I’ll have to do some research to find more contemporary rebuttals of Luther’s 95 thesis. But there is the original rebuttal made on June 15, 1520 by Pope Leo X. This was a papal encyclical entitled Exsurge Domine. This document outlined the Magisterium of the Catholic Church’s findings of where Luther had erred.
In reading over Luther’s list I find my self smiling. It’s mostly strawman arguments and pontificating or posturing on what the Church should teach as a priority and ranting. But I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he ORIGINALLY said since he clearly loved Catholicism and was at one time quite orthodox.
Luther simply saw many opportunities for abuses in indulgences just like many other Catholics of his time did. But that does not mean that these abuses were widespread or what were being taught. Many of his complaints are just pious and well intended opinions that are “ok” and can’t even be really debated in some instances. Luther is actually making in many cases a lot of very positive Orthodox Catholic statements that actual profoundly refute many modern Protestant concept of sola fide. For example Luther advocates the necessity of punishment rather than laxity of purchased indulgences (by coin or by relational favors) so that one may suffer in due sorrow for their sins more sincerely. I tend to personally agree with some of his points of view - they are well intended common sense. The problem is what Luther started out with he later overturned and rapidly changed his theology and bent it in all new ways that eventually get to sola fide and completely away from penance! Luther’s revolution defeats his own original thesis and makes penance not really ever needed as long as one simply believes in Christ sincerely. It’s as if the man had a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde change in teaching from that first day at Wittenberg to when he gets into his stride and later refutes his own initial complaints and teachings with all new ideas never before seen in Christianity.
Here look at this - this is actually quite admirable Catholic pious insight that Luther originally had:
40 True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].
41 Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
Ignore for the moment the pompous attitude/tone in Luther’s 95 thesis where he comes across as talking down to his fellow clerics and his superior bishops. See that Item 40 is a valid complaint about how there is a danger in permitting purchased indulgences since abuses can short circuit the necessity for conforming to the more traditional Catholic deep penance disciplines. This is very Catholic and I can admire his concerns. But hardly any modern Protestant (except some Calvinists) would agree with this today. Yet it was a straw-man since the Church never taught that one could buy themselves out of doing penance with an “easier indulgence” or special grant by a high ranking bishop. If that was going on it in some cases then it was definately wrong and Luther was right in pointing it out (to his superiors only). But certainly some wealthy laity no doubt imagined they could so exactly what Luther was concerned about - buy themselves into remission of all temporal debts. Luther was simply parroting the popular sentiments of some of the laity he came into contact with (or the complaints of the peasants who could not afford the fast track to penance that they imagined the wealthy were gaining) and was preaching to the choir. The whole Protestant uprising is a tragedy since it’s clear to me that it was more based on misperceptions about what the Church actually taught and on misperceptions of spiritual inequities among the Christian social classes (lords and indentured workers) than against any real Catholic teachings.
I would say for example that Luther’s Item 41 is dead on good advice - it speaks of charity as a necessary element in sanctification that should not be circumvented by papal or bishop indults, pardons and the like. But Luther goes on years later to reject charitable works - even calling them evil and a sign of one who is practising demonic doctrines. Go figure… But again - what Catholic would debate the truth of the necessity of charitable works? It’s a strawman and just preaching to the choir again. Luther was clearly at one time a man who had a pretty well formed Catholic conscience and was concerned that indulgences were corrupting the necessity for each soul to repent and do penance. But its also clear in retrospect that these thesis were just tossed up to grandstand and to enter into academic debate so as to elevate Luther beyond his own stature to gain more ear from the Bishop and from Rome. He wanted to teach the teachers what Dr. Luther would want to teach. I think its also fair to say that Luther attempted to force the Church to give up its leadership structure and force the Church to use a democratic process to form its theology. This was the gravest error of Luther’s – and Luther was not even a good theologian (only 2 years of training) and tried to compensate with his talents as an orator and hyperbolist. Everything he did can be seen to be an attempt to dis-empower the clerical authority and give it over to a democratic form of control (e.g. sola scriptura and sola fide). Luther may have started off with good intentions but he quickly got corrupted and completely changed his own theology to keep himself in power through popular appeal at a time when the common man wanted to cast off all authority. Tragic…