Review: A Conversation with Martin Marty about His New Book

[Originally published in JLE July/August 2016]

[1] Some weeks ago the Journal of Lutheran Ethics was contacted by the publisher about our interest in reviewing Martin E. Marty’s new book, October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, published this year by Paraclete Press of Brewster, Massachusetts. It was further suggested that we might want to incorporate the review into an interview with Dr. Marty. We all thought that was an excellent idea. I gained the privilege of doing the interview in his studio in the residence tower adjacent to the Hancock Center where he and his spouse also have a beautiful residence with a view of the lakefront, the Navy Pier and the City of Chicago. It is a view of the city that has been his city all his 35 years at the University of Chicago where he is now the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus. Dr. Marty is a church historian and an ordained Lutheran pastor with 60 books to his credit and more articles, essays, and editorials than even he can count. He is not only extensively published in Reformation era topics, including a biography of Martin Luther, but he has had an ongoing concern and engagement with the Christian witness in public life. Our exchange those precious hours was a particular joy since we have known each other for many years and I have a deep respect for him as a person, not only as an extraordinary scholar.

[2] Marty begins by observing that some of the best books, some of the classic smaller books are about “one thing.” Examples are Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and even possibly Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat! No matter the number of various themes woven into the narrative, there is in these “good ones” one integrating theme. And that precisely, Marty informs us, is the design of this little book: it is about one thing. That one thing he announces at the outset is “repentance.” At this point, before reading further, veteran Lutherans might cock their heads and wonder why this entry into the observance of the coming 500th anniversary of the Reformation would choose repentance instead of “grace” or “faith,” not to mention “justification.” Well, of course, things do get around to justification by grace through faith without much delay. Nonetheless, the integrating focus remains repentance.

[3] While even some Lutherans may pause for a moment at a book commemorating the Reformation that focuses on repentance, Marty is aware that it is a tough sell in today’s world in general. Insofar as people associate repentance with confessing faults and sorrows without always seeing the healing effects and even ultimate joy that comes with God’s word of forgiveness, they may well feel that our world of fears and anxiety doesn’t need another reminder of life’s problems and failures. Moreover, the call to repentance must compete with the “ups,” promises of happiness and success being vigorously promoted in the culture.

Advertisers who regularly peddle pills that promote those “ups,” celebrities who display giddiness, entertainers who seek to distract, and high-achievers in general will not succeed if they get tied up in knots thinking about all they have done wrong, by anyone’s standards – most notably, God’s …(8)

So, why a book about repentance?

[6] Marty takes his clue from the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.” Marty and I talked about his view of the significance and paramount importance of this first thesis. He related that he has always been almost obsessed with the first thesis. In his judgement, if we understand it correctly, “it says it all.” To appreciate the force of this thesis, he says we need to get away from the common images of repentance as merely gloomy and penitential. He recalled for me an instance of a congregation years ago, making preparation for the Easter service. It was in the day when communion was not celebrated every Sunday as is frequently the case today. The pastor allowed as how the Easter service should include Holy Communion. The response he got to this suggestion: “Why should we spoil a happy day like Easter with a somber celebration of communion?” It was a response that reflected a view of the Lord’s Supper that was all about bringing your sins with downcast head to the altar for forgiveness, which, however true of the grace that is ours in the sacrament, cast a penitential pall over the entire experience to the exclusion of all elements of joy, healing and communion.

[7] This discussion led Marty to reflect on the important influence on him of the German philoso​pher, Max Scheler, who raised the question of how we can overcome the past and look to the future. The past is over. We can only look to the future. So, Marty avers, we can’t define ourselves by repenting of the sins of our ancestors: our treatment of Native Americans, slavery, etc. These things can’t be changed. He continues, as in the book, that when we look at Luther in Scheler’s perspective, the sins that Luther confessed and that had Luther bound and away from God were the past that could not be changed. So how does repentance effect change if the past cannot be changed? The question for Luther and for us is not “Alas, what did I do?” Instead repentance should lead us ultimately to ask, “Alas, what kind of person am I that I can do such bad things?” It is the question that signals the act of repentance as seeking a change of heart. God’s response to repentance is the forgiveness of sins, which Luther understood to be the Gospel and the grace for a change of heart. Reflecting on this in our conversation, Marty added in answer to the question, “What kind of person am I?” this quote from Galatians 2:20, “…it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.”

[8] “Repentance means a change of heart.” That is the one theme of the entire book and the meaning of the first thesis that our entire lives are to be repentance. A life of repentance and forgiveness embraces the new way of life in Christ. How then does this first thesis of the Ninety-Five Theses capture the thrust of the Reformation as it began to play out in 1517?

