Indulgences grew out of the system of penance developed by the Catholic Church. In an indulgence, the Catholic Church allowed the penitent to substitute a cash payment for other forms of satisfaction. The Church would even issue an official statement saying that one had been released from other penalties. It was this official document that was called an indulgence. Additionally, one could purchase indulgences for those who were dead, to reduce their time in purgatory. This was based on the Catholic doctrine of supererogatory merit which we'll discuss later. Luther was not predisposed against indulgences, in fact at one time, lamenting over the spiritual health of his parents, he offered that, if they died, then at least through his purchase of indulgences there would be a way in which he could help them. The problem was not indulgences per se, but that the sale of indulgences had reached scandalous proportions.
The most notorious of the indulgence salesmen was a Dominican friar by the name of Johan Tetzel. Tetzel's territory included the area of Wittenberg. His sales pitch included the infamous: "The moment you hear your money drop in the box, your mother will jump out of purgatory."
The Ninety-five Theses
With his newfound peace—many would say as a result of his recent conversion while reading Romans 1:17—Luther could no longer tolerate the crass abuses of the church, personified by Tetzel. He went to his cell and put down his views in the form of ninety-five theses. Around noon on October 31, 1517, he nailed the theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It should be noted that this was a common practice among academics of the time. Scholars would post theses (propositions) on any number of topics and challenge one another to public debates. This was not the Reformation: Luther did not advocate a schism. But it was the first shot across the bow.
Here are a few examples:
28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.
86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"
At this time, Luther was thirty-four years old. The most striking thing about the theses is that they were far from central. They were concerned with relatively minor issues—questions of related to the sacraments, purgatory, and to indulgences and some criticisms of the pope. Nowhere in the 95 theses did Luther defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The theses included a general challenge to a debate. The challenge was not accepted for two years. The news of the theses spread throughout Germany. Here we see God's providence at work. The ruler of Saxony (the area that includes Wittenberg) was one Frederick the Wise. Frederick was a very pious Catholic. He had collected thousands of relics from all over Christendom. The Castle Church, whose door Luther utilized, had been built by Frederick to house the relics. He would put them on display for the public on All Saint's Day, November 1st. Thus when Luther posted on All Saint's Eve, the area was crowded with pilgrims who copied the theses and returned home to cities throughout Germany, spreading the word. Furthermore, printing had been invented, and soon the theses were translated from Latin into a number of languages, printed, and sent to cities throughout Europe. The effect was tremendous, and almost stopped the sale of indulgences.
The archbishop of Mainz, who was to receive a cut of all the proceeds from indulgences sold by Tetzel, was not thrilled. He sent a copy of the theses to Pope Leo X in Rome. At first, Leo did not regard it as a serious matter. He simply advised Luther's superiors to tell Luther to keep quiet. A theology professor by the name of John Eck rebutted Luther in a pamphlet. Luther countered with a pamphlet of his own. In April, 1518, the monasteries of the Augustinian Order held their annual meeting in Heidelberg. Luther encountered strong but mostly congenial opposition.
Upon return, Luther wrote a book entitled Resolutions, addressed to the pope, in which he carefully defended his theses, point by point. It has been said that from this time on, Luther lived in a glass house. Every word he spoke, and every word he wrote was carefully analyzed.
Luther Summoned to Rome
The popularization of Luther and his theses hit the pope in two places: it challenged his power and it cost him funds. When the pope was told that the meeting of the Augustinians had not silenced Luther, he summoned Luther to Rome, in July 1518. If Luther had responded to this summons, it probably would have meant death. Fortunately Luther had a friend in the Elector Frederick (the Wise). He also had some history on his side: for years the German people had grievances against the Italian popes. A bit of German nationalism was Luther's friend.
Frederick had actually forbidden Tetzel to sell indulgences in Saxony—he did not want his country's money ending up in Rome. Furthermore, the university in Wittenberg was Frederick's pride and joy, and Luther was now its most famous professor. Frederick used all his influence to have the summons to Rome revoked. The reason the pope listened to Frederick was likely political. The emperor at the time, Maximilian, was dying. Frederick was one of three likely successors, and the one favored by the pope—who believed that Frederick would be easy to control. The pope granted Frederick's request, both to signal favor toward him and a false signal that he had great respect for Frederick's authority.
