It recently occurred to me that next year will be the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Next year, 2017, will mark 500 years since Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses and nailed it to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517.
This was not the act of one protesting all things Catholic by desecrating the door of a cathedral. Luther had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. He was serving the congregation at Wittenberg while teaching at the university. It was apparently customary to post notices of church functions on the door which served as a type of bulletin board. The posting of Luther’s 95 Theses was an invitation for people to come and discuss the sale of indulgences which Luther considered an abuse of the church’s authority.
Indulgences were the means by which the Roman Catholic leaders were said to remit temporal punishments for sin. Catholic doctrine held that sin inflicted both eternal and temporal punishment. Eternal punishment could be remitted through absolution granted by a priest upon confession of one’s sins. But there remained temporal punishment which could be remitted through acts of penance imposed by the priest.
Penance is derived from the Latin word for penalty and is a disciplinary measure with the goal of helping the penitent to live a holier life. Acts of penance may include prayers, acts of mercy, or self-denial. Penance left undone was thought to lengthen one’s time in purgatory, an intermediate state after death in which those destined for heaven would suffer temporal punishment to purge their sins.
There eventually came the perceived necessity of reducing the severity of penance or purgatory. This was first necessitated by the long periods of penance assigned to those who had compromised their faith during the third century persecution under Decius. Their temporal punishment could be reduced if the merits of those who held to their confession or were martyred during persecution could be credited to those who had lapsed. This was said to take place upon approval of church authority.
The Council of Ancyra, in 314, allowed indulgences to generally credit the meritorious sufferings of departed saints to those seeking relief from penance. By the tenth century, some penances were reduced to charitable donations, pilgrimages, or other meritorious works. It was just a matter of time before penance was optional to those who could afford to make sizeable church donations in exchange for an indulgence. By the eleventh century, indulgences were offered to those willing to fight in the Crusades
The merits of both Christ and the saints were later said to be held in a Treasury of Merit stored up in heaven, proposed by Hugh of St-Cher in 1230. The merits of Christ and the saints were said to be at the church’s disposal and distributed according to church authority.
What was Luther’s problem with this system for dealing with sin and how did he respond? More later.