The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther’s letter to his bishop on October 31, 1517, in which he enclosed 95 theses protesting the sale of indulgences. There is the well-known story that he also posted these theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, but some scholars doubt the veracity of that account.
What are indulgences?
From the very earliest years of church history, theologians (those who study the nature of the divine) tried to wrap their minds around God. They relied upon the sacred texts of the early church fathers and soon developed a canon (authoritative list) of those writings considered to be inspired by God; but these scriptures did not answer all theological questions, and human reason was used to fill in the gaps.
Churchmen wrestled with issues related to the nature of sin and the necessity for divine forgiveness and justice. Scholars reasoned that even though God would forgive the sins of someone who was truly contrite, divine justice demanded that there be some payback for that person’s sinful acts. If there was enough time, good works could suffice. If a believer died without having fully recompensed for his sins, there must be a place for temporary punishment in which the departed soul could be cleansed and made ready to be ushered into the presence of God. This place was called purgatory. There were no clear references to such a place in holy scriptures, but various passages could be cited to suggest its existence.
At some early period in church history there also developed a teaching that there was a difference between “commandments” and “judgments.” Commandments were defined as those things which God requires of us. Judgments were those things which, though desirable, were not absolutely required. We could satisfy God by doing his commandments. If we went beyond this and did more than God required, we earned special or excess merit.
The life of Mary and the apostles were in themselves a source of boundless merit. Also, Christian martyrs throughout the ages had achieved vast amounts of excess merit. In fact, during a 3rd century time of intense persecution, some of these condemned saints had issued “Letters of Peace” that were supposed to restore lapsed Christians to church fellowship without penitential discipline. The theory behind this was that these holy men had somehow earned excess merit by their willingness to give the supreme sacrifice for their faith, and they were using some of their excess merit on behalf of the apostates.
This teaching and these experiences emerged during the 12th and 13th centuries in the theory and practice of issuing indulgences. According to this theory, there had been (and continued to be) many saints in the church who had earned excess merit because of their good works, works pleasing to God yet above and beyond His requirements. Since these excess merits were not needed by these saints to pay their purgatorial penalties for sin, the excess merits belonged to the whole church. As head of the church, and by virtue of his possession of the keys of the kingdom, the Pope could discharge the temporal penalties for sins in this life and also relieve purgatorial penalties for those already deceased by dispensing from this store of excess merits. Thus, it was reasoned that he had the power to grant indulgences (equivalent to the third century “Letters of Peace”) for both the living and the dead out of the superabundant merits of Mary, the Mother of God, the Apostles, and all the other departed saints. It was a well of merit that was not likely to run dry. And the dispensing of this merit was a steady source of income for the church. After all, it was only to be expected that those who were the recipients of indulgences (for themselves or for their departed loved ones) should express their gratitude by giving alms to the church, earning for themselves even more merit by so doing. In a very short time the loop was closed. Indulgences were put in the hands of papal agents and sold for a price, the theory being that the merit of giving money to purchase an indulgence would be enhanced by a proportionate amount of merit from the stored excess belonging to the whole church.
Unfortunately, the practice was even further corrupted, and actual church doctrine was twisted. According to church teaching, indulgences were of no value unless accompanied by true contrition on the part of the person for whom it was to be used. Once a person had shown true contrition, the indulgence could be used to avoid part or all of a purgatorial sentence for sin. In their eagerness to sell indulgences, however, the agents usually failed to emphasize the requirement for contrition; and in their desire to raise more income for the church, the papal authorities often looked the other way.
The sale of indulgences reached a fever pitch in the early 16th century as money was needed for construction of the great St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Because of his own struggle for peace with God and his study of Saint Paul’s letters, Martin Luther had come to question many of the traditional beliefs of the church, but it was the sale of indulgences that particularly incensed him and led him to write his 95 theses in protest.
In the medieval church, the faith of the apostles had been encrusted in a heavy casing of magic and superstition, and the situation cried out for change. Unfortunately, high positions in the church hierarchy were often unrelated to piety or spiritual maturity. Younger sons of the nobility were frequently appointed as cardinals and bishops, sometimes even as children. Pope Alexander VI, pope from 1492-1503, was the father and supporter of the notorious Cesare Borgia and his sister Lucretia, and his immediate successors were also reputed to be worldly men. For many years good people in the church had recognized the need for reform. This was the scene when Martin Luther stepped onto the stage in 1517. Unfortunately, the princes of the church at that time, many of them corrupted by wealth and worldly power, were not willing to address the critical spiritual issues raised by Luther and others; and, as a result of their failure to act, the reformers and their followers broke away.
Less than 50 years later the Catholic church began going through a second reformation, this time internal, and many of the old abuses were addressed. Unfortunately, it was too little and too late to heal the schism, and the church remained divided.
The church is a magnificent institution, springing from Christ’s Great Commission. Over the ages it has done wonderful things, and many good and saintly men and women, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, have labored and continue to labor in its vineyards. It is a source of comfort, fellowship and moral edification for millions, and it serves as a light in a dark world. Nevertheless, though founded by our Lord Jesus, the church is also a human establishment, and no one, priest, minister or layman, is immune from sin and error. Occasionally, bad things have been perpetrated by a church as a body. At other times twisted churchmen or women have done truly evil things while cloaked as God’s representatives.
May the dear Lord preserve us from spiritual errors and protect us from wickedness, and may He sanctify His holy church. In the words of Paul the Apostle, let us “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3.)