Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. Many of us celebrated the restoration of the gospel as a core concern of Christianity. Others mourned the division of the unified body of Christ, thinking that Luther would have been better to simply let the status quo continue. The debate on the merits and necessity of the Reformation will certainly continue into the future. That debate should also include discussion of the reasons for the Reformation and the history leading up to the Reformation, both of which are often neglected.
According to some critics of the Reformation, it is as if Luther woke up one day in his monastery and decided to pick a fight with the Pope. That perspective is naïve and ignores the many real abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy leading up to the beginning of the German Reformation.
One of the major abuses of the Roman Catholic was the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic church still does deal in indulgences, though they have tightened up the rules since Luther’s day.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."
Basically, a Catholic who has been restored to a state of grace (i.e., gone to confession so the priest could forgive their sin) can get time off of their stay in Purgatory—an extrabiblical intermediate state, which souls allegedly experience before making it to heaven with time allocated according to the merits of the individual—by doing certain things. The idea is that beyond being forgiven their sins by Christ’s atonement, people need to pay for them by doing good works to pay off the debt they owe to God.
In Luther’s day, one of the main “good works” someone could do was to give money to the Pope for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s initial objections were not to indulgences per se, but to the impoverishment of the German peasants by sending the limited available German resources out of district to the posh palaces of the self-titled Vicar of Christ in Rome. The purchase of indulgences was a ransom of a soul from Purgatory.
Apart from the invention of Purgatory, the question remains how Roman Catholics came to believe that earthly wealth could be used to buy a better condition for souls. This is the question Peter Brown takes up in his 2012 book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.
Early Christians, like Tertullian, believed in a bodily resurrection. That is, contrary to accusations that Christians are dualists, the Church has traditionally and consistently believed in a restoration of all creation in the eschaton. However, as they sought to differentiate the really holy people that died as martyrs from the average Christians, one of the myths that began to evolve was that some people got taken directly to heaven to be in God’s presence, while others would have to wait to make it as their soul was perfected. This idea, combined with the biblical image of human works being judged by fire (1 Cor 3:13), contributed to the development of a temporal period spent in a refining fire that would vary according to the earthly merits of a person whose eventual destination was heaven. Such a view enabled Tetzel’s infamous couplet, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”
There was more to the ransom of souls by money than simply the purchase of indulgences, though. As Brown notes, “Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches increasingly became places where the rich members in the Christian communities of the West were able to flex the muscles of their social power. They did so mainly through donations designed to protect their souls and those of their relatives and loved ones.” Much of this protection came by endowing churches, funding masses to be said in honor of deceased loved ones, and giving money to the church in the name of the poor.
This belief that one could give to the church and receive quantifiable spiritual benefit in the form of time off Purgatory or a more likely entry to Heaven helped make the Roman Catholics one of the largest land owners in the world.
Contributing this belief was the idea that giving alms could atone for sins. According to Brown, “Augustine…insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins.” His understanding of the trend in Augustine’s theology, which became more firmly established in later Roman Catholic doctrine, that something other than faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone could lead to salvation. This is profoundly different than the gospel that Paul outlines in his letters, hence the need for the Reformation.
There are certainly a number of factors that added to the evolution of works-based salvation. Much of the earliest extra-biblical literature of the Church, like the Didache, heavily emphasizes legalistic practices necessary for salvation. However, the idea that money could serve as ransom for the soul actually evolved from Jewish teachings drawn from Daniel 4, where some interpretations of the prophecy of Daniel have Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment being lightened by giving to the poor. For exiled Jews, this alleviated the tension of lacking a temple in which to sacrifice, and also, perhaps, contributed to the acceptance of the money changers in the temple that Jesus was obliged to clear out. The net result was the equation of atonement for sin with money, which Brown argues shaped later Roman Catholic doctrines.
Notably, one of the major reasons for Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of giving alms was competition for the money of the rich Christians. The practice of the day was for the rich to give to enhance their local communities, typically through civic activity. Part of the reason for Augustine’s focus on alms (multiple sermons focused on giving to the poor through the Roman Catholic church) was an attempt to shift the culture away from civic giving to ecclesial giving. That emphasis based on the evolved Roman Catholic doctrines and then later was developed to include the practice of indulgences as was seen in the late Middle Ages.
Brown helpfully shows how Roman Catholic doctrine drifted from Scripture and evolved due to various social pressures and theological turns in Church History. In particular, his survey traces out that evolution from about 250 AD to about 600 AD, which represents the end of the ancient era to the beginning of the Middle Ages. His non-polemical exploration of the development of doctrines has explanatory power as contemporary theologians and religious scholars seek to understand the Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of wealth and the role of wealth in attaining the afterlife.