By all rights, the Ninety-Five Theses really oughtn’t to have had the impact they did. Martin Luther was a relatively unknown professor doing a completely ordinary thing for someone in the academic world of his day. There was nothing unique about him nailing these statements to the door of the local church in Wittenberg. He wasn’t looking to start a reformation. He was merely hoping to spark a bit of public debate among his colleagues regarding the practice of indulgences. Yet within a few short months, the Ninety-Five Theses had been reprinted in Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Basel. While the originals were printed in Latin, Nuremberg also reportedly published a German translation of his theses, which was unprecedented. Copies were being widely distributed and read by not only intellectuals, but also commoners. The higher-ups were taking notice of this small-town professor, realizing something had to be done about him before he rallied more people to his cause. He quickly became a household name. Put in today’s terminology, Luther went viral.
The practice of posting academic theses was not a revolutionary concept. The printing industry of Luther’s day did a fair bit of business by printing theses for universities. According to the book Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree, Europe’s printing presses put out “many thousands” of academic disputations, although “very few had a purpose or value that lasted beyond this formal academic occasion.” (p 75) Additionally, such theses “seldom attracted any notice outside the university where the disputation took place.” (p 75) Indeed, even Luther did not expect his theses to have such an impact. He “did not take any great pride in the ninety-five theses. Had he had any sense of their likely impact, he told a later correspondent, he would have taken far more care with them.” (p 73)
You see, this was not Luther’s first time posting theses for public viewing. He had done so about eight weeks prior, writing ninety-nine theses against Scholasticism, a school of thought that focused on logic and human reason to find universal truth. Ironically, Luther thought the theses on Scholasticism were more bold and controversial than the later ones regarding indulgences. And as such, he “did everything in his power to bring these earlier theses to wider public attention. Copies were dispatched to [other academics]. Despite these efforts, the hoped-for public debate never took off. None of Luther’s anticipated disputation partners took the bait. Despite, as he saw it, the importance of the subject, the theses sank without trace…” (Brand Luther, p 52) So when Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door eight weeks later, he could not have believed much more would come of those. Yet now his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses is often pointed to as the event that sparked the Reformation.
So with this background, the logical question is why? Why did Luther’s theses provoke such a strong response? Why did his ninety-nine theses slither off into oblivion while the Ninety-Five Theses are still read and studied today? How, when Luther was merely looking to reform some doctrines off the church, did this eventually lead to his excommunication and starting a new denomination that is still going strong 500 years later? There have been all sorts of answers to these questions, from economics to politics to language to personality. Certainly, all these played a role in the Reformation. But the answer is almost too simple. The main reason the Reformation succeeded was, of course, God.
Luther himself was quick to give credit to God. In one of his sermons, he says, “Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with [my friend] Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble, I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.” (LW, vol. 51, sermons I)
This is incredibly comforting for us, because it’s never up to us to convince anyone of the truths of God’s Word. We needn’t rely on our own cleverness or intelligence or eloquence (or lack thereof). I’ve heard from more than one pastor that some of the sermons they were most proud of elicited little to no response from parishioners, while other sermons they felt were weak or ill-prepared were the ones that most strongly resonated with people. (Ultimately, of course, only God truly knows the impact of any particular sermon upon people’s hearts, whether they say anything to the pastor or not.) God uses us as His instruments to spread the Word, but He is the One who brings forth the fruit. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
This is very good news for Christians today who worry about the state of the Church on earth. The Church is always in need of reform. There will always be false teachings, those who compromise God’s truth to appease the world, and even false believers within the Church, but God will not allow His truth to be snuffed out. He has promised to preserve His Word until He returns. Sometimes that means a common monk whose theses go viral. Sometimes it’s far less dramatic, as in one person sharing the Gospel with his neighbor. But no matter how God chooses to grow His Church, we can be certain He will indeed work through His Word to preserve His saints unto eternity. And so we can sing with confidence the words of “The Church’s One Foundation” (The Lutheran Hymnal, v 3):
“The Church shall never perish! Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish, Is with her to the end.
Tho’ there be those that hate her, False sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor She ever shall prevail.”