Purgatory... part 5...martin luther, indulgences, his excommunication, and his rejection of purgatory
Edward J. Hahnenberg, BA, MA, MA, Ed.S.
Part V: Martin Luther
One of the items on Lateran V’s agenda had gotten it right...the power of the printed word. The Catholic Church feared that its teachings would be compromised by unheard of access to controversial doctrinal pamphlets and books which could be disseminated in Europe with relative ease.
Johannes Gutenberg was a German goldsmith and inventor best known for the Gutenberg press, an innovative printing machine that used movable type. Gutenberg was born between 1394 and 1400 and died in 1468. The Gutenberg printing press developed from the technology of the screw-type wine presses of the Rhine Valley. It was there in 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg created his printing press, a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters held within a wooden form and the form was then pressed against a sheet of paper.
The 95 Theses
On October 31, 1517, the vigil of All Saints' Day, and two days before All Souls’ Day which commemorated those in Purgatory, the Augustinian priest, Martin Luther (1483-1536), seven months after the close of Lateran V, nailed 95 statements he wished theologians to debate to the castle church door, which served as the "black-board" of the University of Wittenberg, on which all notices of disputations and university functions were displayed. The same day he sent a copy of the Theses with an explanatory letter to Archbishop Albert (Albrecht) of Magdeburg and Mainz. (There is some debate whether Luther actually posted his statements to the castle church in Wittenberg, or whether his theses were only sent to Albert and other local bishops. According to Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s later collaborator and friend, Luther did post the Theses to the castle church door, though that is the only source that we have that mentions it.)
The motivation for Luther’s action sprang from a host of reasons. Luther was well-educated, having earned his doctorate in theology at Wittenberg in 1512. He had been ordained a priest in 1507, suffering from a severe case of moral scrupulosity, which today might better be classified as “obsessive-compulsive-disorder,” or OCD. His morbid fear of mortal sin in saying Mass correctly, led to his starting the Mass over on occasion, if he felt he had not said the Mass prayers with due attention. His frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, sometimes lasting six hours, gave him no peace. This psychological hell Luther endured with increasing frustration. He would lay out in the snow as a form of penitential satisfaction for his imagined sins.
The ScalaSancta moment
The turning point to his interior hell came on a trip to Rome in 1510, in climbing the Scala Santa, on his knees, near St. John Lateran. Half-way up, he came to the conclusion that the penitential works he had been doing were not getting him closer to God, but that, since Christ had died for his sins, all he had to do was trust in God’s mercy and love. While in Rome he met priests who were ill-trained in theology, which contributed to his negative attitude of anything coming from Rome. Knowledge of Leo X’s partying habits and abuse of money raised by buying and selling of indulgences, coupled with the still-unsettled influence of conciliarism, made the pilgrimage to Rome an eye-opener for him.
Back at the University of Wittenberg, Luther taught courses on St. Paul’s epistles. In 1515, while teaching a course on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his sense of interior peace was reinforced by chapter 1, verse 17: Justitiaenim Dei in eorevelatur ex fide in fidemsicut scriptum estiustusautem ex fide vivit.
The key words were: “The just shall live by faith.”
Luther, having found his peace with God, focused on what he saw were abuses in the sale of indulgences.
Albert of Brandenburg (1490 -1545) became bishop of Magdeburg in 1513 and Archbishop of Mainz in 1514. At the time he was only 24 years of age, below the prescribed age for a bishop. A papal dispensation was required, along with a large payment, to acquire the high ecclesiastical offices. Needing over 20,000 ducats to pay Pope Leo X in exchange for the title of Archbishop of Mainz, Albert borrowed the money from a south German banking house, the Fuggers, and then set about to pay back the loan, with an agent of the Fuggers virtually at his side, cashbox in hand.
To raise the necessary funds, Archbishop Albert promoted the sale of indulgences for the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome. Half the collected funds went to Rome for the building of St. Peter's and half went into Albert's pocket.
Johann Tetzel, the Dominican monk employed by Albert, sold these indulgences in Germany with the official permission of the young Cardinal-Archbishop. A portion of Albert’s InstructioSummariafollows:
Albert, by the grace of God and the Apostolic Chair, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, Primate and Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, Elector, Administrator of the Churches in Halberstadt, Margrave in Brandenburg, Duke of Stettin, etc.
To all who read this letter: Salvation in the Lord.
We do herewith proclaim that our most holy Lord Leo X, by divine providence present Pontiff, has given and bestowed to all Christian believers of either sex who lend their helpful hand for the reconstruction of the cathedral church of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, in Rome, complete indulgence as well as other graces and freedoms, which the Christian believer may obtain according to the apostolic letter dealing with this matter. . . .
Albert’s Instructio (cont’d)
Concerning the contribution to the chest, for the building of said church of the chief of the apostles, the penitentiaries and the confessors are to ask those making confession, after having explained the full forgiveness and privilege of this indulgence: How much money or other temporal goods they would conscientiously give for such full forgiveness? This is to be done in order that afterwards they may be brought all the more easily to make a contribution. Because the conditions of men are many and diverse, it is not possible to establish a general fee. We have therefore fixed the following rates:
Kings, queens, and their sons, archbishops and bishops, and other great rulers should pay, upon presenting themselves to places where the cross is raised, twenty-five Rhenish guilders.
Abbots, prelates of cathedral churches, counts, barons, and others of the higher nobility and their wives shall pay for each letter of indulgence ten such gold guilders. Other lesser prelates and nobles, as also to the rectors of famous places, and all others who take in, either from steady income or goods or other means, 500 gold guilders should pay six guilders.
