Indulgences explained

Books | Martin Luther’s local dispute with the Roman Catholic Church grew to an international furor that continues to resonate 500 years later
by Scott Hendrix
Posted 10/21/17, 12:44 pm

Oct. 31 brings the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—and a new Pew Research Center survey shows many Protestants haven’t even the foggiest idea of crucial differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. How did Martin Luther’s fight with the Roman Catholic Church begin? Scholar Scott Hendrix gives us a succinct summary in the excerpt below from his Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (Yale University Press, 2015), reprinted here with permission. Hendrix explains indulgences, shows they were not new, points out the corruption they reflected, and explains how Luther’s objections moved from a local dispute to an international furor. —Marvin Olasky

Up to now Luther was involved in a spiraling academic dispute which concerned merely a handful of scholars. His unwillingness to keep quiet, however, would soon draw him, his colleagues, and Elector Frederick into a controversy that riled church officials and caused a public stir. It all began with a building project in Rome. In 1506 the cornerstone for a new basilica of St. Peter was laid and Pope Julius II authorized an indulgence to finance its construction. In exchange for a contribution to the building fund, a papal indulgence might offer huge benefits, such as the forgiveness of future sins and the release of loved ones from purgatory.

At first the indulgence was not offered in Germany, but in 1515 Pope Leo X extended its market and one year later designated Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, at age twenty-seven the highest-ranking prelate in Germany, to promote the indulgence in the archdioceses of Mainz and Magdeburg. Albert selected John Tetzel to lead the campaign. In early 1517, Tetzel arrived in Jüterbog, only twenty-four miles (forty kilometers) northeast of Wittenberg, and went about the task that made him infamous to generations of Protestants. Tetzel was, however, not the villain that Protestant propaganda made him out to be. He was a Dominican friar, born in Saxony, and licensed to teach theology; he was a veteran promoter of indulgences before he was tapped for the action that brought him to Luther’s attention. That happened in a roundabout way. Wittenbergers could not acquire the St. Peter’s indulgence in Saxony because Elector Frederick had declared his territory off-limits; but after they heard about the extravagant benefits conferred by the indulgence, local folk were not to be denied. A fifty-mile (eighty kilometers) round trip to Jüterbog and a silver coin or two were a small price for a free pass to heaven.

Indulgences were not new. They had appeared centuries earlier when the sacrament of penance became a private rite administered by a priest. In its simplest form an indulgence did not remit sins, rather it set aside part or all of the penalty that was required to pay for those sins. That penalty, or penance, consisted of religious actions such as giving alms, saying prayers, visiting shrines, viewing relics, and fasting. Performing those actions paid the penalty for sin even though the guilt incurred had been removed by the death of Christ. An indulgence, therefore, did not forgive sin or its guilt but exempted the sinner from some or all of the penalty. The original intention was compassionate. The word indulgence, which means favor or relaxation, was not pejorative in the modern sense of self-indulgence or indulging to excess.

The granting of indulgences derived its power from a treasury filled by the endless merits of Christ and the saints who had no need of them. Those merits could be transferred to ordinary believers in order to cover the penalty owed for their sins. Strictly speaking, indulgences were not sold or bought, but in reality they were acquired in exchange for money designated for a purpose like the building of St. Peter’s. After 1476 the faithful were allowed to purchase indulgences for souls in purgatory, who were still working off the penalties left unfinished at their death. After that became possible, who would not wish to speed the exit of a parent or spouse from purgatory? In Germany the indulgence business boomed. Between 1486 and 1503 three campaigns led by the papal legate Peraudi raised over half a million guilders for a crusade against the Turks.

By 1517, however, the boom was over and the proceeds from eight additional campaigns were dwindling. Germany had been overworked and extravagant claims were necessary to bring out new buyers. A guide for preachers of the St. Peter’s indulgence, named the Summary Instruction and sanctioned by Albert, guaranteed recipients full remission of their sins now and in purgatory and the same for their deceased relatives. It also bestowed on recipients full participation in all the “goods” of the church; i.e., they and their deceased relatives benefitted from all the prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimages performed anywhere in the universal church. To obtain these privileges, recipients did not have to be contrite or confess their sins. Tetzel and his preachers made more outrageous claims: the cross and papal coat of arms, displayed when indulgences were offered, had power equal to the cross of Christ; indulgences would absolve a person who had violated the Virgin Mary; even St. Peter, if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces than indulgences; and “when the coin in the coffer rang, the soul from purgatory sprang.” In addition, potential buyers were made to feel guilty if they did not seize the opportunity: “Do you not hear the voices of your parents and ancestors clamoring for help: ‘Have mercy on me, please! We are suffering unbearable punishments and torments! You can buy our release with just a few alms, but you will not?’”

