The Ninety-Five Theses: Did Luther Nail Or Mail Them (Or Both)?

It is Reformation Day 2020. As far as I know, magisterial (Reformed and Lutheran) Protestants have observing October 31 as Reformation Day since the 17th century. Longtime readers of this space will may remember my critique of October 31 as Reformation Day. As important as the Ninety-Five Theses were and remain, they were not distinctively Protestant. April 17 is more suitable day, since, on that day, at the Diet of Worms (1521) Luther articulated the formal principle of the Reformation: sola scriptura, i.e., Scripture alone is the final authority for the Christian faith and life. It is not as if there are not hints of things to come in the Ninety-Five Theses but it is an early document. About it Luther said said in the preface to this Latin works that he was a “most enthusiastic papist” when he wrote them.1

Should you ever have the opportunity to visit Wittenberg a docent or tour guide will certainly take you to the Castle Church doors and explain that this is where Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses against the sale of indulgences. That may well be and that is the story that has been told in Wittenberg since not long after the theses were printed and distributed. Since 1961, however, there has been a running debate among Reformation scholars as to whether Luther actually nailed the theses to the church doors at Wittenberg. E.g., Heiko Oberman (1930–2001), in his masterful 1982 biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, wrote, “On the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, according to university custom.”2 The story, however, is a little more complicated, as the editors of Luther’s Works explain:

Indispensable for the study of the Ninety-five Theses and the indulgence controversy are Walther Köhler, Dokumente zum Ablass-streit von 1517, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1934), and Luthers 95 Theses samt seinen Resolutionen sowie den Gegenschriften von Wimpina-Tetzel, Eck und Prierias und den Antworten Luthers darauf (Leipzig, 1903), and Theodor Brieger, Das Wesen des Ablasses am Ausgange des Mittelalters (Leipzig, 1897). Hans Volz, in his Martin Luthers Thesenanschlag und dessen Vorgeschichte (Weimar, 1959), argued that the posting of the Ninety-five Theses took place November 1, 1517, not October 31, since Luther subsequently referred to All Saints Day as the date. The Catholic historian Erwin Iserloh, in his Luthers Thesenanschlag—Tatsache oder Legende? (Wiesbaden, 1962), published in English translation as The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther between Reform and Reformation(Boston, 1968), stated that Luther did not post the Theses but only sent them to Archbishop Albert of Mainz and Bishop Jerome Schulz of Brandenburg, the appropriate representatives of the church, for their approval. Iserloh’s contention was supported by Klemens Honselmann in his Urfassung und Drucke der Ablassthesen Martin Luthers und ihre Veröffentlichung (Paderborn, 1966). Among the scholars who challenged the views of Volz, Iserloh, and Honselmann are Franz Lau, in “Die gegenwärtige Diskussion um Luthers Thesenanschlag,” Luther Jahrbuch, 34 (1967), Heinrich Bornkamm, in Thesen und Thesenanschlag Luthers (Berlin, 1967), and Kurt Aland, whose Martin Luthers 95 Thesen (Hamburg, 1965) was published in English translation as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (St. Louis and London, 1967).3

The debate has continued. In 2015, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, Andrew Pettegree again took up the argument in Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation.4 He explains: “Fifty years ago a mischievous Catholic theologian suggested that the posting of the ninety-five theses was, in fact, a myth, a fable that grew up only when Luther became famous.5 There were, he concedes, “no contemporary witnesses, or at least none that thought the event important enough to record.6 He writes this “unwelcome intervention…set off a storm of controversy.”7 He concludes, “I am inclined to believe they posting of the theses did take place…”.8 Pettegree calls the debate “contrived” and argues that, of course no one noticed a monk nailing theses on the church door. That was not news.9 He says that the evidence of for the posting of the theses is “overwhelming.”10 We know that a local printer had just printed Luther’s September Theses on Scholastic Theology, which proves the existence, in Wittenberg, of the sort of broadsheet that would have been used to post the theses.11  Pettegree seems to think that the discovery of this broadsheet should settle the debate but it is only an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence.12 His stronger argument is the rapid spread of news of the theses, which make sense if they were posted publicly and seen by locals. We know with certainty, from Luther’s own pen, that he mailed a copy the Archbishop Mainz. Were it the case that he only mailed the theses to the Archbishop and did not nail them on the church doors, then how did knowledge of them spread so quickly? We know too that Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg a year later and talked to people about the episode and he believed that Luther nailed the theses to the church door.13 There is also the consideration that All Saints Eve was a big day in Wittenberg as the elector was displaying his “vast collection” of relics, thus attracting pilgrims to the very church doors on which Luther was nailing the theses.14

