Friday, October 31, 2008

Luther on Indulgences

The nails slam into the already splintered wood as Luther hammers his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door on this day in 1517. In this now symbolic beginning to the Reformation, Luther rails against the selling of indulgences by the pope. Two of his theses read

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.
In 1547, in response to the aspersions of Duke Henry of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Luther put pen to paper and commented on the indulgence controversy:
When people were writing the year 1517, a preaching friar by the name of John Tetzel, a loudmouthed fellow, happened to appear on the scene. Duke Frederick had previously saved him from the bag in Innsbruck; for Maximilian had condemned him to death by drowning in the river Inn (because of his great virtue, you may well imagine). And Duke Frederick had this matter called to his [Tetzel's] attention when he began to slander us Wittenbergers. Tetzel, moreover, freely confessed the affair. This same Tetzel, then, carried indulgences about and sold grace for money, as expensively or cheaply as he could by the exertion of all his powers. At that time I was a preacher here in the monastery and a young doctor, brand-new (neulich aus der Esse kommen), fervent and zealous (hitzig und lustig) in Holy Scripture.

Then, when many people of Wittenberg ran to Jütterbock and Zerbst, etc., for indulgences, and I (as truly as my Lord Christ has redeemed me) did not know what these indulgences were, as indeed no one knew, I began to preach gently that one could do something better, something that would be more certain than the buying of indulgences. Such a sermon against indulgences I had previously delivered here in the castle and had earned poor grace with Duke Frederick, for he loved his foundation very dearly. But, to come to the real cause of the Lutheran disturbance, I let everything go on the way it was going. Meanwhile I hear that Tetzel preached terrible, horrible articles, of which I now will name a few, to wit:

That he had such a grant of authority from the pope that even though a man had violated and impregnated the holy virgin Mary, the mother of God, he could forgive it if the man deposited a fitting sum in the money chest.
Likewise, that the red cross of indulgences, bearing the papal arms, was as mighty as the cross of Christ when it was set up in church.

Likewise, that if St. Peter were present, he would have no greater grace and authority than he had.

Likewise, that he had no desire to change places with Peter in heaven; for he had saved more souls with indulgences than St. Peter had saved with his preaching.

Likewise, that when a man deposited money in the chest for a soul in purgatory, the soul left purgatory for heaven as soon as the coin touched, and tinkled at, the bottom of the chest.

Likewise, that the grace of indulgences is the very grace whereby man becomes reconciled to God.

Likewise, that it would be unnecessary to have remorse or sorrow or repentance for sin if a man bought (I should say redeemed) indulgences or letters of indulgence; and he also sold pardon for future sin. He urged this matter with horrible insistence, and it was all done for the sake of money.

However, I did not know at that time for whom the money was intended. Then a booklet came out, beautifully adorned with the arms of the Bishop of Mayence, in which the peddlers were commanded to preach some of these articles. Then it appeared that Bishop Albert had hired this man Tetzel because he was a great crier. For Albert had been elected bishop at Mayence with the agreement that he himself was to buy (redeem, I say) the pallium at Rome. Three bishops had recently died at Mayence in close succession - Berthold, James, and Uriel - so that purchasing the pallium so often and at such close intervals was probably burdensome to the bishopric. It is said to amount to 26,000 some say 30,000, gulden. At a price so steep the holy father at Rome is able to sell flax thread (which otherwise is scarcely worth six pennies)!

The bishop, then, devised this trick and planned to pay the Fuggers (for they had advanced the money) for the pallium from the purse of the common man. So he sent this great thresher of purse into countries. He threshed away lustily indeed, so that money began to fall, to spring, and to clang into the chest in piles. At the same time, however, Tetzel did not forget himself. But the pope, too, had kept his finger in the pie; half of the money collected was to go toward the erection of St. Peter's Church at Rome. So these fellows went to work with joy and great expectations, went to threshing and pounding purses. This, I say, I did not know at the time.

Then I wrote a letter with the Propositions to the Bishop of Magdeburg, admonishing and beseeching him to stop Tetzel and to prevent the preaching of such unfit things, because it might develop into a scandal, and as archbishop it behooved him to act in this way. I can still produce this letter. But I received no answer. I wrote the same thing to the Bishop of Brandenburg, who was the ordinary. He had been a very gracious bishop to me. In his reply he said that I was attacking the power of the church and would get myself in trouble; he advised me to keep my hands off. I can well imagine that both of them thought the pope would be much too strong for me, a miserable beggar.

So my Propositions went forth against the articles of Tetzel, as may be seen from their printed form. In fourteen days they actually passed through all Germany; for all the world was complaining about indulgences, especially about the articles of Tetzel. But all the bishops and doctors remained silent, and no one wanted to bell the cat. For the grand inquisitors of the preaching orders had driven all the world into fear with the threat of fire, and Tetzel himself had corralled several priests who had muttered against his impertinent preaching. Then Luther was extolled as a doctor; finally, it was said, someone had come who came to grips with this matter. I did not relish this glory, for (as said) I myself did not know what the indulgences really were, and the song threatened to be too high for my voice. This is the first, the true, and the real beginning of the "Lutheran disturbance." ...If it developed into a disturbance that hurts the papists, they have to thank themselves for it. Why did they handle the mater so foolishly and clumsily? ...To this day they do not cease, as blinded, hardened, senseless fools, to handle the matter as if they insisted on going to ruin. The wrath of God has come over them, as they deserved. (W 51, 538 f - E 26, 68 f - SL 17, 1357)

Quoted from What Luther Says (St Louis: CPH, 1959) 1172-1174.

photo credit: pe_ma

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