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Chapter 25

Indulgences and Scripture


Brusher, in his account of Luther’s protest of 1517 failed to set forth the vile concept of indulgences Tetzel promoted in the cause of Rome. Had the Bible been available to the credulous masses, they would not have been deceived. Merle d’ Aubigné in his five-volume work, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century recorded that a messenger preceded Tetzel’s entry into towns and villages announcing the presumptuous words, "The grace of God and of the holy father is at your gates" (Book III, Chapter I, p. 85).

D’Aubigné recorded extracts from Tetzel’s written defense of his work, Positiones fratris J. Tetzelli quibus defendit indulgentias contra Lutherum. In simple English terms this was Tetzel’s defense of indulgences against Luther’s opposition. Tetzel made the preposterous claim that,

There is no sin so great that an indulgence cannot remit, and even if anyone (which doubtless is impossible) had offered violence to the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God, let him pay—only let him pay well and all will be forgiven him. (D’Aubigné, Book III, Chapter I, p. 86)

Speaking such absurdities, Tetzel declared,

I would not change my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven; for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle by his sermons. (Ibid.)

Then defying the words of God, Tetzel dared to promise that,

Indulgences avail not only for the living, but for the dead. For that repentance is not even necessary. Priest! noble! merchant! wife! youth! maiden! do you not hear your parents or your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: We are suffering horrible torments! a trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not! (Ibid.)

Tetzel confidently promised that,


At the very minute that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. (Ibid., pp. 86, 87)

William Cathcart D.D., in his book, The Papal System, reported an incident which underscored the potential to incite men to criminal acts upon the receipt of indulgences for sins yet to be committed. Writing concerning the pecuniary aspect of indulgences, Dr. Cathcart recorded that—

Kings, queens, princes and bishops, had to pay twenty-five ducats for an ordinary indulgence. Abbots paid ten. All with an income of five hundred florins paid six. Those who had 200 florins a year, paid one; others only a half. A still smaller sum might be taken from poorer persons.

There was a tax for particular sins. Polygamy paid six ducats; theft in a church and perjury nine ducats; and magic two ducats. For thirty crowns Tetzel sold a Saxon gentlemen an indulgence giving him pardon for a nameless sin which he was about to commit. The Saxon flogged and robbed him, and was discharged by Duke George without penalty when he showed his indulgence. (Ferguson and Woodburn, Philadelphia, 1872, p. 276, 277)

One wonders whether Tetzel learned any lessons from this assault and robbery. Some may judge the crime of this unnamed Saxon as a prime example of poetic justice.

A church which built its temple upon such patently outrageous claims was destined to demise, for no blessing from God could be present. That almost three centuries were to pass before it received its deadly wound demonstrates the patience and long-suffering of our loving God.

Even when Leo X met his untimely death, it would seem that no lessons had been learned, for after the brief pontificate of Adrian VI, Leo de’ Medici’s cousin, Giulio, was elected Pope Clement VII. As Leo lost Germany to the Reformation, his cousin, Clement, lost England.

Attempting to reverse the spread of Protestantism to Switzerland and Scotland and even such staunchly Roman Catholic peoples as the French, Spanish and Polish, the Council of Trent was called in 1545 by Pope Paul III. No less than four other Popes were to rule in succession before the Council completed its deliberations—Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV.

Pius IV resurrected the Council of Trent which had been adjourned for the seven years prior to his election. Neither Marcellus II nor Paul IV presided over a single session of the Council. The Council resumed only on January 18, 1562 after a lapse of ten years. This proved to be its final session and its most significant. In this session a golden opportunity to return the church to a Scriptural foundation was rejected.

The great issue confronting the Council of Trent was the matter of the relative weight to be accorded to the Scriptures and to tradition as the basis of Roman Catholic faith and practice. This was a difficult debate. On the one hand the bishops well knew the weight many of the faithful were now assigning the Bible as the teacher of truth. With an explosion of translations into the various languages of Europe, bishops felt themselves to be under siege. It was growing more and more difficult to defend their teachings from the Word of God. With the laity now in possession of the Bible in their own languages, truths hidden from the laity during centuries of ignorance and darkness now lighted the minds and hearts of men and women who loved God.

These Bibles had been translated from the Eastern Manuscripts with which Western Europe was blessed after the calamity of the capture of Constantinople by the aggressively evangelistic Ottoman Empire in 1453. That which provided an Islamic foothold in Greece and the Balkans, as the Moors had earlier achieved in Spain and Portugal, was to strengthen Christianity despite the threat posed by Islam to the very existence of European Christianity. When the incursion of Ottoman Turks in the Southeast reached the gates of Vienna some believed that it would eventually unite with Islam in the Iberian Peninsula in a pincer movement which would strangle the very life of Christian Europe. It was a blessing that the Moors in Spain and Portugal were in severe decline at the time of the Ottoman zenith.

The benefit bestowed on Christianity by the fall of the Byzantine Empire was that the fleeing Christians rescued the invaluable Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament and transported them to Western Europe, which had hitherto been confined to the Latin Vulgate version of Scripture. This version had been translated by Jerome in the fourth century from perverted Alexandrian manuscripts in which insufficient care had been taken in transcribing the manuscripts—and deliberate alterations were made. It is a tragedy that the great proportion of modern translations have once more resorted to using the Greek manuscripts of the Western tradition which are replete with such errors.

