Comparing a religious exercise with a gambling game may seem odd at one end of the spectrum, while at the other extreme such a description may appear grossly offensive, because of its blasphemous and sacrilegious nature. By employing this terminology, however, historian Ronald Bainton finds the spark that ignited the revolution that we today call The Protestant Reformation. The practice of indulgences so infuriated and disgusted Martin Luther, the preacher, priest and professor from Wittenberg, that he could not be silent. Bingo halls, as is the case with all forms of gambling, are successful profit-making ventures for the proprietors of the business, as long as there are people foolish enough to part with their money, in the hope that ‘their number will come up’, and make them rich.
In the sixteenth century, indulgences were a most successful money-making scheme, run by the Church, because the faithful were willing to pay for religious favour. As in every gambling game, however, the player always and inevitably loses, so it was, and is with indulgences. It was this point which so incensed Martin Luther. Around him, fellow Germans were seeking forgiveness for their sins, attempting to shorten their terms in purgatory, or their relatives’ sojourns in what we know to be a mythical place, on the basis of buying favour. By 1517, Martin Luther knew that forgiveness was the act of God conferred only by grace and received by faith. The very thought that his fellow Germans were gambling with their souls, buying what they could not receive by money, so horrified him that he must speak out. Therefore the Church had launched, this audacious scheme, which made her very rich, while the players, the devout and the ignorant, were gambling with their eternal destiny. Yes, the description is sound. Indulgences were absolutely the bingo of the sixteenth century, with catastrophic results.
How then did the Church, which bears Christ’s name, so degenerate that indulgences became acceptable and widespread?
The origin of indulgences can be traced to the crusades. Those who fought in the wars against the Moslem Turks to capture the Holy Land were awarded religious favour. Then the Church began granting spiritual favour to those who could not go, but who were willing to finance the military expeditions. As with radical Islam today, the Church was responsible for its own ‘Christianised Jihad’. Blood was shed in Christ’s name, attempting to extend His Kingdom with the sword, while forgiveness and grace were offered to those who died, suffered or contributed financially.
While the Crusades proved to be a costly failure both in terms of money and lives lost, the Church discovered the financial potential of the indulgence.
Across Europe, the practice was endemic. In Luther’s Wittenberg, his patron and prince Frederick the Wise had at great expense collected an extensive array of relics for display annually on All Saints Day, 1st November. By 1520, this collection amounted to 19,013 holy bones. Frederick claimed to have possession of a tooth of St Jerome, four pieces of St Augustine, four hairs of Our Lady, three pieces of her cloak, one piece from Christ’s swaddling clothes, one piece of gold brought by the wise men and thousands of other such artefacts. Those who paid to view these relics on All Saints Day were promised a reduction of 1,902,202 years and 270 days in Purgatory. Luther had grown unhappy with Frederick’s collection and in 1516 preached against them. This was extraordinarily brave, because Frederick had given him the position of Professor of Theology, and Martin depended upon his continued patronage. Frederick, himself, depended upon the money generated by his relics to advance the prosperity of Wittenberg and of Saxony. Among other things he had earmarked some of his profits for a bridge over the River Elbe! While Frederick’s relics did help to focus Luther’s mind, a controversy between a German Professor and his Prince was not going to hit ‘the international news headlines.’
All of this was to change in 1517. Prince Albert, of Brandenburg, who had already held two bishoprics, aspired to be Archbishop of Mainz, which would make him the Primate of All Germany. Coveting this position of unrivalled power in the temporal and ecclesiastical realms, Albert was obliged to pay the Vatican ten thousand ducats, which he could not afford. Leo X, however, was in dire need of the revenue himself for the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica, commenced by his predecessor. Therefore, the two men struck a deal. They would offer a new indulgence throughout Albert’s German territories with the two men dividing the proceeds. Those who subscribed were promised a plenary and perfect remission of all sins and be relieved of all the pains of Purgatory. The indulgence could be purchased on behalf of those in Purgatory without a need for personal repentance.
