Is Religious History of Any Benefit to You?
“AT SCHOOL, I didn’t like history at all,” Barbara openly admits. But now she appreciates knowledge about World War I, for example. Along with her Bible, this information helps her to explain more effectively why the world since 1914 has been without peace. (Revelation 6:4) Similarly, religious history can assist us to understand the world we live in.
Why have nations, communities, and even families been split between Catholic and Protestant faiths since the 16th century? “In the struggle for the pure teaching of the Gospel, then initiated mainly by German, Swiss, and French teachers of the church, Rome was unwilling to give in,” comments historian Friedrich Oehninger. This led to the formation of denominational churches.
But was “the pure teaching of the Gospel” truly reestablished? A look at religious history will help us to discover what really happened.
What the Sale of Indulgences Revealed
“The Reformation started off with Luther’s fight against abuse in the sale of indulgences, seemingly a matter of practical significance only to the church,” remarks historian Gottfried Fitzer. “But in reality it revealed that ecclesiastical matters had become closely entwined with finance, economics, and politics.” Let us take a closer look.
Prince Albert of Brandenburg acquired several influential positions in the church. He had to pay the Vatican the equivalent of about a quarter of a million dollars, financed by a bank loan. The pope appointed Archbishop Albert as his commissioner for indulgences for central Germany and allowed him half of the profits to repay his debts.
Albert’s indulgence preachers canvassed effectively, assuring “total remission of all sins” and immediate release from purgatory. Strictly speaking, the church offered only remission from church penalties, but people believed that the indulgence letters would free them from all sin. Martin Luther was indignant and, in 1517, published his famous 95 theses, “out of love for truth,” as he wrote in the introduction.*
Since Luther merely sought discussion among scholars, to which he as a professor had the right, the theses were written in Latin. But they created “a startling sensation,” according to Friedrich Oehninger. “Within 14 days they [the printed German translations] were known all over Germany, within 4 weeks in all Christendom. Some rejoiced that finally one man had taken a stand against the Roman oppression; for others, Luther became an object of hatred.” The effect of his theses surprised Luther himself. What did they reveal?
What Luther’s 95 Theses Revealed
According to his first thesis, “the believers’ whole life should be penance.” The sinner could attain peace with God not through letters of indulgence but through genuine repentance and Christian conduct. One of the last theses read: “Away, therefore, with all those prophets who preach to Christians: ‘Peace, peace,’ and yet there is no peace.”—92nd.
Not tradition but the gospel must be “the highest” and the “real treasure,” Luther wrote. (55th, 62nd, 65th) True. Jesus set the pattern by teaching with the inspired Scriptures, saying of God’s Word: “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17; Luke 24:44) By deviating from this pattern, the clergy rejected the Bible as the highest authority and were caught in the trap of human teachings. Luther reproached them, saying: “Teachings of men are preached by those who say that the soul flies (out of purgatory) as soon as money jingles in the box.”—27th.
Luther warned that “profit and greed increase” through such preaching. (28th) Religious history proves that the clergy neglected Scriptural warnings and became victims of the love of money. (Hebrews 13:5) A Catholic history book admits: “The root cause of decay in the church of that period was the fiscal policy of the Curia, which was thoroughly blemished by simony.”
When Luther raised his voice against “the ‘sanctified’ church tradition” and “bluntly denounced the church’s decline into the realms of money and power,” as one Protestant historian expressed it, he touched the heart of the problem: the general abandonment of early Christian teachings.
How Desertion of True Faith Started
The 11th thesis described one unscriptural doctrine as “a weed that obviously was sown when the bishops were sleeping.” This reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, in which he prophesied the planting of imitation Christians. (Matthew 13:36-43) After the death of the apostles, these false Christians, together with apostate teachers, mixed pure Bible teachings with Greek philosophy and introduced unscriptural doctrines such as immortality of the soul, hellfire, and the Trinity.*—Acts 20:29, 30.
