Johann Tetzel, the German Dominican friar and preacher of indulgences, is a favourite whipping boy for students of the Protestant “Reformation” (I prefer the more neutral term, “Revolt”). Martin Luther had a field day with him, for his polemical purposes, as did the Lutheran-produced film, Luther in 2003.
Admittedly, it’s fun to mock Tetzel as a buffoon and poster boy for late medieval Catholic excess, and Catholics freely admit that some of his rhetoric was over the top. But at the same time, the historical truth is complex and more nuanced than the garden-variety stereotypes. Indeed, Tetzel is similar in some respects to Luther himself, who exhibited a fascinating mixture of traditional orthodoxy and heterodox departures.
First, we need to define the vastly misunderstood doctrine of indulgences. Briefly stated, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal penalties of sin: an extension of the Church’s power to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23). The Church can “loose” such penances, and we see an example in Holy Scripture of St Paul doing just that (2 Corinthians 2:6-11; cf 1 Corinthians 5:3-5).
The Council of Trent, following the councils of Fourth Lateran (1215), Lyons (1245 and 1274) and Vienne (1311-12), condemned “the wicked abuse of quaestors of alms” and prohibited the selling of indulgences, thus agreeing with Luther and the Protestants on this point, while retaining the doctrine of indulgences itself. There had been a legitimate motive in raising money for church buildings, etc (not unlike our many fundraising drives today), but it was too frequently abused, and so was discarded.
Tetzel had a good heart and motivation, but unfortunately he was not much of a theologian. He fell prey to some now abandoned and clarified false theological ideas: namely, that indulgences for the dead were efficacious simply upon performing a good work, regardless of the state of one’s soul (that is, in sanctifying grace or not).
It can’t be proven that he uttered the saying attributed to him: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”, but in substance he taught basically the same thing, as we see in the following example of his stirring oratory:
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