Back when I was a Yale undergraduate I would sometimes venture into the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and have a look at the Gutenberg Bible. This massive artifact was the first book printed in the Western world with moveable type – an innovation that is given almost as much credit for the spread of the Protestant Reformation as Martin Luther himself. Luther, of course, was the 16th-century German monk who made such a stink over the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He was particularly unhappy about the sale of indulgences, which promised to reduce the time sinners had to spend in purgatory doing penance. Gutenberg’s printing press enabled Luther to air his grievances with a wide audience through the distribution of inexpensive tracts and sermons. All of which would probably have dismayed the printer Johann Gutenberg, had he lived to see the Protestant Reformation. As it turns out, Gutenberg never made a dime from his famous Bible but profited handsomely by supplying the church with printed indulgence certificates.
It is one of the small ironies of history that Gutenberg was a factor on both sides of the Protestant Reformation, even though his interest in religious matters was mainly pecuniary. The church, which appears to have been similarly motivated, was now able to peddle indulgences on a massive scale, since it was no longer necessary to copy them out by hand. The church’s main challenge was to make sure that demand kept pace with supply. In need of funds to complete construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Leo X set up a franchise operation in which local bishops got to keep half the proceeds from the sale of indulgences, while remitting the other half to Rome. Albrecht, the archbishop of Mainz in Germany, was also strapped for cash and deputized a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel to fill his coffers by selling indulgence certificates mass-produced on Gutenberg’s printing presses. Tetzel would travel from town to town, preaching not from the pulpit but in the marketplace, which was perhaps appropriate, given the commercial nature of the transaction. His pitch was that sinners could not only redeem their own souls but also the souls of departed loved ones: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’"
Such shameless huckstering was a sore provocation to reformers like Luther, who argued that indulgences were “pious frauds on the faithful.” In the 95 Theses that he posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther demanded to know why the pope didn’t simply abolish purgatory altogether if he truly had the power to pardon sinners. Discontent with church practices had been building for some time, particularly in northern Europe. More than a century earlier, the Oxford don John Wycliffe had denounced indulgences and purgatory as unbiblical heresies. "Who can forgive sins?" he thundered. "God alone!" The issue, in fact, had been festering since biblical times, when temple priests in Jerusalem made their living by offering sacrifices on behalf of sinners. The Psalmist had sounded a theme commonly heard among prophets in the Old Testament: “…thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
You can argue that Jesus sealed his fate by driving away the temple money-changers who exchanged foreign coins so that sinners could purchase their sacrificial offerings. He further antagonized the priests and scribes by offering a radically different path to forgiveness that had nothing to do with sacrifices. “Your sins are forgiven,” he told people, just like that – no penances, no sacrificial offerings, no strings attached.
"Who is this that speaks blasphemies?” Jesus’ antagonists demanded. “Who can forgive sins but God only?" Notice that Jesus never said, “I forgive your sins,” yet he clearly spoke with authority when he told people their sins were forgiven. There was behind his words the certain knowledge that God – unlike the priests who claimed to serve him – never sought to hold people in perpetual bondage to sin. To those who were truly repentant, to those who had faith, to those who loved, to those who forgave others, to those with broken and contrite hearts, God was unfailingly merciful.