What lead to Luther calling for debate and writing the 95 Theses? Certainly the sale of indulgences in his home-region was an influencing factor. The fact that notices of disputations and debates that were put on the castle-church door were often circulated meant that Luther’s Theses, if they were actually put on the door, took hold and got passed around!
“When [Pope] Leo X (1475-1521) proclaimed a plenary ‘Peter’s indulgence’ in 1515, the stated reason was to raise money to rebuild the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome – the Renaissance result of which may still be seen today. It is true that half of the money raised was to go to the Augsburg banking family, the Fuggers, in order to pay a debt owed by the archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545), who had used the loan to pay Rome for the right to hold multiple sees (including archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the diocese of Halberstadt) upon his accession to the see in Mainz. Canon (ecclesiastical) law forbade the holding of multiple offices (in this case, three bishoprics), for which an exemption needed to be purchased.” (The Roots of Reform, p.17)
“Albrecht first turned to the Franciscans to proclaim this indulgence but finally settled on the well-known Dominican, Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), an indulgence commissioner who then worked with other functionaries in selling the individual letters. In preparation for preaching of this indulgence, Albrecht’s court theologians prepared a booklet, the Instructio Summaria [Summary Instruction], which described the limits and benefits of this indulgence for potential preachers. This included threats to any who impeded preaching this indulgence, the invalidation of previous indulgences, the necessity for building St Peter’s in Rome, the promise of complete remission of all temporal penalties here and in purgatory, the sliding scale of payment depending on one’s station. Some of Luther’s objections in the 95 Theses arose from this source.” (ibid, p.18)
In thesis number 15, the association of terror with the punishment of purgatory, already found among German mystics like Johannes Tauler (c.1300-1361), is central to Luther’s experience of the cross and attacks on his faith. (ibid, p.36)
13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
14. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.