Most students of the 16th century Protestant Reformation know that the practice of indulgences was a major issue that divided Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics. In Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses the subject of indulgences was a major topic of concern. In the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church purged itself of many of the crass excesses that were related to the use of indulgences. But it did not remove the practice altogether.
In the spirit of healthy ecumenical dialog I offer that it would be best if this unscriptural development were purged altogether. I think it lacks biblical basis and solid, unambiguous patristic support. Some may be surprised to know that the Church still issues indulgences, especially papal indulgences, to this day.
One excellent Catholic source defines indulgences in this way:
The remittance of temporal punishment due to sin which sorrow has already been expressed and forgiveness received. This canceling of punishment comes from the treasury of Christ’s infinite merits and the saints’ participation in his passion and glory. In the early church the intercession of those awaiting martyrdom could reduce severe penance imposed on repentant sinners. In the sixteenth century the scandalous misuse of indulgences helped to trigger the Reformation. The right to grant indulgences is in principle reserved to the Holy See. Unlike partial indulgences, plenary indulgences are held to remove the whole idea of punishment, if the full conditions for their reception are met. Both kinds may be applied to the dead in purgatory. In his apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina: A Concise Dictionary of Theology, Pope Paul VI restricted plenary indulgences and emphasized the need for personal conversion of the heart (Gerald O’Collins and Edward G. Farrugia, (A Concise Dictionary of Theology, New York: Paulist Press, 2000).
The fact that Paul VI "restricted" indulgences and stressed "personal conversion of the heart" was a huge step in the right direction. But the added problem in this theological matter is the use of the term merit in association with the practice of indulgences. Used variously in Catholic history the term merit, so far as I can tell, appeared first in the writings of Tertullian (A. D. 160-220). There are two kinds of merit in Catholic theology; condign (based on a strict claim to justice) and congruent (where good actions result in merit being added). The argument for this doctrinal development is based on the biblical teaching that God rewards good deeds and punishes evil ones (cf. Exodus 23:20–22; Matthew 5:3–12; 6:4; 19:21; 25:31–46; 1 Corinthians 3:8; Revelation 22:12). While this claim is true the concept of added "merit" introduces a category that is foreign to grace and can only result in confusion, as it has for many Catholics for centuries.
Let me illustrate. The Catholic Church makes it clear that initial justification and final salvation is by grace alone. But when this idea of "merit" is added to the mix the human mind almost always goes for merit contributing something to one’s salvation regardless of all the limitations officially stated. This, I submit, is why far too many Catholics do not hear the gospel of grace as clearly as they ought to hear it. One can say, "They do not understand the teaching of the Church." I agree, to a point, but the teaching of the Church helps to create the confusion in my estimation. Serious ecumenical discussion still must be devoted to this topic.
Though indulgences and merit were not the primary issue in the Reformation they were extremely important. Rome has improved the practice in its official developments since the sixteenth century but she retains the language and the theology of merit nonetheless. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, does teach its communicants to address the saints in prayer and does intercede for them. But the “treasury of merit” is not a part of their tradition. A longer article could show how this thinking evolved in the West into the highly developed tradition that Rome still retains parts of to this day. One can hope that someday this might be dropped altogether. I believe it would be a development to celebrate, not triumphalistically but graciously.
Because this theology is still believed and practiced the following news came from the Vatican last week.
The conditions for the indulgences were made public in a statement Saturday signed by Cardinal James Francis Stafford and Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, respectively penitentiary major and regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
Benedict XVI will grant a plenary indulgence to faithful who "gather at Sydney, Australia, in the spirit of pilgrimage" to participate in celebrations for the 23rd World Youth Day, and partial indulgence to "all those who, wherever they are, will pray for the spiritual goals of this meeting and for its happy outcome," the decree said.
"Indeed, young people gathered around the Vicar of Christ will participate in the sacred functions and above all have recourse to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist," it added. "In the sacraments received with a sincere and humble heart, they will earnestly desire to strengthen themselves in the Spirit, and, confirmed by the chrism of salvation, will openly witness the faith before others even to the ends of the earth. May God grant that the very presence of the Supreme Pontiff among the young people gathered in Sydney express and render it such."
The typical conditions for indulgences must also be fulfilled.
The decree explained: "The plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who will devotedly participate at some sacred function or pious exercise taking place during the 23rd World Youth Day, including its solemn conclusion, so that, having received the sacrament of reconciliation and being truly repentant, they receive holy Communion and devoutly pray according to the intentions of His Holiness.
"The partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, wherever they are during the above-mentioned meeting, if, at least with a contrite spirit, they will raise their prayer to God the Holy Spirit, so that young people are drawn to charity and given the strength to proclaim the Gospel with their life.
"So that all the faithful may more easily obtain these heavenly gifts, priests who have received legitimate approval to hear sacramental confessions, should welcome them with a ready and generous spirit and suggest public prayers to the faithful, for the success of the same World Youth Day."
I have no problem with offering confession to people, though I do not think a priest has a "special authority" to forgive them. Confession to a human person, or persons, is a biblical teaching. And it is clear early Christians took confession quite seriously whereas modern evangelicals do not.
I also have no problem with telling people that God promises a blessing to those who are contrite and broken and who will confess their sin humbly and honestly.
I further have no problem with telling people that God rewards those who do the right and punishes those who do evil.
So what is the problem? An elaborate and post-apostolic development arose in the West that is still retained in the West. In time Martin Luther saw this as a profound problem and I believe he was right in this concern. This development has the terrible tendency to turn the eyes and hearts of the devoted away from Christ alone to the system of the Church and its treasury of merit. Such language, and more importantly such practice is not evangelical or biblical.
In the words of a wonderful hymn "My faith has found a resting place, not in device or creed . . .it is enough that Jesus died and that he died for me." I am a confessional and creedal Christian but human devices and creeds are not the place to put one’s faith. I trust Jesus alone, his blood and his righteousness alone, to save me. This faith will never be found apart from evangelical obedience but even this obedience is by faith through grace, not by my merit or the merit of any of the saints.
This is why I do not care at all for the idea of merit in some Protestant conceptions of grace, even though the merit here is said to be found in Christ alone. I am saved and kept by grace, not by any merit. I submit that the whole idea of merit is confusing, even grossly misleading, and should be dropped. By any definition it confuses grace and can thus mislead good people who do love Christ as well as others who think they are actually earning their way into God’s favor.