The Doctrines Luther Despised


Michelangelo’s plans for papal tombs at San Lorenzo

I  didn’t get to write about the Reformation yesterday, which may actually have been an act of God’s providence. John and I had business to attend to, which kept me away from my computer until mid-afternoon. Definitely not enough time to write about the history of Purgatory and Indulgences.

To be truthful, I’m still trying to research where the doctrines of Purgatory and Indulgences originated. And I haven’t really found any answers that seem substantive. I read a few conjectures that probably represent the truth, but I would prefer to be responsible in telling you about such matters. It does no good to propagate rumors and innuendo, even when those rumors may support my point of view.

Blogging, by nature, carries the danger of disseminating falsehood. Unlike writers for print media  (with the exception of self-published authors), bloggers don’t have editors and publishers to fact check our work. Consequently, I could make any allegations I want regarding the Roman Catholic Church and its development of Purgatory and Indulgences, and as long as my allegations appeared plausible, I could probably get away with it.

But I don’t want to get away with it. I want to understand the Reformation accurately, and I want my readers to understand it accurately. Furthermore, I want to understand the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings so that we know why the Reformation was necessary.

I do know what Purgatory is, of course. At its basic level, Catholics believe they go  there after death to finish atoning for venial (or forgivable) sins before their souls can proceed to heaven. The amount of time spent in Purgatory, if I understand the doctrine correctly, depends on how much penance they perform before death.

Indulgences can release a loved one from Purgatory by drawing on the “Treasury of Merit” accrued by Jesus, Mary and the saints, according to Catholic doctrine. These Indulgences generally require a monetary purchase. For example, the prayer cards distributed at Catholic funerals are purchased by whoever places the order with the assumption that their recipients will pray for the departed to have reduced time in Purgatory. The fees, as you might expect, go to the Roman Catholic Church.

Where do they get this stuff? It’s certainly not in the Bible! Folks, you’ve just hit on my main point.

The Bible teaches nothing about Purgatory, treasuries of merit or Indulgences. Martin Luther, in his 95 Theses, called these unbiblical practices into question, alarmed by the way they exploited the poor in order to finance Rome’s war debts and the expense of building St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther’s questioning of these teachings erupted into the Protestant Reformation, ultimately restoring the true Church to Biblical Christianity.

Maybe we don’t really need to know how the popes concocted Purgatory and its attendant doctrines, but I believe it would help. Having said that, I can’t let my difficulty in finding the answers paralyze this series on the Reformation. So, until I locate reputable explanations for the development of these teachings, let’s look back at John Wycliffe and John Huss, who arguably set the stage for Luther’s reforms. I want only to demonstrate that the Reformation came from somewhere.

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