Lutheran scholar Martin Marty on faith, Luther, the state of religion

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Lutheran scholar Martin Marty has a new book on Martin Luther, says Luther’s view that repentance should be a lifetime thing might sound “grim” but was meant to be “a joyful thing,” amounting to “a change of heart.” | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Martin Marty, Lutheran pastor, retired University of Chicago professor, author, has a new a book on Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” as 500th anniversary approaches, believes that a new Reformation, spanning denominations, would have to focus on “a recovery of love and justice.”

Ordained a Lutheran minister 65 years ago, Marty taught for 35 years at the U. of C. Was once editor at The Christian Century magazine and won a 1972 National Book Award for “Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America.”

He’s retired but still writing, including a new book on Martin Luther called “October 31, 1517 — Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World.”

That’s when Luther’s “95 Theses” came out — challenging certain Catholic teachings and practices, including people paying money to shorten time away from God in “purgatory,” seen as a sort of middle-space between heaven and hell.

Luther’s writings asserted “that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds,” according to one summary.

They fueled the Protestant Reformation and helped change the course of Western civilization.


A key point from Luther: Repentance should be a lifetime thing.

Might sound “grim,” Marty says, but Luther wanted repentance to be “a joyful thing,” amounting to “a change of heart.”


Luther’s legacy is vast and varied, according to Marty, including “this idea of free access to grace.”

Luther, a Catholic friar, believed that bibles, church services and songs should be in the language of — and therefore accessible to — regular people. In Catholicism, Latin was the universal tongue.

He wrote numerous hymns.


Marty’s father “was a teacher in a Lutheran parochial school, and he was an organist and introduced us kids to Bach.”

Marty, 89, grew up in “a little town” in Nebraska, with fewer people than now live in the downtown high-rise where he and his wife live.

“You were either a Czech Catholic or German Lutheran, and across the county line were the Czechs who didn’t go to church.”


After ordination, Marty was a minister at a Lutheran church in River Forest, then got involved in starting a new church in Elk Grove Village as the northwest suburb sprouted.

“Seven years later, we had a thousand kids in Sunday school.”

He walked door to door asking whether people attended a church. “I don’t think once the door was slammed on me.”

If somebody already was a church member somewhere, Marty moved on, as “the ethic was you don’t steal at all” from other denominations.


He started out in the Missouri Synod branch of Lutheranism, switched to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


At one time, Marty says, the largest Lutheran parish in the country was on the West Side, in Austin.


He loved being pastor of a congregation.

“The most moving things I’ve had in my life are dealing with the dying.”


While there are “vibrant” Lutheran congregations — and growing memberships overseas, in parts of Africa, for instance — church attendance and clergy numbers are suffering in parts of Europe and the U.S., as with many denominations, Protestant and Catholic.

There have been other periods of religious decline in U.S. history, he points out: “It comes and goes.”

Will attendance and membership swing back? “Selectively.”

“The mega-churches are still prospering . . . but it’s not the formula that’s going to work everywhere.”


“I think the bigger problem is not atheism, it’s indifference.”


Martin Marty: “The most moving things I’ve had in my life are dealing with the dying.” | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Martin Marty: “The most moving things I’ve had in my life are dealing with the dying.” | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Many of the disagreements between the Lutheran and Catholic churches have eased or evaporated, though the faiths still view the Eucharist differently.

A Catholic priest wrote the foreword to Marty’s new book.


Luther advised praying at the start of the day and at the end, when “you repent of what you’ve done wrong . . . and then you go to sleep . . . quickly and cheerfully.”

“In a funny way, it works: Every day you mess up and you say, ‘I don’t have to carry this another day.’”


Marty has been active in “social justice” causes and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement in the Deep South.

He says that, for King, “The biggest victory was when you got a sourpuss to join the movement.”


Nowadays, there’s so much “polarization” within religions, between those with different religious perspectives, in the political arena, he says.

“When I see all the grimness in the church, every denomination . . . I think that the Reformation . . . today would have to be a recovery of love and justice.”


Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at and on iTunes and Google Play.

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