In 1516, Johann Tetzel was commissioned by the Dominicans to sell indulgences. The revenues from these sales (after each district leader received his cut) were used to renovate St. Peter’s basilica at Rome. When Tetzel came near to Saxony, he attracted the attention of Martin Luther. In 1517, Luther protested the sale of indulgences by nailing the 95 Thesis to the church door at Wittenberg. Tetzel responded with “106 anti-thesis” supporting the sale of indulgences. Thus, as every schooled person knows, the Reformation was started.
What is not known is that Luther lost the argument. He did not lose it immediately. It took some time. Nor did he lose it in the estimation of Roman Catholics (after all, they had to hold the Council of Trent in response and curtailed many of the abuses against which Luther protested). No, the argument was lost to the children of the Reformation: the Protestants.
The sale of indulgences goes on. An indulgence, as defined by the Wikipedia, is due to the concepts in the Roman Church of Merit and well as temporal and eternal punishment for sin.
Some individuals experience trials and tribulations in this world which serve as their temporal punishment for forgiven sins; other individuals die without having served the temporal punishment for their sins. These individuals .. will attain Heaven. However, they are not yet ready to enter Heaven, as their punishment has yet to be served. Therefore, these individuals “enter” Purgatory
An indulgence is a certificate that absolved individuals of the temporal penalties of the sins they had confessed. A buyer could purchase one, either for himself or for one of his deceased relatives in purgatory.
The indulgence lessened the time the person spent in purgatory and could therefore enter Heaven sooner. In other words, in the Roman Church’s eyes, the sales of Tetzel’s indulgences served two good purposes: souls were release from purgatory sooner and St. Peter’s Basilica was splendidly rebuilt. Even those who spent their money on the indulgences, once they got to heaven, could look forward to hearing the words of gratitude from the souls in purgatory that were released. They had sacrificed for a good cause and could look forward to their blessing from God.
Things have not changed much; at all, at all.
Currently my church is involved in a fund raising drive to renovate and enlarge their building. Their seating and parking capacity is bursting at the seams and they need to expand for the good of the Kingdom of God. To that end, for the last month or more the congregation has been subjected to a “Momentum” Campaign. Momentum has provided some slick advertising brochures and even slicker sermons. For these weeks, all of the sermons were given in the context of encouraging sacrificial giving on behalf of the congregation toward the building renovations.
One week, Numbers 13-14 was used to encourage us to “start trusting God by seizing my Promised Land” and we must hurry before the “window of opportunity is closed by God.” Another week, Joshua 14:6-14 was used to encourage us again to “grab our piece of the Promised Land.” To that end we were to trust God and sell out completely and whole heartedly to Him. We were then told that “enemies would attack” like Amalek did the Israelites in Exodus 17:8-16. (Guess that squashes anyone who might disagree!) After that, during Sunday School our regularly scheduled Bible study was changed to a message on John 6:1-4. In a Video made by the Pastor, this message of Jesus’ being the new Moses was changed to a propaganda message to “get a miracle of Momentum in my life.” In it, we were encouraged to follow the example of the boy who supplied the bread and fish to Jesus. He supplied “all he had” but received an “over-abundance” of bread and fish back in return.
I left the study in disgust, but as I did, I overheard the pastor during the worship service urging the congregation to tithe and even more than tithe. After all, should we not give even more than those people in the Old Covenant? I think we have reached the level of over-kill.
Does anyone want to argue that these texts REALLY are about giving to building funds? Are these passages “timeless” truths about how we can “grab our Promised Land?” Was the child who supplied the loaves and fishes the hero of the story or was Jesus? Was the point of the Gospel story the fact the Jesus was the bread of life or was it about us giving to God so we could get much more in return?
Such messages can only be produced from the passage by a gross manipulation of the context. Even then it is a stretch. It is obviously a case of having a desire for a specific message to put forward to the congregation and then searching for a passage, any passage, that can be made to fit. It is a blatant example of eisegesis rather then exegesis. It treats the scriptures like a medium for your message rather than the message we must live by. Frankly, Aesop’s Fables are treated with more respect. Even more it has to be deliberate. If pastors don’t know they distorting the scriptures in this regard, then they have wasted their money at the seminaries.
Then the coup de grace was offered: the emotional plea. “Think of the people you will meet in heaven who will be thanking you for giving to the Momentum campaign. It allowed the Church to expand and gave them the opportunity to hear the Gospel and go to Heaven. Think of the blessing that will be!”
The indulgences were about blessings too; either in this life, reducing or eliminating the temporal punishment of living sinners, or the time in purgatory for dead ones. The indulgences were about making the giver feel guilty for his current funds and wanting to give them over to get thanks from others in heaven. In other words, they are a cheapening of the Gospel of Grace.
There is no doubt that the mega-church phenomenon, like Willow Creek’s sprawling campus, has become the object of desire on the part of many a pastor. This desire for the Protestant equivalent of cathedrals and basilicas requires funds; a huge amount of funds. Not all pastors are in the position to write a best selling book to finance this desire. So the need for the building or buildings becomes the focus for many pastors and elders. And the need for funds becomes the end all of their existence. They may not think this is the case, but their behavior and words speak otherwise. They have exchanged, at least temporarily, their worship of God for Mammon and turned the church of God into a principality that “lords it over” their congregations.
Roman Catholic priest and sociologist, Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in his latest book that St. Peter’s Basilica “started the Reformation and cost us Germany.” I wonder what this latest round of indulgence selling will cost the Protestant church. After all, back then there was only ONE Pope’s building program to worry about.