This article gives some brief background to the circumstances leading up to Albert’s selling of indulgences near Wittenburg in 1517. This is a catalyst which led to Luther writing his 95 theses.
Albert and His Money Troubles1
“Archbishop Albert of Mainz was a prince aged twenty-seven, brother of the Elector of Brandenburg. He was also Archbishop of Magdeburg (in which diocese lay Wittenburg) and administrator of the see of Halberstadt.
To combine these high offices he needed dispensations from Rome. The fees for dispensation on this gargantuan scale being vast, Albert borrowed money from the great banking house of Germany, the Fugger of Augsburg.
As security for the debt, he undertook to arrange the proclamation through Germany of the Indulgence which the Pope had recently declared for the purpose of building St. Peter’s at Rome. The money from the sale of this Indulgence (or phrased less crudely, from the gifts of the faithful seeking the remission of pains in purgatory) went in part to the Pope’s building and in part to the bankers in payment of Albert’s debt.
These circumstances were bad. But they were not publicly scandalous. They were not known beyond a secret and powerful handful of diplomats and financiers.”
“Indulgences grew from the sacrament of penance. Baptism incorporated a person into the pilgrim community of the church which was always in the process of traveling to its true home with God in the heavenly city, and the Eucharist nourished the pilgrims during their trip. However, pilgrims continually faced the danger of shipwreck on earthly delights. The church’s response to this danger was to offer what the early church called the ‘second plank after shipwreck,’ the sacrament of penance … .
Theoretical justification for remission of the ecclesiastical satisfaction imposed on the penitent rested on the thirteenth-century theological development of the treasury of grace available to the church. This treasury of the church contained the accumulated merits of Christ and the saints (mainly the works of monastics) which, since they were superfluous for those who had originally achieved them, were available for ordinary sinners in the church.
Here again, we see a ledger mentality, a calculating frame of mind concerned with ‘the account of the books of the beyond.’ An indulgence, then, drew on the treasury of the church in order to pay off the penance by works of satisfaction.”
Albert of Brandenburg Sells Some Indulgences3
“To all who read this letter: Salvation in the Lord.
We do herewith proclaim that our most holy Lord Leo x, by divine providence present Pontiff, has given and bestowed to all Christian believers of either sex who lend their helpful hand for the reconstruction of the cathedral church of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, in Rome, complete indulgence as well as other graces and freedoms, which the Christian believer may obtain according to the apostolic letter dealing with this matter …
Here follow the four principal graces granted in the apostolic bull. These can be obtained separately. Utmost industriousness should be exercised in order to commend each grace most emphatically to the faithful …”
“The first grace is the complete remission of all sins. Nothing can be called greater than this grace, since man, living in sin and deprived of divine grace, obtains complete freedom and forgiveness by these means and enjoys anew the grace of God. Moreover, through such forgiveness of sins the punishment which one is obliged to undergo in purgatory on account of the offense of the Divine Majesty is all remitted and the pain of purgatory is altogether done away with …
Concerning the contribution to the chest, for the building of said church of the chief of the apostles, the penitentiaries and confessors are to ask those making confession, after having explained the full forgiveness and privledge of this indulgence: How much money or other temporal goods would they conscientiously give for such full forgiveness? This si to be done in order that afterwards they may be brought all the more easily to make a contribution …”
“The second principal grace is a letter of indulgence, entailing the greatest, exceedingly quickening and hitherto unheard of powers, which will continue beyond the eight years designated in the present bull … The content of this letter shall be explained by the preachers an confessors to the best of their ability …”
“The third principal grace is the participation in all the possessions of the church universal; … contributors towards said building, together with their deceased relatives, who have departed this world in a state of grace, shall from now on, and for all eternity, be partakers in all petitions, intercessions, alms, fastings, prayers, in each and every pilgrimage, even those to the Holy Land; furthermore, in the stations at Rome, in masses, canonical hours, flagellations, and all other spiritual goods which have been, or shall be, brought forth by the universal, most holy Church militant or by any of its members.
Believers who purchase confessional letters may also become participants in all these things. Preachers and confessors must insist with great perseverance upon these advantages, and persuade believers not to neglect to acquire these benefits along with their confessional letter.
We also declare that in order to obtain these two most important graces, it is not necessary to make confession, or visit the churches and altars, but merely to procure the confessional letter … “
“The fourth distinctive grace is for those souls which are in purgatory, and is the complete remission of all sins, which remission the Pope brings to pass through his intercession, to the advantage of said souls, in this wise: that the same contribution shall be placed in the chest by a living person as one would make for himself …
It is, furthermore, not necessary that the persons who place their contributions in the chest for the dead should be contrite in heart and have orally confessed, since this grace is based simply on the state of grace in which the dead departed, and on the contribution of the living, as is evident from the text of the bull. Moreover, preachers shall exert themselves to give this grace the widest publicity, since through the same, help will surely come to departed souls, and the construction of the church of St. Peter will be abundantly promoted at the same time.”
Next week, we’ll read one of Tetzel’s sermons …
1 This bit is excerpted from Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (reprint; New York, NY: Penguin, 1990), 41-42.
2 This is excerpted from Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 73-74.
3 This excerpt is from Hans J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1964), 37-41.