The vendor was a Dominican Monk called Johann Tetzel. Historically, he is recorded as one who employed the most scandalous means of persuading people to purchase. In his own time, he was partially blamed for Luther’s Reformation, even though he was only performing the will of his Pontiff. Preceded by a cross bearing the Papal Arms he established himself in the market place of town after town, offering this indulgence quoting the rhyme:
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs”
Tetzel was a skilled orator who could play on the emotions of the people, describing the terrible groanings of their loved ones in Purgatory and therefore extracting every last penny.
JThe God who controls all events, however, would make use of Frederick’s relics to protect Martin Luther and to give him a platform at this critical place in European history. Frederick was none too happy with the agreement between Albert and Leo X, because ultimately it threatened his own indulgence, which was offered annually on All Saint’s Day. Therefore, he banned Tetzel from Saxony. When Martin Luther heard of Tetzel’s activities across the Elbe, however, he was compelled to speak out and in so doing would receive the protection of his Prince.
Martin Luther’s discovery that “the just shall live by faith” was something too precious to hide. He must sound the warning, he must initiate theological debate, he must stop this trade in the souls of men and women.
Do we need to sound the same note of warning today? Do indulgences still exist or are they are they a relic of our medieval past? Within the Roman Catholic Church today, indulgences remain a vital element of the devotions of the faithful. Are not the payments given to the Priests as they perform Masses for the Dead, in order to shorten their terms in Purgatory, the same as Tetzel’s market stall in 16th century Germany? Purgatory, which is unmentioned in the Scriptures, has been the most profitable money-making scheme in all of history. We must denounce this system as a spiritual scam of the worst kind. There is no way of knowing if the soul has been released; the individual must ‘pay and pay and pay’, while only the Roman Church profits.
From 8th December 2015 to 20th November 2016, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated a Jubilee Year. As part of this special year, Pope Francis offered a Plenary Indulgence. This offered those who fulfilled certain conditions complete remission for one particular sin. The conditions laid down for receiving this indulgence included some form of good work or a spiritual pilgrimage. While money was not directly stipulated, the visitor to any of the famous shrines at Lourdes, Fatima or Knock will discover that with the increased footfall of religious tourists the more wealth is generated. The offer of complete remission for one sin, either for yourself or a loved one in Purgatory, seems almost derisory as there are ten thousand other sins crying out for purging. How many years must the sufferer linger in the torturous flames before every sin is purged and the soul is released into eternal bliss? As with every other question with regard to Purgatory, there are no answers. Therefore, the uncertainty and ambiguity encourages the faithful to work and pay in the hope that the term will be shortened.
What would Martin Luther have thought of Pope Francis and his Plenary Indulgence? Some sincere but misguided Roman Catholics are deceived into thinking that the Church has changed since Luther’s day and that he would be quite happy to be within the ‘Papal Fold’ in this 21st Century. Such thinking misunderstands the theological questions that Luther raised. The Roman Church still advocates forgiveness on the basis of human merit. Martin Luther’s ‘eureka’ moment was when he discovered that one can have complete assurance through faith in Christ alone. He discounted the need for one to receive grace through indulgences or through the Pope and his Priests. It was his certainty of eternal life and of peace with God that so challenged him, as a foot soldier for Christ, to raise his head above the ecclesiastical parapet and fire the missiles of Biblical truth with such ferocity that the Papacy was shaken so powerfully, that it has still not fully recovered.
The war that Luther waged still continues today. Millions across the world look to the false church for hope and grace. Many are misguided into thinking that Pope Francis offers a new beginning for Christendom. Protestant Churches, rather than expose Rome and her false teachings, compromise and deal with priests as brothers. Let us pray for holy boldness to lift our voices and fight this battle for truth and the Gospel with Luther’s old battle cry on our lips:
“The Just shall live by faith.”