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How accurate is it to say that the controversy over indulgences were merely the trigger than the fundamental cause of Reformation?
In 1517 Martin Luther pinned the 95 theses on his local church door in Wittenberg. Historians have seen this as the trigger point of the German reformation. The 95 theses challenged the church over the selling of indulgences. An indulgence was the remission by the Pope of the temporal punishment in purgatory that is due for sins after absolution. These Indulgences were often sold at huge sums to people who want to rid them self’s of sin and bring themselves ‘closer to God’, by reducing there time at purgatory.
I agree that the ‘trigger’ was the challenge of the church by the 95 theses, but there were other factors that contributed to the start of the reformation and enabled the 95 theses to have a large impact on society. It was not unknown that there was anticlericalism growing through the century in the German nation. Papal abuses and the poor quality of the clergy meant that the Catholic faith was not being carried out efficiently. The situation of the German states was not helped with the numerous taxes the papacy forced on the Germans including the Tithe, especially as the Church was not for filling its duty. Martin Luther ideas were also not the first to attack the church, but new humanist ideas were beginning to spread across the educated in society, including the writings of Erasmus.
The significance Luther’s Indulgence controversy played a large part in the cause of the Reformation as it provided a platform and a clear understandable argument against the church that played to a wide array of peoples feelings. The 95 theses was the direct influence of the church trying to abuse the German people in Wittenberg. Luther responded to an indulgences being sold by Johann Tetzel, on behalf of Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz. Albrecht was selling indulgences to pay off a huge debt to the Fugger banking family, which arose through purchasing of church offices, a clear papal abuse of simony. Leo X selling it to rebuild St Peter’s cathedral in Rome. The 95 theses aimed to put an end to what Luther regards as a corrupt practice, through an academic debate.
Luther theological debate against indulgences stemmed right to the authority of the church. He disliked the implication that escape from punishment could be purchased and forgiveness could be brought. He believed that punishment was imposed by God. Therefore the church has no power over God and the Pope cannot remove sins. Luther’s theology stemmed further that criticism. Through his studies Luther came to a conclusion that true repentance has nothing to do with penance or evading punishment but requires a change of heart from the individual. This theological debate gained Luther huge support as Humanists had already touched on this before in studying the old texts as well as reform. I believe that the 95 theses culminated the other factors as I touch on all the main points that the German society hated and believed in, therefore becoming the trigger for the reformation.
Papal abuses can be seen as a fundamental cause to the reformation. These abuses had been filtered down from the top of the church society to a local level and can be seen both in Roman courts and in the German states. This not only affected the quality of the clergy but the clerical positions became more of a tax haven where God came second to money and lifestyle. Papal abuses consisted of simony, nepotism, pluralism and absenteeism. These abuses dominated the papacy as popes became more obsessed with political power rather than the carrying out of God word. Leading up to the indulgence controversy the recent Popes had been a prime example of papal abuses.
Alexander VI (1492-1503) led a scandalous personal life as well as committing multiple acts of simony and involving himself in political matters outside the papacy. Julius II (1503-1513) known as the “Warrior Pope” can be seen as a pope who was engrossed in power as he tries to expand papal lands. Leo X (1513-1521) can be seen as a pope who lavishes in Rome on the German taxpayers money especially to build St Peters. These popes created a German hatred that can be stemmed from generations before, especially as the Popes were increasingly from the same family and Italian, where deep routes of hatred lie between the Germans. I believe that the papal abuses had always been seen in the papacy but the scale in the sixteenth century was unprecedented and the moving away from religious intentions to political was become far more provident.
The Papal abuses were not limited to Popes; simony was rife in Germany as seen by Albrecht of Brandenburg. This meant that the new church posts were being taken up by uneducated rich people who would be constantly absent and often own multiple positions. The Clergy was becoming less educated and many did not understand what they were preaching, especially as it was spoken in Latin, this made the church a far less habitable place to reach god, especially considering they had to pay tithe to the church.
In Germany only one parish in 14 had a pastor in residence. If the German people did not feel committed to their local church what would stop them from turning on the Catholic Church. The Clergy were meant to guide the German people to salvation, but if there were often no clergy present people could not carry out the faith properly. However some aspects of the of the church thriving- some monastical orders very devoted to religion. E.g. Oratory of Divine Love, but even this mainly consisted of aristocratic membership. I believe that if the quality of the Clergy is a key cause because if the clergy were educated and true preachers of God they could of prevented the German ideology against the church as well a preventing boisterous support for the indulgence controversy.
A fundamental cause that can be linked with all other factors that all Germans increasing during this period was anticlerical and antipapal feelings. Antipapalism didn’t mean necessarily the rejection of Catholic doctrine but it meant that some were willing to support Luther because he seemed to be the enemy of the pope. The church was continually trying to meddle in to political affairs which caused great anticlericalism for princes as according to The Defender of Constantine a 14th century text stressed that princes are the ultimate authority in their territories. Not was the Bureaucracy of the church regarded by many as getting unnecessarily large and interfering only but popes were Italian, this increase antipapalism and increased German nationalism.
The resentment over the numerous papal taxes can also be seen as a fundamental cause. The church exploited the Holy Roman Empire for its wealth but the money they gave to the papacy was never seen again. This constant taxation made the Germans feel constantly financially exploited from taxes such as the tithe, annates, indulgences and fruits and tenths. The Papacy was able to exploit the HRE because it suffered from a lack of strong centralised administration as well as other nations were beginning to regret papal taxes therefore the HRE had to compensate. The multitude of taxes also made the church seem more as a tax collector, this compensated with the anticlerical feelings and poor quality of the clergy within Germany can be seen as a major cause.
Luther was not the first to critise the church over its teachings and ways. Erasmus had critised Paul II for his abuses. Christian Humanists believed as Luther did in internal reform within the church by returning the original scripture for guidance where they believed they would meet the “ True Christ”. Humanists can be seen as important in helping to provide Luther with his tools, such as translations in the bible as well as providing vital support and responses to his ideas, particularly in the early stage, showing that Luther was a voice through which other people would build upon.
In conclusion I believe that the Indulgence controversy was the trigger of the reformation where so much tension between German people and the church had occurred. The indulgence controversy cannot be seen as a cause as it was an event caused by the factors explained. These factors can be seen as the fundamental causes of the reformation, many which had stemmed back generations such as clerical and papal abuses; taxation and poor educated clergy had been building up.
The indulgence controversy was just bringing those factors in light. I believe that it is accurate to say that the 95 theses and the indulgences was a trigger. Luther was one of the first people to openly critises the church openly in Germany. It was the first stepping-stone that sparked of the revolution, but it would the way the church handled the situation and the support Luther would gain that would enable others triggers such Luthers other theological debates to continue.