13. The indulgences Luther despised were no more dangerous to souls than elevating faith alone.
Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther (may have) pounded a piece of paper to a church door. A mighty symbolic act of strangely low significance.
Imagine hammering your own theses on your church door. It might spark a local stir, but a global revolution?
The truth is that it’s less about that piece of paper than it is the moment. It was the spark which set off the powder keg.
So what was this spark actually communicating?
Something which doesn’t begin with indulgences, but finds its perfect voice in a need to reform the practice.
Indulging in Power
We know how much the reformers were interested in changing two things: ecclesiology and theology. They wanted to reform how the church is structured and what it believes. For this, the practice of selling indulgences was a perfect foil. It embodied everything wrong with the status quo.
But further down, below those specific ideas is a more base concern over power. Like how you know in your gut when a person is trying to exercise more power than he has. Or that feeling when you see the slippery slope a leader is standing on and you want to warn her to step away from the edge.
And the church was in desperate need for reform.
Roman Christianity imbued both its structure and theology with a common sense of the function of power. But over a number of years in the 13th-15th Centuries, that sense of power was eroding. And because the structure and theology were linked, it compromised the theology, too.
Pushing so hard in the direction of patronage and systemic power, the church became exposed. The church’s use of power seemed to put the cart before the horse. Like God could be bought off to make the church better, rather than God guiding the church toward the common mission.
This is what indulgences in particular did. And they seemed to have a historic parallel with the Temple sacrifice system. There, one bought an animal for sacrifice in the Temple to maintain ritual purity with God. But the wealthy got the “better” sacrifice and poor scraped together loose change for the crappy doves.
For the church to sell forgiveness had the same double-problem. On the one hand, God’s forgiveness doesn’t work that way. And on the other, it creates a systemic inequality in which the wealthy can buy off God and the poor are extorted for their lunch money.
A Flawed Solution
As I explored in another thesis, Martin Luther’s response was imperfect. He managed to solve one problem and introduce another.
The problem with indulgences was that they had two things wrong. It had the wrong view of our relationship with God and the wrong view of our relationship with each other.
Luther focused on the former to solve them both.
So the issue, as Luther articulated it, is ultimately about our relationship with God. He argued that at the root of our tradition is our personal relationship with God. When we sin, we can’t buy a paper from the church as a means of forgiveness. Like the church as a divine notary.
Forgiveness comes from repentance. It comes from the recognizing we are full of sin, repenting, and seeking forgiveness. The word repent means a physical turning away, so we are literally turning our bodies away from the bad and toward the good.
He pins this claim to the ultimate sovereignty of God and our need for God to dictate this transformation for us.
Only the most obstinate of Christians would disagree with these arguments. So what’s the problem?
The flaw is that this doesn’t fix the wrong view of our relationship with each other. It fixed the indulgence problem, but left us with another problem.
Luther opened the door to a personal relationship with Jesus being the essential character of the faith. And Christianity was never a personal religion.
A Dangerous Proposition
If the broad problem with Roman Catholicism at that time was its hierarchy and theology had slipped down an authoritarian slope, then the protesting theology would go on to slip down a different slope. In rejecting the hierarchy, Protestants embraced individualism.
What I want to describe now is how dangerous individualism is for the human soul.
Luther was concerned for the souls of the faithful. And he saw indulgences as depriving the individual of true repentance. Taken to the logical conclusion, depriving a person of the transformative experience of moving themselves toward God by rejecting their past through a thorough internal struggle was damaging to our spiritual health.
It’s kind of like outsourcing a problem you have to do yourself. But not because you’re the only one who can do it theoretically, but because you need to do the work for you. It’s like getting a friend to visit your dying mother because you’re swamped at work. Or getting a psychiatrist to sign off on you without the therapy.
Luther was totally on point here! And, let’s be fair, acting like a true Catholic.
The problem was his intellectual divorcing a deathbed visit to Mom/God from who we would literally become. Repentance and forgiveness involves turning away from who we were and toward who we are going to be. This certainly is important internal, emotional, and spiritual work only an individual can do.
But what comes next? I mean, literally. What comes next?
And what is the true purpose of this reformed you?
If the great commandment was to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, how does this reforming of self-help you love God and neighbor? How does the community grow because of your repentance?
The most dangerous aspect of Luther’s formulation of faith alone is that it doesn’t seek to deal with the second half of Jesus’s commandment or the second half of the problem with indulgences. His theological revision didn’t deal with the problem underneath the structure.
But it’s worse than that. It created a new problem perfect for the modern age: a personal relationship with a personal God to participate in a personal religion. And no one can tell me what to believe.
And all those people quoting from the pastoral epistles of Pseudo-Paul, warning of false prophets become as laughable as the “good guy with a gun” theory. Because, when everything’s personal, how can you tell the difference between true and false prophets?
In the end, we come to rely on ourselves rather than God. And focus on ourselves rather than our community.
[This is Thesis #13 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]