Did it happen?

Martin E Marty

Some historians question whether the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses actually happened. (The story seems to be somewhat apocryphal, even if it is likely.) Whether it did or not (the theses’ content is more important than the means of their being brought to the public’s attention), the celebrations for next year’s (2017) 500 year Reformation anniversary centre on this event. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (above) hones in on this date in his appropriately titled October 31, 1517 (Paraclete Press).

The book is a short summary, something like the style of Yale’s Little History series, of Luther’s grievances and in it Marty writes, surprisingly, that the main theme of the Reformation was repentance – rather than grace, freedom, sola scriptura, papal corruption, heresy or whatever else we might imagine. And rather than searching through Luther’s voluminous works, he suggests an easy way to understand Luther’s theology, and that is to study the seal Luther chose for himself, the Luther Rose. Against the image of Lutheranism as self-berating (‘miserable sinners’ and all that), the Rose demonstrates the overall positive nature of Lutheran theology. Although repentance is somewhat out of fashion generally, Marty notes that it is, appropriately for the anniversary, a celebratory response to whatever God has done for us, rather than what we have done for ourselves. It is realistic about human beings’ tendency to mess up relationships, but tuned to the future, as God has liberated us, once and for all. And there is possibly the hint of, from Luther the Augustinian, a recognition that God makes complete what we are incapable of completing ourselves.

Marty also argues that there is nothing in Luther’s emphasis on grace over sin that is contradictory to (uncorrupted) Catholic theology. In that vein, the book then (again, surprisingly) takes us down a side track to argue for the benefits of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and the significance of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (which perhaps explains why it was published by the good people at Paraclete Press, a Benedictine organisation that undertakes ecumenical publishing).

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