In our previous post we have noted that Luther had sent a copy of the 95 Theses with an accompanying letter to Albert of Mainz on the same day he purportedly posted the same Theses on the doors of Castle Church. He had not expected that his action would cause such a furore across Christendom – but it did! So much so, he was not only taken by surprise, but taken aback by the increasing backlash to himself.
This backlash is partly described in a letter he wrote to Pope Leo X, some time in 1518, less than a year after he posted the 95 Theses. In the letter, together with which he attached his 95 Theses, Luther seeks not so much to defend himself as to inform the Pope of his original intention in posting the 95 Theses and to clarify that intention. This was made necessary because (1) his enemies had accused him as a heretic, (2) others have wanted to know his intention; and (3) he was seeking the Pope’s understanding and protection.
So why did he post the 95 Theses? It was for the purpose of “disputation” – a debate among scholars within the university (“at our University and for our University only”). Or as Luther put it, “inviting only the more learned to dispute with me”. It was never his intention to make the Theses public largely because Luther was not seeking to undermine the Pope nor the Church. Though a “servant of Christ”, Luther also saw himself as a servant of the Pope and of the Church. For that reason, he was willing to cast himself, in this matter, at the mercy of the Pope to “quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will.” If the Pope felt Luther was deserving of death, Luther declared, “I shall not refuse to die.”
Not to be overlooked is Luther’s clarification that the 95 Theses were “not doctrines or dogmas”. Rather they were “a set of theses”, crafted for the purpose of debate among scholars. Thus the “obscure and enigmatic” language! This clarification was crucial as Luther did not wish to undermine the sole authority of the Pope or the Church to formulate doctrines and dogmas for the Church. He didn’t think in any way that he was in a position to do so “especially since I am unlearned, dull of brain, empty of scholarship.”
Thus this letter, as with his earlier letter to Albert of Mainz, helps to further confirm Luther’s original intention in posting the 95 Theses. It also explains to an extent why Luther was himself surprised by the furore they caused, and how he continued to view himself as a member of the Catholic Church despite it. It was never his intention to usurp the authority of the Pope or the Church, or to overthrow them. The last thing he wanted was to “split” the Church.
You may read this letter below.
[Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds., Works of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Volume 1, pp 44-48]
LETTER TO POPE LEO X, ACCOMPANYING
THE "RESOLUTIONS" TO THE XCV THESES
Most Blessed Father,
wisheth everlasting welfare.
I have heard evil reports about myself, most blessed Father, by which I know that certain friends have put my name in very bad odor with you and yours, saying that I have attempted to belittle the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff. Therefore I am accused of heresy, apostasy, and perfidy, and am called by six hundred other names of ignominy. My ears shudder and my eyes are astounded. But the one thing in which I put my confidence remains unshaken -- my clear and quiet conscience. Moreover, what I hear is nothing new. With such like decorations I have been adorned in my own country by those same honorable and truthful men, i.e., by the men whose own conscience convicts them of wrongdoing, and who are trying to put their own monstrous doings off on me, and to glorify their own shame by bringing shame to me. But you will deign, blessed Father, to hear the true case from me, though I am but an uncouth child.
It is not long ago that the preaching of the Jubilee indulgences was begun in our country, and matters went so far that the preachers of indulgences, thinking that the protection of your name made anything permissible, ventured openly to teach the most impious and heretical doctrines, which threatened to make the power of the Church a scandal and a laughing-stock, as if the decretals De abusionibus quaestorum did not apply to them.
Not content with spreading this poison of theirs by word of mouth, they published tracts and scattered them among the people. In these books -- to say nothing of the insatiable and unheard of avarice of which almost every letter in them vilely smells -- they laid down those same impious and heretical doctrines, and laid them down in such wise that confessors were bound by their oath to be faithful and insistent in urging them upon the people. I speak the truth, and none of them can hide himself from the heat thereof. The tracts are extant and they cannot disown them. These teachings were so successfully carried on, and the people, with their false hopes, were sucked so dry that, as the Prophet says, “they plucked their flesh from off their bones”; but they themselves meanwhile were fed most pleasantly on the fat of the land.
There was just one means which they used to quiet opposition, to wit, the protection of your name, the threat of burning at the stake, and the disgrace of the name “heretic”. It is incredible how ready they are to threaten, even, at times, when they perceive that it is only their own mere silly opinions which are contradicted. As though this were to quiet opposition, and not rather to arouse schisms and seditions by sheer tyranny!
None the less, however, stories about the avarice of the priests were bruited in the taverns, and evil was spoken of the power of the keys and of the Supreme Pontiff, and as evidence of this, I could cite the common talk of this whole land. I truly confess that I was on fire with zeal for Christ, as I thought, or with the heat of youth, if you prefer to have it so; and yet I saw that it was not in place for me to make any decrees or to do anything in these matters. Therefore I privately admonished some of the prelates of the Church. By some of them I was kindly received, to others I seemed ridiculous, to still others something worse; for the terror of your name and the threat of Church censures prevailed. At last, since I could do nothing else, it seemed good that I should offer at least a gentle resistance to them, i.e., question and discuss their teachings. Therefore I published a set of theses, inviting only the more learned to dispute with me if they wished; as should be evident, even to my adversaries, from the Preface to the Disputation.
Lo, this is the fire with which they complain that all the world is now ablaze! Perhaps it is because they are indignant that I, who by your own apostolic authority am a Master of Theology, have the right to conduct public disputations, according to the custom of all the Universities and of the whole Church, not only about indulgences, but also about God's power and remission and mercy, which are incomparably greater subjects. I am not much moved, however, by the fact that they envy me the privilege granted me by the power of your Holiness, since I am unwillingly compelled to yield to them in things of far greater moment, viz., when they mix the dreams of Aristotle with theological matters, and conduct nonsensical disputations about the majesty of God, beyond and against the privilege granted them.
It is a miracle to me by what fate it has come about that this single Disputation of mine should, more than any other, of mine or of any of the teachers, have gone out into very nearly the whole land. It was made public at our University and for our University only, and it was made public in such wise that I cannot believe it has become known to all men. For it is a set of theses, not doctrines or dogmas, and they are put, according to custom, in an obscure and enigmatic way. Otherwise, if I had been able to foresee what was coming, I should have taken care, for my part, that they would be easier to understand.
Now what shall I do? I cannot recant them; and yet I see that marvelous enmity is inflamed against me because of their dissemination. It is unwillingly that I incur the public and perilous and various judgment of men, especially since I am unlearned, dull of brain, empty of scholarship; and that too in this brilliant age of ours, which by its achievements in letters and learning can force even Cicero into the corner, though he was no base follower of the public light. But necessity compels me to be the goose that squawks among the swans.
And so, to soften my enemies and to fulfil the desires of many, I herewith send forth these trifling explanations of my Disputation; I send them forth in order, too, that I may be more safe under the defense of your name and the shadow of your protection. In them all may see, who will, how purely and simply I have sought after and cherished the power of the Church and reverence for the keys; and, at the same time, how unjustly and falsely my adversaries have befouled me with so many names. For if I had been such a one as they wish to make me out, and if I had not, on the contrary, done everything correctly, according to my academic privilege, the Most Illustrious Prince Frederick, Duke of Saxony, Imperial Elector, etc., would never have tolerated such a pest in his University, for he most dearly loves the Catholic and Apostolic truth, nor could I have been tolerated by the keen and learned men of our University. But what has been done, I do because those most courteous men do not fear openly to involve both the Prince and the University in the same disgrace with myself.
Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am. Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. He is blessed forever. Amen.
May He have you too forever in His keeping. Amen.