Analysis of Martin Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, 1517
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz in protest against the Church’s policy of selling indulgences to the public. This analysis of that letter will attempt to examine Luther’s thoughts on the following:
The church’s policy of selling indulgences to the public.
The public’s interpretation of what those indulgences signified.
The church’s stance on matters of religious teaching.and doctrine.
Who bore the ultimate responsibility for the public’s interpretation of indulgences
The possibilty of someone arising who may voice grievance against these practices. 1
The letter begins with Luther, putting himself amongst “the dregs of society” and apologising for sending a letter to one at the “height” of their “sublimity”. Luther’s letter heaped flattery on the archbishop’s’ head and humility on his own – customary conventions of late medieval letters. Marius, Richard. The Christian Between God and Death, (Harvard University Press 1999) 139 2
Luther had been considering sending this letter for some time but feels compelled now to do so.
He feels it is his duty to write this letter He begs the archbishop to “deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust”, here highlighting the hierarchial (SP) structure of the church and Luther’s lowliness in station to that of the archbishop’s.
Luther’s first item of contention is (WAS) that funds, from the sale of indulgences, are (WERE) being collected under the false premise that the purchaser will be absolved of all sin.
The Protestant Reformation Many ideas of the Renaissance like humanism, individualism and secularism stimulated a strong critique of the church's policy and the clergy's behaviour. Many people regarded it as a scandal that the catholic church sold indulgences. Indulgences were documents, stamped by the church which could reduce your sins. People who bought indulgences believed that this document ...
Luther does not accuse the ones selling the indulgences, yet does not state their innocence, only that he has not heard their words himself. He is very concerned “over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived” from these same words. It seems that the people were of the belief that by purchasing these indulgences they would be absolved of sin.
Luther, in his “95 Theses”, states that “the whole life of believers should be repentence” and would have found it difficult to accept that by simply purchasing these indulgences, one could be sure of the forgiveness of God. In his theses he also argues that “The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission”. In Luther’s time the church was very careful, in it’s official doctrine, to stress the need for general penitence and the impossibilty of obtaining valid remission of sins by merely buying an indulgence,( Elton, G.R.. Reformation Europe (Blackwell Publishing 1985) pg 4) although in practice and indeed, according to the Archbishops own instructions to the commissaries who sold the indulgences, the purchaser would be offered four graces, the first of which was, in accordance with the letter of their instructions “the full pardon of every sin”. ( Oaubig, J. History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Hartland Publications,1995) pg 149) 3
Luther may have been aware of this hypocrisy and it seems that at this point, he begins to vent his frustrations a little more strongly. He maintains that it is impossible for man to be free of all sin through purchasing these indulgences and there is a hint of exasperation as he writes “O God most good!” The people, Luther claims, are “being taught to their death” and the responsibility for their souls, the “strict account” rests with the Archbishop. No man, no matter how holy, can be “sure of salvation” nor give the “gift” of it to others. The bishop has no right to offer salvation for a price, for it can not be given by any man.
Luther argues that the road to salvation is a difficult one. He ignores his previous statement that he has not heard the words of the ones selling the indulgences and accuses them of telling “false fables” and making false promises. 4 It is their fault, and by default the Church’s, that the people are “careless and fearless”. Indulgences don’t offer salvation, they merely remove the penalties that are usually imposed in accordance with the canons and the sacrament of penance.
... to have faith in god. With Luther's beliefs he then accuses the selling of indulgences or the removal of sin after death in purgatory ... was a peasant's war made by the poor people against the church. And Luther gets involved because of his writings he moves ... figure in the history. Luther coaxes people to agree with him and to turn against the church. First Luther had people support his reforms. Second ...
In order to be truly forgiven of sin, a man must go through three stages, contrition, confession and satisfaction. By purchasing indulgences, many believed, and in some cases were led to believe, that the act of contrition was unnecessary. In other words, they believed that they would be forgiven regardless of whether or not they truly repented. In fact, for particular sins Tetzel had a particular tax. Oaubig, J. History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Hartland Publications,1995) pg 150) Tetzel was the man responsible for selling indulgences in Luther’s area. Each sin had a price. For example: to forgive the sin of murder would cost eight ducats. Impossible, according to Luther.
Another of Luther’s main criticisms of the church at that time was the fact that too much emphasis was being put on the selling of indulgences, that the true work of the church, the teaching of the word of God had become secondary. Indulgences, he explains, are nothing when compared to “works of piety and love”. Yet these teachings were being ignored by the preachers, whose “sole duty” in Luther’s opinion, was to teach “the gospel and the love of Christ”. Luther states that nowhere in the Bible does Christ teach that indulgences should be preached. Here he inplies that the Church and it’s preachers are ignoring their every day duty to God.
