See also: We’re Still Paying John Tetzel
Written by: Philip Schaff
I. On the Indulgence controversy: LUTHER’S Works, WALCH’s ed., XV. 3–462; Weim. ed. I. 229–324. LÖSCHER: Reformations-Acta. Leipzig, 1720. Vol. I. 355–539. J. KAPP: Schauplatz des Tetzelschen Ablass-krams. Leipzig, 1720. JÜRGENS: Luther, Bd. III. KAHNIS: Die d. Ref., I. 18 1 sqq. KÖSTLIN I. 153 sqq. KOLDE, I. 126 sqq. On the Roman-Catholic side, JANSSEN: Geschichte, etc., II. 64 sqq.; 77 sqq.; and An meine Kritiker, Freiburg-i.-B., 1883, pp. 66–81.—On the editions of the Theses, compare KNAAKE, in the Weimar ed. I. 229 sqq.
EDW. BRATKE: Luther’s 95 Thesen und ihre dogmengesch. Voraussetzungen. Göttingen, 1884 (pp. 333). Gives an account of the scholastic doctrine of indulgences from BONAVENTURA and THOMAS AQUINAS down to Prierias and Cajetan, an exposition of Luther’s Theses, and a list of books on the subject. A. W. DIECKHOFF (of Rostock): Der Ablassstreit. Dogmengeschichtlich dargestellt. Gotha, 1886 (pp. 260).
II. On Tetzel in particular: (1) Protestant biographies and tracts, all very unfavorable. (a) Older works by G. HECHT: Vita Joh. Tetzeli. Wittenberg, 1717. JAC. VOGEL: Leben des päpstlichen Gnadenpredigers und Ablasskrämers Tetzel. Leipzig, 1717, 2d ed., 1727. (b) Modern works: F. G. HOFMANN: Lebensbeschreibung des Ablasspredigers Tetzel. Leipzig, 1844. Dr. KAYSER: Geschichtsquellen über Den Ablasspred. Tetzel Kritisch Beleuchtet. Annaberg, 1877 (pp. 20). Dr. FERD. KÖRNER:Tetzel, der Ablassprediger, etc. Frankenberg-i.-S. 1880 (pp. 153; chiefly against Gröne). Compare also BRATKE and DIECKHOFF, quoted above.
(2) Roman-Catholic vindications of Tetzel by VAL. GRÖNE (Dr. Th.): Tetzel und Luther, oder Lebensgesch. und Rechtfertigung des Ablasspredigers und Inquisitors Dr. Joh. Tetzel aus dem Predigerorden. Soest und Olpe, 1853, 2d ed. 1860 (pp. 237). E. KOLBE: P. Joh. Tetzel. Ein Lebensbild dem kathol. Volke gewidmet. Steyl, 1882 (pp. 98, based on Gröne). K. W. HERMANN: Joh. Tetzel, der päpstl. Ablassprediger. Frankf. -a.-M., 2te Aufl. 1883 (pp. 152). JANSSEN: An meine Kritiker, p. 73 sq. G. A. MEIJER, Ord. Praed. (Dominican): Johann Tetzel, Aflaatprediker en inquisiteur. Eene geschiedkundige studie. Utrecht, 1885 (pp. 150). A calm and moderate vindication of Tetzel, with the admission (p. 137) that the last word on the question has not yet been spoken, and that we must wait for the completion of the Regesta of LEO X. and other authentic publications now issuing from the Vatican archives by direction of LEO XIII. But the main facts are well established.
The rebuilding of St. Peter’s Church in Rome furnished an occasion for the periodical exercise of the papal power of granting indulgences. Julius II. and Leo X., two of the most worldly, avaricious, and extravagant Popes, had no scruple to raise funds for that object, and incidentally for their own aggrandizement, from the traffic in indulgences. Both issued several bulls to that effect.17
Spain, England, and France ignored or resisted these bulls for financial reasons, refusing to be taxed for the benefit of Rome. But Germany, under the weak rule of Maximilian, yielded to the papal domination.
Leo divided Germany into three districts, and committed in 1515 the sale for one district to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, and brother of the Elector of Brandenburg.17
This prelate (born June 28, 1490, died Sept. 24, 1545), though at that time only twenty-five years of age, stood at the head of the German clergy, and was chancellor of the German Empire. He received also the cardinal’s hat in 1518. He was, like his Roman master, a friend of liberal learning and courtly splendor, worldly-minded, and ill fitted for the care of souls. He had the ambition to be the Maecenas of Germany. He was himself destitute of theological education, but called scholars, artists, poets, free-thinkers, to his court, and honored Erasmus and Ulrich von Hutten with presents and pensions. “He had a passionate love for music,” says an Ultramontane historian, “and imported musicians from Italy to give luster to his feasts, in which ladies often participated. Finely wrought carpets, splendid mirrors adorned his halls and chambers; costly dishes and wines covered his table. He appeared in public with great pomp; he kept a body-guard of one hundred and fifty armed knights; numerous courtiers in splendid attire followed him when he rode out; he was surrounded by pages who were to learn in his presence the refinement of cavaliers.” The same Roman-Catholic historian censures the extravagant court of Pope Leo X., which set the example for the secularization and luxury of the prelates in Germany.17
Albrecht was largely indebted to the rich banking-house of Fugger in Augsburg, from whom he had borrowed thirty thousand florins in gold to pay for the papal pallium. By an agreement with the Pope, he had permission to keep half of the proceeds arising from the sale of indulgences. The agents of that commercial house stood behind the preachers of indulgence, and collected their share for the repayment of the loan.