The same year that Pettegree published his argument for the nailing of the theses, Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert published their case against the nailing of the theses.15 They survey the evidence in favor, including Philipp Melanchthon’s preface to the 2nd (1546) edition of Luther’s Latin works. He wrote:

While Luther was in the midst of this course of study, venal indulgences were being carried around in this region by [Johann] Tetzel, that impudent Dominican sycophant. Luther, burning for the study of godliness and outraged by Tetzel’s ungodly and nefarious sermons, published [edidit] propositions concerning indulgences, which are extant in the first volume of his [Latin] works, and publicly posted them at the Church which is next to the Wittenberg castle on the eve of the feast of All Saints in the year 1517.16

Philipp’s account was echoed by others (e.g., Georg Rörer in the period and he repeated this claim in several private letters. It seems certain that he himself believed that Luther did nail the theses to the church door.17 As important as this act came to be, even during Luther’s lifetime, one might have thought that he himself might have cleared up any possible confusion but he did not. In his correspondence and recollection (e.g., Tabletalks of the event he only ever mentions mailing the theses. He never mentions nailing them to the church door. Leppin and Wengert conclude:

The clearly later accounts of Rörer, Major, and Melanchthon can easily be explained as a conviction formed in the 1540s, that a posting of the Theses took place, but they do not have enough weight to correct Luther’s actual comments, especially when Melanchthon and, following him, Major focused their anecdotes about what happened on the Castle Church door alone, despite clear statements in the university statutes requiring postings on all the church doors.18

Finally, however, Leppin and Wengert use the word “insoluble” to describe the question.19 They plead with scholars to set aside confessional agendas and to let the question remain ambiguous, as I suppose we must.

© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Resources

NOTES

  1. Luther’s Works, 34.328.
  2. Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwartzbart (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), 190.
  3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 23.
  4. Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).
  5. Pettegree, Brand, 13. He cites Irwin Iserloh, Luthers Thesenaschlag: Tatasche oder Legende? (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1962), See Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther Between Reform and Reformation, trans. Jared Wicks (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).
  6. He cites Joachim Ott and Martin Treu, eds., Luthers Thesenaschlag—Factum oder Fiktion (Leipzig: Evangelisch Verlagsanstalt, 2008).
  7. Pettegree, 13.
  8. Pettegree, 13.
  9. Pettegree, 71.
  10. Pettegree, 71.
  11. Pettegree, 71.
  12. Pettegree, 72.
  13. Pettegree, 72.
  14. Pettegree, 72.
  15. Volker Leppin and Timothy J. Wengert, “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses,” in Lutheran Quarter 19 (2015): 373–98.
  16. Leppin and Wengert, 376.
  17. Leppin and Wengert, 377–78.
  18. Leppin and Wengert, 388.
  19. Leppin and Wengert, 390.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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2 comments

  1. I have been told that by October 31 1517 Karlstadt had already nailed theses of his own to a church door, and I have found one statement on the internet confirming it https://godsmissionarychurch.org/2017/10/07/andreas-von-karlstadt-the-man-who-nailed-151-theses-to-the-door-of-castle-church/ . There are probably more.
    If other people were nailing such things to church doors, is there any reason to doubt that the famous 95 theses were also nailed to a church door?

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