This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

In honor of Reformation Day

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, inadvertantly starting the Protestant Reformation. The following excerpt from my book The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, which I also published last year on this date, explains what all this was about:

To understand the events leading to this break, we must travel south to Rome, where Pope Leo X was building St. Peter’s Basilica. Like any of us faced with financing new construction, Leo approached his bankers for a loan. The Medici bank of Florence, which was owned by Leo’s family, had been the papal bank for some time, though by Leo’s day it had been replaced by the Fugger bank, centered in Augsburg, Germany. The Fugger bank had been founded relatively recently, but it rose rapidly to become the largest bank in the world due to the same silver boom in Germany that had led to the establishment of the University of Wittenberg and the relative prosperity of the Luther family. Jacob Fugger, the head of the bank, approved the loan, but this left Leo with the problem of figuring out how to pay it back. Leo decided that the best approach to handling that problem was to sell off some of the assets in his treasury, specifically, the Treasury of Merits of which he was the custodian. In other words, Leo decided to hold an indulgence sale.

So, what are indulgences? To understand that, we need to know something about Roman Catholic conceptions of sin. According to Catholic theology, every sin you commit results in both eternal and temporal penalties. Eternal penalties affect your relationship with God; they are spiritual and deal with your status in eternity, that is, whether you go to Heaven or Hell. But since a sin against God is also a crime against your neighbor, sins must also be punished in this life, hence the temporal penalties, which are paid in time. When you confess your sins to a priest and he absolves you, that absolution takes away the eternal penalty due to your sins, but leaves the temporal untouched. He then assigns you a penance (a good work) that you can perform that pays the temporal penalty. This may be saying prayers, going on a pilgrimage, etc. These penalties could be pretty hefty; for example, knights fighting at the battle of Hastings in 1066, in a campaign that had been blessed by the Pope, were required to do 10 years of penance for every person they killed in the battle. And this didn't even touch other battles the knight fought in or any extra-curricular activities he might have indulged in. If you die with your temporal debt unpaid, the remainder has to be paid in time in the afterlife, so you go to Purgatory, a doctrine developed in the twelfth century to deal with the problems associated with unpaid temporal penalties. After your temporal penalty is completely paid in Purgatory, then you go to Heaven.

So how do you avoid languishing in Purgatory for who knows how long? There are a couple of possibilities. You could endow a monastery or a church and get priests to say Mass or monks to pray for you. If you pay the expenses, the credit for the time and the Masses goes to your account. This may seem odd, but think of it like this: if you get a speeding ticket, the town doesn't really care if you pay it or someone else does; it just wants its money. The same logic applies here. As long as your temporal debt is paid by someone, it counts. Going on pilgrimage is another good option. Not only do you get credit for the time you spend on the road, but the shrine you're visiting itself conveys a certain number of years of penance depending on its importance.

This is where indulgences came in, particularly in connection with armed, fighting pilgrimages, or as we call them, Crusades. To try to drum up troops to free the Holy Land, the Pope had promised certain unspecified spiritual benefits to all who fought for the faith; the Church then needed to figure out exactly what these benefits were. The doctrines outlined above were elaborated to a large extent to answer this question. The Church eventually decided that going on a Crusade would remit the entire temporal penalty due to sins that had been confessed to a priest and absolved. But since not everyone could go on Crusade—women, the sick, the aged, etc.—and not everyone who wanted to go on Crusade could afford it, it was decided that if you paid the way for someone else to go on Crusade, you would receive the benefits of Crusading yourself. These benefits would be paid to you out of the Treasury of Merits, the collection of good works performed by Christ and the saints above and beyond what was necessary for their own salvation. The Pope was the custodian of this Treasury and could call a Crusade and authorize a withdrawal for the participants. (Not all the Crusades were to the Holy Land: the Reconquistà which drove the Muslims out of Spain actually began before the Crusades proper, and other Crusades were called against the Albigensians in France, pagans in the Baltic, the Hussites in Bohemia, and even the Pope's political rivals.) With the end of the Crusades, the practice of selling indulgences, as these crusading benefits were called, continued. Some were limited indulgences, which paid only for a specific period of time, say, 10 years of penance. Others were plenary indulgences, which paid the whole penalty. Leo's indulgence sale was the latter type.

