Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

In his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ Luther called upon believers to repent. What d …

Joseph Fiennes in "Luther" (RS Entertainment, 2003)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Last Monday the Sightings editor republished a “classic” column from a previous century, specifically from 1999. What was I doing that kept me from writing and presenting a fresh item? One answer could be: I was sinning, so I would have something that would occasion repenting, since repentance is my scheduled topic for this season in which my tribe commemorates the Lutheran, etc., Reformation after 500 years. The most discussed subject of the observance is the “Ninety-Five Theses” document by Martin Luther, the friar whose posting of them on October 31, 1517, is usually seen as the moment of the Reformation’s beginning. But a short weekly column does not allow for discussion of ninety-five theses, so I concentrated on one, the first. In it, writes Luther, the call of Jesus to “Repent” was intended to mean that “the entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance.”

Tomorrow, while the “pagan” world celebrates Hallowe’en—the annual event which Luther intended to use to draw crowd attention to repentance—the “believers” will be looking forward to “All Hallows.” I decided to make repentance and the first thesis my theme out of a desire to be relevant. But that is difficult, since “repenting” usually connotes dreary, drab, down elements of the inner life of individuals and communities. What rescued me and helped me rethink repentance was the treatment of the subject in the writings of philosopher Max Scheler, on whom the late Pope Saint John Paul II wrote his doctoral thesis, and whom we have cited previously here in Sightings. Scheler taught us four helpful “Alases” for use in approaching repentance. As follows:

“Alas! What evil things did my ancestors do?” That’s a fashionable question to ask in order to get off one’s own hook. We can’t change the past, but we can beat up on anyone and everyone in the past, in which case we will always come off looking better than they do. Second, “Alas, what did I do?”—as, for instance, when I sinned by not producing a column last week. Such, however, still is not repenting. The third comes closer: “Alas, what kind of person was I that I could do that?” Ow! But to repent, which in Scheler’s rendering means to experience a “change of heart,” is not to deal with the irretrievable past. Now, instead, we are to ask: “Alas, what kind of person am I that I can do such bad things?”

Reformation season is a time for much accusing of ancestors, from Columbus to Thomas Jefferson, now remembered as slavers, or, to be relevant, Luther, for his call for violence against rebelling peasants or his utterly, utterly repugnant anti-Judaic latter-day outlook and writings. We historians study such features of the lives of ancestors, to learn and gain the resolve to promote a “change of heart.” Speaking about close-to-home life, I observe and applaud and encourage the massive resolve and actions of the scores upon scores of Lutheran church bodies which now, and in the future, will have no more to do with violence against suffering and rebellious classes, or against Jews, etc., but promise to invent, promote, and live by actions which demonstrate the effects of this change of heart.

As we listen in on current campus incidents or vehement and lethal inter-group denunciations of “the other,” and those who have gone before us or who have different experiences than ours, we ask, in the spirit of M. Luther and M. Scheler, “Alas, what kind of person am I that I can do such bad things?”—and, as answers come, we as individuals and in community can seek both a “change of heart” and a “change of action.” So, then, tomorrow, happy Reformation Day!

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • And to basically moot Luther et. al.

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Two things that can change the same behavior in a person are pride and humility. Repentance is found in humility, but not in pride.

  • What does repent mean?

    It means to follow the instructions of someone who claims to be a conduit between you and the Creator of the Entire Universe, but usually only if you pay him money. He, in return for being the Mouth of Sauron, errr, umm, the Voice of the Holy Spirit, will tell you how to live your life.

    If you don’t measure up, and he finds out about it, then you repent of your sins— at least until the next time. He— it’s almost always a he, by god’s Holy will—on the other hand, will continue to tell you what god wants. And he will continue to accept your money for it, though he is not adverse to payments in power and dominion and other people’s money as well.

    for example, Donald Trump is a self confessed Christian, possible serial adulterer depending on your definition, self confessed fornicator because of how he likes to grab women, and married now for the third time, on this occasion, it being to a woman that you can find naked pictures of on the internet doing god knows what. (Thanks, Barbara Bush, for having more respect for our morals, at the very least, than that). If the Donald were truly a Christian and repenting, he would divorce Miss M, and beg his first wife to take him back so that he would no longer be living in unrepentant sin, i.e., adultery and porneia.

