The Nailing of the 95 Theses, Myth or Fact?

The Nailing of the 95 Theses, Myth or Fact?

By Dr. Roni Grad, Chair, English District Reformation 500th Anniversary Committee

In recent years, much ink has been spilled questioning whether or not we can know for certain that Dr. Luther posted his 95 Theses by nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 15171.  As a result, many are wondering whether, come this October 31, we will be commemorating an actual historical event or merely perpetuating a myth handed down through the centuries.  In his recent book Brand Luther, secular historian Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at the University of St. Andrews, examined the evidence and concluded that the posting of the theses in fact likely did take place2.

[Pictured left: Thesentor, the "theses door," Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany. The original door was destroyed in a fire in 1760; the commemorative bronze doors pictured, on which the 95 Theses are inscribed in their original Latin, were dedicated on November 10, 1858, the 375th anniversary of Dr Luther's First Article birth.  Photo by Dr. Grad]

Prof. Pettegree traces the controversy over the posting to the work of the Catholic theologian Erwin Iserloh, who, in 1962, published a book arguing that the posting of the theses did not in fact occur3.  One major point made by those who claim that the story of the posting of the 95 Theses is myth, is that no contemporary eyewitnesses recorded the event, the first written report having been made by Philip Melanchthon only decades later4.  Pettegree points out though that the door of the Castle Church functioned as the normal bulletin board for the University of Wittenberg; thus, such a posting would not have attracted much attention5.  The lack of correspondence from Dr. Luther regarding the posting of the theses may be attributed to the fact that although he wrote many letters at the time, very few survive6.  Furthermore, although the original broadsheet of the 95 Theses has been lost, early reprints of the theses from Nuremberg and Basel follow the same pattern as that on a printing done in Wittenberg of theses on Scholastic theology penned eight weeks earlier by Dr. Luther7.  Moreover, already by November 5, 1517, Dr. Luther had received a letter from Georg Spalatin, secretary and librarian to the Elector Frederick the Wise, complaining that he had not yet received a formal copy of the theses; his awareness of the theses at that early date supports the contention that they had been publically posted8.  Finally, Prof. Pettegree reminds us that Melanchthon arrived to Wittenberg only one year later and would thus have spoken to many who were there to witness the posting of the theses9.

The evidence thus strongly suggests that Dr. Luther in fact did nail his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Germany, and that, in our commemorations this year, we are remembering actual history and not myth!  Veit Dietrich’s magisterial Reformation collect begins, “Lord God, heavenly Father, we most heartily thank You that by Your Word You have brought us out of the darkness of error into the light of Your grace”10.  This year and always, we are deeply thankful to God for all He did through Dr. Luther and all of the Lutheran reformers, to return us to His Word, pointing us to His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified for the forgiveness of sins!  To Him alone be the glory.

Quinquagesima 2017

 

End Notes

  1. See for example Albrecht Beutel, Luther’s Life, in Donald K. McKim, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003) 8-9.  Also Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, A History (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004) 119-20. 
  2. Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (New York: Penguin Press, 2015) 13, 70-72.
  3. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 13.
  4. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 70-71, also Beutel, Luther’s Life, 8-9.
  5. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 70-71.
  6. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 71.
  7. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 71-2.  In brief, Dr. Luther’s September 1517 theses pointed out that without God’s grace, man can only will and do evil, even if outwardly his deeds appear to be good.  The full text of these theses may be found at https://scholasticus.wordpress.com/2007/08/08/luthers-disputation-against-scholastic-theology/  They were lost until 1983 and Pettegree hypothesizes that had they been known in 1962, the question over the posting of the 95 Theses may have never been raised.
  8. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 72.  Spalatin was Dr. Luther’s advocate to the court of the Elector.
  9. Pettegree, Brand Luther, 72.
  10. The Dietrich collects may be found at https://acollectionofprayers.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/veit-dietrich-collects-ce3.pdf