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Johann Tetzel

Preacher of indulgences and first public antagonist of Luther, b. 1465; d. Aug. 11, 1519

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Tetzel, JOHANN, first public antagonist of Luther, b. at Pirna in Meissen, 1465; d. at Leipzig, August 11, 1519. He began his studies at Leipzig during the semester of 1482-83; was promoted to the baccalaureate in 1487, being the sixth in a class of fifty-six. Not long after he entered the Dominican Order, whether at Pirna or Leipzig, cannot be established. Disaffection and friction having arisen in the Leipzig community, he went to Rome in 1497 to secure permission from Joachim Turrianus, the general of the order, to enter another monastery. In spite of a recall of this permission, he seems to have carried his point. A few years later we find him as prior of the monastery at Glogau, which belonged to the Polish province. At the request of the Polish provincial John Advocati, he was appointed inquisitor for Poland by the master-general, Cajetan. At this time he also received permission to take the necessary steps to have himself promoted to the doctorate of theology. His relations with the Leipzig convent must in the meantime have been friendly again, for not only do we find him preaching a number of times in the Dominican church at Leipzig, but after severing his relations with the Polish province he was appointed inquisitor of the Saxon province. The activity of his life and publicity of his office made him a well-known figure. In 1503 he made his first appearance as a preacher of indulgences, when the Teutonic Order of Knights in Livonia obtained permission from Alexander VI to have a jubilee indulgence for three years preached in the ecclesiastical provinces of Magdeburg, Bremen, and Riga. After the lapse of three years Julius II (November 22, 1506) granted a new indulgence for three additional years in the provinces of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. At the end of 1509 he was indulgence commissary at Strasburg, and from here in 1510 he went to Nuremberg, Wurzburg, and Bamberg.

From July, 1510, to April, 1516, all traces of him were lost. It was his appearance as an indulgence preacher in 1516, to aid the construction of St. Peter's at Rome (see Martin Luther), that thrust him into an undue prominence, invested him with an exaggerated importance, and branded him with an unmerited odium that only the most painstaking critical research is now slowly lifting. It was while preaching at Juterbog, a small town outside of Saxony, not far from Wittenberg (where the indulgences were not allowed to be preached), that Luther in one of his most violent philippics in 1541 relates "many people of Wittenberg flocked after indulgences to Jiiterbog" (Wider Hans Worst in "Sammtl. W.", XXVI, 50-53), and then after much hesitation nailed the ninety-five theses on indulgences on the castle church door at Wittenberg, October 31, 1517. That this preaching of the indulgences was not the primary and immediate cause that precipitated the promulgation of Luther's ninety-five theses may be inferred not only from his subsequent course but also from the fact that the "Annales" of Jiiterbog (Hechtius, "Vita Joannis Tezelii", Wittenberg, 1717, 53 sq.) prove that Tetzel preached there as early as April 10; that Luther in his letter to Archbishop Albrecht (October 31, 1517) admits that he entertained the thought for a long time to preach against indulgence abuses (Enders, "Dr. Martin Luther's Brief wechsel", I, Frankfort, 1884, 115); that Tetzel for several weeks had already been in the district of Brandenburg (Paulus, "Johann Tetzel", Mainz, 1899, 47).

The theses dispute between Luther and Tetzel, is handled so circumstantially in a preceding volume of THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA (IX, 441-442) that we need not repeat it here. The publication of Luther's "Sermon on Indulgences and Grace" was replied to by Tetzel's "Vorlegung", issued in April, 1518 (Lea, in "A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences", III, 395, erroneously makes it Vorlesung), in which the scholastically-trained theologian, though not profound, scents nevertheless with keen penetration, not a mere academic tournament, but a far-reaching and momentous battle of principles, involving the very fundamentals of the Christian religion and the authority of the Church. He lays bare with extraordinary precision the unfortunate consequences that would arise. At the close of his "Vorlegung", Tetzel announces that he would presently publish "a few other principles and positions". These are the second series of theses, fifty in number, with Tetzel as author, and published in May, 1518. In these, indulgences are but lightly touched upon, the burden of the argumentation being shifted to the authority of the Church. Tetzel as yet was only a bachelor of theology. In the course of 1518 he was promoted to the doctorate, whether by the master-general or the University of Frankfort is not known. Luther's agitation having frustrated further efforts to popularize the granted indulgence of eight years, Tetzel, deserted by the public, broken in spirit, wrecked in health, retired to his monastery at Leipzig in 1518. Here in the middle of January, 1519, he had to face the bitter reproaches and unjust incriminations of Carl von Meltitz. It was at this time that Luther magnanimously penned a letter in which he tries to console him by declaring "that the agitation was not that of his [Tetzel's] creation, but that the child had an entirely different father". Tetzel died soon after, received an honorable burial, and was interred before the high altar of the Dominican church at Leipzig.

