Monday, December 21, 2020

Indulge Me

 Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind, by Michael Massing.

I know that I said I was not planning to write on this book the last time I wrote on this book…but some parts are too important to pass up.  Luther’s Reformation is one of the most important events in the history of the West and in Christendom.  A brief examination of his views at the time – along with a look at what Erasmus was writing at the same time – is worthwhile, if for no other reason than the history.

In the summer of 1516, while Luther was lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther received a copy of Erasmus’s Novem Instrumentum: New Instrument, or New Testament.  Reading Erasmus’s unfavorable notes on the practices of the clergy when compared with the exhortations of the Apostle Paul, Luther’s own notes would become ever more stinging.

He would bring special attention to the sale of indulgences.  In this, he was criticizing not only the pope, but also Frederick, his protector.  Regarding the pope, if had the power to deliver souls from purgatory, why does he not deliver them all?  Why base it on a payment?

In 1517, a new indulgence would be offered, preached by the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel on behalf of the pope.  Tetzel was an expert at this practice, sending an advance crew weeks before his arrival to prepare the people for this opportunity.  Songs, flags, candles – it was a big show.  He was expert at preying on the guilt of his audience:

Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, “Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain.  From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so…. You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.”

And with this, coins would clink into the box; Tetzel would hand out the certificate, proof of salvation from this torment.  Luther would preach against this practice on February 24, 1517.  He closed his sermon:

Oh, the dangers of our time!  Oh, you snoring priests!  Oh, darkness deeper than Egyptian!  How secure we are in the midst of all our evils!

A nice close, but his sermon had little effect.  What did have effect: when his parishioners refused to refrain from adultery, usury, and other vices, they would just show Luther their indulgence letters.  Luther refused to honor these, sending the parishioners back to Tetzel to complain. 

This indulgence had an additional complication behind it: the funds were to be used to continue the construction of the new St. Peter’s in Rome.  The German nobles had little desire to continue sending such significant treasure to Rome.  Yes, it was offered by the people, but it was still wealth transferred out of the region.

Julius II, the prime mover of the project, died in 1513.  His successor, Leo X, did not have the same commitment to the project.  One could say that he was not the ideal pope for the project or for the time.  This son of Lorenzo de’ Medici inherited his father’s taste and cultivation without the drive.

He was made a priest at the age of seven, an abbot at eleven, and a cardinal at thirteen.  He was thirty-seven when elected pope.  In this, he could easily serve his self-indulgent nature: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.”  Perhaps apocryphal, but certainly capturing the spirit.

Examples of this enjoyment were easy to find: his inaugural procession was the most splendid since the time of the Roman emperors; he would lose eight-thousand ducats a month at cards; he would distribute bags of gold to those who would sing with him; he kept a menagerie of the most exotic animals; under him, the papal household grew from 200 to over 700 people.

He would spend a month every summer to hunt – but not really to hunt, as he couldn’t see very well.  When a boar was snared in a net, he would go in with a spear and a magnifying glass for the kill.  Dinners were most elaborate:

Leo loved vulgarity.  He also enjoyed theatrical pieces, the more indecent and farcical the better.

Meanwhile, the chief architect for St. Peter’s died.  A well-known artist with no architectural skills was named to replace him.  Costs skyrocketed, designs changed, controls were lacking, money was squandered.

Julius had left a large surplus in the Vatican treasury; within two years, Leo had spent it.  He announced thousands of new offices, charging thousands of ducats for those who would full these.  He borrowed heavily from the banking houses in Rome.  Finally, he expanded the offering of indulgences. 

Most importantly, he sold the archbishopric of Mainz, perhaps the most important seat in Germany as it controlled one of the seven votes to elect the Holy Roman Emperor.  Albrecht was the winner.  Qualifications were irrelevant: besides being fond of food and women, he had only a rudimentary knowledge of theology. 

The price extracted was high, as a papal dispensation was required given Albrecht’s age and other factors – adding to the standard fee for the office.  Albrecht’s Hohenzollern family would take out a loan from the Fugger’s to pay the fee, which would be repaid via half of the proceeds from the St. Peter’s indulgences.

Meanwhile, Erasmus would publish perhaps his most noticed book, albeit written anonymously.  The topic was the now deceased Julius II, the pope who preceded Leo.  The title: Julius Exclusus e Coelis (Julius Excluded from Heaven).

The book was a satire: Julius standing at the pearly gates, greeted by locked doors.  Pounding on the doors, St. Peter finally appeared asking who is making such a racket.  Julius stood, immaculately attired with a magnificent tiara and bejeweled robe.  On the robe, the letters “P.M.,” standing for Pontifex Maximus. 

“I suppose they stand for ‘Pestis Maxima’ [‘Supreme Plague’].” Peter says.  Seeing Julius’s fierce eyes and the bloody weapons clattering under his garment, he refuses to open the doors.

