When the German Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), began to travel across Europe, urging people to contribute to the church fund for building St. Peter’s basilica, it fired up the indignation of one monk, Martin Luther. Many have quoted Tetzel’s couplet, that appeared to endorse the idea that the medieval Church was “selling indulgences.”
- “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
The idea here is that Tetzel was encouraging almsgiving to the Church in exchange for offering more “time off” for loved ones in purgatory. Luther’s protest soon brought the Christian world into turmoil. But were Tetzel’s actions merely an abuse of the teachings of the medieval Church, or did they signal a deeper, more fundamental problem with the Church’s theology?
When Martin Luther first nailed up his Ninety-Five Thesis to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, it may not have been clear to him as to how to answer that question. But as Luther began to receive more and more pushback from Church authorities, he began to think that Tetzel’s “used car salesman” tactics were more that just an abuse of an otherwise, acceptable doctrine. Rather, the whole theology of indulgences was based on a dangerously false interpretation of the Bible.
Misunderstanding, or Misinterpretation of Scripture?
A lot of Roman Catholics, both then and now, roll their eyes at this point. Apologists for Rome would contend that Luther and his followers have tended to exaggerate their case. Here is a sample of some misconceptions regarding the doctrine of indulgences, as understood by the official teaching of Rome today:
- A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences. Actually, no, the Church has never taught this. Indulgences can relieve a person of temporal punishment due to sin, but not eternal punishment.
- A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed. This is false, too. Indulgences only apply to sins committed and forgiven. They can not apply to any future sin not yet committed.
- A person can buy indulgences. The answer to this misconception is that the Church has never endorsed the concept of “buying” indulgences, neither in the 16th century, nor now. What Tetzel was doing was abusing church teaching, and the Church soon acted to correct such abuse of Her teaching.
Informed Protestant Christians do some “eye rolling” of their own, when they listen to such apologetic arguments from Roman Catholic apologists today. For if the Church has never advocated the sale of indulgences, why is it that many leading medieval Church officials, including popes, appeared to go right along with the practice, without saying anything against it?
We can debate the history of how the theology of indulgences were practiced in the past, but what are we to make of indulgences today? Is it a biblical doctrine?
The Roman Catholic theology of indulgences, along with its corollary concept of a “treasury of merit,” can be pretty complex to grasp. In a nutshell, the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:
- “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
To expand on a key element of this, Jesus Christ forgives the Christian of committed sin deserving eternal punishment, for the one who is sorry for their sin. Even most Protestants can agree with that. Indulgences, on the other hand, provide a means of lessening temporal punishment, as a result of sins committed. This distinction between eternal and temporal punishment is central to a theology of indulgences. The standard biblical prooftext comes from 2 Samuel 12. After David’s sin with Bathsheba was exposed by the prophet Nathan, David repented of his sin. In response, Nathan declared:
- “…The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14 ESV)
In other words, David was spared the eternal punishment of full separation from God. Nevertheless, David suffered temporal punishment by losing his son. In Roman Catholic teaching, Christ’s death on the cross spares the Christian from eternal separation from God. But we must still endure temporal punishments, that are often carried on into the next life, in purgatory. Indulgences are God’s way for the Church to help lessen those temporal punishments.
However, such subtle distinctions wore very thin for many of the 16th century Reformers, just as it does for many Protestants today. There is a “banquet of consequences” that all sinners must face, when they sin. God may indeed forgive you for speeding, but you will still have to pay that speeding ticket.
But is this not more properly the way to describe how God disciplines the believer who sins, rather than as a type of “temporal punishment,” that must satisfy some temporal justice of God? In other words, it seems incredulous to many Protestants, in how you get from the idea of a forgiven Christian, who must nevertheless pay the speeding ticket, to a full blown theology of indulgences, that can lessen temporal punishment, even after death…. all from the pages of Holy Scripture! Does the Roman theory of indulgences imply that Christ’s sacrifice is not sufficient in dealing with every aspect of our sin, a teaching contrary to the Bible?
The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of this very contentious debate. Surely, there are misunderstandings, such as with the doctrine of indulgences, that keep the two sides, Protestant and Roman Catholic, from talking with one another, in an amicable manner. But is it all, simply, a matter of misunderstanding? Or is there something more fundamental at stake, in how the Bible is to be read and interpreted?
Was Johann Tetzel merely misapplying the teaching of Rome, regarding an overall sound doctrine? Or was the “sale of indulgences” the natural outcome of a medieval church gone awry?
What do you think?
As a Protestant Evangelical, I do lean a particular way, in this debate. However, I must also confess that I have often uncritically passed on popular misconceptions, largely because I have been misinformed as to what the magisterial authority of Roman actually teaches. I need to do a lot more listening and learning. For more information about the indulgence controversy, church historian Ryan Reeves, at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, gives a succinct explanation, in seven minutes: