Indulgences Controversy and the Start of the Reformation
In 1516-17, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Roman Catholic theology, an “indulgence” is the remission of punishment because a sin already committed has been forgiven; the indulgence is granted by the church when the sinner confesses and receives absolution. When an indulgence is given, the church is extending merit to a sinner from its Treasure House of Merit, an accumulation of merits it has collected based on the good deeds of the saints. These merits could be bought and sold.
On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “[a]s soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” insisting that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
According to Philip Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther nailed a copy of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that same day — church doors acting as the bulletin boards of his time — an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation, and celebrated every October 31 as Reformation Day. Some scholars have questioned the accuracy of Melanchthon’s account, noting that no contemporaneous evidence exists for it. Others have countered that no such evidence is necessary, because this was the customary way of advertising an event on a university campus in Luther’s day.
The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be fanned by the printing press. Within two weeks, the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.