Reformation Context (Part 14): The Issue of Indulgences

The issue of the Roman Catholic indulgence is well-known as the occasion which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s own opposition to it in the form of the Ninety-Five Theses began a series of debates, conversations, and theological thoughts which ultimately led to one of the greatest changes/divisions in church history. But to really grapple with the significance of this issue we must understand the nature of an indulgence and Luther’s exact issue with it in further detail. Once again, the simplistic explanations do not do justice to the total picture of Luther’s disdain for the indulgence.

The year was 1517 and the Roman church was broke. Between religious wars and massive building projects there was no money left in the bank. Pope Leo X devised, however, a brilliant marketing plan to rebuild the coffers: the indulgence. Indulgences themselves date much further back, predating even the Crusades. Indulgences were certificates given by the church which guaranteed the purchaser (or a beneficiary) some specifically designated time off in purgatory, a reduction in temporal punishment. Of particular importance was the Plenary Indulgence, which granted the recipient complete remission of punishment and sin. Only the Pope himself could offer such an indulgence, but when Albercht of Brandenburg worked out a deal with the Pope the Plenary Indulgence was granted to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Luther was, first and foremost, a pastor. His concern with indulgences was not a matter simply of academic interest, it was the burden of a pastor for his congregation. Not only did indulgences seem to be taking money from the poor, but the very idea that you could buy God’s forgiveness was a horror to Luther. The monk had been going through something of his own theological crisis and his beliefs, particularly about baptism, were dramatically changing. As those beliefs changes they began to impact his overall view of soteriology. He was beginning to question many related issues, and in his own studies he could not see how the selling of indulgences meshed with the authority of the church, the gravity of sin, and the costliness of grace. He was deeply concerned that selling indulgences was misleading his congregants in their relationship with God.

Luther saw the sale of indulgences as both a cheapening of grace and the offer of a false sense of security. Carl Trueman explains:

Having concluded that God’s grace was so costly that only the death and resurrection fo the Son of God himself could deal with the human dilemma of death in sin, and only total despair of oneself and consequent humility before God were sufficient to meet the conditions of the pactum, Luther inevitably saw the cash transactions…as cheapening grace. More than that … [they offered] false security to people; and as Luther’s parishioners crossed the river into the neighboring territory of Ducal Saxony where the Dominican salesman was plying his trade, Luther would inevitably have to take a stand. (Luther on the Christian Life, 38)

Albrect entrusted the sale of these indulgences to a friar named John Tetzel. Tetzel was a crass man, but he was a good salesman. He was able to drive up sales of indulgences through his use of jingles like: As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul in purgatory springs. Even if you had raped the Virgin Mary, he said, his indulgences could grant remission of sin. His pitches worked.

Luther first raised concern over indulgences in a sermon on Easter in 1517, months before the 95 Theses. It was in the Theses, however, that he made his most formal and pronounced critiques. We will explore these theses in a later post. The significant issue at hand, however, is Luther’s overall concern about indulgences. He was not opposes to all indulgences, at least not initially. In fact, there has been some suggestion that Luther preached a favorable sermon on them as early as January 1517 (see Wengert, “Martin Luther’s Preaching an Indulgence in January 1517”). His issue was with what he determined to be an abuse of indulgences. His critique centered around the detachment of God’s grace from humility.

The soteriological system of the Roman Catholic Church at that time had argued that God gives grace to those who make their best effort at obedience and piety. God gives grace to those who “do what is in them.” In Luther’s own theological studies, however, he was beginning to see things quite differently. He had come to understand that the only thin man could do within himself was to despair of any good within himself. Complete humility was the position of those who would receive grace from God. His issue with indulgences, then, is that they lacked any humility. If one could merely buy grace then humility was not required. From Luther’s perspective Tetzel’s indulgence sale was a con, it was assuring people of a security that could not be offered apart from humility and despair.

Luther’s views on indulgences would, obviously, continue to shift. So, too, would his views on grace. For while his emphasis on humility is a significant shift, it is still just shy of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith. Yet, even at this initial stage of his theological development, Luther is already preparing the soil for a serious conflict with the church. As Carl Trueman explains:

In a sense, the details are no longer important: the precise issues and practices to which Luther was reacting have long since vanished. What is important is the theology on which these theses were built: the theology of humility and the costliness of grace. Though Luther probably did not realize it at the time, these struck at the heart of the medieval sacramental system and thus at the authority of the church. In criticizing indulgences, Luther also did what is always guaranteed to precipitate a reaction: he hit the church where it hurts most, in her revenue department. (38-39)

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