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13 � TIMOTHY J. WENGERT 1. This title (Latin: Disputatio . . . pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) is taken from the 1517 reprint of Luther’s theses, which in all other printings bore no title at all. 2. Venial sins, which involved minor infractions, ignorance of the consequences, or lack of intention, were forgiven anytime one prayed the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. INTRODUCTION The 95 Theses of Martin Luther may constitute one of the best known and yet least understood of his writings. Given the terseness of individual theses, the technical nature of many of the arguments, and the debates over the history of the document, this is hardly surprising. For a twenty-firstcentury reader to understand them more fully, one must consider certain theological, historical, and literary aspects of the document. Theological Background Already St. Jerome (c. 347–420) had argued that after the shipwreck of sin, Christians had at their disposal two planks: first, baptism, which forgave the guilt and punishment for all sin; and then, for mortal sins committed after baptism, penance. Medieval theology defined a mortal sin as a grave act of commission or omission involving willful disregard for God’s clear commands.2 Such a sin put a person in a state of mortal sin (that is, dead to God and liable to punishment in hell) and included two consequences: guilt and [The 95 Theses or] Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences1 1517 THE ROOTS OF REFORM 14 a Luther uses this distinction in theses 5 and 6, for example. b See below, Sermon on Penance, p. 197 n. 29. 3. The others being baptism, the Lord’s Supper, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and last rites (extreme unction). In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520; LW 36:3–126), Luther reduced the number to three (baptism, Lord’s Supper, and, as a daily use of baptism, confession and absolution [= penance]). 4. This contrasted with attrition, defined as a sorrow for sin out of fear of punishment. punishment (Latin: culpa et poena).a According to Peter Lombard (c. 1096–1164), the early Scholastic theologian from Paris whose Sentences (collected statements of the church fathers interspersed with his brief comments) became the basic theological textbook at universities for the next four hundred years, penance was one of the seven sacraments of the church.3 The sacrament of penance consisted of three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. While baptism contained stronger grace and remitted the guilt and punishment for all sin, it could only be performed once. As a result, the sacrament of penance, to which one had continual access because it was repeatable, became in the Middle Ages the crucial means of moving the sinner from a state of sin into a state of grace. While repeatable, the grace of this sacrament differed in that, although it fully removed the guilt of sin, it only reduced the penalty or punishment (Latin: poena) from an eternal punishment to a temporal one. Contrition, or sorrow for sin out of love of God,4 was the first part of the process. By the late Middle Ages, some teachers, including Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–1495) a professor in Tübingen and author of several textbooks that Luther used while in Erfurt, insisted that with such sorrow for sin a person already moved from a state of sin to a state of grace. Most other theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), argued that the transfer took place during the second part of the sacrament, when one went to confession and, upon a thorough confession of all sins committed since the previous confession, heard the priest’s absolution. (By contrast, for Biel the person went to the priest for confession for the same reason cleansed lepers in the Old Testament went to the Levitical priests—to guarantee that the contrition was genuine and, thus, that the leprosy of sin was gone.)b Whenever it took place, the move from a state of sin to a state of grace was brought about by an infusion into the soul of a disposition of love (Latin: habitus charitatis), that is, The 95 Theses 15 the grace that makes one acceptable to God (Latin: gratia gratum faciens). The guilt of sin was completely removed, and the punishment reduced from eternal to temporal. The third part, satisfaction, took place after private confession , when the forgiven Christian, now in a state of grace, did good works to satisfy the temporal punishment remaining for his or her sin. In...


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