At this stage of the letter, the language used within begins to take on a more ominous, almost threatening tone. Luther speaks of the “horror” and the “peril” that one such as the bishop would have to face should he permit “the Gospel to be kept quiet, and nothing but the noise of indulgences to be spread among his people!” Indeed, the selling of indulgences at that time was accompanied by great fanfare. The seller of Indulgences had generally a magnificent welcome when he entered a German town….. When the gates were reached all the bells began to ring, the church-organs were played…. a great red cross was erected and the Pope’s banner displayed. (Ward et al, The Cambridge Modern History Vol. 2 (Cambridge university Press 1903), pg 121)
Martin Luther King Jr.’s revealing, ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, delves into the segregation, injustice and violence of Birmingham, Alabama, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”(Inquiry, p.#391, paragraph 6) In response to criticism from eight clergymen of Birmingham, King details the process of preparation for the nonviolent protest ...
Why was such glory piled upon indulgences while the Word was being ignored, and was the Church to blame for this?
He compares people who would do such things as glorify or under false pretenses sell indulgences to the Pharisees, quoting Matthew 23:24, who were enemies to the gospel and tried to keep their people away from it’s teachings, thus condemning their souls. Here, he is making an obvious connection between the Archbishop and people of little or no faith, or ones who put their faith in ceremony without substance.
His next grievance with the Church and indulgences is the fact that the people were of the belief that indulgences could be bought in order to help somebody who was already dead and in purgatory. In his 95 Theses Luther states: “The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying” However, according to the Archbishops Instuctions to the Commissaries “one of the chief graces of indulgence is that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God, and all the penalties of purgatory are destroyed.” This instruction is clearly in direct opposition to the laws of the Church. Luther is quick not to assert blame directly on the Archbishop as he adds in brackets that although the instructions are in the Archbishop’s name they are likely without his ”knowledge and consent”. Whether Luther truly believed this is a matter open to debate.
Although the next paragraph seems to be one final desperate plea from a lowly monk to his superior, there perhaps is an underlying tone, one of a more threatening nature.
He begs the Archbihop, his “most illustrious prince” to take into consideration these matters and
to put an end to this practice of selling indulgences “lest, perchance…” and here we come to what
quite possibly may be construed as a warning, or even a threat, “…one may some time arise, who
will publish writings in which he will confute both them and that treatise, to the shame of your
most Illustrious Sublimity.”
Is Luther referring to himself and the 95 Theses, a copy of which he has enclosed for the Archbishop’s perusal? Or to some other, who in the future may rise up to right the wrongs created by these indulgences? Why should “he shrink” from thinking something like this may happen, unless he has been considering the act himself? 5
Luther, Martin (1483-1546), was a German theologian and religious reformer, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and whose vast influence, extending beyond religion to politics, economics, education, and language, has made him one of the crucial figures in modern European history. Luther was not the regular theologian; viewing things systematically, but rather enjoyed his work immensely, ...
Before he signs off, 6 Luther says that he is still part of the “flock” and that he retains hope that these wrongs will be put right, he tells the Bishop that he has enclosed a copy of his Theses for the Bishop’s perusal.
What was the purpose of this letter? It is worth noting that the date of this letter is also the date that is commonly held as the day when Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, although whether any contemporary evidence from that time exists is a matter of debate among historians..
Was this letter truly a final plea for the ending of the practice of indulgences from a lowly priest to his superior? Or was it more like a statement of intent from a man who has finally lost faith in his Church and has decided to take a stand?
Regardless of Luther’s personal motives and actions, this letter illustrates some of the problems within the Church during the early 16th Century and highlights some of Luther’s personal beliefs on what needed to be changed. Some of these beliefs would later help found the basis of the Reformation movement to follow.
Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe (Blackwell Publishing 1985)
Marius, Richard, The Christian Between God and Death (Harvard University Press 1999)
Oaubig, Merle d’Uubigne J.H, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Hartland Publications,1995)
Ward A.W, Prothero G.W, Leathes, Stanley. The Cambridge Modern History Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press 1903)
Luther’s 95 Theses, Date Accessed: 25-10-08
Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, 1517, Date Accessed: 25-10-08
http://bible.cc/matthew/23-24.htm, Date Accessed: 25-10-08