LUTHER'S stay in Rome did not extend over two weeks, but in that short time he had learned lessons not to be forgotten all his life long.
The grace he had looked to find at Rome he had indeed found there, but in the Word of God, not in the throne of the Pope. The latter was a fountain that had ceased to send forth the Water of Life; so, turning from this empty cistern, he went back to Wittemberg and the study of the Scriptures.
Last links of bondage
The year of his return was 1512. It was yet five years to the breaking out of the Reformation in Germany. These years were spent by Luther in the arduous labours of preacher, professor, and confessor at Wittemberg. A few months after his return he received the degree of Doctor in Divinity, and this was not without its influence upon the mind of the Reformer. On that occasion Luther took an oath upon the Bible to study, propagate, and defend the faith contained in the Holy Scriptures. He looked upon himself henceforward as the sworn knight of the reformed faith.
Taking farewell of philosophy, from which in truth he was glad to escape, he turned to the Bible as his life-work. A more assiduous student of it than ever, his acquaintance with it daily grew, his insight into its meaning continually deepened. Thus a beginning was made in Wittemberg and the neighbouring parts of Germany, by the evangelical light which he diffused in his sermons, that great work for which God had destined him. He had as yet no thought of separating himself from the Roman Church, in which, as he believed, there resided some sort of infallibility. These were the last links of his bondage, and Rome herself was at that moment unwittingly concocting measures to break them, and set free the arm that was to deal the blow from which she should never wholly rise.
Pope Leo X
We must again turn our eyes upon Rome. The warlike Julius II., who held the tiara at the time of Luther's visit, was now dead, and Leo X. occupied the Vatican. Leo was of the family of the Medici (BCN 163), and he brought to the Papal chair all the tastes and passions which distinguished the Medici chiefs of the Florentine republic. He was refined in manners, but sensual and voluptuous in heart, he patronized the fine arts, affected a taste for letters, and delighted in pomps and shows. His court was perhaps the most brilliant in Europe. No elegance, no amusement, no pleasure was forbidden admission into it. The fact that it was an ecclesiastical court was permitted to be no restraint upon its ample freedom. It was the chosen home of art, of painting, of music, of revels, and of masquerades.
The Pontiff was not in the least burdened with religious beliefs and convictions. To have such was the fashion of neither his house nor his age. His office as Pontiff, it is true, connected him with "a gigantic fable" which had come down from early times; but to have exploded that fable would have been to dissolve the chair in which he sat, and the throne that brought him so much magnificence and power. Leo was, therefore, content to vent his scepticism in the well-known sneer, "What a profitable affair this fable of Christ has been to us!" It had come to this! Christianity was now worked solely as a source of profit to the Popes.
St Peter's, Rome
Leo, combining, as we have said, the love of art with that of pleasure, conceived the idea of beautifying Rome. His family had adorned Florence with the noblest edifices. Its glory was spoken of in all countries, and men came from afar to gaze upon its monuments. Leo would do for the Eternal City what his ancestors had done for the capital of Etruria (the sophisticated civilisation that existed in approximately the same area as the papal states at their zenith). War, and the slovenliness or penury of the Popes had permitted the Church of St. Peter to fall into disrepair. But Leo would clear away the ruinous fabric, and replace it with a pile more glorious than any that Christendom contained.
But to execute such a project millions would be needed. Where were they to come from? The shows or entertainments with which Leo had gratified the vanity of his courtiers, and amused the indolence of the Romans, had emptied his exchequer. But the magnificent conception must not be permitted to fall through from want of money. If the earthly treasury of the Pope was empty, his spiritual treasury was full; and there was wealth enough there to rear a temple that would eclipse all existing structures, and be worthy of being the metropolitan church of Christendom. In short, it was resolved to open a special sale of indulgences in all the countries of Europe. This traffic would enrich all parties. From the Seven Hills would flow a river of spiritual blessing. To Rome would flow back a river of gold.
Archbishop of Mainz
Arrangements were made for opening this great market in 1517. The license to sell in the different countries of Europe was disposed of to the highest bidder, and the price was paid beforehand to the Pontiff. The indulgences in Germany were farmed out to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg. The Archbishop was in Germany what Leo X. was in Rome. He loved to see himself surrounded with a brilliant court; he denied himself no pleasure; was profuse in entertainments; never went abroad without a long retinue of servants; and, as a consequence, was greatly in want of money. Besides, he owed to the Pope for his pall - some said, 26,000, others, 30,000 florins. There could be no harm in diverting a little of the wealth that was about to flow to Rome, into channels that might profit himself. The bargain was struck, and the archbishop sought out a suitable person to perambulate Germany, and preach up the indulgences.
He found a man every way suited to his purpose. This was a Dominican monk, named John Diezel, or Tetzel, the son of a goldsmith of Leipzig. He had filled the odious office of inquisitor, and having added thereto a huckstering trade in indulgences, he had acquired a large experience in that sort of business. He had been convicted of a shameful crime at Innsbruck, and sentenced to be put into a sack and drowned; but powerful intercession being made for him, he was reprieved, and lived to help unconsciously in the overthrow of the system that had nourished him.
Tetzel lacked no quality necessary for success in his scandalous occupation. He had the voice of a town-crier, and the eloquence of a mountebank. This latter quality enabled him to paint in the most glowing colours the marvellous virtues of the wares which he offered for sale. The resources of his invention, the power of his effrontery, and the efficacy of his indulgences were all alike limitless. The man made a progress through Germany. The line of the procession as it moved from place to place might be traced at a distance by the great red cross, which was carried by Tetzel himself, and on which were suspended the arms of the Pope. In front of the procession, on a velvet cushion, was borne the Pontiff's bull of grace; in the rear came the mules laden with bales of pardons , to be given, not to those who had penitence in the heart, but to those who had money in the hand.
When the procession approached a town it was announced to the inhabitants that "The Grace of God and of the Holy Father was at their gates." The welcome accorded was commonly such as the extraordinary honour was fitted to draw forth. The gates were opened, and the tall red cross, with all the spiritual riches of which it was the sign, passed in, followed by a long and imposing array of the ecclesiastical and civic authorities, the religious orders, the various trades, and the whole population of the place, which had come out to welcome the great pardon-monger. The procession advanced amid the beating of drums, the waving of flags, the blaze of tapers, and the pealing of bells.
(This important chapter to be continued.)
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis