257. Martin Luther and the Indulgence Controversy


16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV]


Martin Luther [1] nailing 95 Theses on church door, [2] burring the papal bull excommunicating him.

Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest, an Augustinian monk, and a professor of Holy Scriptures. From the emergence of protestantism in the Church, through his enforced departure from the Catholic Church, to the eventual formation of the Protestant Church, the whole series of events originated in the indulgence controversy of the early 16th century. It all began from quarrels within the Roman Catholic Church, a family squabble. When pride, power, corruption took front seats, however, reason and spiritual obedience to God were easily bracketed off, precipitating the biggest schism in Western Christianity.

Before we get into the details of the controversy, we would do well to remind ourselves of three realities:

  • Initial disputes between Luther and Rome were only quarrels in the family.
  • In quarrels, human tendency towards self-preservation often leads to visions being skewed and truth suffers as the first casualty.
  • When people quarrel, pride often gets in the way as one insists that the other is absolutely wrong while one is absolutely right. We must learn to respect at least some particles of truth from the other side of a dispute (per Piet Fransen, SJ).                                

1.  Luther’s Training and Focus on the Bible

In 1510, Luther as a German priest and a trusted Augustinian monk within his congregation, made a trip to Rome with another brother to see the Pope for the resolution of an internal problem of their religious order.

Disillusioned as he watched incompetent and cynical clergy performing holy duties in Rome, he began to experience doubts about the Church. Those early doubts concerning Rome and its ways would blossom over the next several years after Luther earned the prestigious post as Doctor of the Bible at Wittenberg University and undertook a thorough review of the Bible.

Luther’s study led him to the theology of Paul and his belief in the possibility of forgiveness through faith made possible by the crucifixion of Christ. Adopting Paul’s theology, Luther insisted that there was no need to look to priests for forgiveness because, to those who believed and were contrite, forgiveness was a gift of God.

The real trigger was his deep disgust over Rome’s sale of indulgence

2. The Indulgence Controversy

An indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment after a person revealed sin, expressed contrition, and made the required monetary contribution to the Church.

Luther viewed skeptically the Church’s reliance on the practice of selling indulgences as its major source of revenue. The institutional Church – that is, that “Church” that represented the power structure of the ordained, the governors, but not counting the 99.9% who make up the rest of the People of God – was rotting in corruption.

From 1516 onwards, Luther began to preach sermons in Wittenberg against the selling of indulgences, arguing that forgiveness came from within, and that no one – whether a priest or a pope – was in a position to grant forgiveness because no one can look into the soul of another. He also questioned whether the pope could, as he claimed, deliver souls of a person’s deceased loved ones from purgatory.

[Note: First, Christianity is founded solidly on the basis that God has set the pattern for authentic intermediaries in appointing Jesus of Nazareth, truly and fully human, to be His intermediary par excellence. Second, in the technical sense, there is nothing to prevent God in His holy will, from appointing intermediaries. The Catholic Church teaches that God has so appointed. Third, away from technical arguments, and in many ways most importantly, as humans, we all need the human touch at times when we are wounded and fragile. It is fine for those who can put up a brave front to claim that they have direct access to God and do not need this human touch, but it would be quite improper for them to foreclose access to human touch for the rest of humanity who needs it. The Catholic understanding of the forgiveness of sin at the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (popularly known as “confession”) does not entail a priest forgiving sins in his own capacity, but rather only as an intermediary of God.] 

Indulgences were popular to the ordinary believers who had been indoctrinated into a mental preoccupation with purgatory and hell and the possibility of buying one’s way out. By lashing out at the sale of indulgences, Luther was striking at the heart of the institutional Church’s array of money-raising tools. Confrontation was inevitable.

Matters began to come to a head when Pope Leo X launched an indulgence-driven campaign to raise funds for construction of a grand basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. The practice of the time was to grant the privilege of selling indulgences to various bishops, who would retain for themselves a portion of the raised funds. Abp. Albrecht of Mainz, to whom Rome granted an indulgence franchise in his territory for 8 years, told his indulgence vendors that they could promise purchasers  a perfect remission of all sins and that those seeking indulgences for dead relatives need not be contrite themselves, nor confess their sins.

Proclamation of the indulgence fell to the able Dominican preacher Tetzel, who journeyed from town to town around Albrecht’s territories. He would follow behind a cross bearing the papal arms into a town’s marketplace and launch into a sales pitch that included a jingle which Martin Luther found especially objectionable:

  • As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.

