It is the 11th of August 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1519.
After a trip to the third century, we are back in the 16th century. We were previously in 1516. Today we journey just three years into the future. The early 16th century is a bustling time of exploration, artistic innovation, and theological rebellion.
In the New World, horses were introduced to North America in 1519. This was the same year that the Aztec Montezuma greeted Cortes in Tenochtitlan. Ferdinand Magellan took off in 1519 in the service of Spain to circumnavigate the globe.
In 1519, the man, Charles V, who was just made the King of Spain was also granted the title of Holy Roman Emperor by his grandfather, Maximillian I. Ulrich Zwingli began preaching in Zurich in 1519. This marks the beginning of the Swiss Reformation. In 1519 Theodore Beza, the future right-hand man to John Calvin, was born. He was joined by Catherine De' Medici, the future regent of France. The future Huguenot leader and the thorn in Catherine's side, Gaspard De Coligny, was also born in 1519. Emperor Maximillian died in 1519, hence Charles V's ascension. Leonardo DaVinci, the epitome of a so-called "Renaissance Man," died in 1519.
And it was on this, the 11th of August in 1519 that a broken, poor, and disgraced Johann Tetzel died. Today, we will remember the Reformation's first punching bag and possibly rehabilitate him a little bit.
Tetzel was born in Meissen in 1465. He studied in Leipzig, where he graduated sixth in his class of 56. Soon he took his religion orders with the Dominicans and was named the inquisitor to Poland. After a short stay there, he was reassigned to Saxony. First, "inquisitor" is a damning title today, mostly by historical associations. Later Reformers would have their own "inquisitors," that is, theologically trained men who go out into the field and to oversee a particular group of churches. Lutherans: today, we call them "district presidents." But, yes, 16th-century inquisitors could be a motley bunch. And they worked at the pleasure of the Pope and his Cardinals.
The sale of indulgences, which we've covered before, was primarily to help pay off the various benefices of Albert of Brandenburg and support the construction of the new St. Peter's in Rome. The indulgence, which was used by church leaders for centuries, was meant to be a kind of fundraiser. The unique document could be presented to a priest who would then absolve one's sins after confession. Or, upon receiving absolution from someone like Tetzel, the absolved could purchase a memorial of their forgiveness and help the church out financially at the same time.
Tetzel, like many young men, tried to make up for his lacking erudition with enthusiasm. And as is often the case, this can lead to exaggerations and over-statements. Tetzel would have been told that an indulgence was not for the dead in purgatory but rather for the living. To the extent that he did apply this indulgence to the dead, he was incorrect by Catholic standards. Furthermore, Catholic theologians such as Cardinal Cajetan argued that an indulgence without sincere repentance is worthless.
It was a questionable practice made worse with the exaggerations of an enthusiastic inquisitor. While Tetzel was sent to Saxony, he was expressly forbidden to preach in Wittenberg. He preached in the Spring of 1517 in nearby Juterbog, and this is likely where he came to Luther's attention. However, Luther's 95 Theses were not a direct response to Tetzel. Luther used Tetzel's abuses like a shrewd promoter, but the Theses primarily revolved around the church's teachings on repentance.
When Tetzel and Luther did have a debate by correspondence, the issue was the authority of the church, not the issue of the questionable hawking of comfort as a church fundraiser. The question of authority in the church is considered by many to be one of the real issues on which the Reformation was built.
Consider Tetzel the Joseph McCarthy of his day, something of a buffoon who became the national punching bag because he could be larger than life. He went further than many of his co-religionists. And when it appeared the public debate was lost, he was abandoned. Spurious claims of an affair arose, and even Luther took pity on the man everyone was piling on. Luther wrote to a friend that the agitation was not Tetzel's fault but came from more deep-seated corruption in the church.
Every Luther movie has had a Tetzel character. The most recent film adaptation had Alfred Molina play Tetzel. Molina was in "Ladyhawke" with Matthew Broderick, who was in "She's Having a Baby" with Kevin Bacon, essentially giving Tetzel a Bacon # of 3. Probably comfort for a man who died broke and alone on this, the 11th of August, in 1519.
The reading for today comes from the Metrical Psalter, a Presbyterian tradition. We read the first stanzas of Psalm 46, a Psalm used by Luther for his hymn.
God is our refuge in distress,
a present help when dangers press;
In him undaunted we'll confide:
Though earth were from her center tossed,
and mountains in the ocean lost,
Torn piece-meal by the roaring tide.
A gentler stream with gladness still
the city of our Lord shall fill,
The royal seat of God most high:
God dwells in Zion, whose fair tow'rs
shall mock th' assaults of earthly pow'rs,
While his almighty aid is nigh.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of August 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who heard "Bacon number" and got hungry, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.