[9] Before he moves on to respond to that question, however, Marty wants us to remember that what has been said about this day, October 31, 1517, as a turning point in history includes in its wake both turmoil as well as freedom. Moreover, Luther himself flawed and often wrong as well as heroic, needed to live his first thesis himself because he was daily in need of repentance, forgiveness and change of heart.

[10] Of course, as Marty observes, repentance and forgiveness and change of heart had been going on in the lives of Christians for the centuries of the Christian era up to the time of Luther. However, in 1517 there was among the thousands who were repenting, undergoing a change of heart and being forgiven a discontent “about how this change came about: through a system we often call the rites of penance. This is the nerve Luther touched.” (15) As we know, Penance and the sale of indulgences for the profit of Rome and the building of St. Peter’s went together. To this Luther responded in Thesis 2, “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the Church, and this is granted by God, even without letters of indulgence.” Marty reports then that what Luther proposed in Thesis 45 was a constructive alternative to the imposition of indulgences: “Christians should be taught that those who see another in need and pass on by, and then give money for indulgences, are not purchasing for themselves the Pope’s indulgences, but rather God’s anger.” (24) This new way of looking at repentance leads us again to Marty’s “one thing,” repentance as a change of heart.

[11] Thesis 45 and the unitive theme of repentance as change of heart led us into a discussion of how this narrative of 1517 speaks to the foundation of Christian ethics and therefore to the readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Clearly, we agreed, Luther saw repentance and renewal in the grace of divine forgiveness as the very wellspring of neighbor love and the ethical concerns that follow. Marty added that in Luther’s Small Catechism we have a complete account of the Christian’s faith and life, a document worth consulting along with our extensive probing of the ethical demands of our complex world. I’ll say more about our discussion of Christian ethics a little further on.

[12] Returning to the book’s narrative, Marty points out that Luther’s understanding of the first Thesis was a move in life from sin to grace and change of heart as a joyful response to God’s liberating grace. As such it leads directly into the heart of Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith. Readers will enjoy Marty’s recounting of Luther’s understanding of his seal, with which we are familiar on anything from book covers to lapel pins. Luther explains it’s every feature as comprising a virtual compendium or summary of Christian theology. And, Marty observes, nothing in this summary contradicted the Catholic theology of the day. Luther’s reforming efforts were because he believed the doctrine of penance obscured the true theology that was really there. Because that was true then, Marty says, we need meaningful dialogue in our own time.

[13] Indeed, as the heading of Chapter Six has it, “repentance calls for dialogue and dialogue calls for repentance.” In the chapters that follow, Marty gives an account of the ecumenical efforts of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue as representing genuine repentance as change of heart. The bitter sectarian divisions of the church require repentance and change of heart. Marty regards this call to repentance as implicit in the 1961 New Delhi Statement on Unity that expressed the belief that, “all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit in to one fully committed fellowship.” (47)

[14] Notwithstanding the stunning nature of the New Delhi statement skepticism quickly emerged that “fully committed fellowship” might actually mean “full committee fellowship.” In other words, are not the various ecumenical documents of our time mainly the purview of the theologians and scholars that create them in committee, filled with the technical jargon of theology and ecclesiology, and removed from the daily faith life of Christian people. But Marty believes that such skepticism is wrong. He gives a few simple examples of how this “document ecumenism” has reached into the lives of people with often liberating impact. In our conversation he enjoyed recalling an illustrative experience that is recounted in the book also. It was the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birthday. The Catholic archbishop of Chicago had invited folks from over four hundred Lutheran parishes in the Chicago area to a service observing the event. Marty was asked to preach. When the service was over he witnessed any number of couples of Lutheran-Catholic marriages who were in tears at being able for the first time to worship together. Marty observed with a smile that in the face of the people’s joy in togetherness in worship he was, as preacher, irrelevant!

[15] Of special mention in Marty’s narrative of ecumenical progress is the pivotal importance of Vatican II, the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and the more recent 2013 From Conflict to Communion, which Marty commends to our attention. From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Roman Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation of 2017 is a joint enterprise of the Lutheran World Federation and Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and is the Report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. Both the Joint Declaration and From Conflict to Communion are available online. In the document on justification Marty emphasizes that the drastic act of the Catholic Church revoking its condemnation of Luther and what he stood for is no small matter. Churches are not given to public declarations that they were wrong! In effect they repented the fact that the old ways had impeded Christians from realizing the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church. (54)

[16] Marty notes that Alfred North Whitehead once commented that the sixteenth century world of the Reformation was a small world and the Lutheran-Catholic conflict was a “family quarrel” that was in Whitehead’s words “serenely ignored” by the Christian East. Nonetheless, “If 1517 symbolizes the great breach within Western Christianity, any efforts to repair it merits attention.” (59) And, though in today’s world the Joint Declaration garnered few headlines or gained much attention among church members compared to the Lutheran acceptance of gay marriage or the election of the Pope, leaders knew that unless the matter of justification is engaged there is no going forward toward greater unity. What follows then is a snapshot of the dialogues that eventually led to the Joint Declaration. It was a process of seeking to hear each other correctly when speaking of such things as faith in relation to works or the Lutheran construct, simul justus et peccator and its corollary, sola fide.

