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 ...view middle of the document...
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.
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...