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A History of the Reformation in the 16th Century

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Book 3 – The Indulgences and the Theses (1517-May, 1518)

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 1

Indulgences were sweeping across the land, and John Diezel, or Tetzel, led the banner for the Roman Church. He had entered the Dominican order, taken the degree of Bachelor in 1487, and received numerous honors for his work by the Roman Church. He was one of the chief abusers of the indulgence, and saw them as God’s precious gifts on earth.

Tetzel had a patter that he followed whenever entering a town in order to sell indulgences. He played upon the hearts of the people, as well as their superstitions and ignorance. It was visual as well as speech oriented. He promised four graces to those who would buy an indulgence for the building of St. Peter’s Basillica: 1) full pardon of every sin, 2) the right of choosing a confessor when they were near to death and needed one, 3) a participating in all the blessings and works of the Catholic Church, and 4) the redemption of the souls that were in purgatory.

Those buying the indulgence dropped the coin into the chest. No one was allowed to take the money, lest the hand of the receiver would prove unfaithful. The buyer was handed a letter of absolution, and they went on their way “forgiven.” Some historians record that those managing the chest of money often spent it in taverns, gambling houses and places of “ill fame.” But the security of the moneybox was divided between three men who had three keys, Tetzel being one of them.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 2

The abuses of Tetzel’s indulgences were readily apparent. He was a con-man in priestly garbs. For instance, he refused to absolve a rich lady unless she would pay one hundred florins in advance. He was overbearing, rude, authoritative, boastful, and “rarely” found anyone who could stand up to him.

Though Luther would be the stalwart champion against indulgences soon enough, many of the common towns people were aware of the inconsistencies that could be perceived around indulgences. One case (my favorite) is of the shoemaker. His wife had died and he was asked if he had a mass for her. The shoemaker replied he had not because he bought an indulgence that freed her from such. His witty reply to the court was that if mass was still necessary, then the Pope would be deemed a deceiver based on the indulgence, and if she had not gone straight to heaven upon her death, then it is the priest that had deceived him.

Tetzel set in motion that Reformation, in that he was the gasoline that set ablaze the torch of Luther. By his unashamed exploitation of the indulgences, he cleared the way for sound doctrine to advance and stomp out the nonsense of merited salvation. One nobleman who had heard Tetzel was upset with his preaching, conned him out of an indulgence for any sin he committed, then had Tetzel beaten for abusing his office.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 3

Pope Leo X succeeded Pope Julian, but lived an extravagate lifestyle in the same manner that Julian had previously. In some ways he exceeded him in desiring to build St. Peter’s Basilica. He spent money he did not have on advancing the Renaissance, and relied on the capital coming in from the Indulgence to continue to fund his lavish reign.

During this time, a young prince named Albert rose up in the Catholic ranks to become a cardinal. He was also an abuser of money and went into great debt, whereas he decided to utilize the Indulgence as a means of gain as well. Yet, according to Wolfgang Capito, he was responsive to good preaching and used his power to keep the monks off Luther’s back as the Reformation advanced. However, his disrespectful attitude would keep him from being useful to the Reformation to any length.

Under Albert the framing and propagation of indulgences passed between the Franciscans and Dominicans. They were torn as to who should do the “duty” since Tetzel had already made a profitable enterprise of it. It ultimately wound up in the hands of the Dominicans because of their previous reputation in the trade surrounding the selling of indulgences in Prussia, and Livonia.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 4

Luther had heard of Tetzel for the first time when he visited the churches on the request of Frederick. Luther desired, even at that time, to “make a hole” in his drum, and stop him at the abuses he was entreating upon the people. His position towards Tetzel enflamed when, during the confessions of the towns people, they came confessing their sins, but with their indulgences in hand. The Townsfolk reported back to Tetzel that Luther would not forgive them if they were relying on an indulgence to save them. Tetzel preached against Luther and scared the people into believing their indulgences were genuine and helpful. After the townspeople had reported Luther to Tetzel, Luther preached against the abuses of Tetzel and the indulgences formally. The sermon he gave was printed up and Tetzel responded to it in writing.

