Thursday, November 09, 2006

On Indulgences and the Reformation

It's not often that I would direct readers to Father Patrick O’Hare’s book, The Facts About Luther. Now, this is one of the worst biographies available in print about Luther. But, I found an interesting section in which Father O’Hare whitewashes the utter shambles that the Church was in at the time of the Reformation:

Julius II had it brought under his notice that the ancient basilica of St. Peter, which had been given to the Church by the Emperor Constantine, was now falling into decay. He determined to use the opportunity and to employ all the architectural talent of that brilliant period in order to erect a new basilica in its place, which by its magnificence should be worthy of its position as the memorial of the great Apostle and the central church of the Catholic world. Julius II commenced the work and devoted large sums to its accomplishment. These, however, were far from sufficient, and it became evident that the cost of a building of such magnitude could be defrayed only by a successful appeal to the piety of the Christian world. Accordingly, Leo X, the successor of Julius, who died in 1513, proclaimed an Indulgence; that is to say, he granted an Indulgence of a most simple kind to all, wherever they might be, who would contribute according to their means towards the expense of the rising edifice”[Source: Father Patrick O’Hare, The Facts About Luther (Reprint 1987) Tan Publishers, 60-61].

Now, the corruption of the practice of indulgences was far more complicated. The practice over time developed, or should I say, became corrupted. The indulgence developed from the practice of penance. The indulgence originally was a granted permission to relax or commute the penance imposed upon a repentant sinner as an outward sign of sorrow. It was the opportunity to substitute one penalty for another. The original intent was to help the penitent. Serious sins required extreme satisfaction. If the penitent was unable to perform acts of extreme satisfaction due to health reasons or extenuating circumstances, the church in its mercy allowed a substitution: often amounted to a reduction in the satisfaction required, or, as it developed giving money.

Pope Boniface VIII (14th century) made use of the idea of a “general” indulgence. Certain times a year/years (like every 100 years) pilgrims could come to Rome and could receive a general indulgence: the removal of all the penalties for their sins. This general indulgence also required one to engage in the whole scope of penance (contrition and confession) as well the payment of certain amount of money. Through this, the original intent of the personal, internalized sacrament of penance became external and commercialized. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) declared that general indulgences could apply also to the dead. By this he increased money revenue.

Also worth mentioning is the development of a type of indulgence granted to soldiers who fought for the Papacy against Islam. Remember, Mohammed had let his soldiers know that everyone who died fighting for Isalm would be immediately allowed into paradise. What of the Papal army? Pope Leo IV gave assurances to his troops they would likewise receive a heavenly reward. John VIII promised those going on the crusade absolution for their sins. Leo IX used the promise of a remission of penance in his recruiting of troops. Eventually, the forgiveness granted included not only those involved in penance, but purgatory as well.

Now about Luther. A few points. There was no complete dogma on the indulgence when Luther posted the 95 Theses. There was no official doctrine as to the effect of the indulgence upon Purgatory. Hence, Luther was not really a heretic (in official “Thus spoke Rome” terms). The Roman Catholic Church in its political inanity attacked Luther with no good cause. It was they who went "too far", not Luther in not addressing the situation. They went as far as they could to not address the situation. Hey, if my source of income was going to be challenged, i'd fight it too. It's sinful human nature.

Interestingly, the 95 Theses does not deny the validity of the indulgence. Rather, Luther attacked and exposed the abuse of the sale of indulgences. Luther was troubled that those he was ministering to were ignoring the good works he was directing them towards, but rather were purchasing indulgences as a means of satisfaction. They were also being purchased to alleviate suffering of those in Purgatory.

A Roman Catholic once suggested to me that “an abuse of a doctrine or practice does not make the entire system null and void nor the principle behind the doctrine untrue.” Luther came to realize that the entire system of indulgences was non-biblical and non-Christian. For the perfect work of Christ requires no indulgence. Luther said, “The indulgences are not a pious fraud, but an infernal, diabolical, antichristian fraud, larceny, and robbery, whereby the Roman Nimrod and teacher of sin peddles sin and hell to the whole world and sucks and entices away everybody’s money as the price of this unspeakable harm.”

In Biblical terms,

"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”

In other words, Christ has paid the penalty for my sin, I do not need an indulgence. My righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ, given to me as a gift. My perfect works are Christ’s works, given to me as a gift.


FM483 said...

James, as usual this was an informative blog. You concluded with the following:

"My righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ, given to me as a gift. My perfect works are Christ’s works, given to me as a gift."

