Q:  What are Indulgences and what part did they play in the Reformation?

My Friend,

In regards to my falling out with the Roman Catholic church in 1517, a reasonable definition of Indulgence would be: “a pardon or release from the expectation of punishment in purgatory, after the sinner has been granted absolution.”

As part of a fund-raising campaign commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest and papal commissioner for indulgences, began selling indulgences in the German territories.

On October 31, 1517, I wrote a letter to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences in his territories and inviting him to a discussion of the matter. I enclosed 95 Theses (or discussion points) covering indulgences and numerous other topics, and posted a copy on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

In my letter and in the posted theses I objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”; and insisted that since pardons were God’s alone to grant, those who claimed indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, I emphasized, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

While indulgences were one of the concerns expressed in the 95 Theses, many other concerns were also raised.

Several other theologians during this time were becoming disenchanted with the Roman Catholic Church, but the posting of the 95 Theses is recognized as the central element of what today is seen as the Protestant Reformation, especially as it originated in Germany.

Your Brother in Christ

Martin Luther