This edition of the 95 Theses, and the less well-known Sermon on Indulgences and Grace which was meant to supplement the Theses, contains nearly everything necessary to begin serious, critical work on one of Luther’s earliest theological works. The heart of the volume is a diglot edition of both texts—the Sermon in the original early modern spelling and the Theses in Latin. Besides the diglot transcription, the text also includes a facsimile printing of the Nuremberg pamphlet of the Sermon at the back of the volume, a useful addition to this already quite useful aid. Beyond these, though, the edition provides a new modern translation of both the German Sermon and the Latin Theses on pages facing the German and Latin originals, as well as a series of very helpful introductions and annotations.
The volume begins with a historical introduction by Martin Keßler, professor at the Georg–August–Universität Göttingen, providing an easy-to-read yet thorough and reliable background to the Theses, acquainting non-specialists with the details behind the text which gave it its meaning and life. Keßler does an excellent job of situating the text, bringing out the contested nature of indulgences in their historical moment as well as the theological rationale which undergirded them. Then there is an introduction to the two physical copies used in this edition of the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace by Henrike Lähnemann and Christina Osterman, describing many non-textual features of the documents with generous inclusion of woodcuts from the printings. Finally, there are two introductions by Henrike Lähnemann and Howard Jones, introducing the many distinctive features of early modern printing that might make reading the German text difficult for non-native readers. Lähnemann describes the many printing marks that accompany the texts and were meant to guide reading, while Jones provides an introduction to the relevant differences between early modern and modern German. Without this introduction, phrases like “der ablasz nympt nycht hynn das erst adder ander teyll” may be impenetrable to many readers.
For most readers, little needs to be said about the 95 Theses or their importance in the history of Christianity. Some comments on the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace and its historical value, though, are in order. Luther’s Theses were set forward as points to be debated, and so require interpretation. In order to prevent misunderstanding and supply his own interpretation to the Theses then in circulation, Luther wrote the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace. The Sermon provides an accessible—but still theological—reflection on the main themes of the Theses. Luther discusses the natures of penance and satisfaction, the status of canon law, and the worthlessness of indulgences in Christian life. The Sermon, then, is the Theses in extrapolated, interpreted form. The Sermon provides important context for Luther’s pithy statements in the Theses and helps to frame Luther’s early thoughts on the matter in a clearer, more publicly accessible way. For that reason, the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace can be an important preface to the study of the Theses, and the inclusion of it in this edition of the Theses is welcome.
The value of this text is amplified further by its surprisingly reasonable price. This volume of the “Treasures of the Taylorian” sells for less than ten dollars, and the text itself (in facsimile edition, transcription, and translation) can be accessed at editions.mml.ox.ac.uk free of charge. The publisher also provides a printable pamphlet facsimile of the Sermon, as well as a podcast reading of the text, for free. This is an incredibly useful, even generous, offering from the Bodleian Library. This volume could be very useful for classroom instruction on Luther’s Theses, offering the opportunity for students to read the texts closely at a very affordable price and with some minimal guiding annotations.
Gerhard Stübben is a doctoral student in Church History at Baylor University.
Date Of Review:
November 6, 2018
Howard Jones is Lecturer in Linguistics at Keble College, Oxford.
Martin Keßler is Professor of Theology at the University of Göttingen.
Henrike Lähnemann is Chair and Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at the University of Oxford.
Martin Luther (born November 10, 1483, Eisleben, Saxony [Germany]—died February 18, 1546, Eisleben), German theologian and religious reformer who was the catalyst of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
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