Perhaps one of the clearest manifestations of the scandal of the religion of 16th Century Europe, both in its exploitation of the poor and in its greed for money, was the sale of ‘Indulgences’
Luther became increasingly angry at the corruption of the church, especially when Johann Tetzel appeared in Wittenburg in 1517 selling indulgences to the poor.
An indulgence, a certificate of forgiveness allegedly signed by the pope, was supposed to release souls from ‘purgatory’. Purgatory itself is a non-Scriptural idea of an intermediary hell in which believers are to be purified from sin by hellish flames. The Indulgences were supposed to release a nominated dead person. But they were expensive.
Tetzel was a Monk from Leipzig and was raising funds for the re-building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
He was something of an orator and stirred up the crowds with descriptions of how their beloved parents, or infant children, were now suffering in the torments of purgatory. ‘Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives crying out to you and saying, ‘Pity us! Pity us! For we are in dire punishment and torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance? And you will not?’ (quoted in Luther the Reformer, Kittleson, IVP p.103)
His catch phrase was an outrage: ‘The moment the money tinkles in my box, that moment the soul springs up out of purgatory.’ Luther called this ‘the pious defrauding of the faithful.’ (ibid p.104)
These expensive ‘Indulgences’ sold well, including to some wealthier persons who, applying logic to the opportunity, purchased them in advance of sins they desired to commit.
Luther could stand it no more and on 31st October 1517 he nailed his now famous ‘95 theses’, which dealt bravely and powerfully with many abuses, to the door of the Wittenberg church.
Here’s a couple, which reflect both Luther’s outrage as well as the feelings of the people:
66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”
The following day (All Saints Day) brought multitudes to the church. Luther’s denunciations were read, copied, printed and soon distributed all over Germany and before long, all over Europe.
The Reformation had begun.
For more on Martin Luther’s remarkable story (tags) click here
For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here
For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here
© 2008 Lex Loizides