Preaching at the Wittenberg Town Church in late 1516, Luther urged listeners to cultivate genuine sorrow for their sins and not to avoid the penance they owed by acquiring indulgences.

Tetzel’s campaign and its claims may have reached Luther’s ears by May of 1516. As provincial vicar Luther was conducting a visitation of Augustinian houses near Meissen and Leipzig. According to a local chronicle, he met Staupitz at Grimma and heard from his superior about Tetzel’s preaching in a nearby town. The chronicle concludes that Luther began to write against Tetzel in Grimma or, as Brother Martin himself phrased it: “I’ll put a hole in that drum.” Preaching at the Wittenberg Town Church in late 1516, Luther urged listeners to cultivate genuine sorrow for their sins and not to avoid the penance they owed by acquiring indulgences. By accepting the penance they would take up their own crosses and become truly contrite. In late February of 1517, he warned worshipers that indulgences taught them how to escape the penalty of sin but not how to avoid sin itself. He ended with a dramatic outburst: “Alas, the dangers of our time! Oh, you snoring priests! Oh, darkness worse than the Egyptian! How secure we are in the midst of the worst of all our evils!”

As yet, however, Luther did not truly know the worst. The St. Peter’s indulgence not only deceived people, it also misappropriated their money. Some income from the sale did end up in the building fund for St. Peter’s Basilica; however, part of the revenue would repay the loan granted to Albert by the Fugger banking enterprise in Augsburg. Albert had used that loan to pay the Roman curia for elevating him to the archbishopric of Mainz. Luther did know, however, that his own prince, Elector Frederick, believed in the power of indulgences. Frederick and his cousin, Duke George, who ruled the other half of Saxony, were deeply devout. They chose monks as confessors, attended mass regularly, made pilgrimages, and offered indulgences of their own. Their indulgences were not tied to the building of St. Peter’s in Rome but to the relic collections they had amassed in Saxony. In 1493 Frederick brought home relics from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and he continued to acquire them until 1510, when his collection contained 5,005 pieces. Forty-five of them belonged to the Elector’s patron saint, Bartholomew; they outnumbered the relics of every other saint except the Virgin Mary. One receptacle contained particles of bone from Bartholomew’s left hand, one from his jaw, two teeth, a piece of one more tooth, and six skull fragments. By 1520 the indulgences attached to this vast quantity of relics, so went the claim, would reduce time spent in purgatory by 1,900,000 years. Luther was not the first to question such numbers. In his popular Praise of Folly, published six years earlier, the humanist Erasmus had already ridiculed that kind of fanciful math: “What should I say of them that have measured purgatory by an hourglass and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages in years and months, days and hours, minutes and seconds, as if they were in a mathematical table?”

Faced with Frederick’s passion for relics and indulgences, Luther had to be cautious about criticizing them. He and his colleagues needed Frederick’s endorsement of the reforms under way at the university. In late 1516 Luther assisted the Elector’s campaign to have the remains of Ursula and 11,000 virgins moved from Cologne to Wittenberg. Ursula, a reputed fourth-century British princess who was Christian, took 11,000 virgins on a pilgrimage to Rome, but during the return they were murdered by the Huns at Cologne. In 1106 relics were unearthed from a burial ground near the church of St. Ursula in Cologne; and, although the detection and assembly of so many virgins in fourth-century Britain or Rome was unlikely, the bones were assigned to the martyred women. Their popularity swelled during the late Middle Ages and attracted the interest of wealthy collectors such as Elector Frederick. Twenty-three years before Frederick attempted to acquire the relics, Christopher Columbus named the Caribbean chain now called the Virgin Islands after Ursula and her 11,000 companions.

In the cover letter, dated October 31, 1517, Luther declared he “could keep quiet no longer.”