Duke Frederick had a dream that startled him. He was in his palace at Schweinitz with his brother Duke John. He had dreamed that God sent him a monk that was a true son of Paul the Apostle. He wrote something on paper and asked if he could hang it on the door of Wittenberg. Frederick complied. He saw the monk writing in huge letters and with a long pen that reached Rome. It startled Frederick until he understood that it was only a dream.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 5

Though Luther had preached and written against Tetzel, there was no stopping the Dominican from making his rounds and selling salvation. Luther could not allow this monk to continue profaning the Gospel, the Church and the Pope. Luther decided to post a Theses with ninety-five propositions upon it demonstrating the need to reform the indulgence. It was October 31, 1517 at high noon that he posted the document in order to have the people read it the next day on All Saint’s Day. His desire was to set forth the light of truth and make it as plain the noon-day sun. Though the document was not as bold as the current form of Reformed Theology today, it did house the basic essentials of truth and what the Reformation would turn into in the days to come.

Luther was bolder than Wycliffe and Hus, attacking not only their immoral lifestyles, but the doctrines they represented and conveyed as well. He used the axe of justification by faith alone as his foundation – which is the Gospel – and he believed every word he wrote. Later in his life, in looking back upon the moment of pounding those nails into the door and displaying the 95 Theses, Luther cannot imagine how he did it in light of all that came from it. Certainly he was somewhat aware that his propositions would reach Rome, and ultimately point to the neglect of the Pope in leading the church purely. But the Gospel cannot stay hidden once it is unleashed in the heart of the Christian. Luther, as bold as he was, acted upon the need to reform the church by the power of Christ. He was compelled to see the church return to the truths it had lost and twisted, and desired to see the people of the church cling to Jesus Christ.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 6

When the Theses was posted and read, it was taken down and printed into German and Latin. The common people as well as the scholars would read Luther’s rebel cause. Reuchlin was happy to receive them seeing that God raised up a thinker. Erasmus, in his usual sarcasm said Luther had committed two unpardonable crimes: he has attacked the Pope’s crown and the monk’s bellies. The Episcopal see of Wurzburg was filled by Lorenzo de Bibra who also exclaimed with joy that God has raised someone up at last to show the “monks a trick or two.” The Emperor Maximillian read and admired the Theses, and foresaw that Luther would become, one day, a powerful adversary against Rome.

When the Theses reached the Vatican, the outcome, upon first glance by Pope Leo, was not as bad as one would expect. Pope Leo did not seem to care about the doctrines they purported. Instead, he saw the genius of Luther shining through even in response to Sylvester Pierio who counseled the Pope that Luther was a heretic.

Though Luther would have liked to see unity come from his work, the result was ultimately the opposite. Luther hoped that the leaders of the church and scholars of the day would unite with him in endeavoring to overthrow impurity of doctrine. Instead, assaults came to him from every corner. The ideals he hoped for were soon crushed. Even his own Augustinian order came against him with condemnation.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 7

Luther wrote against the replies to Tetzel in order to vigorously contend for the truth that Tetzel was abusing. Luther certainly has a great zeal for Christians to perform good works, but not good works that would overshadow the justification given to them by God through faith. Though Luther desired to silence Tetzel, at the same time he was a bit discouraged at the response of his own friends to the truth, except that of Spalatin.
Spalatin demonstrated his friendship to Luther by his support. He used his influence in the royal courts to Luther’s advantage. Often he inquired of Luther’s expertise in theological and doctrinal matters.

Luther also conferred in the friendship of two others: Christopher Scheurl, a layman in the city of Nuremberg, and Albert Durer, the painter. Scheurl was secretary for Nuremberg, and wondered why Luther did not send him a personal copy of the Theses when they were published. Luther responded to him explaining that it was not his intention to publicly distribute them, but to keep them in close proximity in order to reform the church through debate and theological precision with those in authority.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 8

Tetzel and the Dominican monks wrote a Theses against the attacks of Luther upon their abuses. They believed that to attack the indulgence they were distributing was as bad as attacking the Pope himself. However, Tetzel felt overwhelmed by Luther’s intellectual terrorism and left the Wittenberg area. He attained the help of Conrad Wimpina, a renowned theologian in Frankfort-on-the-Oder. Wimpina wrote two lists of antitheses against Luther. However, with Tetzel’s help, not only did they attack Luther, but the Elector Frederick as well bringing reproach on anyone even aiding the reformer. Tetzel held a public disputation without inviting anyone from the Protestant side to attend simply to black face the reformed movement under Luther’s pen. However, a student by the name of John Knipstrow silence Tetzel in debate and took up arguments against Wimpina as well.

