Before the Word-Faith Hucksters

Before the modern Word-Faith (“name it and claim it” or “health and wealth”) preachers there was a huckster named Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). He is famous for his marketing of the medieval practice of selling indulgences with the jingle, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

What is an indulgence? According to Roman Canon Law,

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

According to Reinold Kiermayr, Thomas taught indulgences.

In the sixteenth century, and even well before, indulgences no longer reflected that lofty dogmatic purpose given them St. Thomas Aquinas; the medieval institution had taken on a purely revenue generating character. The theological context of indulgences or their dogmatic validity were no longer the subject of much public discussion; attention focused on their financial aspects and quite naturally their abuses (304) [Reinhold Kiermayr, “How Much Money Was Actually in the Indulgence Chest?,” Sixteenth-Century Journal 17.3 (1986): 303-18].

In the Papal Bull, Unigenitus Dei (1343) promulgated by Clement VI (an Avignon pope!), decreed both “partial” and “general” remission of temporal punishments, according to the discretion of the church.

the merits of the Mother of God and of all the elect, from the first man until the last, add something to this store of treasure. There is not reason to fear about exhausting or decreasing these merits, because, as has been said, the merits of Christ are infinite, and because, in proportion to the number of men who are drawn to justice by the application of these merits, the store of merits increases.

At the Council of Constance (1414-18) (against Wycliffe and Hus), the Western church decreed:

27. And whether he believes that by reason of this sort of grant those who visit the church and those contribute to them can gain indulgences of this kind.

28 Likewise, whether he believes that, for a just and holy reason, the pope can grant indulgences for the remission of sins to all Christians who are truly contrite and have confessed, especially to those who make pilgrimages to the holy places and to those contributing to them.

Sixtus IV (1471-84) extended plenary indulgences to the dead.

After the Fifth Lateran (1512-17) in the bull, Cum postquam 9 Nov 1518, Leo X declared that indulgences were available on the basis of the merits of Christ and the saints, to those in this life and in purgatory. This was reaffirmed at Trent.

Rome is still selling indulgences. As noted in 2009 on the HB and here.

All this is background to help explain the significance of a a document now available in English translation written by Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican (monk) who was commissioned by the Pope to sell indulgences beginning in 1509.

Now, thanks to the good work of Prof. Dewey Weiss Kramer and the good offices of the Pitts Theology Library and the folks at Refo500, we now have an English translation of Tetzel’s defense of indulgences against Luther’s critique.

The best portrayal of Tetzel that I’ve seen is the portrayal in the modern Luther film. I recall reading somewhere that the actor who portrayed Tetzel found his inspiration by watching the health and wealth TV preachers. And so it goes.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. Fascinating stuff and a good insight into the mind of not only Tetzel, but probably the institutional Church of the day.

    To quote Tetzel,

    “First of all, it is trite prattle and mirror tricks. For God who says, ‘If my children shall sin, then I shall punish their sin with the rod, yet I shall not turn my mercy from them,’ has granted the fullness of his power to St. Peter and to every legitimately elected pope who reigns over Holy Church in such a manner that the pope has the power to do all things necessary in the Church that are for the Holy Church and for the salvation of humankind.
    For this reason the pope has the power, by means of plenary indulgences, to remit the suffering imposed by God upon sinners for their sin, as long as it has been repented of and confessed by them. That a person is absolved from the suffering that God has imposed and decreed as judgment for his sin (should the priest’s imposed penance be insufficient for his repentance and confession) serves that person quite positively for his soul’s salvation.
    It is also a tremendous act of God’s mercy that his deputy, the pope, releases man from the suffering of his sin by means of an indulgence. For this reason, David’s words are cited as a subterfuge in this erroneous article without their true Christian meaning. Thus this article should be read with critical eyes and not be expounded blindly and obscurely.”

    • Yes, to the extent that the conservative evangelical church is also stating or implying that ‘obedience brings intimacy’, then surely that is another form of the same thing.

      Do we not rather believe that intimacy brings obedience?

  2. I love what Luther said;

    “If the Pope has the power to free someone from Purgatory, then why doesn’t he free everyone there, out of Christian charity?”

  3. Thank you for posting this. I don’t believe I realized that Tetzel’s rebuttal had never been translated and published in English. I’m reading through it now. One of the interesting things that many people forget about is that Luther Theses weren’t a rebuke of the actual practice of indulgences, but rather a rebuke of their abuses (such as in the Kiermayr above). Although Luther did go further in his rebukes pointing out that if the Pope could grant the indulgences for money that he should do it out of the kindness of his heart. This would be like saying that Benny Hinn should just go through hospitals and heal people.

    I’m wondering if you could help me locate a reference, though. In Tetzel’s rebuttal on page 13 is him quoting Augustine as saying “When one wants to dispute with the heretics, then one must do so above all on the basis of the Authorities,” I would love to find that and read more of Augustine’s context. From the document, it refers to PL 32:1377-1384. I believe that means around page 279 here: http://books.google.com/books?id=1hURAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Not that I’m a Latin scholar, but that information would be Hugh of St Victor’s explanation of Augustine’s rule as found here: http://www.canonsregular.org/canons/files/Hugh_explanation_rule.pdf

    Just curious if you happen to know better where to locate what Tetzel attributed to Augustine? Thanks, and I appreciate your blog!

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