Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Origins of the Reformation Narrative

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With the quincentenary of the German Reformation now upon us, it is worth revisiting how, and why, the posting of the 95 theses emerged as such a defining moment in the Reformation story. It is easy to understand why it has assumed pride of place in modern histories. What is less easy to understand, however, is why the theses-posting emerged as the critical moment in the early modern accounts, for there were many other moments with even more drama and proximate significance for the Reformation. Moreover, the posting of theses had little shock-value at the time. Many professors posted academic theses, many reform-minded Christians had questioned indulgences, and many high-profile German intellectuals had written at least one critical piece against Rome. The following article begins with a survey of the origins of Reformation history and traces the incorporation of the theses-posting into the narrative stream. The second section examines the reasons why this act remained so prominent in the Lutheran memory during the two centuries after the Reformation by relating it to a broader analytical framework and sense of self-perception. The final section examines the process of reinterpretation that occurred during the period of late Lutheran Orthodoxy and the early Enlightenment, when scholars started to revisit the episode and sketch out the features of the modern view. The broader aim is to demonstrate how historical conditions can shape historical facts, even when those facts were bound to something as seemingly idealistic as the origins of a new Church.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533
Number of pages37
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number556
Early online date02 Aug 2017
Publication statusEarly online date - 02 Aug 2017


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