Tetzel then wrote a second Theses which moved the arena into the halls of the Vatican instead of simply against him and selling indulgences. His theses was meant to herald the loyal Catholics together for battle against Luther. When Luther heard of the theses, he called a student meeting outside the university to burn the theses. The news of this act spread through all Germany. In all this, Tetzel and Wimpina simply widened the breach already present and aggravated the circumstances that surrounded the unity of the church. As a result, those of higher rank in the Catholic Church disdained Luther all the more.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 9

When Sylvester Mazzolini of Prierio (or Prierias for short) read the ninety-five Theses of Luther, was commissioned by Pope Leo X to write against it. This was an official commission and censure against Luther. The issue now at stake was “What is the authority of the Church: the Bible or the Pope?” Prierias contended that the Scriptures could only be understood as they are interpreted by the Pope, and Luther contended that the Scriptures are the rule by which the Pope himself should be ruled. The papacy has no right to stand over the Word of God, but in subjection to it. This is the heart and crux of every debate within apologetically dealing with Rome.

While Luther debated Prierias, another monk by the name of John Hochstraten, an inquisitor in Cologne, the one who opposed Reuchlin, now attempted to oppose Luther. However, Hochstraten would not be as nearly as formidable as Dr. John Eck of Ingolstadt. Eck wrote against the 95 Theses saying that he found it to be strewn with error. His reply to Luther’s Theses was called the Obelisks. Eck was an old friend of Luther, and as a result of his malicious attacks in the document, Luther was saddened. However, Eck wrote a letter to Carlstadt apologizing for the document reaching Luther, which was not his intention.

Luther replied to Eck’s Obelisks with his own Asterisks. This was not circulated publicly until long afterward, but was given to his friends to peruse. The disagreement between these two great theologians made headline news all through Germany. Scheurl tried to have these two men reconcile, but Eck would not respond to his gracious letters. It seemed as though the time for reconciliation was over.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 10

Luther’s early struggles were to be expected with such a great rift between his Protestantism and the Roman see. Yet, even in the midst of the struggles, he was constant to write and preach that the Scriptures would edify the people of God, the student and laymen of the church. He did this through his expositions of the Lord’s Prayer and the continued plea for people to rest on the forgiveness of sin only found in Christ, and not in “good works.”

His sermons were attended with greater intent as he continued to preach. More and more people came to hear the great doctor of the church who was creating a stir, not only in the schoolmen of the day, but in the hearts of the people. One of his most famous sermons was surrounding repentance, of which still surrounds the foundation of what Protestants believe today concerning the doctrine.

Repentance and remission of sin is twofold: remission of the penalty, and remission of the sin itself. The first reconciles men in the visible church, and the second reconciles men to God. Nothing else will be able to help a man to heaven unless these two have been experienced first. The power of this remission rests solely on the Word of God and on Jesus Christ. These words of forgiveness were those which the people of God were unfamiliar, but were being made more familiar as Luther continued his service to the church.

History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 3, Chapter 11

In 1518 Luther’s Augustinian order summoned him to Heidelberg. He took with him a friend named Urban who accompanied him until they reached Wurtzburg. Frederick had given him a letter to give to Count Palatine Wolfgang, Duke of Bavaria where he resided at his castle for a time. Here he had a very friendly reception.

While Luther was here, he wrote down a series of theses that he called his Paradoxes. These were public disputations to challenge the university at Heidelberg towards reformation, where he traveled to be received by the Augustinian monks. His presence attracted all sorts of people, and five doctors of divinity present attacked the theses. One went blow by blow with Luther, named George Niger, but did not have the skill to overcome Luther, nor the understanding of the Word of God to overthrow his arguments.

Three men that would later prove useful attended the debate – Martin Bucer, John Brentz, and a young man named Snepf. Bucer took time to talk with Luther, and it seems, from Luther’s debate and use of the Word of God that Bucer was won over to Christ and the cause of the Protestant Reformation. These three men, though, became shining lights of the church later, strengthening the Protestant cause in which they were called.

Luther returned to Wittenberg with the help of the Augustinians who favored him with a carriage. Upon his reception and return, he rested to continue his work and the toils that would become more intense as time went on.

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