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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Indulgences

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In the primitive church very severe penalties were inflicted on those who had been guilty of any sins, whether public or private; and, in particular, they were forbidden to partake, for a certain time, of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or to hold any communion with the church. General rules were formed upon these subjects; but as it was often found expedient to make a discrimination in the degrees of punishment, according to the different circumstances of the offenders, and especially when they showed marks of contrition and repentance, power was given to bishops, by the council of Nice, to relax or remit those punishments as they should see reason. Every favour of this kind was called an indulgence or pardon. After the bishops had enjoyed this privilege for some centuries, and had begun to abuse it, the popes discovered that in their own hands it might be rendered a powerful instrument to promote both their ambition and their avarice. They could not but perceive that if they could persuade men they had the power of granting pardon for sin, it would give them a complete influence over their consciences; and if they could at the same time prevail upon them to purchase these pardons for money, it must add greatly to the wealth of the Roman see. In the eleventh century, therefore, when the dominion of the popes was rising to its zenith, and their power was almost irresistible, they took to themselves the exclusive prerogative of dispensing indulgences, which they carried to a most unwarrantable length. Instead of confining them, according to their original institution, to the ordinary purposes of ecclesiastical discipline, they extended them to the punishment of the wicked in the world to come; instead of shortening the duration of earthly penance, they pretended that they could deliver men from the pains of purgatory; instead of allowing them gratuitously, and upon just grounds, to the penitent offender, they sold them in the most open and corrupt manner to the profligate and abandoned, who still continued in their vices. They did not scruple to call these indulgences a plenary remission of all sins, past, present, and future, and to offer them as a certain and immediate passport from the troubles of this world to the eternal joys of heaven. To give some sort of colour and support to this infamous traffic, they confidently asserted that the superabundant merits of Christ, and of his faithful servants, formed a fund of which the pope was the sole manager; and that he could, at his own discretion, dispense those merits, as the sure means of procuring pardon from God, in any proportions, for any species of wickedness, and to any person he pleased. The bare statement of this doctrine is a sufficient refutation of it; and it is scarcely necessary to add, that it has no foundation whatever in Scripture. It is an arrogant and impious usurpation of a power which belongs to God alone; and it has an obvious tendency to promote licentiousness and sin of every description, by holding out an easy and certain method of absolution. The popes derived very large sums from the sale of these indulgences; and it is well known that the gross abuses practised in granting them were among the immediate and principal causes of bringing about the reformation. They continue still to be sold at Rome, and are to be purchased by any who are weak enough to buy them. The sums required for indulgences were first published by Anthony Egane, a Franciscan friar, in 1673; and the original pamphlet was republished by Baron Maseres, in 1809, in his last volume of "Occasional Essays."


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Indulgences'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/i/indulgences.html. 1831-2.

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