Martin Luther has been called “the last medieval man and the first modern one.” Though raised in the distant medieval world, he has profoundly shaped our own. To understand better Luther’s impact on today’s church and world, Christian History talked with Lutheran historian Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, and member of the editorial advisory board of Christian History. Marty is author of numerous books, including, most recently, the multi-volume Modern American Religion (University of Chicago).

Christian History: If Luther were alive today, what would he be writing theses about?

Martin Marty: Every historian says we can’t answer that kind of question, and then every historian answers it!

We have to remember that every historical figure is, in one sense, inaccessible to the modern world. Historian Heiko Oberman reminds us that Luther lived in a different world—a world of witches and unstoppable plagues. So it’s not easy to grab somebody out of his or her context.

That said, we can have some fun hazarding guesses. There’s no more consistent strand in Luther from 1513 [when he begins lecturing on the Bible] to 1546 [when he dies] than the gospel of forgiveness. That theme still isn’t heeded well.

In our day, we emphasize the gospel of self-esteem, marketing the church based on people’s needs, saying, “I found it!” and “I’m the little engine that could.” Our culture promotes human ability and human will, as did the indulgence culture in Luther’s day, as a way to bring salvation. So I have a hunch Luther would still feel compelled to speak his central message.

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