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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

They lack theological definition


it is well to see what the theory of the most respected theologians actually meant when looked at practically. Since the formulation of the Sacrament of Penance, the theory had been that all guilt of sin and all eternal punishment were remitted in the priestly absolution which followed the confession of the penitent. The Sacrament of Penance had abolished guilt and Hell. But there remained the actual sins to be punished, because the justice of God demanded it, and this was done in the temporal pains of Purgatory. The "common man," if he thought at all about it, may be excused if he considered that guilt and Hell, taken away by the one hand, were restored by the other. There remained for him the sense that God's justice demanded _some_ punishment for the sins he had committed; and if this was not guilt according to theological definition, it was probably all that he could attain to. He was taught and believed that punishment awaited him for these actual sins of his; and a punishment which might last thousands of years in Purgatory was not very different from an eternal punishment in his eyes. The Indulgence came to him filled as he was with these vague thoughts, and offered him a sure way of easing his conscience and avoiding the punishment he knew he deserved. He had only to pay the price of a _Papal Ticket_, perform the canonical good deed required, whatever it might be, and he was assured that his punishment was remitted, and God's justice satisfied. This may not involve the
thought of the remission of guilt in the theological sense of the word, but it certainly misled the moral instincts of the "common man" about as much as if it did. It is not surprising that the common people made the theological mistake, if mistake it was, and saw in every plenary Indulgence the promise of the remission of guilt as well as of penalty,(161) for with them remission of guilt and quieting of conscience were one and the same thing. It was this practical moral effect of Indulgences, and not the theological explanation of the theory, which stirred Luther to make his protest.

? 2. Luther's Theses.(162)

Luther's _Theses_ are singularly unlike what might have been expected from a Professor of Theology. They lack theological definition, and contain many repetitions which might have been easily avoided. They are simply ninety-five sturdy strokes struck at a great ecclesiastical abuse which was searing the consciences of many. They look like the utterances of a man who was in close touch with the people; who had been greatly shocked at reports brought to him of what the pardon-sellers had said; who had read a good many of the theological explanations of the practice of Indulgence, and had noted down a few things which he desired to contradict. They read as if they were meant for laymen, and were addressed to their common sense of spiritual things. They are plain and easily understood, and keep within the field of simple religion and plain moral truths.

The _Theses_ appealed irresistibly to all those who had been brought up in the simple evangelical faith which distinguished the quiet home life of so many German families, and who had not forsaken it. They also appealed to all who had begun to adopt that secular or non-ecclesiastical piety which, we have seen, had been spreading quietly but rapidly throughout Germany at the close of the Middle Ages. These two forces, both religious, gathered round Luther. The effect of the _Theses_ was almost immediate: the desire to purchase Indulgences cooled, and the sales almost stopped.

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