    And the Holy men who bless him also overlook his violation of every moral standard they claim to hold dear and wish to apply to other people scrupulously. They very piously point out all the immoral people god chose to work for him. This is because they are not averse to payments for their services in the form of money, power, and dominion.

    They, like the Donald, are doing god’s work, and they have nothing to repent of.

  • All very interesting stuff, RC.

    One quick point re Mormonism: are you aware that Joseph Smith was a con artist, arrested numerous times (and convicted at least once or twice)?

    My best guess is that Smith got tired of doing “onesies and twosies” cons, and thought to himself “What’;s the biggest con I can pull off?” we know the answer…

    Another point: Smith was apparently a sex addict, which explains very well Mormonism’s acceptance of polygamy.

  • Better idea. You explain it.

    The Bible doesn’t require it, but repentance as normally understood does. He stays with his current wife, he is committing adultery. Jesus said so. He is not repenting of his adultery.

    He is divorced. By remaining divorced, he is not repenting for his sin of being divorced. Putting it terms that I am sure would please you, if I as gay man said that I was repenting my (wholly imaginary and nonexistent sin) of being gay, but keep on with my torrid, Hot, steamy love affair with Ryan Reynolds (equally imaginary and non existent, to be fair), would you say that I repented of my sin?

  • I still don’t see why if there was no Abraham or Moses, that Judaism should not exist. It’s a myth in the best sense of the word.

    You don’t understand Buddhism as the Buddha practiced it.

  • Oh, but I can explain it. It’s important to many people, families, churches to find out which way to go here.

    “The Bible doesn’t require it.”
    You’re right. It doesn’t. Thanks for saying so.

    So now we need to ask, exactly where does Jesus say that (if you’re a divorcee for reasons other than the biblical exceptions), you gotta do yet ANOTHER divorce (this time against your current spouse), just to prove that you’ve actually repented for your PREVIOUS divorce?

    With all due respect, you’ll have NO answer to give.
    Because Jesus never said or even suggested any such requirement.

    Instead, one follows the biblical texts and conditions regarding marriage with one’s current spouse.
    And if there is a previous divorce that never got repented of, both of you might want to go to a Bible-believing clergy that you can trust, and together just take care of the matter in prayer. That’s a much better deal.

  • Now if you intend to repent of, if you intend to confess and forsake the sin of, homosexual behavior and/or gay marriage, then that’s another matter. Just gotta repent of it, renounce it, repudiate it, like with all other sins.

    (But there’s a difference between repenting all by yourself, and repenting with Bible-believing clergy and fellow travelers to walk with you, pray with you, sing with you, and help hold you accountable. God will obviously accept your sincere repentance, but you can get a lotta encouragement to keep going with God, via fellow travelers.)

  • So, repentance just doesn’t mean to repent. it means to persist in your sin, say your sorry, and not worry about it– or mean it.

    Moral relativism wins again from the moral absolutists.

    “And he answered and said, “Have you not read, that he who created them [but] from the beginning of creation made them male and female, and said, ‘for this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

    They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and send her away?” [But]

    Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery “

    And in the house, the[y] disciples began to question him about this again And he said to them. “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another woman commits adultery against her, and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”

    Let me repeat: So, repentance just doesn’t mean to repent. it means to persist in your sin, say your sorry, and not worry about it– or mean it.

    Moral relativism wins again from the moral absolutists.

  • You’re openly suggesting that remarried people must prove they’ve repented of the first divorce by committing yet **another** divorce, this time against their current spouse.

    Your specific method of repentance clearly ain’t what Jesus said. It’s not what the Bible tells Christians to do.

    I honestly do not know where you got this specific course of action from.

  • from reading what jesus said, of course. What part of what god has said on the subject is unclear? That second marriage is adulterous. Remaining in it is adultery.
    But, as I always say, whenever the bible or Jesus himself says something inconvenient, it must mean something lese entirely. Thank you for demonstrating once again that you have the theological convictions of a trump.

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