For example, the early Christians had no pictorial art, and the so-called Church Fathers viewed the veneration of an image as an “aberration and offense.” By the end of the fourth century, however, the churches were already full of portrait images of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, angels, and the prophets. According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the ones portrayed received improper veneration when persons curtsied before them. Gradually, the warning “guard yourselves from idols” began to be ignored.—1 John 5:21; compare Acts 10:25, 26.
Professed Christians rejected Jesus’ command when they started to “lord it over” their brothers by organizing a clerical hierarchy. (Matthew 20:25-27; 23:8-11) Later, bishops of Rome claimed preeminence. While the “decay of ecclesiastical life under the reign of the secularized papacy proceeded unchecked,” the church made attempts “to reform itself but was incapable of doing so,” comments historian Oehninger.
The 16th century saw more changes. “The mood of the time was in his [Luther’s] favor,” Oehninger says, adding that “opponents attacked him, threatening him with death as a heretic, but they only drove him to make more and newer investigations on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, until the whole Roman system, as a mere human creation, began to crumble before his eyes.” But were the newborn churches truly free, as they claimed, from “awful abuses and false doctrines”?
The Reformation—No Restoration
The call for reform in the 16th century led to a restoration of neither the “universal” church nor early Christian teachings but caused only a splitting of apostate Christendom into apostate parts that separated again. Today’s bishops, including Luther’s heirs, still seem to be “sleeping,” as the 11th thesis mentioned.
The Protestants rejected the doctrine of indulgences but adopted many other false teachings. “From Greek philosophy, Christian theology also accepted the doctrine of the immortality of the soul,” says Evangelischer Erwachsenenkatechismus (Protestant Catechism for Adults). It was “combined . . . with the biblical witness about the resurrection of the body.”
By using doctrines of men and mixing their ministry with worldly things, including politics, Christendom’s leaders, as in the days of Luther, undermine the Bible’s authority. Therefore, their mere “form of godly devotion” proves to be without power and is unable to reverse shrinking attendance at church services, indifference of church members, the politicizing of church discussions, and the increasing withdrawals of membership.—2 Timothy 3:5.
Just as information concerning a patient’s past can help a doctor to diagnose the person’s illness, so religious history can assist us in understanding why Christendom remains terminally ill in our day. Is there, then, no hope for pure Christianity? On the contrary! Jesus’ parable indicated that his wheatlike followers, the true “sons of the kingdom,” would be identified at the harvest in “the time of the end.” (Matthew 13:38, 39; Daniel 12:4) How would this come about?
A Lesson From Modern Religious History
In 1891 a group of Bible Students visited Luther’s former home in Wittenberg. “How vividly it brought to mind those stormy times,” one traveler reported. Among those who entered Luther’s “study and sat in his old chair” was Charles Taze Russell. The report continues: “[We] have great cause for rejoicing today that, although the beginners of the great reformation stopped short in the work and went about organizing other systems of error, nevertheless, under divine providence, the cleansing of the sanctuary progressed to completion, and the golden vessels of divine truth are now being replaced in order.” What Luther failed to achieve, this visitor helped to accomplish.
It was an event of historical dimensions when Russell—together with other truth-loving men and women—started an independent Bible study in the 1870’s. Between 1870 and 1875, however, they were “merely getting the outlines of God’s Plan and unlearning many cherished errors, the time for the clear discernment of the minutia not having fully come,” as Russell later wrote. But the following years became milestones in restoration of original Christian standards.
Through the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower, the Bible Students announced that the name of the Most High is Jehovah, that the soul is mortal (1881), that the Trinity is unscriptural (1882), and that the Bible hell is the grave (1883). Just as false doctrines entered gradually, so now the light of truth gradually got lighter and lighter. (Proverbs 4:18, 19) From the beginning, these Christians understood the basic truth regarding Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom, and they made his invisible return and God’s Kingdom the heart of their activity.—1 Timothy 2:6.
