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Against the Sale of Indulgences
by Martin Luther

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2012)
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Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in Thuringia (Saxony) in what is now the country of Germany. His father was a successful foundry owner and mine operator, so he had enough money to sent his son to study law in the town of Erfurt. Instead, Luther joined the religious order of the Augustinian Hermits and studied theology. He studied under Johann von Staupitz, and eventually replaced him as the professor of Biblical studies at the University of Wittenburg. Luther remained there for most of the rest of his life.

While in his early thirties, Luther began to have doubts about the theological basis for much of the daily practices of the Catholic Church. In other words, he wondered if all of the things done by Catholic leaders could be justified. To organize his thinking, Luther composed a list of statements and questions that became known as the "95 Theses." In November 1517 someone printed and distributed them without his permission, causing a stir throughout the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The Pope condemned him in 1520 (papal bull Exsurge Domine) but all that did was make Luther more radical. In the same year, Luther wrote the Freedom of a Christian, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, and An Appeal to the Ruling Class of the German Nation. They explained Luther's theory of salvation (soteriology), his theory of the church (ecclesiology) and his theory of the role of the state in church reform. Although his writings made Luther the philosophical leader of the Protestant Reformation, they also increased the pressure on him to recant. The Holy Roman Emperor found him guilty of heresy at a religious trial at the city of Worms, but when Luther refused to back down, he became the Reformation's moral leader as well.

This reading contains the text of Luther's "95 Theses," which express his concerns about the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church.

Definitions

Background

As we have seen in this course, understanding the metaphysical world with certainty is impossible. As a consequence, individuals have frequently expressed doubts about the teachings of their religious leaders. The teachings of the Catholic popes, whose authority over religion resembled that of emperors over the physical world, were no exception. In the 14th century, after the Crusades, the Mongol invasions and various scandals, the pressure for reform increased. Most reform movements were unsuccessful, but in the early 16th century, several movements succeeded at the same time, leading to the an era in history called the Protestant Reformation. It became the last stage of reaction against Christianity's engagement in political affairs -- a history that began with Constantine's declaration of Christianity as the Roman state religion in the 4th century. As a result of the Reformation, a substantial number of Europeans ceased to recognize the supremacy of the pope.

Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome and Cathedral at
Wittenburg where Luther posted the 95 Theses

Although reformers had many complaints about the Catholic Church of the 16th century, the practice of selling "indulgences" raised the most opposition. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for some types of sins. You could not get an indulgence to excuse a murder, but you could get one to excuse many lesser sins, such as thinking lustful thoughts about someone who was not your spouse. The customers for indulgences were Catholic believers who feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven or worse, wind up in hell for failing to repent.

The sale of indulgences was a byproduct of the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. Because they risked dying without the benefit of a priest to perform the appropriate ceremonies, Crusaders were promised immediate salvation if they died while fighting to "liberate" the Christian holy city at Jerusalem. Church leaders justified this by arguing that good works earned salvation, and making Jerusalem accessible to Christians was an example of a good work. Over time, Church leaders decided that paying money to support good works was just as good as performing good works, and it evened things up for people who were physically incapable of fighting a Crusade. Over several centuries, the practice expanded, and Church leaders justified it by arguing that they had inherited an unlimited amount of good works from Jesus, and the credit for these good works could be sold to believers in the form of indulgences. In other words, indulgences functioned like "confession insurance" against eternal damnation because, if you purchased an indulgence, then you wouldn't go to hell if you died suddenly or forgot to confess something.

In later years, the sale of indulgences spread to include forgiveness for the sins of people who were already dead. That is evident in this passage from a sermon by John Tetzel, the monk who sold indulgences in Germany and inspired Martin Luther's protest in 1517.

Don't you hear the voices of your dead parents and other relatives crying out, "Have mercy on us, for we suffer great punishment and pain. From this, you could release us with a few alms . . . We have created you, fed you, cared for you and left you our temporal goods. Why do you treat us so cruelly and leave us to suffer in the flames, when it takes only a little to save us? [Source: Die Reformation in Augenzeugen Berichten, edited by Helmar Junghaus (Dusseldorf: Karl Rauch Verlag, 1967), 44.]

Martin Luther was a monk who taught at a Catholic university in the German town of Wittenburg (located southwest of Berlin). Like many others, he feared that the Roman Catholic Church had become too corrupt to provide people with the guidance they needed to obtain salvation. Luther thought that individuals could seek salvation on their own, without relying on priests. On October 31, 1517, he attempted to provoke a debate on reform by nailing a list of 95 questions to the door of the Wittenburg university cathedral. The debate became public when some unknown person reprinted his ideas in a pamphlet which was eventually distributed throughout Germany.

Luther's challenge to papal authority received support from German nobles who had their own grievances. In particular, German nobles resented how the Church spent revenue collected from German Catholics, and the fact that they had less rights than other nobles (particularly in France) to influence the appointment of local Church officials. Thanks to the support of a noble named Frederick "the Wise," who allowed Luther to hide at his castle named Wartburg, Luther survived his excommunication for heresy by the Diet of Worms in January 1521. He hid out for about a year and used the time to translate the New Testament into German. Meanwhile, as other nobles joined the protest, Lutheranism became more secure and more groups began to propose their own religious reforms. By 1535, nobles in a large area of Germany, plus the kings of Denmark and Sweden, had declared themselves followers of Luther.

Luther and his supporters were not the only ones to break away from the Catholic Church. In 1527, King Henry VIII of England asked to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled because, after nearly twenty years, they had not yet produced a male heir to the throne. The pope refused to grant the annulment thanks to pressure from Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. So Henry declared his independence from the Pope in 1534 by creating the Church of England and naming himself as its spiritual and political leader.

Elsewhere, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons and others launched their own religious reform movements. As a result, by the end of the 16th century, perhaps as much as one third of western Europe's population no longer believed in the supremacy of the pope. One consequence was the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a systematic attempt to reform the Catholic Church, which eliminated many of the practices that provoked the original reformation.

Questions

  1. Why was the Reformation more likely to succeed in Germany than in France?
  2. What limit to the pope's power is suggested by theses #5-8 and 13?
  3. What alternative did Luther propose to the purchase of an indulgence?
  4. Why did popes support the sale of indulgences?
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