As the tourist gazes upward at the immense dome of St. Peter’s, he reflects upon the glories of papal Rome. He little knows that he is looking upon a historic symbol of Western Christendom’s shattered unity. Built to shelter the bones of a Galilean fisherman, the magnificent structure was erected with monies derived from the sale of indulgences. But this commerce was fatefully challenged by the 95 theses of a lowly German monk in Wittenberg long before completion of the lofty basilica.
Martin Luther’s theses do not reflect the shining glory of Reformation at noontide; rather, they appear today as a foregleam of dawn shouldering aside the twilight. They fall strangely upon the modern ear and in content are more Catholic than Protestant. Thus today, neither side claims the content as a whole. But the spirit is Protestant, and for this they are celebrated. The Protestant hears in them a whispered promise of light to come.
The complex doctrine of indulgences is the property of the Church of Rome. Unknown by the Greek and Latin fathers, it was developed by medieval schoolmen and sanctioned by the Council of Trent. It refers to the presumed remission of the temporal punishment of forgiven sin on condition of penitent prayers or other pious works such as payment of money to church or charity. Presupposed in the practice is: (1) the teaching that sin requires a penalty on earth or in purgatory even after reconciliation of sinner to God through penitence and absolution; (2) existence of the “treasury of merits” derived from Christ’s infinite merits along with the merits of saints who have performed works of supererogation; (3) the belief that the church has the right of administering the benefit of these merits. The power extends even ...1
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