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In the 95 Theses, Luther makes a stand against corruption in the Catholic church of that day. This resulted in events leading to the separation between the Catholic and Protestant churches.

It seems the theses are always referred to, but never actually read. Their content does make me a bit uneasy, especially this part (the English translation used as source):

71: Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.

Or, the original for those that know Latin:

71: Contra veniarum apostolicarum veritatem qui loquitur, sit ille anathema et maladictus.

Now, I have never heard even one Protestant speak positively about indulgences. What are Luther's motives in saying this (especially in such strong words), and did he later on change his mind?

Edit: Thanks to Caleb's suggestion, I'll add some other relevant theses to provide context.

67: The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain.
68: They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.

91: If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist.

It seems quite clear to me that Luther didn't oppose indulgences per se, rather just the sale and abuse of them and the exaggeration of their power. If I'm wrong here, please provide some good references to show that.

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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted
  1. You need to understand the vernacular of the day. Documentation took hard line tones that would never be acceptable in today's culture. Luther in particular used much stronger wording than even many of his contemporaries. This included every detail of his daily life, not just special documents such as his 95 Theses.

  2. Luther said and believed some pretty wacky stuff that would make most Protestants uncomfortable. His ideas and actions were instrumental in setting off the Reformation but he by no means perfected it.

  3. Luther did not entirely reject the idea of indulgences and was not trying to say the idea behind them was heretical, only that the church of his day had perverted them. There is quite a bit contrast laid out in his Theses between ideas that he goes out of his way not to denounce and implementations and implementors that he decries vehemently.

    Including some additional context might help here. In #67 and #68 Luther notes that indulgences promote some good, but that they are a very small grace in comparison God's grace.

    #67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
    #68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

    If you continue on through the next dozen or so points you can see that he isn't asking Rome to abolish the practice so much as to put it back in proper perspective.

    (English source text.)

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Why did Luther curse those who oppose indulgences?

Firstly, he did not curse those who opposed indulgences. He himself was against indulgences. He wrote the 95 theses because of the sale of indulgences:

Luther, aflame with indignation, challenged the sale of indulgences and demanded that the entire matter be discussed by the scholars of the University. He invited his academic colleagues to a public disputation to consider the Ninety-five Theses, or objections, which he had raised against the sale.

What he said in his 71st thesis, was this "Let those who oppose the truth about indulgences be anathema and accursed". He didn't say "curse those who oppose indulgences," but rather "curse those who are against the truth concerning indulgences."

The "truth about indulgences" was that you cannot buy your own salvation, and Luther was trying to state that. This can be seen in Ephesians 2 : 8,9.

Now, the Catholic priests and pope were trying to oppose this, by saying that what Luther was teaching was false. Thus, Luther says, "those who oppose the truth about indulgences be...cursed". He was cursing the priests and the pope!

Why? Isn't this rather strong?

Consider this. When you get someone who deceives others concerning their salvation, telling them that by paying money, they can save themselves, this person is basically sending the poor gullible people to their damnation. They are systematically dooming people with their sell of indulgences. Isn't that what Satan is actually doing? Trying to draw more people into Hell?

Thus, Luther has good reason to curse those who try to oppose the truth of the indulgences.

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The point of the 95 theses, as I understand it, was the sale and abuse of indulgences. Some "sellers" made the claim that they would be enough to save an unsaved person. For example, theses 67-68 and 91 seem to me quite clearly to show that Luther thought the indulgences themselves were good, but they were completely out of their correct scope. If you disagree, please provide some references to back your view. –  dancek Aug 26 '11 at 11:55
The way I read it, "Some "sellers" made the claim that they would be enough to save an unsaved person" .... those 'sellers' are the very people Luther is cursing in 71. –  DTest Aug 26 '11 at 13:10
Have you read the full 95 Thesis? If this is how you interpret #71, how do you interpret #41, #42, $67, #68, #73, #91, etc? –  Caleb Aug 26 '11 at 15:06
Luther did not oppose indulgences, but he did oppose the misuse and overuse of them, which was rampant at the time. This thesis reflects that. –  DJClayworth Nov 24 '11 at 14:09
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With respect, I believe you're misreading this item. Dr. Luther is sometimes hard to understand, but in my experience (having read the whole Book of Concord and a lot of his other writings) is that he's very rarely self-contradictory. He is not self-contradictory in this case.

Here's the proposition.

71: Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.

Let's try parsing it...

A   "the truth concerning papal indulgences"   
B   "against" A
C   "him who speaks" B
D   "Let" C "be anathema and accursed".

So, this all hinges on the meaning of A -- the truth concerning papal indulgences. The rest of this broadside makes the point, in many ways, that papal indulgences are evil.

This is a thesis: a proposition for debate. Dr. Luther is asserting that it is true, and inviting partners in discourse to support or refute it. This thesis / antithesis mode of discourse is a late medieval academic methodology.

Something also hinges on the meaning of "sit ille anathema et maladictus." This is very specific, not just a general cussing out. Anathema means "excluded." "Maladictus" means "spoken against." In this thesis, Dr. Luther asserts that the church and the academy share a duty to restrain the speech of those people who defend papal indulgences.

Again, this is late medieval discourse, not 21st-century discourse, so it sounds a little alien.

As for the claim that he wasn't speaking against papal indulgences, and only against their misuse, that's untrue. He is speaking against the indulgence preachers' claim that they have the divine authority to sell these letters of indulgence. At this point in history, he was not sure whether the indulgence preachers were acting with the knowledge of the pope, for what it's worth.

20 Therefore by "full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all," but only of those imposed by himself.

21 Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;


26 The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.


28 It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

The point Luther asserts is that the Pope may (indeed, ought to) pray for the forgiveness of people, but that the power to grant that forgiveness is God's alone.

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Thanks for your input here. Could we bother you to expand on this reading by explaining how some of the other theses fit into this picture? I don't find them to be contradictory so much as very selective about what they come down hard on and what they support. I am reading that he supports the idea of apostolic pardons, just not the selling of them. This seems to be consistent with many of the other thesis (#41, #42, $67, #68, #73, #91, etc), but this would be inconsistent with your interpretation. If I am wrong, how do those other thesis fit into the equation? –  Caleb Aug 26 '11 at 19:23
Yes, @Caleb, I will do so. But I have to hit the books, and I don't have them with me right now. The gist: the authority of the earthly church is limited to earth. But the earthly church has the power of intercessory prayer. More later. –  user116 Aug 26 '11 at 19:53
@Ollie Nice to have a Luther expert around :) I've read some Luther myself. His writings in the Book of Concord are written in 1529-1537, while the 95 theses date back to 1517. His other major works are also mainly somewhat newer. I think there's some difference in Luther's style between the older and newer texts. Thus I'd also be willing to believe that Luther in 1517 contradicts Luther 15 years later, though he certainly is a very consistent man. –  dancek Aug 26 '11 at 21:19
Yes, @dancek. Luther was just a guy (a very smart and inspired guy). And the 95 theses came very early in his career. The text of those theses don't have any special confessional status, either. –  user116 Aug 26 '11 at 21:24
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My understanding of the sentence:

71: Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.

is that the truth of about papal indulgences is that they are bad. So anyone who speaks in favor of them should be anathema or accursed.

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Reading the context (other theses around 71), that is (almost) certainly not the case. EDIT: added almost, I am a human after all. –  dancek Aug 26 '11 at 10:14
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