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Surplus good deeds and Martin Luther's rebellion
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Lucas Cranach the Elder; Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, 1528 - photo by Deseret Connect
Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation.

In traditional Roman Catholic theology, the term purgatory denotes an intermediate place (or an intermediate phase of the souls journey) through which those who have died in a state of divine grace must pass if, at death, their sins still deserve temporal punishment. Ultimately destined for heaven, such persons wont go to hell, and their stay in purgatory, however long, will only be temporary. In it, their guilt will be purged.

Purgatory loomed large in Catholic teaching for many centuries. So important was it to the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), for example, that fully a third of his vast Divine Comedy is dedicated to a remarkable fictional tour of it.

However, just as there were people whose lives merited heaven but were too marred by sin to win them immediate entrance, there were others, it was believed namely, the saints who had performed more righteous acts than were strictly needed to earn salvation. And, drawing upon a late Latin word meaning payment beyond what is asked, those deeds were termed supererogatory.

What this suggested to some medieval churchmen and theologians was that a treasury of good deeds existed, beyond those needed by the people who had done them. But, Western Catholic thinkers said, the Roman popes held the keys of that treasury. And the popes could, in effect, distribute those surplus acts of righteousness however they chose.

Thus arose the practice of granting indulgences (roughly, kindnesses). Anybody in possession of such an indulgence, granted by an authorized agent of the pope, could have his or her time in Purgatory reduced, or perhaps even bypass Purgatory altogether.

In 1515, Pope Leo X granted a plenary or full indulgence, covering even sins like adultery and theft, to anybody who contributed financially that is gave alms to the construction of St. Peters Basilica in Rome. (Technically, the efficacy of such indulgences was dependent on true penitence.)

In 1517, one of those commissioned to preach about indulgences and to sell them in the vicinity of the town of Wittenberg, Germany, was the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. As part of his sales pitch, he is said to have adopted a little rhyme that, in English, reads roughly As soon as the coin in the box rings, the soul from Purgatory springs."

Living in Wittenberg itself was an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. A professor of biblical studies and theology at the citys still-new university, Luther had been preaching against indulgences for several years. He was especially irritated when some of his parishioners returned from purchasing Tetzels certificates, confident that they no longer needed to change their behavior and repent in order to escape punishment after death.

On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther issued a formal challenge to public debate titled Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, sending it to the archbishop of Mainz and, perhaps, nailing it to the door of Wittenbergs All Saints Church that same day or sometime in the first half of November. Better known as Luthers Ninety-Five Theses, this direct challenge very arguably represented the start of the Protestant Reformation, a cataclysmic event that dramatically changed the history of Europe and the world.

The first thesis framed the issue: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

And yet, Luther proceeds to argue, indulgences actually make repentance more difficult and less likely, since they encourage the false confidence that a Christian can avoid punishment without repenting and since they lessen the sense that good works and real discipleship are even necessary. Money spent on indulgences, he says, would be better given to the poor.

Not yet intending to break with Rome that is, still an Augustinian monk and not quite yet a Lutheran Luther suggested that the pope must simply not know what is being preached in his name. If he were aware of it, surely he would prefer to burn St. Peters Basilica to the ground rather than allow it to be "built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep."

One of us vividly recollects a conversation with Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, then ranked among the most influential members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, in his office in Vatican City. Martin Luther, Cardinal Cassidy emphatically declared, had legitimate grievances against the church of his day.

The complete text of Luthers Ninety-Five Theses is widely available, including at luther.de/en/95thesen.html.
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