The Archbishop appointed Johann Tetzel (Diez) of the Dominican order, his commissioner, who again employed his sub-agents.
Tetzel was born between 1450 and 1460, at Leipzig, and began his career as a preacher of indulgences in 1501. He became famous as a popular orator and successful hawker of indulgences. He was prior of a Dominican convent, doctor of philosophy, and papal inquisitor (haereticae pravitatis inquisitor). At the end of 1517 he acquired in the University of Frankfurt-on-the-Oder the degree of Licentiate of Theology, and in January, 1518, the degree of Doctor of Theology, by defending, in two disputations, the doctrine of indulgences against Luther.18 He died at Leipzig during the public debate between Eck and Luther, July, 1519. He is represented by Protestant writers as an ignorant, noisy, impudent, and immoral charlatan, who was not ashamed to boast that he saved more souls from purgatory by his letters of indulgence than St. Peter by his preaching.18 On the other hand, Roman Catholic historians defend him as a learned and zealous servant of the church. He has only an incidental notoriety, and our estimate of his character need not affect our views on the merits of the Reformation. We must judge him from his published sermons and anti-theses against Luther. They teach neither more nor less than the usual scholastic doctrine of indulgences based on an extravagant theory of papal authority. He does not ignore, as is often asserted, the necessity of repentance as a condition of absolution.18 But he probably did not emphasize it in practice, and gave rise by unguarded expressions to damaging stories. His private character was certainly tainted, if we are to credit such a witness as the papal nuncio, Carl von Miltitz, who had the best means of information, and charged him with avarice, dishonesty, and sexual immorality.18
Tetzel traveled with great pomp and circumstance through Germany, and recommended with unscrupulous effrontery and declamatory eloquence the indulgences of the Pope to the large crowds who gathered from every quarter around him. He was received like a messenger from heaven. Priests, monks, and magistrates, men and women, old and young, marched in solemn procession with songs, flags, and candles, under the ringing of bells, to meet him and his fellow-monks, and followed them to the church; the papal Bull on a velvet cushion was placed on the high altar, a red cross with a silken banner bearing the papal arms was erected before it, and a large iron chest was put beneath the cross for the indulgence money. Such chests are still preserved in many places. The preachers, by daily sermons, hymns, and processions, urged the people, with extravagant laudations of the Pope’s Bull, to purchase letters of indulgence for their own benefit, and at the same time played upon their sympathies for departed relatives and friends whom they might release from their sufferings in purgatory “as soon as the penny tinkles in the box.”184
The common people eagerly embraced this rare offer of salvation from punishment, and made no clear distinction between the guilt and punishment of sin; after the sermon they approached with burning candles the chest, confessed their sins, paid the money, and received the letter of indulgence which they cherished as a passport to heaven. But intelligent and pious men were shocked at such scandal. The question was asked, whether God loved money more than justice, and why the Pope, with his command over the boundless treasury of extra-merits, did not at once empty the whole purgatory for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, or build it with his own money.
Tetzel approached the dominions of the Elector of Saxony, who was himself a devout worshiper of relics, and had great confidence in indulgences, but would not let him enter his territory from fear that he might take too much money from his subjects. So Tetzel set up his trade on the border of Saxony, at Jüterbog, a few hours from Wittenberg.185
There he provoked the protest of the Reformer, who had already in the summer of 1516 preached a sermon of warning against trust in indulgences, and had incurred the Elector’s displeasure by his aversion to the whole system, although he himself had doubts about some important questions connected with it.
Luther had experienced the remission of sin as a free gift of grace to be apprehended by a living faith. This experience was diametrically opposed to a system of relief by means of payments in money. It was an irrepressible conflict of principle. He could not be silent when that barter was carried to the very threshold of his sphere of labor. As a preacher, a pastor, and a professor, he felt it to be his duty to protest against such measures: to be silent was to betray his theology and his conscience.
The jealousy between the Augustinian order to which he belonged, and the Dominican order to which Tetzel belonged, may have exerted some influence, but it was certainly very subordinate. A laboring mountain may produce a ridiculous mouse, but no mouse can give birth to a mountain. The controversy with Tetzel (who is not even mentioned in Luther’s Theses) was merely the occasion, but not the cause, of the Reformation: it was the spark which exploded the mine. The Reformation would have come to pass sooner or later, if no Tetzel had ever lived; and it actually did break out in different countries without any connection with the trade in indulgences, except in German Switzerland, where Bernhardin Samson acted the part of Tetzel, but after Zwingli had already begun his reforms.
Source: Philip Schaff,’HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH’ Vol VII, CHAPTER III.