While most of us would have heard or know something about Luther’s 95 Theses, not many would be aware that he actually addressed a copy of the same Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on the same day he purported posted them on the doors of Castle Church on October 31, 1517. Why did he send the Theses to Albrecht or “Albert”. Perhaps a brief background might help us understand why.Albert of Brandenburg, Cardinal and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire was born on June, 1490 and died on 24 September, 1545. As early as 1509, when he was a mere 19 years old, he was made Prebendary in the Cathedral of Mainz. From 1513 he was Archbishop of Magdeburg and Administrator of Halberstadt.
In 1514, Albert of Mainz became the Archbishop. Being the Archbishop of Mainz made him a member of the prestigious Electoral College: a group of seven members, three ecclesiastical rulers (the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne) and four secular rulers (the king of Bohemia, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count Palantine of the Rhine, and the Duke of Saxony) whose responsibility it was to elect emperors. Obtaining such a position did not come without expense, and in order to finance becoming the Archbishop, Albert borrowed 21,000 ducats from a famously rich banker. In order to pay off his debt, Albert obtained permission from Pope Leo X to collect alms in return for indulgences, provided that half of the money collected would be forwarded to the papacy in order to help finance the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1517, Pope Leo X commissioned John Tetzel as the Commissioner of Indulgences for all of Germany.
Tetzel came to Wittenberg Germany in 1517, generating money to pay off Albert’s debt, and to build up Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But when Tetzel began to sell these indulgences to the uneducated German on masses, it struck a nerve. Tetzel had created a chart itemizing prices for various sins, and sloganeering with such crass slogans as “As soon as the gold in the casket rings - the rescued soul to heaven springs” and even claiming that the indulgences he sold could save a soul who violated the Virgin Mary. Albert himself employed Tetzel for the actual preaching of the Indulgence and furnished him a book of instructions: Instructio summaria ad Subcommissarios P nitentiarum et Confessores. It was partly against this promotion of indulgences coupled with the conduct of Tetzel, and Albert’s book of instructions that Luther sought to address both in his 95 Theses and his letter to Albert. That Albert’s book did leave much to be desired is evidenced by Pope Leo X’s message of admonition to Albert for permitting so many books which are hostile to Faith to be published under the latter’s eye.
Luther’s letter to Albert is significant. First of all, it was written on the same day the 95 Theses were first made public. As such the letter informs us of the reasons Luther had written his Theses and why he had made them public. Secondly, we do not need to second-guess what Luther’s original reasons were and what his original intention was. Scholars have debated over why he did what he did. There is no need for speculation. In this letter, Luther clearly spells out his intention. Thirdly, there can be no doubt that Luther understood his place in the society of his day. He viewed himself as but a servant of the state and the Church. Revolution was furthest from his mind when he first published the Theses. They were meant for a “disputation”, a debate. Little did he expect that his Theses would be so revolutionary! As we will discover in subsequent posts, the revolutionary character of his Theses actually caught him by surprise!
You may read Luther’s letter to Albert for yourself below.
TO the Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Lord, Albrecht of Magdeburg and Mainz, Archbishop and Primate of the Church, Margrave of Brandenburg, etc., his own lord and pastor in Christ, worthy of reverence and fear, and most gracious JESUS. The grace of God be with you in all its fullness and power!
Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.
Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter’s are circulating under your most distinguished name, and as regards them, I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived front them; to wit, — the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory; furthermore, that these graces [i.e., the graces conferred in the indulgences] are so great that there is no sin too great to be absolved, even, as they say — though the thing is impossible—if one had violated the Mother of God; again, that a man is free, through these indulgences, from all penalty and guilt.
O God, most good! Thus souls committed to your care, good Father, are taught to their death, and the strict account, which you must render for all such, grows and increases. For this reason I have no longer been able to keep quiet about this matter, for it is by no gift of a bishop that man becomes sure of salvation, since he gains this certainty not even by the “inpoured grace” of God, but the Apostle bids us always “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling,” and Peter says, “the righteous scarcely shall be saved.” Finally, so narrow is the way that leads to life, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, calls those who shall be saved “brands plucked from the burning,” and everywhere declares the difficulty of salvation.
Why, then, do the preachers of pardons, by these false fables and promises, make the people careless and fearless? Whereas indulgences confer on us no good gift, either for salvation or for sanctity, but only take away the external penalty, which it was formerly the custom to impose according to the canons.
Finally, works of piety and love are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet these are not preached with such ceremony or such zeal; nay, for the sake of preaching the indulgences they are kept quiet, though it is the first and the sole duty of all bishops that the people should learn the Gospel and the love of Christ, for Christ never taught that indulgences should be preached. How great then is the horror, how great the peril of a bishop, if he permits the Gospel to be kept quiet, and nothing but the noise of indulgences to be spread among his people! Will not Christ say to them, “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?”
In addition to this, Most Reverend Father in the Lord, it is said in the Instruction to the Commissaries which is issued under your name, Most Reverend Father (doubtless without your knowledge and consent), that 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. Again, it is said that contrition is not necessary in those who purchase souls [out of purgatory] or buy confessionalia.
But what can I do, good Primate and Most Illustrious Prince, except pray your Most Reverend Fatherhood by the Lord Jesus Christ that you would deign to look [on this matter] with the eye of fatherly care, and do away entirely with that treatise and impose upon the preachers of pardons another form of preaching; lest, perchance, 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. I shrink very much from thinking that this will be done, and yet I fear that it will come to pass, unless there is some speedy remedy.
These faithful offices of my insignificance I beg that your Most Illustrious Grace may deign to accept in the spirit of a Prince and a Bishop, i.e., with the greatest clemency, as I offer them out of a faithful heart, altogether devoted to you, Most Reverend Father, since I too am a part of your flock.
May the Lord Jesus have your Most Reverend Fatherhood eternally in His keeping. Amen.
From Wittenberg on the Vigil of All Saints, MDXVII.
If it please the Most Reverend Father he may see these my Disputations, and learn how doubtful a thing is the opinion of indulgences which those men spread as though it were most certain.
To the Most Reverend Father,
BROTHER MARTIN LUTHER.