind of once were sinners, and now we're done being sinners, and now we can be saints. That is a recipe for Pharisee-ism of the worst kind, of hypocrisy, of boasting in your own faith. St. Paul says over and over

    again, let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. See, I think the problem

    really comes with individualism, because individualism is just a pretty word for
    selfishness. I think that's where our real problem lies today, and it

    did in Luther's day in a way too - the difference being that there it was the
    self trying to find a way into God's graces by one's own works, and so on, and

    today we imagine that we can do the same - you know, even if we don't believe in God
    we can at least make everything better here on Earth. It denies a basic problem

    with the human being. Luther called it that we are curved in upon ourselves.
    That really we do all things, and then if we work communally, then we

    communally do things for ourselves so that it becomes for our nation or for
    this particular group of people or that particular group of people. Individualism

    as it's understood in our world today, I think, is selling people a mess of
    pottage to use that old biblical term. It's selling people a bridge in Brooklyn.

    Because finally we are not alone; we are in this together; we cannot get away and

    just have our own way: it's a myth that we have created for ourselves. And

    even the charge that, well, certain freedoms for women, for example, or
    minorities; the movement away from slavery (although there still are people

    that are enslaved in our own land) - all of these things, we say, well, we've made
    advances there. But I think, of all people to quote, I think that Emerson was right:

    that society advances as much in one place as it recedes in another, rather
    like the waves crashing on a beach. And this means that we

    may say, look at all the things that we've accomplished; look at that things
    are better for people - and then ask ourselves the question, why was it then that in the 20th century there were more people who died in the name of autocracy and

    in the name of all kinds of racial theories and so on, than ever before. The

    facts are that our notions of freedom and individualism don't always help our
    neighbor, and we're put on earth not to serve ourselves but to actually serve our neighbor.

    One of the problems we have with Martin Luther is that often we say too many
    good things about him and we make him into this plaster saint, which has to be, I

    mean, Luther could not have imagined a worse thing. He loved to mention the fact
    that he was a sinner, that he was mortal. He rather sometimes, he reveled

    too much in some of his sins, actually. He even wrote to one of his colleagues in a
    private letter, "sin boldly," because he thought that this colleague was trying too hard to pretend he wasn't a sinner, you know, that kind of thing. No, Luther was truly a human being: he enjoyed this life as much as he realized his own

    sin in this life. There are several places where Luther said and did things

    that later historians and theologians - human beings - have held him accountable
    for. As a Lutheran, I never have to worry about making Luther into a saint: he was

    a sinner, he said wrong things that I don't agree with, that Lutheran
    churches have actually rejected outright. He said some things about the peasants

    during the Peasants War of 1525 that were clearly not very helpful,
    encouraging the princes to stab, smite, and slay them, as he put it. But

    worse yet, he said some very terrible things about the Jews. To be

    sure, his own culture, the Christian culture of this time: he wasn't saying

    many things that were very different from what others had said. But there was

    a tinge of triumphalism in some of those later things that he said. In 1523,
    on the contrary, Martin Luther wrote a tract called, "That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew," that got him into trouble because he said Jesus Christ was born a Jew; and in there, he chastised the church for having persecuted Jews. He said, no wonder they won't believe in Christ, because of the way we've treated them, and therefore we need to treat them much better. That positive statement that he said, however, is matched unfortunately by some horrendous things that he said near the end of his life. He published three tracts in 1543 specifically aimed at Jewish exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures

    but also aimed at Jews. Luther had very little contact with Jews, but what he

    said was simply horrendous, because he counseled the politicians, the princes of

    his day, to burn down their synagogues, to confiscate their books, and to drive them

    out of the land. This horrific thing was not taken as gospel truth by later

    Lutherans, even by current Lutherans at the time: several of them
    objected to what he said, some of them agreed. Luther would be quoted both for and against relationships to Jews in the later 16th into the 17th century: his early tract quoted by some people who were in favor

    of giving the Jewish people more rights in the Holy Roman Empire, and his
    negative ones of course by those who wanted to give them less rights. By the

    19th century, those comments on the Jews had been pretty much forgotten by the
    church. Then along comes the propaganda machine of the Nazis in the 1930s. They

    accused the Lutheran Church of having suppressed these ideas of Luther, and
    they republish particularly "On the Jews and Their Lies." And therein lies the problem, because clearly the Nazis used Luther's tract as an excuse for the