At this time, the pope's legate, Cardinal Cajetan, was in Germany to attend a diet in Augsburg. The pope sent Cajetan a letter empowering him to summon Luther for an appearance. Cajetan was to speak to Luther in Augsburg and persuade him to recant. If Luther did not recant, Cajetan was to have him bound and sent to Rome. Having previously declared that Luther was "suspected" of heresy, the pope now dropped all pretenses and openly described Luther as a notorious heretic. Luther was once again in grave danger. And once again, his patron Frederick came to his assistance. This time Frederick used his influence to obtain from the sickly Maximilian a promise of safe passage for Luther. In October, 1518, Luther had three meetings with Cajetan, who by all accounts was imperious and arrogant. The discussions were hot and furious. In the end, Luther refused to recant. He stole away from Augsburg secretly in the night. Cajetan, having failed, appealed to the pope to make an official pronouncement. The pope took an interesting approach. Without mentioning Luther by name, he issued a bull in which he declared that certain statements made by certain monks regarding indulgences were heretical. From then on, Luther could no longer make his claims while contending that the Church had not officially ruled on the matter.
In January 1519, the emperor Maximilian died. The pope busied himself in his effort to get Frederick the Wise selected.
The Debate with Eck
One of Luther's university colleagues, Andreas Carlstadt, came out with a set of theses against Eck, professor of theology at the university in Ingolstadt. Eck was that man who had written a pamphlet attacking Luther's 95 theses. Eck responded to Carlstadt with his own theses in which he expounded an extreme view of papal supremacy. Luther responded with counter theses of his own. In the twelfth of Luther's theses, he argued that the claim of Roman supremacy over all other churches rested on only weak papal bulls of the previous four hundred years, and for the eleven hundred years before that, no such supremacy had existed. The indulgences battle had a call for "internal reform." The challenge to Roman authority had the earmarks of schism. An attack such as this on the papacy, from a man of Luther's stature, was unprecedented. Eck (who may have been out to trap Luther) challenged Luther to a debate on papal supremacy. This debate was schedule for nine months later! During that time, Luther studied intensely, looking for arguments useful for refuting a doctrine that he had cherished most of his life. He engaged himself in a study of church history and canon law, and was dismayed to discover that many decretals of the church were forgeries.
The debate (disputation) took place in the city of Leipzig. In the debate, Luther held the strategic advantage, in that he based his arguments on fact, using the historical process. Luther pointed out that the Eastern Greek Church had never acknowledged the supremacy of the bishops of Rome. Yet, it was admitted by all, that the Eastern Church was Christian. In addition, Luther noted that the great ecumenical councils of the early centuries did not teach the supremacy of the papacy.
Following the Leipzig debate, the supporters of Luther grew. Among those who joined in Luther's cause was Martin Bucer (1491-1551). In time, Bucer would become a leading Reformer in Strassburg and a colleague of John Calvin. Besides gaining more converts, a second result of the debate at Leipzig was that Luther's own thinking was solidified. His motive all along was to reform the Catholic Church, not to leave it. But now Luther had publicly rejected the supremacy of the pope and the infallibility of the Church councils. The Leipzig debate main it painfully clear that irreconcilable differences existed between Luther and Rome. At this point, everything was in place. Luther was in a position where reconciliation was impossible. He also had a large following. Schism was just ahead. Soon after the debate, Eck went to Rome to recommend Luther's excommunication. The pope complied.
On June 15, 1520 1, Pope Leo ratified and signed the bull that officially excommunicated Luther. The papal bull had this preamble:
Arise, O Lord, plead Thine own cause; remember how the foolish man reproacheth Thee daily; the foxes are wasting Thy vineyard which Thou hast given to Thy Vicar Peter; the boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.The bull went on to condemn forty-one propositions attributed to Luther. It was not his evangelical principles which were attacked but only his oppositions to the practices of the Roman Church. Finally, the bull ordered that all of Luther's writings be burned. One of the propositions of Luther which it condemned was Luther’s position that “certain articles of John Huss condemned at the Council of Constance are most Christian, true, and evangelical, which the universal Church cannot condemn.” Luther snarkily replied: I was wrong. I retract the statement that certain articles of John Huss are evangelical. I say now, “Not some but all the articles of John Huss were condemned by Antichrist and his apostles in the synagogue of Satan.” And to your face, most holy Vicar of God, I say freely that all the condemned articles of John Huss are evangelical and Christian, and yours are downright impious and diabolical.
