In 1517 a travelling preacher of Indulgences came near to Wittenburg; the Elector of Saxony had forbidden the sale to take place in his dominions, and the frontier was not crossed. The preacher was a Dominican named Tetzel; his work was assisted by the Archbishop Albert who had announced in a declaration of the benefit of the Indulgences that—at any rate for those applicable to the souls in Purgatory: “Nor is it necessary for those who contribute to the fund for this purpose to be contrite or to confess.” Tetzel preached enthusiastically; his hearers bought. In the miracle of co-inherence there is no reason to suppose that the Indulgences were not effectual for all the glad and aspiring ghosts to whom they were offered. But of that assistance offered by the Church militant to the Church in purification the earthly scandal was an unfortunate result.
The tales told of Tetzel would be incredible were it not that the thing happening is so often more like a fable than the thing supposed. Luther, writing to the Archbishop, said that people reported Tetzel as having preached that “there was no sin so great that it would not be absolved thereby, even if, as they say, taking an impossible example, a man should violate the mother of God. They believe that indulgences free them from all penalty and guilt.” It is unlikely that Tetzel meant to commit himself to the heretical belief that an Indulgence could free from guilt, as distinguished from the penalty. But it is not impossible that the crowd of German listeners understood him so, nor that his crude phrases may have risen to wild extravagances of rhetoric, carried off precisely by his choice of the impossible image of the anthropotokos to particularize. Conceive a Shakespearian clown agitating for piety remote from the quiet studies of theologians, and the situation is credible. Tetzel afterwards denied most of the charges, believe him or not.
Even the broad taste of the times was a little shocked. Tetzel and the Fuggers’ agents together were a little too much. The combination of a reckless oratory and a careful calculation were a little too—Shakespearian. Even so nothing might have happened if Luther had not been converted, “in the twinkling of an eye,” to faith. He had known the Spirit. It had not entered his head to believe anything but that the organization of the Church was at bottom actuated by the same Spirit. Yet his parishioners were full of the Indulgences and not at all full of contrition. Contrition was not, in that age, a mark of the Church. But it certainly had been a mark of Luther. He had been delivered into assurance. Neither contrition nor assurance, but an obscene parody of both, seemed to him encouraged by the click-clack of the money and the mechanism of grace. The Machine had got out of control, through the faults of the hierarchy. He protested. He protested in the correct academic fashion. He put up theses for dispute; they were not extreme. He allowed “the apostolic truth of indulgences”; he said that “papal pardons are not to be despised.” Nor did he produce any antagonistic theological doctrine. He protested, in fact, on the other side little that the calm thought of Christendom would not have admitted. But he did seem to reflect, if not, as Erasmus said later, on “the crown of the Pope and the bellies of the monks,” at least on the prestige of the Pope and the profits of the preachers. The news of the protest spread; it reached the Lord Leo, who was good-natured, tolerant, amused. “A drunken German monk! he will think differently when he is sober!” Alas, the inebriation was deep; Luther had drunk of the intoxicating Blood.
Even now it seems astonishing that one moment, as against so many others, should have set fire to so much. Luther was neither a great mystic nor a great theologian. He might have found all that he ever found in a thousand orthodox doctors. He denied nothing, at least in the beginning, that a thousand orthodox doctors would not have denied. But two things combined against peace and reconciliation; the first was the immediate alignment of forces, the second was certain particular conversions permitted or encouraged by the Spirit. The alignment of forces tended to be upon that old frontier of dispute, the argument on faith and works. It has often been regarded as a technicality of theology; in fact, of course, it is a matter like most theology—of everyday life. It is a matter of understanding and approach; it is almost a matter of style. Do we do best to think of achieving what we can by ourselves? or to rely upon something not ourselves? And if either, how far? and with what modifications? In such a matter as the desirability of loving A, do we leave it to X to love A? or do we try and love A directly? which is the best method for developing a pure style of love? We all know the deplorable false styles, the styles which say with intolerable arrogance “Oh well, I do what I can,” or with an equally intolerable smirk “Oh well, of course, it isn’t I that do it, but Something Else” (and if the Something Else is named the effect is no better). How do we become honest? and what kind of works does “faith” in love involve? Co-inherence is not finished with when it is named; how then do we best co-inhere?
High abstractions—upon which every minute of personal life depends! What is the nature of love? Christendom had felt how helpless man was to do anything; Paul and Augustine, to name no others, had become witnesses to that. You are no nearer being love because you have done acts of love. But are acts of love then of no account? Much every way, so long as you do not claim them for yours. But can I then not exist as action in love? Yes; you exist precisely, at fullest, in the acts which, most intensely, are not yours. And apart from them? Oh apart from them you are corrupt, lost, perishing everlastingly. Your acts are only from the fullness of the treasury of the all-meritorious love of God.
So, roughly, the Faith party; the Works took another, and parallel, line. You exist in those acts—yes; it is up to you to produce them. No one and nothing can produce them except you; unless you do, they will be everlastingly and eternally lost. They are of intense value; their value is such that they are not only applicable to the present situation but to all situations. They affect those dead long since and those yet unborn, as you are affected by the deeds of love of those not yet born or dead long since. All the sacraments are communications of love to all—through you. They at least are certain where so much is uncertain. Act then; act now; act, you. Work while it is called day. Without you and your acts—so marvellously has he limited himself that you may be co-inheritor with him—the acts of Love himself are not yet full.
The alternating stresses were reconcilable enough—in the hearts of the saints, the rhythms of Dante, or anyone’s ordinary experience. Along both those parallel roads the columns of Christendom moved to take the kingdom of heaven by storm. But if the columns paused, quarrelled, turned hostile, faced each other, dug trenches along the ways? “The intellect,” said Luther, “is the Devil’s whore.” She may be, at least, the mistress of a passionate emotion, or she may indulge her own sensuality. But, to be fair to her, it is not only self-indulgence which drives her into controversies. Something has, in this world, to be said. It was all very well for the Incarnate Glory to refrain from defining his gospel, but he left the task to his disciples, and all the infallibilities have not yet succeeded in making it very much plainer. St. Paul, it seems, was right; only the operation of ” faith succeeds. At that moment there was, on the one side, a very high intellectual tradition, discovered by first-rate minds but then administered by fifth-rate. On the other side was a firsthand experience, preached largely by second-hand. On both sides were the rag-tag and bobtail of religion, and also the multitudes of the uncomprehending good. Between them were the humanists, the unfortunate intellectuals.