While it was provocatively illustrative of the spiritual and Scriptural abuses of the Roman Catholic church, the melodious jingle attributed to indulgence hawker Johann Tetzel has found its place in church history as, perhaps, the first Reformation-era musical heresy. (Today, of course, this genre is headlined not by Dominican papists, but by the heresy-hurling likes of Hillsong and Bethel.)
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.”
The suggestion of selling salvation, even if nobly done for the deceased, infuriated Luther who was still coming to the full understanding of sola fide that would become, once the flames of reformation burned fully from his illuminated grasp of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the material cause of the Reformation.
But Tetzel’s jingle represented to the indulgence buying 16th-century commoner that salvation, that grace, from God could be bought. Salvation had a price and the Dominican Tetzel was its absolving, bartering agent, approved and sent forth under the authority of the Pope.
It’s unlikely that those 16th-century “coffers” resembled the modern Salvation Army’s iconic Christmas-time red kettles, but the association with God’s grace may be only slightly different. Though the modern day coin collectors of the Salvation Army aren’t offering indulgences to the generous donor – except perhaps in the form of the conscience-stroking “I gave” satisfaction that so many in the world, including Christians, think helps tip the “I’m a good person” scales of get-into-heaven justice with a few extra-points – the kettle may represent something many Christians will find not altogether unlike an inverse indulgence. In many cases, those bell-ringing kettle attendants, and those in hierarchical quasi-military authority over them, are working to keep their salvation.