Once begun the breach widened, until Luther could contrast “ our theology ” with what was taught at Erfurt, and by September he began to write against the scholastic theology, to declare that it was Pelagian at heart, that it repudiated the Augustinian doctrines of grace, and neglected to teach the supreme value of that faith “ which throws itself upon God.” These lectures and the teaching they contained soon made a great impression. Students began to flock to the small obscure university of Wittenberg, and the elector grew proud of the teacher who was making his university famous. It was at this interesting stage of his own religious career that he felt himself compelled to stand forth in opposition to what he believed to be a great religious scandal, and almost unconsciously to become a Reformer.
Luther began his work as a Reformer by proposing to discuss the true meaning of Indulgences. The occasion was an Indulgence proclaimed by Pope Leo X., farmed by the archbishop of Mainz, and preached by John Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a famed seller of Indulgences. Many of the German princes had no great love for Indulgence sellers, and Frederick of Saxony had prohibited Tetzel from entering his territories. But it was easy to reach most parts of Electoral Saxony without actually crossing the frontiers. The Red Cross of the Indulgence seller had been set up at Zerbst and at Jiiterbogk, and people had gone from Wittenberg to buy the Papal Tickets. Luther believed that the sales were injurious to the morals of the townsmen; he had heard reports of Tetzel's sermons; he had become wrathful on reading the letter of recommendation of the archbishop; and friends had urged him to interfere. He protested with a characteristic combination of caution and courage. The church of All Saints (the castle church) was closely connected with the university of Wittenberg. Its doors were commonly used for university proclamations. The Elector Frederick was a great collector of relics and had stored them in his church. He had procured an Indulgence for all who attend edits services on All Saints' Day, and crowds commonly gathered. Luther nailed ninety-five theses on the church door on that day, the 1st of November r 517, when the crowd could see and read them.
The proceeding was strictly academic. The matter discussed, to judge by the writings of theologians, was somewhat obscure; and Luther oliered his theses as an attempt to make it clearer. No one was supposed to be committed to every opinion he advanced in such a way. But the theses posted somehow touched heart and conscience in a way unusual in the common subjects of academic disputation. Every one wanted to read them. The University Press could not supply copies fast enough. They were translated into German, and were known throughout Germany in less than a fortnight. Within a month they had been heard of all over western and southern Europe. Luther himself was staggered at the way they were received. He said he had never meant to determine, but to debate. The theses were singularly unlike what might have been expected from a professor of theology. They made no attempt at theological definition, no pretence at logical arrangement; they were anything but a brief programme of reformation. They were simply ninety-five sledge-hammer blows directed against the most flagrant ecclesiastical abuse of the age. They were addressed to the “ common ” man and appealed to his common sense of spiritual things.
The practice of offering, selling and buying Indulgences (see INDULGENCE) was everywhere common in the beginning of the 16th century. The beginnings go back more than a thousand years before the time of Luther. In the earliest church life, when Christians fell into sin, they were required to make public confession before the congregation, to declare their sorrow, and to vow to perform certain acts which were regarded as evidence of the sincerity of their repentance. When the custom of public confession before the congregation had changed to private confession to the clergy, it became the confessor's duty to impose these satisfactions. It was thought only right that there should be some uniformity in dealing with repentant MARTIN 1 3 5
sinners, and books appeared giving lists of sins and what were supposed to be suitable satisfactions. When the sins confessed were very heinous the satisfactions were correspondingly severe and sometimes lasted over many years. About the 7th century arose a custom of commuting or relaxing these imposed satisfactions. A penance of several years fasting might be commuted into saying so many prayers, or giving an arranged amount in alms, or even into a money-fine. In the last case the analogy of the Wergeld of the German tribal codes was commonly followed. The usage generally took the form that any one who visited a church, to which the Indulgence had been attached, on a day named, and gave a contribution to its funds, had his penance shortened by one-seventh, one-third or one-half, as might be arranged. This was the origin of Indulgences properly so-called. They were always mitigation's of satisfactions or penances which had been imposed by the church as outward signs of inward sorrow, tests of fitness for pardon, and the needful precedents of absolution. Luther uttered no protest against Indulgences of this kind. He held that what the church had imposed the church could remit.
This old and simple conception of Indulgences had been greatly altered since the beginning of the 15th century. The institution of penance had been raised to the dignity of a sacrament, and thishad changed both the place and the character of satisfactions. Under the older conception the order had been Sorrow (Contritio), Confession, Satisfaction (or due manifestation of sorrow in ways prescribed) and Absolution. Under the newer theory the order was Sorrow, Confession, Absolution, Satisfaction, and both satisfaction and sorrow took new meanings. It was held that Absolution removed guilt and freed from eternal punishment, but that something had to be done to free the penitent from temporal punishment whether in this life or in purgatory. Satisfactions took the new meaning of the temporal punishments due in this life and the substitute for the pains of purgatory. The new thought of a treasury of merits (thesaurus meritorum) introduced further changes. It was held that the good deeds over and above what were needed for their own salvation by the living or by the saints in heaven, together with the inexhaustible merits of Christ, were all deposited in a treasury out of w ' h they could be taken by the pope and given by him to the f fill. They could be added to the satisfactions actually done by penitents. Thus Satisfactions became not merely signs of sorrow but actual merits, which freed men from the need to undergo the temporal pains here and in purgatory which their sins had rendered them liable to. By an Indulgence merits could be transferred from the storehouse to those who required them. The change made in the character of Sorrow made Indulgences all the more necessary for the indifferent penitent. On the older theory Sorrow (Contritio) had for its one basis love to God; but on the newer theory the starting-point might be a less worthy king of sorrow (Attritio) which it was held would be changed into the more worthy kind in the Sacrament of Penance. The conclusion was naturally drawn that a process of penitence which began with sorrow of the more unworthy kind needed a larger amount of Satisfactions or penance than what began with Contrition. Hence for the indifferent Christian, Attrition, Confession and Indulgence became the three heads in the scheme of the church of the later middle ages for his salvation. The one thing which satisfied his conscience was the burdensome thing he had to do, and that was to procure an Indulgence-a matter made increasingly easy for him as time went on. This doctrine of Attritfion had not the undivided support of the theologians of the later medieval church; but it was taught by the Scotists and was naturally a favourite theme with the sellers of Indulgences. Nor were all theologians at' one upon the whole theory of Indulgences. The majority of the best theologians held that Indulgences had nothing to do with the pardoning of guilt, but only with freeing from temporal penalties in this life or in purgatory. But the common people did not discriminate, and believed that when they bought an Indulgence they were purchasing pardon from sin; and Luther placed himself in the position of the ordinary Christian uninstructed in the niceties of theological distinctions. His Ninety- five Theses made six different assertions about Indulgences and their efficacy:-