Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective

by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, £10

This slim volume weighs in at a mere 43 pages, some of which are not completely covered in text, and consists of seven very brief chapters, all with notes. To read it is the work of about half an hour. So, it is more a pamphlet than a book, and crafted as an academic essay, given the copious references.

Any approach to Martin Luther is going to have to take account of two things. The first is the historical situation in which the reformer emerged, while the second is his theology, as it appeared then, and as it appears now; for the interpreted Luther of today is rather different to the Luther of the 16th century.

When it comes to the historical setting, Cardinal Walter Kasper talks rather grandly of “a transitional period of decline and new beginnings”, but he presents this with such broad brushstrokes that we learn little that is new, and want to say “yes, but” at the end of most sentences.

Kasper sees Luther as someone “greatly out of season” and tells us that “his agenda cannot simply be derived from the situation at that time”. This is pretty doubtful. How does Luther stand out as any different to Jan Hus or John Wycliffe? The answer, of course, is that Luther benefited greatly from the febrile political situation of his time, and the support of the German princes in particular, as well as from the invention of printing.

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