What Luther Said Before His 95 Theses

Almost two months (Sept. 4, 1517) before posting his famous 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, Luther released a lesser known but even more radical statement called the Disputation against Scholastic Theology.

By “scholastic theology” Luther was referring mainly to the late Medieval nominalism proposed by some Roman Catholic scholars, in particular William Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Nominalism’s motto was Facere quod in se est, or “do the best that lies within you.” In response to doing the best one could (congruent merit), God would grant grace, namely through the sacraments. Through cooperation with this grace, one could perform fully meritorious deeds (condign merit) that could merit/earn salvation. Clearly such teaching is not only unbiblical (i.e., not found in scripture) but even anti-biblical by its complete reworking of the relationship between grace and works (e.g., Rom 4:4-5; 11:16).[1] Nominalism is what Luther had been trained in; and to this errant theology Luther was reacting. It should also be noted that in these statements Luther believed that he was stating “nothing that is not in agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church” (final statement in his Disputations).

So, what did Luther have to say before his famous 95 Theses? He had a lot to say, and in fact, he was probably more extreme here than in his more controversial 95 Theses.[2]
 Here is a sampling of some of my favorites theses:

4. It is therefore true that a human being, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [cf. Matt. 7:17–18].

5. It is false to state that one’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. …

6. It is false to state that the will can, by nature, conform to the correct precept. …

7. As a matter of fact, without the grace of God the will produces an act that is perverse and evil.

9. It is nevertheless innately and inevitably evil and corrupt.

10. One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. …

11. Nor is it able to will or not to will whatever is prescribed.

15. Indeed, it is peculiar to it that it can only conform to erroneous and not to correct precept.

17. Humans are by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, they want to be God, and do not want God to be God.

21. No act is done according to nature that is not an act of concupiscence against God.

27. But it [“the perfect means for … turning and approaching God] is an act of conversion already perfected, followed by grace both in time and by nature [emphasis added].

29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.

33. And this is false, that doing all that one is able to do [facere quod in se est] can remove the obstacles to grace. …

34. In brief, a person by nature has neither correct precept nor good will.

38. There is no moral virtue without either pride or sorrow, that is, without sin.

39. We are not masters of our actions, from beginning to end, but servants.

40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous,
we do righteous deeds. …

55. The grace of God is never present in such a way that it is inactive, but it is a living, active, and operative spirit….

56. It is not true that God can accept a person without divine, justifying grace.

62. And that therefore, whoever is outside the grace of God sins incessantly, even when they do not kill, commit adultery, or become angry.

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will [cf. Rom 7].

71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

76. Every deed of the law without the grace of God appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin.

79. Condemned are all those who do the works of the law [cf. Gal 3:10].

90. The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God.

95. To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.[3]

Amen! Amen! Sola gratia! Sola fide! Sola Christus!


[1] One should note, even Roman Catholicism eventually condemned nominalism at the council of Trent in favor of Thomistic (Thomas Aquinas’) theology.

[2] Scott Manetsch suggests that the reason the 95 Theses got more attention and negative reaction was because in his 95 Theses Luther directly attacked indulgences and the “pocketbook” of the Roman Catholic Church.

[3] You can find the full text of Luther’s Disputation against Scholastic Theology as well as The Ninety-Five Theses and Heidelberg Disputation from Augsburg Fortress here.