Luther also decided to respond in kind to Rome’s order to burn his books. On December 10, 1520, a large crowd gathered outside the walls of Wittenberg. Under Luther’s direction they burned the books of canon law as well as the papal bull.
The Diet of Worms
Pope Leo had done all he could do. After excommunication, the Church had officially played its best ecclesiastical hand. The only thing left is to turn to the secular arm, which meant to seek Luther’s execution. Recall that the pope had hoped and lobbied for the election of Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, as Emperor but Frederick did not seek the office. Instead Frederick threw his support behind the Charles, King of Spain, who was elected and became known as Charles V. The pope requested, and Charles agreed, to summon Luther to the Diet of Worms. Protected by an offer of safe-conduct, Luther left for Worms on April 2, 1521 2, convinced that he would never return. His journey was like a victory parade with crowds lining the street, waving and cheering as he passed by. At four o’clock in the after noon on April 17, Luther appeared before the diet. Before the Emperor, noblemen, and the papal prosecutor stood a poor and powerless priest, the son of peasants. Charles V was twenty-one and dressed in splendor. Luther was thirty-seven, and wore the robes of an Augustinian monk. An official asked Luther, pointing to a stack of books and pamphlets, “Are these your writings, and do you wish to retract them?” Luther spoke, first repeating the two questions. He answered yes to the first question, and asked to be given 24 hours to consider his answer to the second. Luther’s request for 24 hours was not a sign of wavering but a sly political move. The papal delegation wanted an immediate decision and tried to persuade Charles V to deny the request. Charles, on the other hand, did not want to appear as a papal puppet, so he granted Luther’s request. Luther, in effect, helped Charles to assert imperial authority over papal wishes. The following day, April 18, Luther returned. He spoke at length, after which the Emperor demanded a plain, straightforward answer to whether Luther would recant. To this Luther gave his famous response:
If the Emperor desires a plain answer, I will give it to him. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me. I cannot do otherwise.The Emperor gave a sign that the meeting was over. Luther turned and left the tribunal. A few days later, Luther was ordered to leave Worms and return to Wittenberg. The plan was, after the promise of safe conduct was nominally provided, that Luther would be seized and put to death as a heretic. There is a small gate in the wall of Worms. By that gate, Luther left Worms on the night of April 26. The gate is now known as Luther’s gate. Luther traveled toward home, at times stopping to preach (which he had been forbidden to do.) On May 4, after preaching and enjoying dinner, he set out on the road. In the forest, five masked riders kidnapped him from his carriage and took him to Eisenach. This was done on the order of Frederick the Wise, who knew Luther would be seized when his safe conduct expired. Luther stayed in Frederick’s protection for ten months, before returning to Wittenberg to deal with excesses in reformational behavior. Luther had transformed the world by holding fast to a doctrine known as Justification by Faith Alone, or sola fide. This is the topic of interest.
1 1520 is cool because it is the smaller number in a Ruth-Aaron pair. A Ruth-Aaron pair is a pair of consecutive numbers such that the sums of the prime factors of and are equal. They are so named because they were inspired by the pair (714, 715) corresponding to Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, breaking Babe Ruth's earlier record of 714. These have the factorizations
(1) 714 = 2 x 3 x 7 x 17
(2) 715 = 5 x 11 x 13
and 2+3+7+17 = 5+11+13 = 29.
(1) 1520 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 5 x 19
(2) 1521 = 3 x 3 x 13 x 13
and 2+2+2+2+5+19 = 3+3+13+13 = 32
2 1521 is also cool because it is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of 4 distinct cubes in 3 ways:
1521 = 13 + 23 + 83 + 103
1521 = 13 + 43 + 53 + 113
1521 = 43 + 63 + 83 + 93