At the risk of displeasing Frederick, Luther finally prepared ninety-five theses “on the power and efficacy of indulgences” and sent them to Archbishop Albert. In the cover letter, dated October 31, 1517, Luther declared he “could keep quiet no longer.” Why no longer? Because, he wrote, people were being given the false assurance that indulgences would save them—and those indulgences were being offered under Albert’s name. “For all these souls,” he told Albert, “you have the heaviest and a constantly increasing responsibility.” Albert had indeed authorized Tetzel and the other preachers to make extravagant and misleading claims for the St. Peter’s indulgence. Those claims, which Luther admitted not to have heard in person, were based in part on the Summary Instruction. Luther was familiar with this document and requested Albert to replace its claims with a “different kind of preaching,” namely, with the gospel that Jesus actually commanded to be preached. Luther issued no ultimatum nor was he in a position to do so; but if nothing changed, he warned, somebody less respectful than Luther would refute the Instruction and insult the Archbishop openly. Luther also reminded Albert that a pope had never clarified the theology behind indulgences. To remedy that, he was calling for a debate and had prepared ninety-five theses and an essay on indulgences. Both documents were enclosed and Albert should refer to them for details.

Archbishop Albert, himself a lover of relics, did not take it well when he finally received these documents. At first he brushed off Luther’s request: The defiant action of that monk, he said, had little to do with him. Albert could have reacted differently. Unlike many bishops, he was enlightened by tutoring in philosophy, rhetoric, law, and music. Albert soon realized, however, that the ninety-five theses could affect him personally. He would be unable to repay his loan to the Fuggers if the St. Peter’s indulgence did not sell. A political issue also loomed. Albert was the younger brother of Elector Joachim I of Brandenburg, a neighbor and rival of Elector Frederick of Saxony. Frederick was offering indulgences of his own and was therefore competing with Albert. Were Luther’s theses instigated by Frederick’s advisors in order to discredit Albert and his brother? This speculation was so loud and insistent that Luther had to assure Spalatin that Frederick knew nothing about the theses before they became public.

Albert asked his advisors and the scholars at Mainz to evaluate the “conclusions,” as Luther and others called them. Ignoring Luther’s critique of indulgences, Albert’s counselors seized on a more provocative issue: A Wittenberg professor had audaciously challenged the pope’s authority to define the benefits of indulgences. Consequently, only the pope could decide what action should be taken. Anticipating their judgment, Archbishop Albert forwarded the ninety-five theses to Pope Leo X and the Roman curia. That action by Albert, more so than a posting of the ninety-five theses on church doors, launched the conflict between Luther and the Roman hierarchy.

From Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott Hendrix, published by Yale University Press. Reproduced by permission.


  •  twmiller's picture
    Posted: Sun, 10/22/2017 10:49 pm

    Enough.  Luther was indeed a pivotal figure in exposing corrupt church practices and hastening reform in that era, but at what cost?  A fractured fractious Church that 500 years later limits efforts to evangelize the world for Jesus Christ.  And before lionizing Luther entirely, it is important to note that he was also instrumental in propogating a school of thought that arguably may have evolved into modern anti-semitism and the Holocaust.  Search on "luther and anti-semitism".  It does not paint the picture of a person worthy of celebrating.  

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    Posted: Mon, 10/23/2017 03:27 pm

    Fractious, cost... Truth will always be fractious and its cost will always be high. I challenge you to imagine the alternate world where Luther did not upend the church of the day and, consequentially, where biblical truth has been further suppressed for another 500 years. No, the alternative is far worse and far costlier.

    As far as his lionization, no one is sweeping his later writings under the rug, they're simply not in the purview of this particular discussion. The current topic is the Reformation and Luther's part in the beginning of it - not Luther's ultimate legacy. Anyway, I've never encountered or read a single person who thinks Luther was non-problematic, let alone perfect, and I've run in Calvinistic and Reformed circles my entire life.

  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 10/27/2017 01:38 pm

    Twmiller – The problem is that the “Church” got divided, simply because the Catholic Leadership refused to recognize their corrupt practices in Luther’s time.  Ever since the Tower of Babel, I believe the edifices humans build (outside of themselves) are not God’s desire for them.  “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” 1 Cor. 6:19, also see 1 Cor. 3:16.

  • Joe Long
    Posted: Mon, 10/30/2017 07:44 pm

    Mr. Hendrix....

    Thank you for the summary. I had no idea of the magnitude of the indulgences nor who was able to author them. 

    The phrase,“when the coin in the coffer rang, the soul from purgatory sprang", guarentees it is a money maker. Thanks be to God, for His hand on October 31, 1517.