Although what you state is biblically true, the dividing question is how does one receive this gift of the forgiveness of sins and the Righteousness of Christ? This may seem an odd question but goes to the heart of divisions within Christianity. The Lutheran understanding is that this gift is received through the vehicle of FAITH, which itself is a gift. God implants saving faith in a person, who in turn is able to receive the gifts of the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit from God. Biblically speaking, faith comes from hearing the Gospel(Romans 10:17). In Acts 2:38ff and elsewhere we also see that these gifts come through baptism, which is God's work or Means of Grace.

Frank Marron

James Swan said...

The Lutheran understanding is that this gift is received through the vehicle of FAITH, which itself is a gift. God implants saving faith in a person, who in turn is able to receive the gifts of the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit from God.

Frank, On the surface, I don't see anything that would seperate us on this point, though i realize theology is discipline of fine distinctions. On my sidebar, click on the Heidelberg Catechism link, and take a look at Lord's Day 23-27.


FM483 said...

James, I looked through 23-27 in the Heidelberg Catechism as you suggested. A couple of comments are:

Question 60 on the Lord’s Day 23 concluded that a person is granted the righteousness of Christ “…if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.” Unless I am mistaken, this is a poor choice of words, implying that a man must actually do something in order to receive the imputation of the righteousness of Christ – he must “accept such benefit with a believing heart”. The Lutheran and biblical understanding is expressed wellby Martin Luther in his comments on the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

The Lutheran understanding is that a believer is a passive recipient of salvation, unable to do anything except continue to sin and resist the Holy Spirit’s work. One bible verse that I could not find in the Heidelberg Catechism(HC) on this general subject was Romans 10:17, which states that saving faith comes via the Gospel. The HC seemed to use the words “faith” and “believe” quite liberally, but failed to describe how God says it all comes about. Lutherans are real big on this issue, seeing the preaching of the Word, the Gospel, as a Means of Grace – the method by which saving faith is miraculously created in a person. The HC quoted Ephesians 2:8-9 to demonstrate that faith is a gift, but I couldn’t readily discern how the gift is received by a man. The Lutheran, and Scriptural understanding is that faith is the vehicle by which a man receives the benefits of what was accomplished by Christ on Calvary 2000 years ago. This faith is generatedmiraculously through the Means of Grace: through hearing the Word, in Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. All these Meansof Grace convey the forgiveness of sins won by the atonement of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit Who always accompanies the Word.The Sacraments are often referred to as the “visible Word” since they are a combination of the Word of Christ and a physical element – water in baptism and bread and winein the Supper. I noticed the HC frequently quotes Scripture which refers to the “washing of regeneration”, as in Titus 3:5. The Lutheran understanding is all these verses refer to the work of God in baptism, the Means of Grace by which God imputes to men the benefits of everything won by Christ on the cross. From my perspective, without a proper understanding of the Means of Grace we are never certain as to how the work of Christ in time/space/history is applicable to a man today. Luther’s Works,vol 37, page 192 states:

“The blind fool does not know that the merit of Christ and the distribution of merit are two different things…Christ has once for all merited and won for us the forgiveness of sins on the cross; but this forgiveness He distributes wherever He is, at all times, and in all places, in His Word and Sacraments.”

In vol 40, page 214 Luther states:

“ If I now seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the sufferings of Christ…in mere knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the Sacrament or Gospel the Word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives me the forgiveness which was won on the cross.”

Note that Luther and the Lutheran Confessions distinguish between “faith” and “saving faith”. It is easy to believe in the historicity of Jesus and the apostles. It is an entirely different matter to believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for me personally – for the forgiveness of my personal sins. The Sacraments bring the assurance of salvation and the peace of God for believers. I see, touch, feel, and hear the pronouncements of God in Christ for me.

Frank Marron

MichaelCrown said...

You have done a lot of serious, balanced research.
However I still see Luther's faith based salvation as not only crazy, baseless and amoral, but the key thing in his whole system is his ignorance of the progressive revelation of the saints.
Which saints, of infinitely more goodness than ole potty mouth Martin, testify that his doctrine is patently absurd, and leads souls to failure. Basically Lutherism's denial of the saints and the truths they got from Heaven, in favor of highly problematic biblical texts, this is a huge error, into which the human race has fallen into a pit of ignorance of the Way He gave to his disciplined ones over the last 2000 years.
Catholic failures to uphold the Way revealed to the saints also leads souls to failure, by lukewarm striving, indulging themselves instead of applying the Law.
By the way, I haven't seen you address the items in chapter 9 about Luther's gross verbage. Is that also Catholic disinformation?