Augustinians vs. Dominicans: Were the 95 Theses Just Infighting Between Monks?

Drew Thomas

Luther as a monk
Augustinian monk, Martin Luther

Although often portrayed as a quickly unfolding event, it took a number of years for the Protestant Reformation to transform the religious and political identities of Europe. Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences in 1517. He wasn’t declared a heretic and excommunicated until four years later in 1521.

During that time many people debated Luther’s ideas. But as with any great controversy, there is always more than meets the eye. Although it was primarily a theological controversy, there were other layers of controversy as well. Dominican monks in Luther’s area first understood his Theses not as a theological argument, but as an attack against their order.

The Dominican Order was a religious order of monks and nuns founded by St. Dominic in the 1200s. Officially known as the Order of Preachers, St. Dominic created the community to preach the Gospel and to combat heresy.

Luther was not a Dominican monk. He was a member of a different religious order known as the Augustinians. The Order of St. Augustine was named after Augustine of Hippo who was a bishop in Northern Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries. In the thirteenth century the many religious communities following the Rule of Augustine were formally organized into a religious order.

The Dominicans in Saxony were offended when Luther attacked indulgences, as the Dominicans were the designated preachers of indulgences. Luther was the district vicar of the Augustinians and head of eleven monasteries in the surrounding area. Thus, the Dominicans saw Luther’s attack as an attack by the Augustinians against their Order.

Johann Tetzel
Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel

Luther famously singled out Johann Tetzel, a Dominican, in his criticism of indulgence preaching. He claimed Tetzel was giving believers false hopes and persuading them to put their trust in indulgences. Tetzel was the High Commissioner of Indulgences and also an inquisitor. By speaking out against the indulgence preachers, Luther was by default speaking out against Dominicans.

The Dominicans did not take kindly to this and were some of the first to respond to Luther. The Dominican faculty and students at the university in Frankfurt an der Oder, where Tetzel earned his degrees, were some of Luther’s first critics. Furthermore, it was Dominicans in the church hierarchy that were the ones entrusted with officially responding to Luther.

Cardinal Cajetan, an Italian Dominican, was designated as the papal legate to deal with the Luther affair. Cajetan was also the head of the entire Dominican Order. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1518 he met privately with Luther to examine him and question him on his teachings.

Sylvester Mazzolini, known as Prierias, was another Dominican involved in the Church’s response to Luther. He was specifically tasked with drawing up the Church’s legal case for pursuing charges against Luther. It was he and other Dominicans in Rome that persuaded Cardinal d’Medici to convince Pope Leo X to have Luther’s superior, formally censure him.

Prierias was also the official who wrote Luther’s summons to Rome. However, many of Luther’s supporters feared for his safety if he left Germany. Furthermore, no one thought that Luther, a German Augustinian monk, would get a fair trial in front of a panel of Italian Dominican monks. Due to this monastic infighting, Luther ended up instead testifying before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he was declared a heretic and outlaw.