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First Time Reading 95 Theses
on November 6, 2007
In this booklet, the second of Stephen Nichols' trio of booklets highlighting major Reformed figures (the other two booklets feature Jonathan Edwards and J. Gresham Machen respectively), Nichols' stated aim is to bring Luther's Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences - better known as the Ninety-Five Theses - to contemporary Christians who have heard of the theses, but never read them. This edition of the theses includes two helpful features: an introduction which sets the theses in historical context, and a minimal commentary on every facing page, while the main text appears on the right hand page. Not every thesis warrants a commentary, so Nichols has sensitively selected which theses bear specialized notes. Even then, the notes provide context or expansion only when necessary, and often in Luther's own words derived from his later work explaining the Ninety-Five Theses (suitably entitled The Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses).
A few preconceptions of mine were dispelled by this booklet. Firstly, that Luther's main goal in 1517, as demonstrated by the document's official title, was `merely' to expose Johann Tetzel's abuse of papal indulgences (in effect a get-out-of-purgatory-free card) by generating a debate among churchmen. Secondly, Luther's reformational theology was far from being definitively worked out at this point; he was still very much a sympathetic Catholic intent on reforming the Church, not destroying it. Tellingly, the Ninety-Fifth Thesis itself portrays salvation by suffering rather than by faith. This emphasis would change in the years to come.
But the two preconceptions which were most jarringly dashed were a) Luther's consistent defense of the pope throughout the document, and b) the content of the sequence of theses derived from the questions of shrewd parishioners. Unless Luther was representing his own questions as those of his parishioners for rhetorical effect - which would have been dishonest - I would not have thought that the average working class 16th century German was thinking reformational thoughts. No wonder this spark on the tinder lit up the spiritual and ecclesiological landscape of Europe for generations to come.
Embedded in the midst of the theses is the one I consider Luther's gem, the Sixty-Second. It contains the reason why Luther was compelled to act on that October day in 1517, and why he persevered to bring true biblical teaching to the gospel-hungry masses throughout the rest of his life: "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." Luther staked his life on this gospel, which is why we remember him and commemorate him today - and more importantly, the God he served.