October 31, 1517:
Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World
Hardback: Paraclete Press, 2017
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Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the date attributed to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church Wittenberg. Martin Marty, one of the most distinguished scholars of church history over the last century, has written a powerful and timely meditation on the significance of this event. It is, as James Martin, SJ refers to it in his foreword: “a short book on a big topic written by an expert.”
Marty’s meditation probes the parallel concepts of penance (a crucial idea in Luther’s variance with Rome) and repentance, which he intuits as the general direction that Protestants and Catholics seem to be moving over the last century. He writes: “For all the limits to the ecumenical moves and movement, for all the parts of Christ’s body that regard all other parts as sects, be they tiny or massive, still cut-off or cutting-off movements, without a doubt the past century has seen “a change of heart” and a “soul” that is somehow open and purposive. In other words, we’ve seen a readiness to find new ways for each to regard all the others, and to follow through with action” (39).
This book is a conversation starter, to get us thinking about our history as the people of God, and how it continually forms and re-forms us, how we are being torn apart, and how God is working to heal the broken body of Christ. Marty offers no easy solutions, but he is hopeful about the direction that the church is headed. May we continue to repent of the ways in which we have contributed to the fragmenting of Christ’s body. October 31, 1517, although brief, gives us much to reflect on and if we take Marty’s work seriously to fuel our continuing repentance. Gather a group in your church, or from multiple churches in your neighborhoods, and talk about this book.