A long and heated exchange ensues: Julius arguing for entrance, and Peter refusing.  Julius boasts of the many measures he took as pope to enlarge the papal treasury – via arms and selling bishoprics, among other things.  Peter notes he is instructed to open the doors for those who have clothed the naked and fed the hungry, not those carrying “bulls heavy with lead.”

Back and forth they go.  “You won’t open up, then?” Julius asks.  “The last person I’d let in is a pestilent fellow like you,” says Peter.


In September 1517, Luther would publish his ninety-seven theses.  Yes…ninety-seven.  This was several weeks before his infinitely more well-known and impactful ninety-five theses.  In this less well-known list, he would go after Scholastic theology, specifically Scotus, Ockham, and Biel.  He was unsparing in his criticism of Aristotle, writing “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle,” who “is to theology as darkness is to light.”

Weeks later, he would author his ninety-five theses – after reading the pamphlet advertising the coming tour by Tetzel.  The primary difference from the longer list published a few weeks earlier?  This time, he came out strongly against indulgences.  It was this point that brought Luther to the attention of the Church and the pope.

You know the rest of the story.


  1. I would like to read a description of the issues Luther took with Aristotle. You have written on how Aristotle's philosophy looks like a good framework for other Christian ideas. And how Aquinas built Christian philosophy into that framework. It sounds like Luther challenging Aristotle was also a challenge of Aquinas.

    I know from How Should We Then Live? ( that scientists were finding inaccuracies in how Aristotle's philosophy applied to science. Because Aristotelianism was so linked to theology, even scientific challenges could be seen as challenges to biblical truth. But they obviously weren't. Sounds like Luther was figuring out similar things on the theological side.

    Would like to see just what those errors were and weren't as I see some utility in using Aristotle where his thoughts make sense and align with Scripture.

    1. RMB, so far in the book there is no specific examination of this question - at least none come to mind. I will offer my (semi) reasoned speculation.

      It may have to do with ideas like Aquinas's use of Aristotle's Four Causes. I am thinking about the arguments for Transubstantiation as one example.

      What is interesting is that thus far in the book, most of Luther's arrows are aimed at later Scholastics like Ockham and Scotus. But these, in some key respects, held ideas contrary to those of Aquinas.

      Another perhaps relevant point: in his book on Transubstantiation, Salkeld notes that Luther's disagreements with Aquinas on what happens in the Eucharist are really disagreements with later Scholastics that disagreed with Aquinas; at least in Salkeld's view, there was no meaningful disagreement between Luther and Aquinas on this topic.

      Finally, Luther was obviously on the very far end of the Grace and Works scale. While everything I have read tells me that few, if any, meaningful Christian thinkers thought Works comes before Grace, one can see - I believe - that an exaggerated reading of Aristotle could lead one to believe that man's works can lead him toward the perfect form (perfecting virtue) - something like that.

      I could be way off on all of this, but this is how I answer if pressed today.

    2. I would be happy for that to be the case. Then Luther isn't finding problems with what sounded valuable in Aristotle/Aquinas. He was finding problems in like you say those who came later who disagreed.

      I think Aristotle's errors in science were found in geocentrism and maybe shapes of orbits or other astronomical laws. This would make sense because he didn't base his ideas on observation or at least not on detailed, specific observation.

      I do think you are on to something about works proceeding grace possibly in Aristotle/Aquinas. Aristotle didn't really make comments on Christian theology, but Aquinas didn't believe that human reasoning ability was fallen. So theoretically, a human could act by reason to lead him to faith in Jesus, i.e. works proceeding grace.

      From your discussions here I know you believe in the fallenness of man's reasoning.

    3. "...but Aquinas didn't believe that human reasoning ability was fallen."

      I don't know that I could say this. Every influential Christian source from the various traditions / denominations that I have read will state - sometimes after some pressing - that Grace comes first. So, to the extent human reasoning was functional / rational, it was through Grace.

      Yes, I believe in the fallenness of man in all respects: mind, body, and soul.

    4. RMB, in this video (link below) the speaker (Robert George, Princeton University) mentions that Luther and Calvin both developed natural law thought.

      As this is the portion of Aquinas of which I am focused (and has been one of the prime discussion points amongst many in this community), I think this might address further the questions you and I discussed in this thread.

    5. RMB, one other tidbit: from the very first article of the Summa, Thomas writes that there must be some knowledge revealed by God beyond philosophical knowledge - that man is directed to God by something beyond his reason. At this link, you will find the quote (timestamped in the video).

      I don't believe that Luther could disagree with this statement: God's Grace comes first, and without it, we will not come to find God.

      The balance, proportion, value, etc. between faith, works, grace, reason; these all become objects of debate. But the necessary order (what necessarily must come first), it seems to me, is fully agreed.