Martin Luther and Indulgences
In the early sixteenth century, Pope Leo X decided that the Basilica in Rome needed renovations. With the help of the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht, he devised a scheme to sell indulgences to fund the project. Indulgences allowed a Christian, upon purchase, to set a loved one free from Purgatory. Leo X and Albrecht sought to popularize indulgences and enlisted Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican Monk, to advertise them in Germany. Tetzel’s slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings, from Purgatory the soul springs.”
Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk and university professor, was deeply offended and contested that sola fides, salvation through faith alone, was all that was needed to save a person’s soul. In Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, Luther posted his “95 theses” on the castle gate to protest the Catholic Church’s nefarious ways.
Initially, the subversive monk only intended to censure the Church’s misdeeds and hoped the papacy would heed his plea to make the necessary reforms. The Church, however, enjoyed power and money too much to change, so they had Luther excommunicated.
Frustrated with the Church’s negligence, Luther, perhaps reluctantly, formed his own church, with principles he believed the Catholic Church lacked. One of these principles was sola fides, already mentioned. Another was sola scriptura, the Bible is the only true Word.
One of his grievances with the Church was how their priests preached one interpretation of the Bible, an interpretation that largely served the Church’s own agenda rather than solely to benefit the spirituality of its listeners. Luther argued that there should be a “priesthood of all believers,” that is, individuals should be permitted to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This could bolster them against absurd pitfalls, like buying indulgences.
Luther's Influence Leaves a Muddled Legacy
The direction Christianity took because of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t entirely free of its own debauchery. Often, the German princes, serving more ignoble motives than the monk intended, allied with and protected Luther, doing so more for political reasons rather than religious ones. Phillip of Hesse wanted to marry another woman and keep his current wife. Luther posited that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were polygamous, and that there was nothing deeply depraved about following their practices. Other princes sought to strengthen their own positions while weakening the Church’s hold over Europe. In Luther, and the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the princes saw an opportunity to undermine the Church’s authority. Protestants did not owe allegiance to the Pope, and therefore, could be controlled by local secular leaders.
Meanwhile, the Catholics were not without their champions. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, relied on the power of the Church to protect his title. The Emperor’s position was an elected one, chosen by powerful Catholic leaders throughout Europe. To maintain that position, Charles V waged war upon the Reformed Christians of Europe.
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