    Holocaust, and that's where then later Lutheran churches both in
    Germany, the United States, and other places have rejected completely Luther's

    statements on the Jews as being not just unhelpful but wrong - and in the wrong
    hands, such as in the Nazis' hands, then used for horrendous crimes. And for that, we cannot justify what Luther said. Heiko Oberman wrote this brilliant biography of Luther called, "Luther: Man Between God and the Devil." And when he gets to this problem of Luther's reaction to the Jews, what he says is, what you have here is an example of Protestant triumphalism: that Luther up until the 1540s has a

    sense that he too is a sinner, but in these tracts not only against the Jews
    but against the Pope and against the Turks and so on, and just a whole host of people, it's as if he's kind of crossed over to the other side; as if he can judge all things. And in a sense, the success of the Reformation and his unique role in it has gone to his head. And so he thinks now that he can actually act as judge, jury and executioner. Perhaps he is disappointed that the Jewish people upon hearing his gospel

    don't then convert in large numbers; perhaps that. But certainly there is a
    sense that Luther in Luther's own mind - himself a sinner - he gets caught up in himself, and he thinks now that he can just write these

    hateful tracts filled with filthy language and vituperations of the

    worst kind - that he can write this kind of thing, because in a sense he knows
    God's mind. And that, of course, is a fatal flaw for any Christian.

    To understand how deeply enmeshed in anti-Jewish thought the people of

    Luther's day were, one need only go to St. Mary's in Wittenberg and see on the

    side a medieval pre-Luther depiction of Jews sucking from the teat of a sow.

    Nothing could be more defamatory than that. And above it, talking about the

    so-called Shem HaMephorash, this this special name of God that had
    magical powers, and making fun of Jews. Luther would have walked by that almost every day of his life on his way to St. Mary's Church. That's this evil,

    awful side of Christianity in the Middle Ages, and also before and after that,

    that treated Jews in such spectacularly evil ways. But when one looks at that, one must also

    look on the ground in front of that very horrific thing where the people of
    Wittenberg decided not to take that awful thing away, but to use it now as a

    reminder of just how hateful human beings can be to one another. And so, in
    the mosaic down below, there really is an expression of the deep guilt and

    sorrow that the people of Germany after the Holocaust and the people of
    Wittenberg in particular felt as a result of the kind of anti-Jewish and then finally anti-Semitic feelings and actions that took place.

    Luther and music is a very interesting thing. Now, as a student he would have
    learned music. One of the contributions that Luther makes to Christianity is his

    revitalization of music and singing. There always had been singing in the
    church, but Luther finds a way to use all kinds of musical forms to get the

    message of the gospel across. For example, in some of his early musical

    writings, he uses the ballad, which was of course the Meistersingers which we've
    even heard of in other settings where they had - I mean, that was all good German culture. And he uses then the ballad form to bring his message across.

    Also it's a time of transition in music at the time, where you're going

    from these modal forms of singing which to our ears sound minor, although

    they didn't to their ears, to major keys: and so at least two of his songs -

    actually more than that - but at least two of his famous pieces are written in the
    key of C, in C Major, including "A Mighty Fortress" which at the end just goes down the scale - it's just going down a C scale, which was a

    rather new thing to do. And it shows an interesting side to Luther: his music

    shows that both sides of this, "I'm both a sinner and I'm righteous," therefore I'm
    both sorry for my sin - always contrite, always penitent - and at the same time always joyful because of Christ. So on the one side he writes a paraphrase of Psalm 130, "Out of the Depths I Cry to You O Lord: O Lord, hear

    my prayer, from depths of woe" is that one, in a very somber kind of piece, where he

    goes through Psalm 130. A few years later, he writes "A Mighty Fortress" as a kind of

    paraphrase of Psalm 46, but done in this very positive light as he's celebrating
    the resurrection. I've often told pastors they should use it as an Easter hymn, because it's really talking about Christ defeating death and sin in his death and

    resurrection. And so you have really both sides, and music becomes the means by
    which Luther then gets his message across, because people are singing his

    ballads, his songs, in bars or inns: as one of his opponent says, "Luther's songs are

    on the lips of all the people!" So you have that kind of method that he uses: he
    uses images, he uses music, he uses print media, uses all of these things to get the message of the gospel across. He even says music is, next to theology, the

    greatest gift of God.

    Some people ask me then, well what's the 95 Theses all about? What's
    really at the heart and soul of it all? And like Luther, I have to say a both/and: it's two things at once. The one thing is very clear: Luther wants people to understand we cannot buy our way around our sin, and

    God's judgment on sin, on the one side; and on the other side - it's

    kind of like the other side of the coin - we cannot possibly buy our way into
    God's grace, but rather Christ has done that for us on our behalf. Those two

    things. The one, what the human condition is all about; and the other, what it is

    that God's heart is all about: namely, that God's heart wants to save us, wants
    to have a relationship with us, wants to speak to us, wants us as God's children.

    Those are the two things, I think, that rest underneath all of the other

    theses, is that sense of who we are and who God is. And in our own day and age,

    frankly, as we commemorate 500 years of the Reformation,

    that still is the message that needs, and that can be and is being,
    proclaimed from Christian pulpits all across Christianity. Both the weight of

    sin, the mess we're in; the problem of the human condition on the one side, and

    then the grace and mercy of God on the other in Jesus Christ. Those two together,

    I think, still make up the heart of the Christian message to which Luther was a

    witness, to which you and I are a witness today.