Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the corruption in 16th Century Europe was the church’s sale of ‘Indulgences’.
Luther was incensed at the church’s exploitation of the poor and its unbridled greed for money, especially when Johann Tetzel appeared in Wittenburg in 1517 selling the hated indulgences to the poor.
An ‘Indulgence’ was a certificate of forgiveness, allegedly signed by the pope, which was said 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 the nominated dead person from that intermediary period. And, boy, were 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?’ [i]
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.’ [ii]
The Indulgences sold well, including to some wealthier persons who, applying logic to the opportunity, and taking full advantage of the term ‘indulgence’ purchased them in advance of indulging 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.
[i] Quoted in Kittleson, Luther the Reformer, Leicester: IVP p.103
[ii] ibid. p.104
© 2008 Lex Loizides