This year is a big year for Martin Luther and the Reformation. On Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology in Wittenberg, Saxony (eastern Germany) nailed 95 doctrinal theses to the door of the castle church. He couldn’t have picked a more conspicuous place.
As Lutheran theologian Martin Marty says in the subtitle to his October 31, 1517, it was indeed a day that changed the world.
Numerous books have been written that detail the beginnings and history of the Protestant Reformation (and quite a few in the last year alone). But it’s not Marty’s intent to tell or retell that history. Instead, his essays briefly summarize that history, look at how the Reformation continues to affect us today, and consider the issues that remain in any significant move toward ecumenism.
It’s familiar ground, but Marty brings a keen eye to it. He’s lived many of these issues in countless meetings that seek to heal the rift between Protestant and Catholic (and especially Lutheran and Catholic). He knows where strides have been made, and he knows how wide the remaining gaps are.
He writes much about penance and repentance. He meditates on justification and penance. He summarizes half a millennium of conflict. He looks at the sacraments. And he finally asks the question implied by the subtitle: did that one day change the world?
His answer: “That this monk, Martin Luther, acted in the context of long-term debates about whether God is gracious, and whether God’s grace changes the world, our world, leads to October 31, 1517, to be regarded as a day of decision.” (The book’s appendix contains all 95 of the theses for reading and reference.)
Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is the author and co-author of numerous works on religion, faith, and ecumenism, including Martin Luther; The Christian World: A Global History; Lutheran Questions Lutheran Answers; The Mystery of the Child; WhenFaiths Collide; and many others written over a 50+-year career.
Luther wasn’t the first, Marty says, to question how the church controlled the individual’s theological practices or beliefs; nor was he the last. But his was the one that struck the imagination and hearts of his time, and still strikes the imagination and hearts of our own.
Painting: Martin Luther in 1525 at age 42, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.