CHAPTER III. THE GERMAN REFORMATION FROM THE PUBLICATION OF LUTHER’S THESES TO THE DIET OF WORMS, a.d. 1517–1521. § 30. The Sale of Indulgences. St. Peter’s Dome is at once the glory and the shame of papal Rome. It was built over the bones of the Galilaean fisherman, with the proceeds from the sale of indulgences which broke up the unity of Western Christendom. The magnificent structure was begun in 1506 under Pope Julius II., and completed in 1626 at a cost of forty-six millions scudi, and is kept up at an annual expense of thirty thousand scudi (dollars).174
Jesus began his public ministry with the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the court of the temple. The Reformation began with a protest against the traffic in indulgences which profaned and degraded the Christian religion.
The difficult and complicated doctrine of indulgences is peculiar to the Roman Church. It was unknown to the Greek and Latin fathers. It was developed by the mediaeval schoolmen, and sanctioned by the Council of Trent (Dec. 4, 1563), yet without a definition and with an express warning against abuses and evil gains.175
In the legal language of Rome, indulgentia is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment. In ecclesiastical Latin, an indulgence means the remission of the temporal (not the eternal) punishment of sin (not of sin itself), on condition of penitence and the payment of money to the church or to some charitable object. It maybe granted by a bishop or archbishop within his diocese, while the Pope has the power to grant it to all Catholics. The practice of indulgences grew out of a custom of the Northern and Western barbarians to substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offense. The church favored this custom in order to avoid bloodshed, but did wrong in applying it to religious offenses. Who touches money touches dirt; and the less religion has to do with it, the better. The first instances of such pecuniary compensations occurred in England under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (d. 690). The practice rapidly spread on the Continent, and was used by the Popes during and after the crusades as a means of increasing their power. It was justified and reduced to a theory by the schoolmen, especially by Thomas Aquinas, in close connection with the doctrine of the sacrament of penance and priestly absolution.176
The sacrament of penance includes three elements,—contrition of the heart, confession by the mouth (to the priest), and satisfaction by good works, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimages, all of which are supposed to have an atoning efficacy. God forgives only the eternal punishment of sin, and he alone can do that; but the sinner has to bear the temporal punishments, either in this life or in purgatory; and these punishments are under the control of the church or the priesthood, especially the Pope as its legitimate head. There are also works of supererogation, performed by Christ and by the saints, with corresponding extra-merits and extra-rewards; and these constitute a rich treasury from which the Pope, as the treasurer, can dispense indulgences for money. This papal power of dispensation extends even to the departed souls in purgatory, whose sufferings may thereby be abridged. This is the scholastic doctrine.
The granting of indulgences degenerated, after the time of the crusades, into a regular traffic, and became a source of ecclesiastical and monastic wealth. A good portion of the profits went into the papal treasury. Boniface VIII. issued the first Bull of the jubilee indulgence to all visitors of St. Peter’s in Rome (1300). It was to be confined to Rome, and to be repeated only once in a hundred years, but it was afterwards extended and multiplied as to place and time.
The idea of selling and buying by money the remission of punishment and release from purgatory was acceptable to ignorant and superstitious people, but revolting to sound moral feeling. It roused, long before Luther, the indignant protest of earnest minds, such as Wiclif in England, Hus in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, Thomas Wyttenbach in Switzerland, but without much effect.
The Lateran Council of 1517 allowed the Pope to collect one-tenth of all the ecclesiastical property of Christendom, ostensibly for a war against the Turks; but the measure was carried only by a small majority of two or three votes, and the minority objected that there was no immediate prospect of such a war. The extortions of the Roman curia became an intolerable burden to Christendom, and produced at last a successful protest which cost the papacy the loss of its fairest possessions.
§ 31. Luther and Tetzel. I. On the Indulgence controversy: Luther’s Works, Walch’s ed., XV. 3–462; Weim. ed. I. 229–324. Löscher: Reformations-Acta. Leipzig, 1720. Vol. I. 355–539. J. Kapp: Schauplatz des Tetzelschen Ablass-krams. Leipzig, 1720. Jürgens: Luther, Bd. III. Kahnis: Die d. Ref., I. 18 1 sqq. Köstlin I. 153 sqq. Kolde, I. 126 sqq. On the Roman-Catholic side, Janssen: Geschichte, etc., II. 64 sqq.; 77 sqq.; and An meine Kritiker, Freiburg-i.-B., 1883, pp. 66–81.—On the editions of the Theses, compare Knaake, in the Weimar ed. I. 229 sqq.
