Luther in a kindly light

Luther in a kindly light
Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective

by Walter Kaspar, Translated from the German by William Madges (Paulist Press, 14.99)

This is a brief but very significant pamphlet by an important theologian. Walter Kasper is a German cardinal and the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, whose continuing programme of reconciliation emerged from Vatican II.

Here he provides a German Catholic perspective on how, at this time of history, we should see Martin Luther, the energiser of the Evangelical churches of Europe and elsewhere. Luther, like us,  lived in an era of decline and new beginnings.

It is all too easy to set against Luther’s discredit the emergence of  religious denominations. However, Cardinal Kaspar writes: “Rome bears its fill of complicity in the fact that a church-dividing reformation developed from out of the reform of the Church. Pope Adrian VI already acknowledged this complicity through his legate at the diet of Nuremberg in 1523.” (Sadly Rome’s action repeated its failed diplomacy at the time of the Schism with the Eastern Churches.)

But Kaspar believes that in an ecumenical age such denominations will come to an end.

He goes on to discuss Luther’s relevance to the spirit of the modern era. He sees these times as rich in the possibility for the rediscovery of Catholicity, that is the true universal nature of the Church. Here again Luther will be of increasing relevance to ecumenists.

“The most important contribution of Martin Luther to the furtherance of ecumenism does not lie in his still open ecclesiological approaches, but in its original starting point with the gospel of grace and the mercy of God and the call to conversion.”

These remarks echo many ideas of Pope Francis. Cardinal Kaspar’s is also a message of hope. He recalls a remark attributed to Luther: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a little apple tree today.” Central to this is the need for  a common witness by all the Christian Churches, especially at a time where their faith is under daily siege in some parts of the world.