Tetzel’s salesmanship provoked scandal in Germany that evolved into the greatest crisis (the Reformation) in the history of the Western Church. Luther reacted vehemently against this commercialisation of indulgences, but his letter to the local archbishop on this matter got nowhere: corruption, then and now, is a stubborn self-serving creature.

In the face of such colossal corruption (in the institutional church, the body of church-leaders), rather than exiting the Church in haste, how might we adjust our mind and spirit and not give in to despair and give up on the Church? A spiritual lesson from Dorothy Day may be helpful.

  • Walking back to the workers’ hostel together with a few house mates after an evening Mass in which they heard some terrible preaching, everyone remained awkwardly quiet. Not able to contain herself any longer, a lady finally broke the silence, saying: “Dorothy, wasn’t that a terrible sermon?” In her reply, Dorothy said in as brilliant and positive spirituality as you can possibly find: “That’s why I believe the Holy Spirit is in the Church!”

What Dorothy Day meant, if one is permitted to surmise, is that, if the preservation of the Church had been left by God to the clergy, she would have long ceased existing. This was similar in substance and spirit to what the then Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley said to the people of the archdiocese of Boston, USA as the church was rocking under the immense pressure of colossal disclosures of clerical pedophilia. He asked the people not to put their trust in the clergy who had abused their trust, but to trust in God. Never give up trusting God.

3. The Start of Protestantism and the Excommunication of Martin Luther

Luther, in angry response to the indulgence sales campaign, prepared in Latin a placard consisting of *95 theses* intended as propositions for debate concerning the question of indulgences – posted on the door of the Schlosskirche, Wittenberg’s Castle Church on 31 October 1517. This event came to be considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

  • Amongst others, Luther contended that the power of pardon was God’s alone.
  • “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?”
  • He questioned the Church’s justification for promoting contributions.
  • He complained against “the revenues of all Christendom being sucked into this insatiable basilica” when there were much greater needs in suffering humanity and poor local churches.

Luther was neither a saint nor a heretic. He was first and foremost a biblical theologian (but more an exegete than a systematic theologian), not a church reformer. As theologian, he was against not only misunderstanding but also abuses. Indulgences were the battleground. He did not start off as a rebel; he was no anarchist, but a pious, religious man. Later, he became a rebel in spite of himself. That rebellion was due to the historical circumstances and the personalities involved at the time. We need to appreciate that many factors contributed to the birth of the Protestant Reformation. Can we see “particles of truth” in both camps? And in regards to the 95 Theses, they were not a manifesto for church-rebellion. Written in Latin, they were directed to theologians. By posting those theses, Luther was actually inviting public discussion among theologians. His concern was theological, not church-reforming.

When a copy of Luther’s theses reached Rome, the pope saw Luther as sufficiently threatening to appoint a new general of the Augustinian order in the hopes that he would “smother the fire before it should become a conflagration.” Surprisingly, however, at the gathering of Luther’s chapter that year in Heidelberg, Luther’s arguments met with enthusiasm among the younger Augustinians and mere head-shaking among the older attendees.

Encouraged by the reception to his views, Luther challenged the power of the Church to excommunicate its members, writing that only God could sever spiritual communion. He also questioned the primacy of the Church in Rome, contending a lack of historical support for putting Rome above other churches.

Now, the pope began to understand, Luther was a much bigger threat than he first thought.  The pope turned to Dominican Sylvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome, to draft a reply to Luther’s arguments. Prierias went on to brand Luther a heretic and called him “a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron.”

On August 7, 1518, Luther received a citation to appear in Rome to answer the charge of heresy. He refused to show up. The Pope called upon Frederick the Wise, the Elector for Germany in the Holy Roman Empire, to place Luther under arrest. Between his obligations to the Church but sympathy to Luther, whose attacks on Rome won substantial support in his home region, Frederick sought a compromise. In negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, Frederick prevailed in having Luther’s hearing on the heresy charge moved to Augsburg, a city on German soil.

Three times in Oct 1518 Cardinal Cajetan interviewed Luther but was frustrated by Luther’s refusal to recant his views on indulgences and papal infallibility. On the issue of papal infallibility, Luther insisted that the pope could not be above Scripture.

When rumours reached Luther that Rome had an arrest order on him, he fled on horseback at night.

Catejan then pressured Frederick the Wise to have Luther either arrested and sent to Rome or banished from his territories, but Frederick balked. Instead, he wrote to the emperor requesting that Luther’s case either be dropped or sent to Germany for a hearing before judges. Frederick wrote to Catejan informing him that he would only send Luther to Rome “after he has been convicted of heresy.” He urged that Luther be given an opportunity to debate his interpretation of Scripture and submit it to a university for decision. He did not wish to see Luther condemned in advance, “but be shown in what respect he is a heretic.” In this, Frederick’s views no doubt reflected those of most Germans, three out of four of whom supported Luther.

