The Surprisingly Catholic Martin Luther: An Interview with Martin E. Marty

U.S. Catholic, September 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Surprisingly Catholic Martin Luther: An Interview with Martin E. Marty

When he was in seminary Martin E. Marty and his classmates used to play a game: If your denomination were removed from the earth, what would you be? Marty always said Mennonite and Catholic. "Mennonites because they take seriously the disciplined life in Christ and because of their generosity. If there were a tornado, you know eight bearded guys are going to be there rebuilding the next day," he says. "But liturgically I'd want to be Catholic."

Of course Marty is neither--he is Lutheran through and through. As one of the country's foremost religious historians and commentators, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not to mention his namesake, Martin Marty was the perfect person to pen Martin Luther (Viking, 2004), a Penguin Lives biography of the leader of the Protestant Reformat ion.

The author of more than 50 books, Marty also has edited U.S. CATHOLIC's sister publication Context, a biweekly newsletter commenting on religion and culture, for 35 years. His many awards and commendations include the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal.

Marty taught religious history for more than 35 years at the University of Chicago, where he is currently professor emeritus. Ever the teacher, he stopped by our office recently to discuss Luther and his impact on Christianity.

Why should Catholics care about Martin Luther?

I think the modern world is unimaginably different because of Luther, although he only accidentally helped produce that different world. Taking the Protestant Reformation along with the other reformations going on, including the birth of modern science and many Catholic reformations, a new world was born.

In the midst of it all was Luther, who was a genius at self-examination, a spiritual genius, as inexplicable as Mozart is to music. I don't mean he had everything figured out, I just mean he was attuned to things. Most people don't live with that intensity.

He could give voice to what a lot of other people were feeling in the 16th century. Once word got out that there was another means of having access to God and to heaven than venerating relics and buying indulgences, there were huge crowds everywhere. Luther wasn't the only one who cared about corruption. There was a Reformation apart from him and with him and beyond him. But I think nobody did more than he to sanctify attention to conscience.

Did he really set out to form his own church?

No. In fact, I think he had a very narrow vision of the future. He really believed that the end was near. He knew there was an America, but he didn't spend any time thinking about sending missionaries. Time was short.

He also didn't really know how to set up shop. He had a radical sense that with Baptism you're already a priest, a bishop, and a pope. But he could see that everybody setting up shop as their own priest would get chaotic, and he liked order.

Luther considered himself a Catholic all his life. He could criticize the papal system, but in his catechism he writes about "the holy Catholic Church." As long as you baptize in the name of the Trinity, as long as you receive the elements of Communion and hear the reading of the gospel, that's all it takes to have the church. But you have to have the church; he could never picture being alone.

Late in life Luther said, "Well, if they're going to call us Lutherans, I guess I won't fight that." But he knew it was the enemy's name for him, and he wasn't happy with that.

What was Luther like personally?

He was a sensitive young person who made a vow to St. Anne to become a monk after getting caught in a storm, and he took his vow desperately seriously. He had an amazing level of guilt, fear, and intensity. He says he could walk in the woods and the stirring of a leaf would send trembling into his heart. His confessor was bored silly by Luther's six-hour confessions.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Surprisingly Catholic Martin Luther: An Interview with Martin E. Marty


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?