Edw. Bratke: Luther’s 95 Thesen und ihre dogmengesch. Voraussetzungen. Göttingen, 1884 (pp. 333). Gives an account of the scholastic doctrine of indulgences from Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas down to Prierias and Cajetan, an exposition of Luther’s Theses, and a list of books on the subject. A. W. Dieckhoff (of Rostock): Der Ablassstreit. Dogmengeschichtlich dargestellt. Gotha, 1886 (pp. 260).
II. On Tetzel in particular: (1) Protestant biographies and tracts, all very unfavorable. (a) Older works by G. Hecht: Vita Joh. Tetzeli. Wittenberg, 1717. Jac. Vogel: Leben des päpstlichen Gnadenpredigers und Ablasskrämers Tetzel. Leipzig, 1717, 2d ed., 1727. (b) Modern works: F. G. Hofmann: Lebensbeschreibung des Ablasspredigers Tetzel. Leipzig, 1844. Dr. Kayser: Geschichtsquellen über Den Ablasspred. Tetzel Kritisch Beleuchtet. Annaberg, 1877 (pp. 20). Dr. Ferd. Körner: Tetzel, der Ablassprediger, etc. Frankenberg-i.-S. 1880 (pp. 153; chiefly against Gröne). Compare also Bratke and Dieckhoff, quoted above.
(2) Roman-Catholic vindications of Tetzel by Val. Gröne (Dr. Th.): Tetzel und Luther, oder Lebensgesch. und Rechtfertigung des Ablasspredigers und Inquisitors Dr. Joh. Tetzel aus dem Predigerorden. Soest und Olpe, 1853, 2d ed. 1860 (pp. 237). E. Kolbe: P. Joh. Tetzel. Ein Lebensbild dem kathol. Volke gewidmet. Steyl, 1882 (pp. 98, based on Gröne). K. W. Hermann: Joh. Tetzel, der päpstl. Ablassprediger. Frankf. -a.-M., 2te Aufl. 1883 (pp. 152). Janssen: An meine Kritiker, p. 73 sq. G. A. Meijer, Ord. Praed. (Dominican): Johann Tetzel, Aflaatprediker en inquisiteur. Eene geschiedkundige studie. Utrecht, 1885 (pp. 150). A calm and moderate vindication of Tetzel, with the admission (p. 137) that the last word on the question has not yet been spoken, and that we must wait for the completion of the Regesta of Leo X. and other authentic publications now issuing from the Vatican archives by direction of Leo XIII. But the main facts are well established. The rebuilding of St. Peter’s Church in Rome furnished an occasion for the periodical exercise of the papal power of granting indulgences. Julius II. and Leo X., two of the most worldly, avaricious, and extravagant Popes, had no scruple to raise funds for that object, and incidentally for their own aggrandizement, from the traffic in indulgences. Both issued several bulls to that effect.177
Spain, England, and France ignored or resisted these bulls for financial reasons, refusing to be taxed for the benefit of Rome. But Germany, under the weak rule of Maximilian, yielded to the papal domination.
Leo divided Germany into three districts, and committed in 1515 the sale for one district to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, and brother of the Elector of Brandenburg.178
This prelate (born June 28, 1490, died Sept. 24, 1545), though at that time only twenty-five years of age, stood at the head of the German clergy, and was chancellor of the German Empire. He received also the cardinal’s hat in 1518. He was, like his Roman master, a friend of liberal learning and courtly splendor, worldly-minded, and ill fitted for the care of souls. He had the ambition to be the Maecenas of Germany. He was himself destitute of theological education, but called scholars, artists, poets, free-thinkers, to his court, and honored Erasmus and Ulrich von Hutten with presents and pensions. "He had a passionate love for music," says an Ultramontane historian, "and imported musicians from Italy to give luster to his feasts, in which ladies often participated. Finely wrought carpets, splendid mirrors adorned his halls and chambers; costly dishes and wines covered his table. He appeared in public with great pomp; he kept a body-guard of one hundred and fifty armed knights; numerous courtiers in splendid attire followed him when he rode out; he was surrounded by pages who were to learn in his presence the refinement of cavaliers." The same Roman-Catholic historian censures the extravagant court of Pope Leo X., which set the example for the secularization and luxury of the prelates in Germany.179
Albrecht was largely indebted to the rich banking-house of Fugger in Augsburg, from whom he had borrowed thirty thousand florins in gold to pay for the papal pallium. By an agreement with the Pope, he had permission to keep half of the proceeds arising from the sale of indulgences. The agents of that commercial house stood behind the preachers of indulgence, and collected their share for the repayment of the loan.
The Archbishop appointed Johann Tetzel (Diez) of the Dominican order, his commissioner, who again employed his sub-agents.
