Sometime during October 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a bulletin board for various announcements related to academic and church affairs. The theses were written in Latin and printed on a folio sheet by the printer John Gruenenberg, one of the many entrepreneurs in the new print medium first used in Germany about 1450. Luther was calling for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” He did so as a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, a small, virtually unknown institution in a small town.
Some copies of the theses were sent to friends and church officials, but the disputation never took place. Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, sent the theses to some theologians whose judgment moved him to send a copy to Rome and demand action against Luther. By the early months of 1518, the theses had been reprinted in many cities, and Luther’s name had become associated with demands for radical change in the church. He had become front-page news.
The Issue of Indulgences
Why? Luther was calling for a debate on the most neuralgic issue of his time: the relationship between money and religion. “Indulgences” (from the Latin indulgentia—permit) had become the complex instruments for granting forgiveness of sins. The granting of forgiveness in the sacrament of penance was based on the “power of the keys” given to the apostles according to Matthew 16:18, and was used to discipline sinners.
The first known use of plenary indulgences was in 1095 when Pope Urban II remitted all penance of persons who participated in the crusades and who confessed their sins. Later, the indulgences were also offered to those who couldn’t go on the Crusades but offered cash contributions to the effort instead. In the early 1200s, the Church began claiming that it had a “treasury” of indulgences (consisting of the merits of Christ and the saints) that it could dispense in ways that promoted the Church and its mission. In a decretal issued in 1343, Pope Clement VI declared, “The merits of Christ are a treasure of indulgences.”
In Luther’s time, the pope delegated the privilege of dispensing indulgences. The Castle Church in Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, was delegated the rare privilege granting full remission of all sins. Frederick the Wise, elector for the region of the Holy Roman Empire that included Wittenberg, took pride in a large collection of relics (over 19,000 holy bones and 5,000 other items*) of saints that supposedly provided the basis for granting indulgences that could reduce stays in purgatory by over 1.9 million years. These treasures were made available to believers on All Saints Day, November 1. By viewing the relics and making the stipulated contribution, the believer could reduce a stay and purgatory while providing much needed financial support for Castle Church and the University of Wittenberg.
Leo X, the pope in 1517, needed funds to complete the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Leo entered into an arrangement that essentially sold indulgence franchises that allowed the franchisee to retain about half the funds raised by selling indulgences in return for sending to Rome the other half for Leo’s construction project. To encourage indulgence sales, Albert of Brandenburg, one winner of the privilege of selling indulgences, advertised that his indulgences (issued by the pope) came with a complete remission of sins, allowing escape from all of the pains of purgatory. Moreover, Albert claimed, purchasers of indulgences could use them to free a loved one already dead from the pains of purgatory that he or she might presently be experiencing. The going rate for an indulgence depended on one’s station, and ranged from 25 gold florins for Kings and queens and archbishops down to three florins for merchants and just one quarter florin for the poorest of believers.
In proclaiming the special indulgence offered by Albert of Brandenburg, indulgence vendor John Tetzel promoted it with a sermon that included a jingle of his own creation: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel made his way through Germany, entering towns as part of a procession that included local dignitaries, a cross bearing the papal arms, and the papal bull of indulgence carried on a velvet cushion. In the marketplace of each town, Tetzel would offer this sermon:
Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you. Have you considered that you are lashed in a furious tempest amid the temptations and dangers of the world, and that you do not know whether you can reach the haven, not of your mortal body, but of your immortal soul? Consider that those who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay the promised glory?” Remember that you are able to release them, for as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and mortal soul into the fatherland of paradise? [Bainton, pp. 60-61]
As Luther biographer Roland Bainton observed, Tetzel’s sermon “marked the apex of unbridled pretensions as to the efficacy of indulgences.” Although Pope Sixtus IV had offered immediate release to souls in purgatory, Tetzel dispensed with the previously imposed condition that the purchasers of the indulgences for the dead demonstrate their own contrition. As Luther saw it, no human can know whether the remission of sins for any individual is complete, because complete remission comes only to those who show worthy contrition and confession–and worthiness is known only to God.
Luther summarized his objections in the form of ninety-five theses for debate. The 95 Theses denounced the promise of springing souls from purgatory on the basis of a monetary contribution alone to the Church. Moreover, Luther challenged the right of a pope to grant pardons on God’s behalf. The power of pardon, Luther believed, was God’s alone. If, indeed, the pope had the power he claimed, Luther asked why he didn’t simply exercise it: “If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?” Luther’s complaints also went to the Church’s justification for promoting contributions. He complained about “the revenues of all Christendom being sucked into this insatiable basilica” when there were much greater needs, including “living temples” and local churches.
The scandalous use of indulgences in the 1500s led directly to Martin Luther’s attacks on Catholic doctrine and, ultimately, the Protestant Reformation which changed the cultural and political face of Europe.
Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.
In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
- Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
- This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
- Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.
- The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
- The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.
- The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
- God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
- The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
- Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
- Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
- This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.
- In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.
- The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.
- The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.
- This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.
- Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
- With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.
- It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.
- Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.
- Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.
- Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
- Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
- If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
- It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.
- The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.
- The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.
- They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
- It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
- Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
- No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.
- Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
- They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
- Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;
- For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.
- They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
- Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
- Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.
- Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.
- It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.
- 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].
- Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.
- Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.
- Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
- Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
- 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.
- Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
- Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
- Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.
- Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
- Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.
- Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
- The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
- They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
- Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
- 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.
- The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.
- That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.
- Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.
- St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
- Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ’s merit, are that treasure;
- For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.
- The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
- But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
- On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
- Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.
- The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
- The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.
- Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.
- Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.
- But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.
- He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!
- But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!
- The pope justly thunders against those who, by any