Luther’s concern with the late medieval church was less that it had made salvation too hard (by endless works rather than simple faith) and more that it had made salvation too easy (by thoughtless outward works or transactions rather than heartfelt repentance, being crucified with Christ).
The real gospel of Christ, charged Luther, was both much more serious, more frightening, and more liberating than the spiritual economy the popes had created to fill their own coffers. Bradford Littlejohn is the President of the Davenant Institute and teaches philosophy at Moody Bible Institute.
So who were these indulgence preachers and why was Luther so upset about them?
The answer sheds light both on the astonishing depth of the corruption in the late medieval church and on the often misunderstood heart of Luther’s protest against it.
Ostensibly ordered to help finance the construction of St.
Peter’s basilica in Rome, much of the money actually went into the coffers of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.Moreover, Luther did not compose the on a whim; he had been long wrestling over the indulgences issue and was well aware that by attacking the practice, he would likely be earning himself some very powerful enemies.Finally, although theses were normally composed for academic disputations only, Luther seems to have intended these at the outset for a wider audience. Wengert notes, the are full of rhetorical flourishes that suggest Luther wanted to reach and persuade many educated readers, and very unusually for such theses, Luther from the first invited scholars from around Germany to respond to the theses in writing.In subsequent theses, Luther questioned the ethics of encouraging peasants to buy indulgences rather than give alms or buy food for their family.He also questioned the authority of the Church to forgive sins, a right that surely belonged to God alone.Luther here is not so much interested in overthrowing the whole penitential system of the Catholic Church as he is in purifying it from obvious abuses, and he continues to accept many of the Pope’s claims of authority.Indeed, in Theses 80-90 he says that one of his chief concerns is to defend the honor of the Pope against the easy attacks to which the careless teaching of the indulgence preachers had exposed him.Some of this punishment could be handled by taking penitential actions prescribed by the priest, but much of it would remain to be exacted after death.Accordingly, the medieval church came to increasingly teach the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the faithful must undergo a term (perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years) of purifying torment before they could enter heaven. By doing certain holy acts, like participating in or helping pay for a Crusade, Christians could receive an “indulgence” from the Pope, shortening their time in purgatory or perhaps even skipping it altogether.Eventually, recognizing in indulgences a potentially immense source of revenue, later popes began offering them for money more often than for good deeds, and needing to continue to expand the market to keep the revenues flowing, they started allowing the faithful to buy indulgences for their dead relatives already in purgatory.Johann Tetzel’s indulgence campaign that prompted Luther’s protest in 1517, though, was an extraordinary illustration of the corruption that came from mixing such absolute spiritual power with the wide-reaching worldly power of the late medieval church.