History presents few characters that have suffered more senseless misrepresentation, even bald caricature, than Tetzel. "Even while he lived stories which contained an element of legend gathered around his name, until at last, in the minds of the uncritical Protestant historians, he became typical indulgence-monger, upon whom any well-worn ancedote might be fathered" (Beard, "Martin Luther", London, 1889, 210). For a critical scholarly study which shows him in a proper perspective, he had to await the researches of our own time, mainly at the hands of Dr. Nicholas Paulus, who is closely followed in this article. In the first place, his teaching regarding the indulgences for the living was correct. The charge that the forgiveness of sins was sold for money regardless of contrition or that absolution for sins to be committed in the future could be purchased is baseless. An indulgence, he writes, can be applied only "to the pains of sin which are confessed and for which there is contrition". "No one", he furthermore adds, "secures an indulgence unless he have true contrition". The confessional letters (confessionalia) could of course be obtained for a mere pecuniary consideration without demanding contrition. But such document did not se-cure an indulgence. It was simply a permit to select a proper confessor, who only after a contrite confession would absolve from sin and reserved cases, and who possessed at the same time facilities to impart the plenary indulgence (Paulus, "Johann Tetzel", 103).

As much cannot be said about his teaching regarding indulgences for the dead. The couplet attributed to him—

As soon as the gold in the casket rings

The rescued soul to heaven springs,

like that attributed to Luther,

Who loves not wine and wife and song

Remains a fool his life long;

though verbally spurious, can in both instances be in substance unfailingly traced to the writings of their respective authors. By Tetzel they are substantially acknowledged in his Frankfort theses. Here he accepted the mere school opinion of a few obscure writers, which overstepped the contents of papal indulgence Bulls. This opinion found no recognition but actual condemnation at the hands of authoritative writers, and was rejected in explicit terms by Cardinal Cajetan as late as 1517-19. By the teaching he laid himself open to just censure and reproach. To condition a plenary indulgence for the dead on the mere gift of money, without contrition on the part of the giver, was as repugnant to the teaching of the Church, as it violated every principle of elementary justice. "Preachers act in the name of the Church", writes Cardinal Cajetan, "so long as they teach the doctrines of Christ and the Church; but if they teach, guided by their own minds and arbitrariness of will, things of which they are ignorant, they cannot pass as representatives of the Church; it need not be wondered at that they go astray" (Paulus, "Johann Tetzel", 165). It was this deviation from the correct teaching of the Church and the obtrusive and disgraceful injection of the treasury chest, that led to abuses and scandals reprobated by such contemporaries as Cochlaeus, Emser, and Duke George (Paulus, op. cit., 117-18). "Grave abuses arose; the attitude of the preachers, the manner of offering and publishing the indulgences aroused many scandals: above all, Tetzel is in no way to be exonerated" (Janssen-Pastor, "Geschichte des deutsch. Volkes", 18th ed., Freiburg, II, 84).

If Tetzel was guilty of unwarranted theological views, if his advocacy of indulgences was culpably imprudent, his moral character, the butt of every senseless burlesque and foul libel, has been vindicated to the extent of leaving it untainted by any grave moral dereliction. These would hardly be worth alluding to, did not some of them have Miltitz as the source. But Miltitz has been so discredited that he no longer carries historical weight. "All efforts", writes Oscar Michael, a Protestant, "to produce Miltitz as a reliable witness will prove futile" (Munch. Allg. Zeit., April 18,1901). "The circulated reports of Miltitz about Tetzel deserve in themselves no credence", writes another Protestant author (ibid., March 14, 1910).

The Ratisbon adultery charge, with its penalty of drowning, detailed by Luther, Mathesius, Sleidan and almost every Protestant Reformation historian, has been proved so preposterous, that Brieger (Theodor) claims "it is high time ... that it vanish from all history" (Theol. Literaturzeit., 1900, 84). Dibelius of Dresden says: "Among the faults and shortcomings ascribed to Tetzel by his enemies, that of immorality cannot stand" (Lecture on "Tetzel's Leben u. Lehre in "Dresdner Journal", March 20, 1903). "Paulus", in the words of Berger (A.), "has so effectually refuted the notorious adultery anecdote, that no one will ever revive it" (Histor. Viertelsjahrschr. f. Gesch., 1902, p. 256). The charge made by Luther in his seventy-fifth thesis, that Tetzel had preached impiously concerning the Blessed Virgin, and repeated in Luther's letter to Archbishop Albrecht (Enders, I, 115) and in most explicit terms in his pamphlet "Wider Hans Worst", was not only promptly and indignantly denied by Tetzel (December 13, 1518), declared false by an official resolution of the entire city magistracy of Halle (December 12, 1517), where it was claimed the utterance was made, but has now been successfully proved a clumsy fabrication (Paulus, op. cit., 56-61).

The charge of embezzling the indulgence funds is also legendary. The precautions adopted to safe-guard the alms were of a character that precluded all chance of misappropriation. The chest to receive the money always had two or three locks, the keys of which were in the custody of different persons, including a representative of the banking-house of Fugger. It could never be opened save in the presence of a notary. The ecclesiastical injunction was that the faithful had to deposit their contributions in person. To give it to the confessor or indulgence subcommissary invalidated the indulgence (Paulus, op. cit., 76-77). The Tetzel indulgence chests exhibited at Juterbog and other German towns, are counterfeits, according to the Protestant writer Korner (Tetzel's Leben, 73). The latest Catholic biographer of Luther, Grisar, writes: "To ascribe to the unhappy monk the 'cause' of the entire apostasy that set in since 1517 ... is an untrue legend" ("Luther", Freiburg, 1911, I, 281).

H. G. GANSS


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