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Pre-Christian through the Second Century  >>

The Early Church Fathers on Indulgences.


  • Early Church Fathers
  • From the Scriptures



  1. The Old Testament Saints, Moses, Noah, and David, (Pre-Christian)
    St. Paul the Apostle, (A.D. 5-67)
    Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218)
The Old Testament Saints, Moses, Noah, and David.

From Scott Hahn's book Signs of Life, Chapter on Indulgences:

When we gain an indulgence, the Church draws from the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints — a treasury that is infinite — and applies those merits to us, assuming we are in a state of grace (we have not sinned grievously) and have fulfilled other conditions (Confession, Communion, and prayer for the pope). An indulgence may be plenary, remitting all the punishment due our sins, or partial.

It's an idea that is as old as biblical religion, and it has always been a part of biblical religion. The ancient rabbis bear witness to it, as do the Church Fathers. Let's consider it as we find it in the Old Testament.

Abraham was a just man who lived by faith, and his faith was manifest in many deeds. God tested him repeatedly, and Abraham consistently responded manifest in many deeds. God tested him repeatedly, and Abraham consistently responded with faithful obedience. In Genesis 22, he faced the ultimate test: God commanded him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham demonstrated his willingness, and he went with Isaac to Mount Moriah. But God spared Isaac and rewarded Abraham with a promise of blessing to his descendants. Yet his descendants forfeited that blessing in the most horrific way: by fashioning a bull-calf out of gold, and then worshipping it as an idol. It was a sin of catastrophic enormity, an act of senseless ingratitude toward the God who had, quite recently and quite miraculously, delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. By committing such a sin, the Israelites merited death.

How did Moses deliver them from the punishment they deserved? By invoking the merit of their ancestors. He told the Lord:

"Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. your servants, to whom you swore by yourself, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of Heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever'"

Exodus 32:13

Moses did not try to plead the cause of the current generation, except insofar as they were offspring of the great patriarchs.

In this story, we can see the temporal remission of punishment. God is going to destroy the Israelites; but he doesn't. We can see Moses' intercession, based upon the treasury of merits, the merit of the Fathers.

When the ancient rabbis discussed this story, they found no other way to explain it. The treasury of merit enabled them to safeguard God's mercy and his justice simultaneously.

They applied the same principles to the stories of Noah, whose righteousness served to redeem future generations from the ravages of the flood, and David, whose goodness alone saved his son Solomon from the disaster he merited for himself.

The Church Fathers understood these Old Testament stories as but dim shadows of what God the Father now does through Christ. In the Old Covenant, the merit passed from Abraham to Isaac to Israel and then to all the descendants of Israel. Now, it moves from the Father through the Son in the Spirit to Mary, the saints, the martyrs, and all of us as well.

Signs of Life, Chapter on Indulgences, Pages 192 - 193.

St. Paul the Apostle, (A.D. 5 - 67)

St. Paul himself issued an indulgence by lessening the temporal penance for sin of a straying brother:

6 Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. 7 So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. 8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. 9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. 10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; 11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.

2 Corinthians 2:6-11 King James Version (KJV)

which he had previously imposed on him:

3 For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 King James Version (KJV)

The Catholic Church adds no more in essence to the practices and theological presuppositions of these two passages.

Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218), North African; ecclesiastical writer, Christian apologist and lawyer, son of a centurion and contemporary of St. Irenæus, a native and citizen of Carthage. The zeal and ability with which he defended the Christian cause, and vindicated its faith and discipline, have immortalized his name, though it has suffered by his adoption, around the year A.D. 200, of some of the Montanist's errors, whose cause he is thought to have supported until his death. His works are numerous, and are written with great ability and erudition, but in an harsh style.

"Let not the devil so prosper in his own kingdom, as to set you at variance, but let him find you guarded and armed with concord, because your peace is war against him, which peace some not finding in the Church, have been wont to entreat of the martyrs in prison."

Ad Martyr, n. I, p. 137. 1
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 131



An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.


As an analogy, if Purgatory is the Holy Hospital of Heaven, an indulgence is medication the Church gives to the hospital patient for the remission of temporal pain due to self inflicted sin so the patient can be totally spiritually pure to enter that Heavenly oneness with the Lord. (Revelation 21:27)


St. Paul himself issued an indulgence by lessening the temporal penance for sin of a straying brother (2 Corinthians 2:6-11) below, which he had previously imposed on him.
(1 Corinthians 5:3-5)


The Catholic Church adds no more in essence to the practices and theological presuppositions of these two passages.



The Church's Scriptures that support Indulgences are:

19 Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven ; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven.

Matthew 16:19

St. Paul says of the incestuous Corinthian:

3 For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

1 Corinthians 5:3-5

Forgiveness for the Offender

6 For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ." 11 to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

2 Corinthians 2:6-11

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