Luther and The Jews
November 9, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
October 31st was the the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part eight of a multi-part series.
One of the darkest marks on the reputation of Luther is his writings and views about Jews. Trueman summarizes well Luther’s progression:
In 1523, he had written what was, for the time, a very progressive treatise, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. In this work, Luther broke with the dominant attitudes of the age and encouraged Christians to be good, loving neighbors to the Jews, so as to build bridges for the gospel.
By the early 1540s, however, the Jews were becoming for Luther a constant and bitter obsession. Notoriously, he wrote another major treatise on them, On the Jews and Their Lies, which represented a repudiation of his earlier work and a return to the standards of the day, only in an even more violent and hateful way than was typical. This latter work advocated murder and went on to enjoy a notorious career, not least as a staple of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s and ’40s, and as a common feature on anti-Semitic websites today. page 52
In this 1540s treatise, Luther called the princes of Germany to carry out seven measures of “sharp mercy” on the Jews, including burning their schools and synagogues, confiscating all their literature, denying them safe conduct, and confiscating their wealth (“Was Luther Anti-Semitic?”). It’s hard to imagine that such an esteemed theologian would propagate such heinous sin. What can we say in response? Should we even celebrate such a man? Others, much wiser than me, have written more thoroughly on this issue (see, for example, Carl Trueman, Histories and Fallacies). Let me, however, offer a few guiding principles as think about the weakness of Luther.
- Luther was a sinful man, just like you and me. We must resist the temptation of placing Luther, or any historical figure, on a pedestal as if he was perfect, and perfectly emulatable. “Luther believed that, outside of Christ, he was dead in trespasses and sins and desperately wicked. His attitude toward the Jews confirms his own opinion of himself” (p. 53).
- Luther’s attitude toward the Jews was more theological than racial, but still heinous, nonetheless. Luther’s animosity toward Jews grew as they rejected the gospel and proved to be hard soil to evangelize. He concluded that God had rejected the Jews thoroughly (“Was Luther Anti-Semitic?”). This conclusion proved to be presumptuous in knowing the secret will of God.
- Luther would want us to celebrate the Christ he preached, not the preacher. Of the little I know of Luther, I suspect that he would be embarrassed by the limelight he has received in modern evangelicalism. As bombastic as he was, he did not seek to promote himself, but Christ, who is offered through the Word and sacrament. While Luther was not perfect by any standard, we can still be helped by his teaching on sin, grace, Christ, the church, and Christian calling.
- We don’t need to hide or apologize for Luther. The wonder of the gospel is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Every human is susceptible to heinous sin, but every one of our heinous sins can be washed cleaned by the blood of Christ.