A Brief Introduction to the Life of Pope Leo X

Family Matters

The first thing we have to know about Leo X is his family: he is a Medici—the great Florentine banking family. The Medici family not only bankrolled the Renaissance in Florence, they also were participants in the Renaissance in Florence. They were great patrons of the arts. But they were not theologians, and that includes Leo. Their religious involvement was a power move, and this illustrates the scandal of the papacy in the sixteenth century. It shows us the decline of the papacy. Someone who has no theological training—no desire for theology whatsoever—is the head of the church.

And one of the things Leo is committed to is making St. Peter’s Basilica the center of the church. Up until this point, the main church is St. John’s Lateran church, but Leo wants to make St. Peter’s Basilica the church. And of course, who do you hire to come and paint the ceiling but Michelangelo? But Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci—these artists do not come cheap. And so Leo X ends up bankrupting the church’s treasury.

Indulgences for Sale

Meanwhile, in Germany, there's a particular figure who already has a few bishoprics—this is against canon law—and he wants yet another bishopric. So he sends a delegate down to Rome to negotiate with Leo. Leo needs cash, so he seizes the opportunity and he makes the deal that he will give this papal dispensation, but at the cost of 10,000 ducats. That’s a lot of money, so what he needs now is a means to raise that money. And Leo X has a solution for that, too.

He endorses this indulgence sale, and now we meet an enterprising monk named Tetzel. And Tetzel comes up with what really is a marketing jingle: "Every time a coin in the coffer clinks" (the German is clinked) is followed with the line "a soul in purgatory springs" (the German is sprinked). This was the indulgence sale: You can get a relative out of purgatory, and you can buy this indulgence and not only pay for your past sins but also your future sins.

The Reformation

Stephen J. Nichols

Goes behind the scenes and uncovers the human side of the larger-than-life Reformers through user-friendly narrative stories on the Reformation.

Introducing Martin Luther

This is happening in 1516 and in 1517, and these indulgences come under the attention of Martin Luther. He sees this indulgence sale and is able to see right through it—he sees what it’s about. It’s about raising money. There’s no theological fidelity here.

In his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther wants to make the case that indulgences are against church law, not just against Scripture. And he’s trying to show that this pope, Leo X, and this indulgence sale is not at all good for the church. This is what prompts Luther to pen the Ninety-Five Theses and post them on the church door.

So, Leo X, whose desire was to bring all of this glory to Rome for the glory of God (which I think had something to do with himself) ends up being the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation by giving Martin Luther a reason to sit down at his desk and write his Ninety-Five Theses.

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