In Germany, Luther’s arguments were the rage and his University at Wittenberg had become a predominantly Lutheran institution while a rival university, the University of Leipzig, had emerged as the champion of traditional Catholic positions.

The proposed debate in July 1519, which was to take place at Leipzig, would pit Luther against Leipzig’s prominent professor John Eck, over free will, Biblical support for indulgences, and the primacy of Rome. In the end, there was no clear winner.

With Luther in obvious defiance of Rome’s demand for his recantation, Pope Leo excommunicated him on January 3, 1521. Luther burnt the papal bull of excommunication in the public square.

Insisting that secular tribunals had no role to play once Luther had been found guilty of heresy and condemned by the Church, the papal nuncio managing Luther’s case pronounced that the only job of secular authorities was to carry out the Church’s decision.  “The only competent judge is the pope.” Luther decided to “appeal to Caesar”.

Concerned with the reaction of the German people if Luther were to be condemned without a hearing, Emperor Charles V sent to Luther an invitation to come to the Diet meeting at Worms to “answer with regard to your books and your teaching.”  The emperor’s mandate promised safe-conduct. Luther decided to go.

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther refused to recant what he had written, saying:

  • First are those books in which I have described Christian faith and life so simply that even my opponents admitted that these works are useful. To renounce these writings would be unthinkable, for that would be to renounce accepted Christian truths.
  • The second group of my work is directed against the foul doctrine and evil living of the popes, past and present. Through the laws of the popes and the doctrines of men, the consciences of the faithful have been miserably vexed and flayed. If I recant these books, I would do nothing but add strength to tyranny and open not just the windows but also the doors to this great ungodliness.
  • In the third group, I have written against private persons and individuals who uphold Roman tyranny and have attacked my efforts to encourage piety to Christ. I confess that I have written too harshly. I am but a man and I cannot but only let my errors be proven by Scripture and will revoke my work and throw it into the fire.

After the Archbishop of Trier insisted on Luther’s recantation, saying: “You, Martin Luther, will not draw into doubt those things which the Catholic Church has judged already: long usage ordained by Christ; strengthened by martyrs’ blood. You wait in vain for disputation over things you are obligated to believe. Now give your answer. Yes or no?” Luther gave his famous reply:

  • “Since your Majesty and your Lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and not by popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

I cannot and I will not recant.

Here I stand.

I can do no other.

God help me.”

Luther did something very important: he spoke truth to power! In substance, he did the same as Peter whom the religious leaders wanted to silence: But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). God’s Spirit continues to inspire people to do so in Church as well as in society. Disciples of Christ are called to speak up for the common good, even if it means heavy costs to them.

In the words of an American senior political commentator on CNN, what is happening in the United States of America is “unthinkable”. As the richest and the most powerful nation in the world, and proudly touted as the beacon of democracy and champion of the free world, America’s sitting President, Donald Trump, is proven as a cheat, a pathological liar, a racist, an instigator of hatred and violence, a destroyer of freedom and democracy, one who forfeits national security for personal gains, and is criminally negligent over the loss of 200,000 American lives to the corona virus. He continues to constantly puts the lives of security and administrative aides in grave danger for political theatrics. All his lies, blames, and blatantly stupid views and actions on Covid-19 which contradict expert scientific advice are orchestrated towards the singular goal of victory at the polls. Right thinking elected members of the America parliament from the Republican Party are strangely quiet. Like everyone else, they know what’s wrong. Their conscience requires of them to speak up. They remain silent. The same silence marks the top hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church of America, whose hearts, minds and souls are typically on politics – conservative “Republican” politics that superficially subscribes to “conservative” church doctrines. So long as Trump ostensibly tows the “conservative” line, that’s all they care about, never you mind about conscience, the common good and God’s kingdom vision applied concretely “on earth as in heaven”.

Five hundred years ago, the Catholic University of Leuven was eager to defend Rome and condemned Luther. For many years now, this institution of critical learning has embraced an attitude of reconciliation and acceptance, annually celebrating and honouring Luther with a day of lectures. Amongst other things, Catholics do well to remember two existing teachings of the Church:

  1. The Magisterium, the official teaching office, is not above the Word of God, but serves it (Dei Verbum, 10).
  2. With knowledge and competence, lay people have the right and duty to bring to the attention of their pastors matters which pertain to the good of the Church (c.212 §3, Code of Canon Law, 1983).

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, October 2020. All rights reserved.

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