Theology Thursday - Tetzel the Salesman

Would you trust this man?

Albert of Brandenburg was deeply in debt, after purchasing two church offices. Pope Leo X, desperate to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter’s, agreed to allow Albert to sell indulgences to both repay his own debt and help finance St. Peter’s. Thus, Tetzel came upon the scene.

A Bit About Tetzel from an Observer1

“At that time a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel was the great mouthpiece, commissioner, and preacher of indulgence in Germany. His preaching sent enormous amounts of money which were sent to Rome. This was particularly the case in the new mining town St. Annaberg, where I, Friedrich Myconius, listened to him for over two years.

“The claims of this uneducated and shameful monk were unbelievable. Thus he said that even if someone had slept with Christ’s dear Mother, the Pope had power in heaven and on earth to forgive as long as money was put into the indulgence coffer. And if the Pope would forgive, God also had power to forgive. He furthermore said if they would put money quickly into the coffer to obtain grace and indulgence, all the mountains near St Annaberg would turn into pure silver. He claimed that in the very moment the coin rang in the coffer, the soul rose up to heaven. Such a marvelous thing was his indulgence!

“In sum and substance: God was no longer God, as he had bestowed all divine power to the Pope …

“This indulgence was highly respected. When the commissioner was welcomed to town, the papal bull was carried on velvet or gold cloth. All the priests, monks, councilmen, teachers, pupils, men, women, maids, and children went to meet him singing in solemn procession with flags and candles. The bells tolled and when he entered the church the organ played. A red Cross was put up in the middle of the church to which the Pope’s banner was affixed. In short: even God himself could not have been welcomed and received more beautifully.” 

A Sermon from Tetzel2

“So what is there to think about? Why do you hesitate to convert yourself? Why don’t you have fears about your sins? Why don’t you confess now to the vicars of our Most Holy Pope? Don’t you have the example of Lawrence, who, compelled by the love of God, gave away his inheritance and suffered his body to be burned? Why do you not take the example of Bartholomew, Stephen, and of other saints who gladly suffered the most gruesome deaths for the sake and salvation of their souls?

“You, however, do not give up great treasures; indeed you give not even a moderate alms. They gave their bodies to be martyred, but you delight in living well joyfully. You priest, nobleman, merchant, wife, virgin, you married people, young person, old man, enter into your church which is for you, as I have said, St Peter’s, and visit the most holy Cross. It has been placed there for you, and it always cries and calls for you. Are you perhaps ashamed to visit the Cross with a candle and yet not ashamed to visit a tavern? Are you ashamed to go to the apostolic confessors, but not ashamed to go to a dance?

“Behold, you are on the raging sea of this world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbor of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth? Let us then fight, as did Lawrence and the other saints, for the salvation of the soul, not the body which is today but not tomorrow. Today it is well, but ill tomorrow. Today alive and tomorrow dead.

“You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins. If they visit, after confession and after the Jubilee, the Cross and the altar every day they will receive that indulgence which would be theirs upon visiting in St Peter’s the seven altars, where complete indulgence is offered.

“Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls! Be as careful and concerned for the salvation of your souls as you are for your temporal goods, which you seek both day and night. Seek the Lord while he may be found and while he is near. Work, as St John says, while it is yet day, for the night comes when no man can work.

“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.’

“Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter,

‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.’

“You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin. Oh, those of you with vows, you usurers, robbers, murderers, and criminals—Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourself then, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, to the Lord, thy God.

“Oh, you blasphemers, gossippers, who hinder this work openly or secretly, what about your affairs? You are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession help you. No field, vineyard, trees, or cattle bring fruit or wine for you. Even spiritual things vanish, as many an illustration could point out. Convert yourself with all your heart and use the medicine of which the Book of Wisdom says, ‘The Most High has made medicine out of the earth and a wise man will not reject it.’”

A Humorous Tale About Tetzel3

“After Tetzel had received a substantial amount of money at Leipzig, a nobleman asked him if it were possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel quickly answered in the affirmative, insisting, however, that the payment had to be made at once. This the nobleman did, receiving thereupon letter and seal from Tetzel.

“When Tetzel left Leipzig the nobleman attacked him along the way, gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back empty-handed to Leipzig with the comment that this was the future sin which he had in mind. Duke George at first was quite furious about this incident, but when he heard the whole story he let it go without punishing the nobleman.”

Notes

1 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), 43-44.   

2 Ibid, 41-43.  

3 Ibid, 44-45.  

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There is 1 Comment

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that the nobleman confronted with the assault on Tetzel might well question whether the beating Tetzel received was a sin....

Notice as well in Tetzel's sermon is a hint that the church was preaching a strong view of asceticism--and hence our current definition for "indulgences" is not that far from what Tetzel was preaching.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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