Did Martin Luther Really Nail the 95 Theses to the Church Door?

luther_wittenberg_1517Reformation Day is upon us again. The day every year when Lutheran pastors will dress up like Martin Luther, say the Lord’s Prayer in German and sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” at some point in the service.

Reformation Sunday is the celebration of the day Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, thereby kicking off the Protestant Reformation. There are several paintings of Luther heroically standing at the church door; hammer in-hand; but is it true?

The Myth

In his writings Martin Luther never said anything about nailing the 95 Theses to the church door. We get this story from one of Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon. The only problem is, Melanchthon didn’t move to Wittenburg until 1518, a year after the alleged ‘nailing’ and didn’t mention the event in writing until after Luther’s death.

The other problem is Luther originally wrote the 95 Theses in Latin, which would have been the standard academic practice of the day. Even if he did nail the document to the church door, only a handful of people would have been able to read it. The Reformation didn’t really start to cook until a year later when Christoph von Scheurl and a group of Luther’s students from Wittenburg translated the document into German and published it.

A good book on the argument against is “Out of the Storm: The Life of Martin Luther” by Derek Wilson.

The Facts

On or about Oct. 31 5117 Luther mailed a copy of his theses to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz. Albert passed the message along to Pope Leo X but the pope originally dismissed the document as an argument among monks. It’s not that Leo didn’t take Luther’s stance seriously; at the time he saw it as an academic disputation in which there was time for debate. Leo didn’t formally address Luther’s theses until 1520 with the Exsurge Domine, which criticized some—but not all—of Luther’s statements. By the time Leo responded, the 95 Theses had already been translated into the common language and published.

There is an argument that posting academic disputations to the church door was common practice in Wittenburg at the time; and Luther could very well have done that as well as mailed a copy to the Archbishop. One could also presume that although Melanchthon didn’t live in Wittenburg at the time, he could have been present.

In 2006 researcher Martin Treu discovered a letter in the Jena University and State library that was written by Luther’s personal secretary Georg Rörer. The letter specifically mentions that Dr. Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church. Again, Rörer wasn’t present at the event but would have had a unique insight.

A good book on the argument for is “Martin Luther’s 95 Theses” by Kurt Aland.

The Debate Rages On

Some scholars have gotten fairly heated on this debate in the past. The story of Reformation Day will probably live as a mixture of fact and folklore. The specific date and time can be questioned but what is unavoidable is the impact Luther’s translated writings had on the Church in Saxony and the rest of the world.

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One Response to Did Martin Luther Really Nail the 95 Theses to the Church Door?

  1. Pingback: Was Martin Luther Anti-Semitic: Hero or Villain? | The Outlaw Monk

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