In his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” of 1517, Dr. Martin Luther goes to great pains to break down what he firmly believes to be a system of abuse within the subject. Luther actually employs ninety-five distinct points, many of which follow in logical sequence, to reinforce how the practice of indulgences is open to corruption, and how it also takes on spiritual power reserved for God alone.
It is essential to note, before examining this particular tract, that Luther virtually revolutionized the state of Christianity in a lasting way. Prior to his works and preachings, the Catholic church vastly dominated all of Western Europe, as it had for centuries. The pope, moreover, because of this Christian hold on the continent, enjoyed wealth and power to an astounding degree, for the Pope’s see of Rome was considered central to all of Catholicism. Luther, and the many followers he inspired, revolted against what they saw as a monstrous, political machine, one in which idolatry had replaced true religion. In time, Luther would be ultimately responsible for changing the face and shape of Christianity forever after, throughout all of Europe.
In the “Disputation”, much of what fuels Luther’s belief system is in evidence. He is speaking, it is important to note, not to Christian subjects, but to his fellow theologians and priests. These are the men enforcing and enacting the pope’s dictates, and the concept of indulgences is one Luther sees as blatantly wrong. An indulgence is a dispensation made by an officer of the church, to free a layperson of the penalties of sin after that person has already sought redemption. Two issues with them deeply concern Luther, and these he specifically goes into, in his remarks.
The first is how indulgences are, in his time, clearly driven by greed. In the twenty-seventh point, he refers to how priests translate money in a collection box as indulgences ready to be granted, and this is outrageous to Luther. He wants his fellow theologians to perceive how the spirit of the action is perverted by the church; generosity must be an element in redemption, but this is too literal a transaction for Luther’s liking, especially as it always involves profit to the church.
The second major issue Luther addresses, and one referred to throughout the entire disputation, goes to what prompted his revolutionary rebellion against the Roman Catholic church to begin with; namely, that the pope takes on far too much authority in granting indulgences, when the greatest power he may yield is that of acknowledging them. In Luther’s view, only God may decide when an indulgence is merited, for only God can know the true state of contrition in a sinner’s soul. As Luther states in the thirtieth point, it is beyond human knowledge for even the sinner to know how truly contrite he is. Consequently, it is appalling to Luther that the pope, and subsequently his inferiors, elect to determine when and how this form of salvation may be granted.
In disputing the efficacy and power of indulgences, Luther is making a very direct appeal to other members of the church. He is not actually objecting to the guiding principle of them, as he is unwilling to allow men to take on such an authority. Again and again, he reinforces that even the pope is completely subject to God’s will, and it is utterly wrong for an interpreter of divine law and will to take on the role of deciding these things. More to the point, Luther clearly affirms that indulgences are the ways by which the church gains material riches, and this is a direct violation of both God’s will and God’s design for indulgences. In the entire disputation, Martin Luther is exhorting the men of the cloth of his time to see how mercenary and unloving the Catholic church had become.