In his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ Luther called upon believers to repent. What does that mean?


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!