October 31, 1517

Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World

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Martin E. Marty
  • Brewster, MA: 
    Paraclete Press
    , May
     128 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s posting of the ninety-five theses, many, many books, articles, and symposia will try to explain what the Reformation means and how we should think about it. Few of them will deal directly with Luther’s theses on penance that unexpectedly received such attention. The document that sparked the Reformation debates is dense, abstruse, and does not give direct questions to the divisive questions over which Catholics and Protestants would later differentiate themselves. And so Luther’s treatise is often safely honored without engagement, tacked up in commemoration on church doors without being read.

In October 31, 1517 Martin Marty grounds his consideration of this anniversary squarely in these theses—or more precisely, in the first of the ninety-five: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance” (95). This is a book about repentance, what Luther meant by it, why that was able to spark such a debate, and how it should influence our contemporary commemoration of this 500th anniversary.

The reader approaching this short book as a systematized introduction to the Reformation will be disappointed, as will the one who seeks another entry in the over-filled category of apologia for or screed against Luther and his theses. Instead, here is a book about repentance—not necessarily the sacrament, but as a way of life to which Luther called all Christians, and through which we must approach this commemoration.

Three short chapters do introduce the medieval penance system of indulgences—and the fight about them—but then the book swings to consider how the churches, beginning with ecumenists, moving through joint actions, and eventually needing to bear fruit in common practice, have learned to repent of the scandal of division. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification gets central billing here, but Marty then turns his attention to outstanding questions: how do we approach the scandal of Eucharistic separation in repentance? What does this do to our theology? To our practice?

This book, appropriately, does not offer pat answers to any of these questions. The wise confessor does not tell the penitent what they are to feel, think, or do, but engages them in conversation, asking careful questions, and responding to the movements of the Spirit in their answers. Marty plays this role well, asking both Lutherans and Catholics questions that could unsettle a comfortable a status quo in which we are no longer publically condemning each other to hell, but are not yet fully reconciled. The book ends with a translation of the 95 Theses, giving readers access to the source material.

As Western Christians enter the second half-millennium since our public unity began to so radically dissolve, this little book serves as a good examination of conscience. It is written in an approachable way, and provides those without much grasp of the history enough to get into the questions. It serves as an excellent examination of conscience for those who would seek to follow Christ more closely and who would discern his presence among those from whom they are separated. Outsiders to these disputes will find here a good first introduction to Christian ecumenism and its influence on the ongoing development of Christian traditions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jakob Karl Rinderknecht is director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin E. Marty is Professor Emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago. He is the winner of the National Book Award and the author of more than fifty books. His recent books include Martin Luther: A Life (Viking) and The Christian World: A Global History (Modern Library).


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