Tetzel was born between 1450 and 1460, at Leipzig, and began his career as a preacher of indulgences in 1501. He became famous as a popular orator and successful hawker of indulgences. He was prior of a Dominican convent, doctor of philosophy, and papal inquisitor (haereticae pravitatis inquisitor). At the end of 1517 he acquired in the University of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder the degree of Licentiate of Theology, and in January, 1518, the degree of Doctor of Theology, by defending, in two disputations, the doctrine of indulgences against Luther.180 He died at Leipzig during the public debate between Eck and Luther, July, 1519. He is represented by Protestant writers as an ignorant, noisy, impudent, and immoral charlatan, who was not ashamed to boast that he saved more souls from purgatory by his letters of indulgence than St. Peter by his preaching.181 On the other hand, Roman Catholic historians defend him as a learned and zealous servant of the church. He has only an incidental notoriety, and our estimate of his character need not affect our views on the merits of the Reformation. We must judge him from his published sermons and anti-theses against Luther. They teach neither more nor less than the usual scholastic doctrine of indulgences based on an extravagant theory of papal authority. He does not ignore, as is often asserted, the necessity of repentance as a condition of absolution.182 But he probably did not emphasize it in practice, and gave rise by unguarded expressions to damaging stories. His private character was certainly tainted, if we are to credit such a witness as the papal nuncio, Carl von Miltitz, who had the best means of information, and charged him with avarice, dishonesty, and sexual immorality.183
Tetzel traveled with great pomp and circumstance through Germany, and recommended with unscrupulous effrontery and declamatory eloquence the indulgences of the Pope to the large crowds who gathered from every quarter around him. He was received like a messenger from heaven. Priests, monks, and magistrates, men and women, old and young, marched in solemn procession with songs, flags, and candles, under the ringing of bells, to meet him and his fellow-monks, and followed them to the church; the papal Bull on a velvet cushion was placed on the high altar, a red cross with a silken banner bearing the papal arms was erected before it, and a large iron chest was put beneath the cross for the indulgence money. Such chests are still preserved in many places. The preachers, by daily sermons, hymns, and processions, urged the people, with extravagant laudations of the Pope’s Bull, to purchase letters of indulgence for their own benefit, and at the same time played upon their sympathies for departed relatives and friends whom they might release from their sufferings in purgatory "as soon as the penny tinkles in the box."184
The common people eagerly embraced this rare offer of salvation from punishment, and made no clear distinction between the guilt and punishment of sin; after the sermon they approached with burning candles the chest, confessed their sins, paid the money, and received the letter of indulgence which they cherished as a passport to heaven. But intelligent and pious men were shocked at such scandal. The question was asked, whether God loved money more than justice, and why the Pope, with his command over the boundless treasury of extra-merits, did not at once empty the whole purgatory for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, or build it with his own money.
Tetzel approached the dominions of the Elector of Saxony, who was himself a devout worshiper of relics, and had great confidence in indulgences, but would not let him enter his territory from fear that he might take too much money from his subjects. So Tetzel set up his trade on the border of Saxony, at Jüterbog, a few hours from Wittenberg.185
There he provoked the protest of the Reformer, who had already in the summer of 1516 preached a sermon of warning against trust in indulgences, and had incurred the Elector’s displeasure by his aversion to the whole system, although he himself had doubts about some important questions connected with it.
Luther had experienced the remission of sin as a free gift of grace to be apprehended by a living faith. This experience was diametrically opposed to a system of relief by means of payments in money. It was an irrepressible conflict of principle. He could not be silent when that barter was carried to the very threshold of his sphere of labor. As a preacher, a pastor, and a professor, he felt it to be his duty to protest against such measures: to be silent was to betray his theology and his conscience.
The jealousy between the Augustinian order to which he belonged, and the Dominican order to which Tetzel belonged, may have exerted some influence, but it was certainly very subordinate. A laboring mountain may produce a ridiculous mouse, but no mouse can give birth to a mountain. The controversy with Tetzel (who is not even mentioned in Luther’s Theses) was merely the occasion, but not the cause, of the Reformation: it was the spark which exploded the mine. The Reformation would have come to pass sooner or later, if no Tetzel had ever lived; and it actually did break out in different countries without any connection with the trade in indulgences, except in German Switzerland, where Bernhardin Samson acted the part of Tetzel, but after Zwingli had already begun his reforms.
§ 32. The Ninety-five Theses. Oct. 31, 1517. Lit. in § 31.
After serious deliberation, without consulting any of his colleagues or friends, but following an irresistible impulse, Luther resolved upon a public act of unforeseen consequences. It may be compared to the stroke of the axe with which St. Boniface, seven hundred years before, had cut down the sacred oak, and decided the downfall of German heathenism. He wished to elicit the truth about the burning question of indulgences, which he himself professed not fully to understand at the time, and which yet was closely connected with the peace of conscience and eternal salvation. He chose the orderly and usual way of a learned academic disputation.
