Wild Boar in the Vineyard: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

Indulgences: An Economy of Forgiveness

[Letter of Indulgence from 12 Cardinals, to the Dominican Nuns of Unterlinde, Colmar]

Letter of Indulgence from 12 Cardinals for the Dominican Nuns of Unterlinden, Colmar. May 14, 1519.
Catholic Church. Collegium Cardinalium.
Burke Tower Folio UTS Ms. 67

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The immediate context for Luther’s Ninety-five Theses was the Church’s doctrine and practice of granting indulgences. Foundational to the indulgence system was the belief that although forgiveness would be granted to those who confessed and repented, sins nevertheless carried enduring consequences that must be compensated for through additional acts of penance, either in this life or in a period of purgatory following death.

By the late fifteenth century, a lucrative “indulgence industry” had developed, offering believers a variety of means (pilgrimage, acts of charity, donations) by which the lingering penalties of sin might be reduced or, as in the case of a “plenary” indulgence such as the one that roused Luther to compose and distribute his Theses, cancelled out entirely.

From the late 15th century the Church began also to offer indulgences “in the manner of offerings” for the souls of the dead, who were believed to be in purgatory completing their works of satisfaction. These indulgences were especially controversial, both because they implied that the Pope had some kind of power beyond this world, and because they did not require the purchaser to be penitent for him or herself.

To Luther, indulgences trivialized the true nature of sin and repentance and fostered a superficial, merely transactional understanding of forgiveness that had become an exploitive fund-raising tool for a misguided Church. Rather, true repentance and forgiveness must entail deep, interior change and a corresponding and genuine manifestation of that change in everyday life. Luther himself had been tormented as a younger man, anxious and unsure of his eternal destiny. In his study of the Bible in the years leading up to 1517 he read a message of divine grace and mercy that led him to question and eventually challenge the “economy of forgiveness” propounded via the indulgence system.


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