Leo, of course, was not going to go out hawking indulgences on the streets. The man who was reputed to have said, "God gave us the papacy; let us enjoy it!" was not about to turn himself into a salesman. Instead, he let it be known that for a fee, he would authorize other ecclesiastical authorities to sell plenary indulgences themselves. One person who bought into the scheme was Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, in the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht wasn’t about to peddle indulgences on the corner any more than the Pope was, so he sub-contracted the indulgences sale to the Dominicans, an order of friars founded in the 13th century to supply the Church with preachers and expert theologians. The Dominicans would sell the indulgences and take a cut of the profits; the rest would go to Albrecht to recoup the money he had paid Leo to hold the indulgence sale; Leo used Albrecht’s money to help pay back the loan he had gotten from the Fugger bank to build St. Peter’s Basilica.

Unfortunately, the Dominicans were not above twisting the theology of indulgences to make more sales. One of them, Johan Tetzel by name, was a master of the hard sell and was generally the sort of person who gave used car salesmen a bad name. He literally would tell his listeners that his indulgences were so good that even if you had violated the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, this would get you off the hook. He told people repentance wasn't necessary for the indulgences to work and that it was a virtual ticket to Heaven regardless of what you had done or would do. And when he couldn’t get any more sales from that, he ratcheted things up a bit more. If you are not worried about yourself, what about your dearly departed mother languishing perhaps for thousands of years in Purgatory? Were you to spend but a few coins on an indulgence, she would be released to go directly into Heaven. After going on about this for a while, Tetzel would end with a little jingle: "As soon as the coin in the coin box rings, another soul from Purgatory springs!" (It rhymes in German, too.) There was no mention that indulgences applied only to sins already committed, confessed to a priest and absolved, only to the temporal penalties due to such sins, etc.

The Indulgence Controversy and the 95 Theses

This indulgence sale upset many people. Among them was Elector Frederick the Wise, the prince of Electoral Saxony and one of the people who elected the Holy Roman Emperor. He opposed the indulgence sale for two basic reasons. First, it meant that money his people were producing in Saxony was being sent out of the country to Mainz and ultimately to Rome, thereby hurting the prosperity of Electoral Saxony. In fact, Frederick suspected the whole thing was a scam designed to enrich Italy at the expense of Germany. Second, in addition to using his revenues from silver mining to build the University of Wittenberg, he had also spent a great deal of it purchasing relics; in fact, he had one of the largest relic collections ever assembled. People went on pilgrimages to view these relics—further enriching Saxony's coffers—and Frederick was afraid that the indulgence sale would hurt business. So Frederick simply banned the Dominicans from his territories; Tetzel and company were forbidden to set foot in Saxony, and thus the indulgence sale had none of the negative consequences that Frederick feared.

This wasn't the end of the matter, however. The University of Wittenberg had picked up a star theologian from the University of Erfurt, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. He had begun work as a Bachelor lecturer at Wittenberg, then completed his doctorate in theology a few years later. Luther was very proud of that doctorate, and always referred to himself as Herr Dr. Luther. Luther had  new approach to theology based on the insights he gained from his Tower Experience; he and his students had converted the rest of the theological faculty at Wittenberg to his way of thinking. And like Frederick, Luther was also upset about the indulgence sale, though more for theological reasons, and thus he decided to back up his prince by doing what theologians did in the sixteenth century: he challenged the Dominicans to a debate. Debates were the standard academic exercise of the period, more or less like a combination of term papers and exams today. The protocol involved first writing a list of propositions, or theses, in Latin (the language of academia), which the debater was willing to defend against either specified individuals or all comers. He then posted the theses along with information on the time and place of the debate on the University bulletin board. In theological debates, the theses also had to be sent to the person's spiritual superior to be checked for heresy. Luther wrote a series of theses against the abuses of this indulgence sale—ninety-five of them, to be exact—and posted them on the University bulletin board, the church door at Wittenberg. This has often been portrayed as a great act of defiance, as Luther boldly challenging the corruption of the Church. Actually, it was more like an act of conformity. All Luther was doing was following standard procedures for debate in an attempt to defend what he thought was good church doctrine against the abuses of the Dominicans. Although the debate never took place (remember, the Dominicans couldn't enter Saxony), two things came together to make the 95 Theses an enormously controversial event.

First, following standard procedures, Luther sent a copy of the theses to his spiritual superior, who happened to be Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Like Queen Victoria, he was not amused. Second, some of Luther's students got hold of the theses, thought, "this is really hot stuff," and sent them off to a printer AFTER TRANSLATING THEM INTO GERMAN. Much to everyone's surprise, the 95 Theses became a runaway best seller, with translations following into most European languages. Despite the best efforts of professors since then, this was the only time in history that an academic exercise has generated such an incredible volume of sales. Luther thus unexpectedly found himself at the center of an international controversy over indulgences.