Rome rejected this benefit. The Council of Trent was equally divided between those prelates who felt it expedient, in the light of Protestant success, to proclaim that the Word of God should form the basis of Roman Catholic faith, and those who promoted tradition as equal to the Bible in this respect. Bishops of this latter point of view, in practice almost invariably placed tradition above Scripture in settling such matters.

In 1534 Ignatius Loyola had founded the Jesuit Order. Although the order was still in its infancy it had acquired a body of outstanding priests. They were men of insight. Seeing the danger to the church, should the vote result in declaring the Bible as the sole arbiter of truth, they spent time, as we have recorded earlier (See chapter entitled "The Sabbath and the Seal of God"), with Cardinal Gaspari de Fosso, Archbishop of Reggio. These insightful Jesuit priests pointed out to de Fosso that if the Bible was alone to be respected as the arbiter of truth, then the church would be at a loss to support Sunday sacredness, for that doctrine was based upon Roman Catholic tradition alone. De Fosso in his subsequent speech to the assembled bishops did err in assigning the same circumstances to the alteration of circumcision to baptism; for as with Sabbath-keeping, Christ Himself set an example in baptism, and the New Testament amply testified to the cessation of circumcision as a Christian rite.

Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, (1 Corinthians 7:19),

Paul wrote. (See also 1 Corinthians 7:18, Galatians 2:3, 5:2 and many other verses).

In his book Kanon und Tradition, Heinrich Julius Holtzmann stated:

The Council [of Trent] agreed fully with Ambrosius Pelargus, that under no condition should the Protestants be allowed to triumph by saying that the council had condemned the doctrine of the ancient church. But this practice caused untold difficulty without being able to guarantee certainty. For this business, indeed, "well-nigh divine prudence" was requisite—which the Spanish ambassador acknowledged as belonging to the council on the sixteenth of March, 1562. Indeed, thus far they had not been able to orient themselves to the interchanging, crisscrossing, labyrinthine, twisting passages of an older and newer concept of tradition. But even in this they were to succeed. Finally, at the last opening on the eighteenth of January, 1562, all hesitation was set aside: [Gaspari de Fosso] the Archbishop of Reggio made a speech in which he openly declared that tradition stood above Scripture. The authority of the church could therefore not be bound to the authority of the Scriptures, because the church had changed circumcision into baptism, Sabbath into Sunday, not by the command of Christ, but by its own authority. With this, to be sure, the last illusion was destroyed, and it was declared that tradition does not signify antiquity, but continual inspiration. (Druck and Verlag von Ferd, Ludwigsburg, 1859, p. 263)

Cardinal de Fosso’s speech swayed the Bishops. We quote a portion of his speech delivered to the Council of Trent on January 18, 1562. The address was pivotal, for, coached by the Jesuits, it turned the assembly toward Roman Catholic tradition and, effectively, once more along the road of departure from the Word of God. Roman Catholicism had turned its back on the one source of truth and had determined to remain the mighty opponent of the faith of God. In part de Fosso stated,

Such is the condition of the heretics [Protestants] of this age that on nothing do they rely more than that, under the pretense of the word of God, they overthrow the authority of the church; as though the church, His body, could be opposed to the word of Christ, or the head to the body. On the contrary, the authority of the church, then, is illustrated most clearly by the Scriptures; for while on the one hand she recommends them, declares them to be divine, offers them to us to be read, in doubtful matters explains them faithfully, and condemns whatever is contrary to them; on the other hand the legal precepts in the Scriptures taught by the Lord have ceased by virtue of the same authority. The Sabbath, the most glorious day in the law, has been changed into the Lord’s day. Circumcision, enjoined upon Abraham and his seed under such threatening that he who had not been circumcised would be destroyed from among his people, has been so abrogated that the apostle asserts: "If ye be circumcised, ye have fallen from grace, and Christ shall profit you nothing." These and other similar matters have not ceased by virtue of Christ’s teaching (for He says He had come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it), but they have been changed by the authority of the church. Indeed, if she should be removed (since there must be heresies), who would set forth truth, and confound the obstinacy of heretics? All things will be confused, and soon heresies condemned by her authority will spring up again.

The human traditions so dear to Rome had once more confirmed her faith in the words and dictates of fallible men, culminating in 1870 when Pius IX declared himself, his predecessors and his successors to be infallible when speaking ex cathedra, with the full authority of their office.

The Council of Trent did temporarily inject some new life into the city on the banks of the Tiber, but this petered out as Rome’s destiny with prophetic fulfillment marched on apace.

The Papacy had once more, in its search for domination and unscrip-tural authority, offered darkness for light, error for truth, pagan concepts in place of Scriptural truth, human authority overriding divine mandates, pomp to replace the Christian virtue of humility, and hier-archicalism as a substitute for Biblical church order. From this moment the Roman Catholic Church was doomed, for it had confirmed its defiance of the God of heaven and no amount of apparent future success could stall Rome’s inexorable march to its final appointment before the judgment bar of God. On that day there will be no haughty pontiff, no proud prelate, no vain priest, for in that day—

every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble, and every spirit shall faint, and all knees shall be weak as water: behold, it cometh, and shall be brought to pass, saith the Lord God. (Ezekiel 21:7)

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