For better organized “dissemination of Bible truths in various languages” by means of publications, the Bible Students in 1884 legally incorporated in the United States the already established Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society. The previous year had already seen publications in Swedish, and then in 1885, the first German literature. In 1892 missionary work in foreign countries was considered. Today, the Bible Students—well known as Jehovah’s Witnesses—preach “this good news of the kingdom” in 208 countries and territories and in some 200 languages.—Matthew 24:14.
Most of the Witnesses were members of Christendom’s churches or of other religions and believed God-dishonoring doctrines. After taking in accurate knowledge about God and exercising faith, they repented of their wrong course, turned around, and became dedicated, baptized servants of Jehovah. Their “doing works that befit repentance” resulted in a clean conscience and in peace with God.—Acts 26:20; John 17:3.
Is Religious History of Any Benefit?
Indeed it is. Large parts of the Bible contain beneficial religious history. (Romans 15:4) The Gospels show how Jesus taught the truth about God and His purpose for the earth. Jesus’ followers were to wait for the heavenly Kingdom that would solve earthly problems. “Keep on the watch, therefore, because you know neither the day nor the hour,” Jesus said.—Matthew 6:9, 10; 25:1-13.
Religious history confirms the coming of the predicted imitation Christians, who established their own earthly reign. The Reformation changed the face of the world but did not restore pure Bible teachings. History also points to the existence of modern Christians who “keep on the watch,” are “no part of the world,” and put God’s Kingdom first. (John 17:16) This information has helped many people to identify Jesus’ true followers today.
Barbara, mentioned at the beginning of this article, is one of the more than 3,000,000 active Witnesses worldwide who try to reach honest people with “the pure teaching of the Gospel.” A certain amount of knowledge about religious history has been of benefit to these Kingdom proclaimers too.
In modern times, Roman Catholic Church historians have asserted that Luther’s nailing of the theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, is “a legend of history by the Protestant churches.” Uncontested, however, is the fact that he wrote a respectful letter to Archbishop Albert that day and enclosed a copy of the theses. Luther asked him to reprove his indulgence preachers and to cancel the instructions. The original letter still exists in the Swedish State Archives in Stockholm.
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The indulgence is the remission of (temporal) punishment for sins . . . The remission is effective here or in purgatory.—Catholic scholar Josef Lortz.
Even today, scholars disagree as to what indulgence is and what it means for the life of the Catholic.—Protestant historian Heinrich Bornkamm.
The Indulgence—A Special Catholic Doctrine
The confessor imposes upon the repentant Catholic a penance (such as prayer, fasting, alms, or pilgrimage). The pope can remit these penalties because, according to Roman Catholic theory, he is lord over all temporal punishments (including purgatory) and grants indulgence from the so-called treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. In the Middle Ages, this privilege lent itself to serious abuse and was described as “a commercial business of great dimensions, carried out at the expense of moral standards and in contradiction to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.”
The church does not equate penance with the pardoning of sins. However, even in medieval times, people retained “the simple belief that through payment the [sin] debt was canceled,” and preachers of indulgences supported this notion. Luther’s theses were directed against those “fables” and were thus summarized: “Indulgences are works of men and have nothing in common with the pure gospel.”
Pope Clement VI established the doctrine in 1343 but did not clearly define it. Thus, Luther could appeal to its noncommittal nature. The church quickly made up for this by issuing an official definition of indulgence in 1518. But the papal bull of Leo X offered no “biblical proof for making the merit of Christ and the saints equal to the treasury of indulgences.” This prompted in Catholic Luther a momentous decision. His rejection of the unscriptural indulgence system unleashed the Reformation, and the dismissal of his critique led to the great church division.
In modern times, severe criticism from within the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church “did not lead to a change of the system but only led to reforms of the practice.” In 1967 Pope Paul VI decided in favor of the old indulgence theory. For Catholics, the decisive question still is: Do I follow God’s Word, or do I believe doctrines of men?