The 95 Theses: 8 Things to Know and Share

The 95 Theses deal principally with indulgences, purgatory, and the pope’s role with respect to the two.

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of Martin Luther” (1528)
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of Martin Luther” (1528) (photo: Public Domain)

In 1517, Martin Luther drafted a document known as The 95 Theses, and its publication is used to date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The recent 500th anniversary of that event focused a good bit of attention on the 95 Theses.

Here are 8 things to know and share . . .


1) What are The 95 Theses?

The 95 Theses are a set of propositions that Martin Luther proposed for academic debate. As the name indicates, there are 95 of them.

Despite the fact they played a key role in starting the Protestant Reformation, they do not deal with either of the main Protestant distinctives. They do not mention either justification by faith alone or doing theology by Scripture alone.

Instead, they deal principally with indulgences, purgatory, and the pope’s role with respect to the two.


2) Did Luther nail them to a church door?

Despite constant statements to the contrary, the answer appears to be no, he didn’t.


3) Are they all bad?

No, they’re not. It can come as a surprise to both Protestants and Catholics, but some of them agree with Catholic teaching.

Here are the first three of Luther’s theses, along with parallel statements from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Thesis 1: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

  • CCC 1431: Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.

Thesis 2: This word [i.e., Christ’s call to repent in Mark 4:17] cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

  • CCC 1427: Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” [Mark 4:17]. In the Church's preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also, Baptism is the principal place for the first and) fundamental conversion. 

Thesis 3: Yet it [i.e., the call to repent in Mark 4:17] does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

  • CCC 1430: Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.


4) How did the Church respond to The 95 Theses?

In 1520, Pope Leo X published a bull known as Exsurge Domine (Latin, “Arise, Lord”) in which he rejected 41 propositions taken from the writings of Martin Luther up to that time.

However, only a few of the rejected propositions came from The 95 Theses. Most were based on things Luther said in other writings.


5) Which of The 95 Theses did Exsurge Domine reject?

The rejected propositions in Exsurge Domine are formulated from things Luther said, but they are not verbatim quotations.

Three of the rejected propositions—numbers 4, 17, and 38—are drawn from The 95 Theses. In each case, the rejected proposition is based on two of Luther’s original theses.

Here are the rejected propositions along with the corresponding theses:

Proposition 4. To one on the point of death, imperfect charity necessarily brings with it great fear, which in itself alone is enough to produce the punishment of purgatory and impedes entrance into the kingdom.

Thesis 14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.

Thesis 15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.

Proposition 17. The treasures of the Church from which the pope gives indulgences are not the merits of Christ and of the saints.

Thesis 56. The treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.

Thesis 58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man.

Proposition 38. The souls in purgatory are not sure of their salvation, at least (not) all; nor is it proved by any arguments or by the Scriptures that they are beyond the state of meriting or of increasing in charity.

Thesis 19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.

Thesis 18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.

Exsurge Domine thus rejected things it saw expressed in theses 14, 15, 18, 19, 56, and 58.


6) What did Exsurge Domine say about the rejected propositions?

The bull closes with the following censure:

All and each of the above-mentioned articles or errors [i.e., all 41 of them], as set before you, we condemn, disapprove, and entirely reject as respectively heretical or (aut) scandalous or (aut) false or (aut) offensive to pious ears or (vel) seductive of simple minds and (et) in opposition to Catholic truth.

This kind of condemnation is sometimes referred to as an condemnation in globo (Latin, “as a whole”). They are rejected as a batch, but without indicating which censure applies to which proposition.

The condemnation has to be read with care because in Latin, aut indicates an exclusive “or” (i.e., this or that, but not both) while vel indicates an inclusive “or” (i.e., this or that, but possibly both).

Thus Exsurge Domine indicates that some of the 41 rejected propositions are heretical, some are scandalous, some are false, some are offensive to pious ears—but they are not all four.

The use of aut between these censures tells you that a given proposition may fall into one of these four categories.

The only time an inclusive “or” is used is before the fifth and sixth categories: Some propositions may be “seductive of simple minds and (et) in opposition to Catholic truth.” Here vel is used because things that are heretical (etc.) can also be seductive of simple minds (the fifth category) and obviously would be opposed to Catholic truth (the sixth category).


7) What does that mean for The 95 Theses?

It means that Exsurge Domine rejected things expressed in Theses 14, 15, 18, 19, 56, and 58, and it thus warned Catholics away from these theses. However, it does not tell us what the problem was in particular cases. It could have been any of the following:

  • The thesis is heretical
  • The thesis is scandalous
  • The thesis is false
  • The thesis is offensive to pious ears
  • The thesis is seductive of simple minds
  • The thesis is opposed to Catholic truth

The difference between these is significant:

  1. If something is heretical then it is both false and contrary to a divinely revealed dogma
  2. If it is scandalous then it can lead people into sin
  3. If it is false then it is not true, though it may not be opposed to a dogma
  4. If it is offensive to pious ears then it is badly and offensively phrased
  5. If it is seductive of simple minds then it can mislead ordinary people
  6. If it is opposed to Catholic truth then it could be opposed in one of the five ways named above.

It is important to note that if the problem is (1) or (3) then the Thesis is necessarily false.

However, if the problem is (2), (4), or (5) then the Thesis is not necessarily false—it could be technically true but phrased offensively, phrased in a misleading way, or phrased in a way that could lead people to sin.

Because Exsurge Domine doesn’t assign particular censures to particular propositions, it doesn’t tell us what the status of the theses in question are. It warns us away from them but leaves it up to theologians to classify the particular problem with a thesis.


8) Does the fact that Exsurge Domine only rejects things said in six of the theses mean that the other 89 are okay?

No. This does not give the rest of The 95 Theses a clean bill of health. They can also be problematic, they just weren’t among those dealt with in Exsurge Domine.

It would be interesting to go through The 95 Theses and analyze of the degree to which each of them fits or doesn’t fit with Catholic thought, but that would be a lengthy effort that would go far beyond what can be accomplished in a blog post.