Marty, Martin E. October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016.
In this brief book, Marty sets out to describe the life of repentance as heart and center of the Reformation. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses restated Jesus’ invitation to live a life of repentance (Marty, 4-5). While Marty observes (Marty, 7) a common view of repentance as a negative event, he counters this claim forcefully. “Whoever reads the Gospel stories of Jesus knows that the call to repent was his first word as he gathered followers to his Father’s way” (Marty, 8). Repentance, therefore, signifies a very positive move. Without repentance, there is no forgiveness (Marty, 11).
The repentance Luther called for is that which receives justification by faith (Marty, 19). While Rome also believes in justification and faith, the central question was just how one would receive the forgiveness of God promised to those who repent. “In the Catholic understanding, based on some clues in sacred Scripture and developed by theologians of the church, people who died had sinned, and these sins - Scripture said - displeased God the Judge and had to be ‘purged’ before the resurrected person could experience the fullness of divine reward” (Marty, 20). The concept of penance as well as the practice of receiving indulgences were put forward by Rome as the means of purging sins. These concepts drew the attention of Luther’s second and 37th Theses, which affirm the centrality and freedom of grace (Marty, 23-24).
The connection between repentance and forgiveness, regardless of human works of satisfaction, became central to Reformational thought. Marty notes that the Roman doctrines also saw repentance connected to forgiveness (Marty, 30). The Theses were an invitation to dialog. Marty views the dialog as largely incomplete (Marty, 33). From the Lutheran view the discussion is about repentance. But from the Roman view the discussion focuses on catholicity. Marty discusses implications of catholicity, then concludes that Vatican II changed Rome’s view to include “separated brothers and sisters” (Marty, 36). This may well signal an openness to the Gospel which was not present at the time of Luther.
Marty points to the post-Vatican II period as a time in which Rome has discussed repentance and justification a great deal, culminating, for now, in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Marty, 43). Marty considers this an important concession on Rome’s part (Marty, 44). The foundational question of how repentance and forgiveness are transacted remains not entirely resolved. At this point I find Marty’s argument lacking. He speaks to unification and concord (Marty, 50). However, he minimizes the importance of specific doctrinal issues, such as Rome’s insistence on earning the fullness of salvation. It seems Rome and Protestantism agree only if they define justification differently from one another (Marty, 55).
Marty goes on to speak in very favorable terms of a diversity of understanding of the same creeds (Marty, 57). He urges a unity which considers serious doctrinal matters as unimportant, alleging (Marty, 58ff) that in the time of the Reformation people blithely ignored the important, well reasoned, and even biblical views of their opponents. By the 1980s the idea of finding “reconciled diversity” became important (Marty, 64). While Marty discusses many points of identity in terminology, he fails to show that the agreement reaches to the definition of terms. Rather, he suggests repeatedly that Lutherans fail to receive Rome’s statements about grace. He does not take into account that Rome’s catechism teaches that grace allows us to do works which will complete our salvation. The means of appropriating salvation is a persistent problem which he does not address.
In the remaining chapters of his book, Marty discusses the sacraments, particularly baptism and communion, observing the fact that in Lutheran and Roman circles they appear remarkably similar (Marty, 71ff). His allegation on p. 75 that Lutherans see themselves as contributing something in communion is certainly not an aspect of historic confessional Lutheran doctrine. He also views ordination as a minor point of difference (Marty, 78).
In short, by the conclusion of his book, Marty has presented a very attractive case for unity. However, it is not based on the valid doctrinal arguments of the dispute which came to the foreground at the time of the Council of Trent. Similarities in liturgy and terminology are great. However, the underlying question of how forgiveness is given and received is never settled. Much remains to be done.