Accordingly, on the memorable thirty-first day of October, 1517, which has ever since been celebrated in Protestant Germany as the birthday of the Reformation, at twelve o’clock he affixed (either himself or through another) to the doors of the castle-church at Wittenberg, ninety-five Latin Theses on the subject of indulgences, and invited a public discussion. At the same time he sent notice of the fact to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and to Bishop Hieronymus Scultetus, to whose diocese Wittenberg belonged. He chose the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), because this was one of the most frequented feasts, and attracted professors, students, and people from all directions to the church, which was filled with precious relics.186
No one accepted the challenge, and no discussion took place. The professors and students of Wittenberg were of one mind on the subject. But history itself undertook the disputation and defence. The Theses were copied, translated, printed, and spread as on angels’ wings throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks.187
The rapid circulation of the Reformation literature was promoted by the perfect freedom of the press. There was, as yet, no censorship, no copyright, no ordinary book-trade in the modern sense, and no newspapers; but colportors, students, and friends carried the books and tracts from house to house. The mass of the people could not read, but they listened attentively to readers. The questions of the Reformation were eminently practical, and interested all classes; and Luther handled the highest themes in the most popular style.
The Theses bear the title, "Disputation to explain the Virtue of Indulgences." They sound very strange to a modern ear, and are more Catholic than Protestant. They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse. They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50). They imply belief in purgatory. They nowhere mention Tetzel. They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety. He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. When the Theses were republished in his collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: "I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist (papista insanissimus), and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope."
But after all, they contain the living germs of a new theology. The form only is Romish, the spirit and aim are Protestant. We must read between the lines, and supply the negations of the Theses by the affirmations from his preceding and succeeding books, especially his Resolutiones, in which he answers objections, and has much to say about faith and justification. The Theses represent a state of transition from twilight to daylight. They reveal the mighty working of an earnest mind and conscience intensely occupied with the problem of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and struggling for emancipation from the fetters of tradition. They might more properly be called "a disputation to diminish the virtue of papal indulgences, and to magnify the full and free grace of the gospel of Christ." They bring the personal experience of justification by faith, and direct intercourse with Christ and the gospel, in opposition to an external system of churchly and priestly mediation and human merit. The papal opponents felt the logical drift of the Theses much better than Luther, and saw in them an attempt to undermine the whole fabric of popery. . The irresistible progress of the Reformation soon swept the indulgences away as an unscriptural, mediaeval tradition of men.188
The first Thesis strikes the keynote: "Our Lord and Master when he says, ’Repent,’189 desires that the whole life of believers should be a repentance."190 The corresponding Greek noun means change of mind (metavnoia), and implies both a turning away from sin in sincere sorrow and grief, and a turning to God in hearty faith. Luther distinguishes, in the second Thesis, true repentance from the sacramental penance (i.e., the confession and satisfaction required by the priest), and understands it to be an internal state and exercise of the mind rather than isolated external acts; although he expressly affirms, in the third Thesis, that it must manifest itself in various mortifications of the flesh. Repentance is a continual conflict of the believing spirit with the sinful flesh, a daily renewal of the heart. As long as sin lasts, there is need of repentance. The Pope can not remit any sin except by declaring the remission of God; and he can not remit punishments except those which he or the canons impose (Thes.5 and 6). Forgiveness presupposes true repentance, and can only be found in the merits of Christ. Here comes in the other fundamental Thesis (62): The true treasury of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God." This sets aside the mediaeval notion about the overflowing treasury of extra-merits and rewards at the disposal of the Pope for the benefit of the living and the dead.
We have thus set before us in this manifesto, on the one hand, human depravity which requires lifelong repentance, and on the other the full and free grace of God in Christ, which can only be appropriated by a living faith. This is, in substance, the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith (although not expressed in terms), and virtually destroys the whole scholastic theory and practice of indulgences. By attacking the abuses of indulgences, Luther unwittingly cut a vein of mediaeval Catholicism; and by a deeper conception of repentance which implies faith, and by referring the sinner to the grace of Christ as the true and only source of remission, he proclaimed the undeveloped principles of evangelical Protestantism, and kindled a flame which soon extended far beyond his original intentions.
NOTES. THE NINETY-FIVE THESES. DISPUTATION OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER CONCERNING PENITENCE AND INDULGENCES. In the desire and with the purpose of elucidating the truth, a disputation will be held on the underwritten propositions at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of St. Augustin, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and ordinary Reader of the same in that place.191 He therefore asks those who cannot be present, and discuss the subject with us orally, to do so by letter in their absence. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: "Repent ye" [lit.: Do penance, poenitentiam agite], etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence [poenitentiam].192