The 95 Theses as a Reformation Act (Warfield)

I am sure most of our readers know something about the 95 Theses that Martin Luther wrote in 1517. Of course, some historians have misinterpreted these theses in various ways. Speaking of this, B. B. Warfield weighed in on this topic in a 1917 edition of the Princeton Theological Review. He noted some alternative interpretations of Luther’s Theses and gave the proper Reformation interpretation and explanation. On that note, I thought the following section was quite helpful. (Note: “sacerdotal” means relating to the Roman Catholic priestly system)

We must distinguish between the immediate occasion of Luther’s protest and its real motive and purport. The immediate occasion was, no doubt, Tetzel’s preaching of the Jubilee indulgences in his neighborhood. But what Luther was led to do was to call in question, not merely the abuses which accompanied this particular instance of the proclamation of the Jubilee indulgences, or which were accustomed to accompany their proclamation; and not merely the peculiarities of the Jubilee indulgences among indulgences; and not even merely the whole theory of indulgences; but the entire prevalent theory of the relation of the Church as the institute of salvation to the salvation of souls. Thus the Theses become not merely an anti-indulgence proclamation but an anti-sacerdotal proclamation. And therein consists their importance as a Reformation act. Luther might have repelled all the abuses which had grown up about the preaching of indulgences and have remained a good Papalist. He might have rejected the Jubilee indulgences, in toto, and indeed the whole theory of indulgences as it had developed itself in the Church since the thirteenth century, and remained a good Catholic. But he hewed more closely to the line than that. He called in question the entire basis of the Catholic system and came forward in opposition to it, as an Evangelical.

…The significance of the Theses as a Reformation act emerges thus in this: that they are a bold, an astonishingly bold, and a powerful, an astonishingly powerful, assertion of the evangelical doctrine of salvation, embodied in a searching, well-compacted, and thoroughly wrought-out refutation of the sacerdotal conception, as the underlying foundation on which the edifice of the indulgence traffic was raised.

B. B. Warfield, “The Ninety-Five Theses in Their Theological Significance”, in The Works of B. B. Warfield, vol 9.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

1 thought on “The 95 Theses as a Reformation Act (Warfield)”

  1. Sooooo very interesting and true and important! I love anything about the reformation. Esp to note that it wasn’t just anti indulgence but anti-sacerdotal!! Against the priestly hierarchy and customs!

    Anna Sackett

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