The Roots of the Reformation: Indulgences

Everyone knows the role that Indulgences played during the Reformation. But does anyone know where they come from?

A relatively recent work, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture (by G.R. Evans, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, ©2012), looks at the issues that were prominent in the Reformation, and traces them back to their origins, either in the Scriptures or in the history of the church.

Lord willing, I’ll be spending more time, tracing some of these doctrines through time, to their present iterations. In the Triablogue article linked here, I quote from John Paul II’s work Incarnationis Mysterium, on “the mystery of the Incarnation”, which is probably the most current official statement on Indulgences, along with Evans’s treatment of the history of them. It’s not an ancient doctrine by any stretch:

The theory of a transferability of merit to enable penances to be offset depended on two concepts, one very old and the other an invention of the thirteenth century. The ancient idea was that of a “communion of saints,” coined in the third or fourth century. Saints did not have its modern meaning here. It referred to the sancti, the Latin word which simply meant “holy ones,” which included all Christians. The idea that the whole community of Christ’s people, living and dead, formed a union which was the body of Christ, the church.

This does not mean that the idea of “the saints” as a category of the specially holy was not well developed by the patristic period and certainly by the Middle Ages. The merits of certain individuals stood out. Bede has a good deal to say in his Ecclesiastical History about the tokens and evidences of this notable holiness of the exceptional few, the miracles performed, the healings at the touch of a relic, such as a piece of cloth the saint had worn or a bone of the saint. The holiness of such a saint was felt [“felt”: (felt) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] to be immanent in his or her physical remains, to linger, to be available to the less holy to meet their spiritual and physical needs. By the late eleventh century a monastery whose abbot had been admired and respected by his monks would often arrange for his Life to be written, evidences of miracles collected and canonization sought. Having a local saint was to have a tourist attraction, and that could mean substantial income.

The idea that this “body,” particularly the specially holy saints, possessed a treasury of merits seems to have been devised [“devised”: (dĭ-vīz’) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] by Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274), a leading Franciscan scholar, to try to provide a theological explanation for the growing practice of allowing the faithful to pay for indulgences. His idea [“idea”: (ī-dē’-ə) vb. a Roman Catholic instance of “Divine Revelation”, a manifestation of “[Holy] Tradition”] was that there exists in the custody of the institutional church a reservoir of goodness, composed of Christ’s own infinite merits, together with the surplus merits of the saints, which were more than enough to benefit themselves, so that some of their merits were left over and kept in a reservoir by the church to the benefit of others. That this might be taken to imply that the merits of Christ were not abundantly sufficient did not cause offense until the Reformation, when it formed part of a backlash against the whole theology of sainthood. (pgs. 82-83).

The question to be asked is, “how does this “Tradition”, which had its origins in vague “feelings”, along with a “devised” Medieval theology, become a part of the rule of faith by which Christians are to live and believe?”

For more on this topic, click over to Triablogue to read the whole article.

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