[17] There are, as we all realize, a number of issues as yet unresolved in Catholic-Lutheran relations. Marty tags some of the more important ones. Though there is agreement on the real presence in the Eucharist, there remains a difference in the how of that real presence. The unease of Lutherans with the adoration of Christ’s body in the bread and wine is related. The matters of apostolic succession and the role of women in the church are other fronts for further dialogue. Of course, issues of sacramental theology and theology of ministry engage Protestants with each other also. That there is still a way to go when speaking of Christian unity makes the commemorations of 1517 and the Ninety-five Theses a call for more attention to what is in the heart and soul of Lutheranism and Catholicism and the change it may effect in our world.

[18] The final chapter, “Can One Day Change the World?” tests the credibility of the subtitle. Can we ever speak of “one day” changing the world rather than a series of events surrounding a given day? Marty thinks so. He gives some examples of other remembered days regarded as world changing, most prominent of which is perhaps July 4, 1776. Such days as Independence Day or more recently in the United States, 9/11, can be accorded world-changing status on the basis of the major developments that followed from the events of those days. Though unlikely as a world changing event, October 31, 1517 and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses calling for repentance and change of heart as way of life by an unknown young monk in a city and university far from the centers of power did have lasting consequences. Marty observes that the world is changing since Luther’s day and his agony may not be the same as the spiritual struggles of today. He notes Tillich’s point that “guilt and the search for a gracious God now was transformed into a search for God and for meaning in life.” (90) However, the question remains, “What kind of person am I that I am capable of contributing to division within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church?” When people ask that question of themselves and, “thus repent and want to change, in the light of the day in 1517 that ‘changed the world,’ they will be positioned to experience change and then to change…It all depends on the Holy Spirit and ‘a change of heart.’” (91)

[19] The final chapter led us into conversation about the abiding impact of the Reformation and how it speaks and has spoken to our day. In the book, Marty alludes to the pluralism and secularism that marks today’s world, so we talked about that.

[20] We’ll start with pluralism. Marty started with the clear statement that our approach must be one of mutual respect when interacting with persons of other faiths. “Do not try to proselytize!” When do we tell the Christian story of the gospel to persons outside our faith? In answer to that question he recalled the words of the late Richard Caemerer, a revered professor of homiletics whom we both knew, whose response was, “When they ask,” “Wait your turn.” At this point, Marty also recalled his former University of Chicago colleague David Tracy’s stress on the importance of “conversation.” Conversation is an exchange of mutual respect as persons of different outlooks attempt to find each other. It is not debate or argument. It requires openness to one’s conversation partner, a readiness to listen and a readiness to correct one’s own position. This approach serves well in interfaith dialogue and in engagement with challenges of secular philosophies.

[21] What about the impact of the Lutheran tradition on our daily lives to this day and, in particular, the Christian witness in a secularizing society? The Lutheran tradition, Marty believes equips us well for life in the day-to-day world. Vocation is the key concept here. We are called in our discipleship to the “daily-ness of life,” the “ordinariness.” In that daily life of vocation our ethical witness is one of faith active in love seeking justice. For, Marty contends, the problem for the Christian witness in the secular realm is not atheism but indifference and lack of involvement in the lives of people and the critical issues they face. Lutheran theology has a message of involvement for life in the secular order. When people reach out and care in word and in deed, they build “cultures of trust.” (Marty has a book by the title Building Cultures of Trust.) Building cultures of trust is at the core of our Christian witness. It spans engagement in charity, respectful engagement in conversation between partners of disparate outlooks, and engagement in the social-political advocacy of a public church.

[22] There was so much more to talk about; we hope there will be another chance soon.

[23] This book is a little book with a big message: a message of repentance as change of heart, the message of 1517 that Marty is able to show has manifold implications for church and world. It is worthy of careful attention in the commemorations to come. Because of its size and accessibility to a broad readership, this book is an excellent resource for use in congregations as well as classrooms. It can introduce readers to the heartbeat of the Reformation. An extra benefit is the inclusion of the full text of the Ninety-Five Theses. Readers who may never have had an occasion to read them will now have them ready at hand as they read about their world-changing significance.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.