It began so innocently. Dr. Martin Luther, professor of theology at Wittenberg University and Augustinian friar, was disappointed, even disgusted, by something that was going on locally in Germany. He did not intend to rupture the Church, he only intended to correct an abuse within it.
Luther has been called “the best thing and the worst thing to happen to the Church.” You may see why.
In 1517, Archbishop Albert of Mainz had finished borrowed vast sums of money to pay for his church positions. He was a Prince Elector of Mainz which means he was one of the German princes who actually elected the Holy Roman Emperor. [Voltaire said “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman.” It was actually a German Empire until Napoleon finished it off in 1806. Yeah, Napoleon.] But then he bought the position of Archbishop of Magdeburg. This was a common occurrence in the Middle Ages and was the topic of furious debate. It was called “simony” from the Acts of the Apostles (8:9-24) account of Simon Magus attempting to buy the power of exorcism.
Not only did he buy his position as Archbishop of Magdeburg in 1513, the next year he bought the office of Archbishop of Main even though this was prohibited by canon law. In 1518, he became a cardinal at the age of 28.
He owed Jakob Fugger, a German mining merchant and banker, over 20,000 gold ducats for the purchases of his elevations. To repay his debts, he petitioned Pope Leo X (di Medici) to sell indulgences in Mainz.
Indulgences were completely legal according to law and doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Roman Catechism, an indulgence is a “remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." In other words, indulgences got you out of acts of penance. They were usually not sold but were dispensed for benefits and actions benefiting the church.
Enter Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was a Dominican friar who had also been a Grand Inquisitor in Poland. He was known for selling indulgences for money. This was the one who would be used by Albert of Mainz to raise money—through the sale of indulgences—to repay Jakob Fugger.
Tetzel, however, was not just selling indulgences—which was not beyond the acceptance of church—for getting out of penance. Tetzel began to sell indulgences as a guarantee against future sins. As in going to confession and, before the priest can pronounce penance, waving the indulgence through the screen and sneering at the priest.
Even more, it became a means, Tetzel proclaimed, of getting out of purgatory early. Tetzel had a chant that sounded something like, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” Mothers would buy indulgences to rescue dead children from purgatory or even for children who died unbaptized who were supposed to be in limbo.
Prince Frederick the Wise and Prince George of Saxony refused to allow such sales to go on in their provinces but the masses would simply travel Mainz to obtain the indulgences. Such people believed that these certificates granted them forgiveness of sins and began refusing to go to confessions.
Martin Luther reacted. As a professor of theology, he was incensed by the improper use of such instruments and for “buying with coin what God has already freely given.” Furthermore, it was being taught that the veneration of relics would bestow release of penance and even forgive sins.
Luther’s own prince, Frederick the Wise, was said to have had 19,000 relics. Relics which ranged from a vial of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk to a nail from the cross of Christ to straw from the manger of Jesus. There were so many frauds that Luther was said to have remarked, “I have seen five shin-bones from the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, enough nails from the cross to make a suit of armor and enough beams from the cross to build a ship!”
The grace made available to humanity through the offices and sacraments of the Church were precious to Luther, too precious to sit silently while they were being mishandled and abused.
On the night before All Saints’ Day—on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg—Martin Luther nailed a placard with 95 statements on indulgences, simony and the wealth of Church officials. It became known as The 95 Theses. On the same day, Luther mailed copies to Albert of Mainz and his own superior, the Bishop of Brandenburg.
It was never in Luther’s mind to break with the Church or even to stop the sale of indulgences. What he wanted was a wholesome, scholarly debate. What he got was the Protestant Revolution.
Keep that in mind. It really should not even be called the Reformation. Only the Roman Catholic Church could reform itself. Once Luther was excommunicated and was, effectively, outside the Church, all that was left was revolution.
End of Part One.