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Surplus good deeds and Martin Luther's rebellion

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 soul’s 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 won’t 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. Peter’s 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 city’s still-new university, Luther had been preaching against indulgences for several years. He was especially irritated when some of his parishioners returned from purchasing Tetzel’s 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 Wittenberg’s All Saints Church that same day or sometime in the first half of November. Better known as Luther’s “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. Peter’s 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 Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” is widely available, including at

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.