Other citizens and merchants, who ordinarily take in 200 such gold florins, should pay three florins…
But those who do not have any money should supply their contribution with prayer. For the kingdom of heaven should be open to the poor no less than to the rich.
Albert’s Instructio (cont’d)
It is, furthermore, not necessary that the persons who place their contributions in the chest for the dead should be contrite in heart and have orally confessed, since this grace is based simply on the state of grace in which the dead departed, and on the contribution of the living, as is evident from the text of the bull. Moreover, preachers shall exert themselves to give this grace the widest publicity, since through the same, help will surely come to departed souls, and the construction of the church of St. Peter will be abundantly promoted at the same time. . . .
In 1517, Tetzel began preaching in Saxony on the efficacy of bought indulgences, after confession of sins, absolution, and sacramental penance.
Luther questioned this commercialization of indulgences as a means of raising money for St. Peter’s and Leo X’s financial squandering. As Luther saw it, Tetzel traveled through Germany, eloquently promoting indulgences of the Pope to the large crowds who gathered around him. He was received like a messenger from heaven. Priests, monks, and magistrates, men and women, old and young, marched in procession with songs, flags, and candles, with church bells ringing, to meet him and his fellow-monks, and followed them to the church; the papal Bull granting indulgences for financial assistance to rebuild St. Peter’s was placed on a velvet cushion on the altar, a red cross with a silken banner bearing the papal arms was erected before it, and a large iron chest was put beneath the cross for the indulgence money. Such chests are still preserved in many places.
In Luther’s view, Tetzel and other clergy, by daily sermons, hymns, and processions, urged the people, with praise of the Pope's Bull, to purchase letters of indulgence for their own benefit, and at the same time played upon their sympathies for departed relatives and friends whom they might release from their sufferings in Purgatory.
According to Luther, peasants eagerly embraced this rare offer of salvation from punishment, and made no clear distinction between the guilt and punishment of sin; after the sermon they approached the chest, confessed their sins, paid the money, and received the letter of indulgence which they cherished as a passport to heaven.
Tetzel approached the territory of the Elector of Saxony, who was himself a collector of relics, and believed in indulgences, but would not let him enter his territory from fear that he might take too much money from his subjects. So Tetzel set up his trade on the border of Saxony, at Jueterbog, a few hours from Wittenberg.
There he provoked the protest of the Reformer, who had already in the summer of 1516 preached a sermon of warning against trust in indulgences, and had incurred the Elector's displeasure by his aversion to the whole system.
Posting of Theses & letter to Archbishop Albert
The letter is dated Oct. 31st, 1517, the same date of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses.
Picture of famous 95 theses door (redone in bronze) by author.
Luther’s letter to Albert – 1
The grace of God be with you in all its fullness and power! Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, -- moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer. Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's are circulating under your most distinguished name, and as regards them, I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived from them; to wit, -- the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of Purgatory; furthermore, that these graces [i.e., the graces conferred in the indulgences] are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say -- though the thing is impossible -- if one had violated the Mother of God; again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt.
Luther’s letter to Albert – 2
Why, then, do the preachers of pardons, by these false fables and promises, make the people careless and fearless? Whereas indulgences confer on us no good gift, either for salvation or for sanctity, but only take away the external penalty, which it was formerly the custom to impose according to the canons.
Finally, works of piety and love are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet these are not preached with such ceremony or such zeal; nay, for the sake of preaching the indulgences they are kept quiet, though it is the first and the sole duty of all bishops that the people should learn the Gospel and the love of Christ, for Christ never taught that indulgences should be preached. How great then is the horror, how great the peril of a bishop, if he permits the Gospel to be kept quiet, and nothing but the noise of indulgences to be spread among his people! Will not Christ say to them, "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel"?
Albert to Pope Leo
Archbishop Albert, in turn, submitted the copy of Luther’s 95 Theses to his councilors at Aschaffenburg and to the professors of the University of Mainz. The councilors were of the unanimous opinion that they were of an heretical character, and that proceedings against the Luther should be taken. This report, with a copy of the Theses, was then transmitted to Leo X.
Leo was reluctant to push the issue. In what was to become of the most serious of all the crises which threatened the Catholic Church, he failed to be the proper guide for her. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt. True reform might have helped preserve Catholicism in Europe, but Leo was entangled in political affairs.
Exsurge Domini & DecetRomanumPontificem
However, on June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the papal bull Exsurge Domini that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the 95 Theses, within 60 days.
Rather than recanting, Luther publicly set fire to the bull at Wittenberg on December 10, 1520. As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by Leo X on January 3rd, 1521, in the bull DecetRomanumPontificem.
Leo’s last efforts, before his death on December 1, 1521, were directed to expanding the Church’s territory.
Luther’s final teaching on Purgatory
For the remainder of the personal history of Martin Luther and his increasing hostility toward the papacy, this author refers the reader to his own work: Table Talk With Martin Luther, Authorhouse Press, 2005.
For the final development of Luther’s views on Purgatory, one can turn to Luther’s Small Catechism:
Question 201 of Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation answers the question "For whom should we pray?" as follows:
"We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead." Hebrews 9:27 is cited in this connection: Since individuals are judged by God immediately after their death and enter either heaven or hell, there is no reason to pray for them. Those in hell cannot be helped by prayer, and those in heaven have no need of our prayers.