Beyond Indulgences

Luther's Reform of Late Medieval Piety, 1518-1520

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Anna Marie Johnson
  • Kirksville, MO: 
    Truman State University Press
    , October
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Beyond Indulgences, Anna Marie Johnson argues that for Luther and the Lutheran Reformation, practical pastoral concerns and academic theological treatises are closely connected. Luther's observations of the effects of late medieval spiritual practices on believers animated his early work, leading “Luther the Pastor” and “Luther the theologian” to be profoundly connected. Luther's pastoral prescriptions for the reform or re-understanding of Christian practices common for ordinary believers, including the purchase of indulgences, the use of pilgrimages, and the understanding of the Mass, were common in his early work.

By focusing on a three year period between 1518 and 1520, Johnson avoids the mistake of attempting to bring theological unity to Luther's entire corpus. Luther wrote three major theological treatises in the book's time frame: On the Freedom of a Christian, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Heidelberg Disputation. Luther also penned pastoral works for popular consumption on topics such as preparing for and practicing private confession, preparing to die, and the use of indulgences. Methodologically, Johnson argues that Luther scholars have minimized the importance of these treatises, or have ignored them entirely, even though they are central to Luther's program as a whole. In part this comes from the notion that Luther the theologian and Luther the pastor are concerned with different matters, something that this work clearly refutes.

Moving chronologically through the first years after the Ninety-five Theses, the book's second chapter treats the indulgence controversy, setting it in the context of Luther's lectures on Psalms of 1513. It also explores the possible influence of mysticism on Luther and his growing concern with the scholastic account of the relationship between will and grace. These two theological developments, along with increasingly outlandish claims for the benefits of indulgences made Luther skeptical that they brought about the true repentance that God desired. Luther was always concerned with questions of certainty and Johnson argues that Luther “lamented the false security he felt indulgences gave believers saying that a more honest account of sinners’ debt would better instruct those sinners in the gospel and true worship” (48). Hence, Luther's earliest concerns with indulgences were not about papal power, but about the spiritual state of the faithful.

After the controversy over indulgences in 1517, Luther turned to reforming the practice of confession in 1518. His writings on this topic began around the season of Lent, and focused on the pastoral impact of two schools of thought about confession: the first was the “rigorists,” who held that sacramental efficacy was dependent on the quality of confession; and the second was the “attitionists,” who said that contrition did not have to be perfect since it was the words of absolution and not the believer's contrition that brought about forgiveness. In 1518, Luther's Heidelberg Disputation focused on efforts by humanity to achieve their own salvation through acceptable works of both spiritual and corporal kinds (65). He attempted to combine his critique of understandings of confession in the late medieval church with his emphasis on God's power to form a new understanding of confession. This understanding was pastoral. Instead of having believers trust that confession made them worthy of the sacrament, they were to trust that confession taught them their need for God's grace. This shifted the understanding of confession from “achieving proper contrition to having proper faith” (77).

Johnson argues that in the summer of 1518, Luther turned to the topic of suffering, noting that “Luther also repeatedly reminded readers that suffering is central to the Christian life” (101). He drew this emphasis from the so called “German Theology” which he translated from the Latin. He also spent 1518 asking believers to focus on God and service to the neighbor rather than praying to the saints. The saints, he said, were not miracle workers on their own; rather they pointed to the power of God. He also reoriented the traditional practice of meditating on the passion. He said that believers should not have the experience of pitying Christ or fleeing suffering in contemplation but needed to come to an understanding that Christ suffered for them.

In 1519, Luther turned to the practice of prayer. He again focused on the on the routine saying of set prayers but also on the sincerity of the believer's prayer. Again the issue is about the spiritual formation of the individual, not simply the fulfillment of a church law or requirement. Still, it would have been wise for Johnson to note that Luther later became skeptical of spontaneous prayer, especially in his conflicts with the Anabaptists.

From prayer Luther turned to the practice of sacraments and devotion to the saints in 1520. Luther came to be increasingly at odds with the Roman Catholic church because “his criticisms of practice impinged on the papacy's claims of authority” (144). He began by noting that while indulgences reconciled one to the church, only confession and the words of absolution allowed the believer's heart to trust in God. So too, he said, would the sacraments assist believers in coming to know God's promise. Beyond Indulgences shows how these practices helped form Christians to die with faith and trust in God's promise, rather than see their own actions and practices as making them holy enough to stand before God.

This book is an important contribution to the vast literature on the Lutheran Reformation. It joins other works, such as Ron Rittgers’s book on suffering and consolation (The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, Oxford University Press, 2012), that show the pastoral and practical heart of Lutheran theology. It also demonstrates the ways that Luther's pastoral concerns shaped his theological works, which were not developed in intellectual abstraction apart from parish work. Johnson allows us to see how Luther's observations of the effect of late medieval theologies and the devotional practices that flowed from them impacted the faith of ordinary believers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anna Marie Johnson is Assistant Professor of Reformation History at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She was the recipient of a Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, and co-edited the book The Reformation as Christianization with John A. Maxfield.


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