It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. Next week we’ll be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But for now, I want to address the most difficult aspect of the Reformation for me—Martin Luther’s unexpected anti-Semitism.
Most people are surprised to hear of Martin Luther’s hatred of the Jewish people. Here’s what he wrote in his book, Of the Jews and their Lies (1543). “What then shall we Christians do with this damned rejected race of Jews, since they live among us and we know about their lying and blaspheming and curses? We cannot tolerate them if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses and blasphemy. We must set their synagogues on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it . . . in order that God may see that we are Christians. Their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed . . . They should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds, in which idolatry, lies, cursings, and blasphemy are taught . . . their Rabbis must be forbidden to teach on pain of death. Let us drive them out of the country for all time, for . . . God’s rage is so great against them that they only become worse through mild mercy and not much better with severe mercy. Therefore, away with them.”
These words are contrary to what Luther had written 20 years earlier in his book, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew. In that work, he called for sympathy, love and concern for Jewish people. His goal was to win them to faith in Jesus and join his Reformation. However, the Jewish community responded by saying, now that you’ve rid yourselves of all the traditions of the Church, why not abandon the One that they’re all based on, Jesus. This infuriated Luther and caused him to turn on the Jewish people, proving that his previously professed concern for Jewish people was merely manipulation. True love would be unconditional.
So what should we do with Luther, since he is such a hero of the Reformation and the man who recovered the doctrine of justification by faith? In a recent blog titled Luther’s Jewish Problem, posted on the Gospel Coalition website, Pastor Bernard Howard gives three suggestions.
First, Luther’s anti-Semitism should be acknowledged without qualification. Howard notes that often Luther’s hostility is recognized but then rationalized. I have found the same to be true. One professor I know states that Luther was justified in his hostility. He claims Luther’s words are not anti-Semitic but merely an expression of theological hostility. In his view, this is justified because Jewish people are closed to the gospel. The theological rationalization is patently false because Luther expressed ethnic hatred even to Jewish children who had not yet come to a theological perspective. This is distinct from Luther’s expressions of hostility to Roman Catholic clergy but not to Roman Catholic laymen. With Catholics he distinguished between the deceivers and the deceived—not so with Jewish people. All Jews were condemned.
Then I’ve heard, “Sure, Luther hated the Jews. But Luther hated everyone that opposed him.” Yet his hatred of Jews seemed distinct, since he even hated Jews who did not yet have a chance to disagree with him. Another rationalization is that Luther was just a product of his times, so he didn’t know any better. Yet, since his previous tract expressed such love and concern for the Jewish people, he surely did know better. Yet another rationalization of Luther’s hatred is to say look how successful Jewish people are—Luther didn’t do such damage. Yet when we realize that the Nazis honored Luther and saw his anti-Semitism as foundational to their views, we realize how damaging Luther indeed was. So, when we recognize Luther’s hatred of the Jewish people, let’s not rationalize it away.
Second, Pastor Howard suggests, Luther’s anti-Semitism should—as far as possible—be understood. This means recognizing that Luther, although a profound theological thinker and a brave defender of the gospel, still was fallen. A number of years ago, a rabbinical student spoke with me and based his objection to the gospel on Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism. Then he said, “I suppose you’ll say that Luther wasn’t a real Christian.” My response was, “Of course Luther was a genuine Christian. But the Bible teaches even genuine Christians struggle with sin, have blind spots and need to repent.” Luther’s anti-Semitism was a reflection of his depravity. It was Luther’s sinful nature that caused his hatred of the Jewish people.
Third, Howard proposes that Luther’s anti-Semitism should indeed harm his reputation. Certainly Luther should be honored for what he accomplished. Nevertheless, we need to see him not as a perfect hero but a deeply flawed one. His work in the Reformation should be commemorated but his life should not be celebrated. Pastor Howard states this better than anyone when he writes: “Luther is to me both hero and anti-hero; both liberator and oppressor. Spiritually speaking, he has been my teacher, but in relation to my family he has acted as persecutor. Soon after Kristallnacht (when the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues and businesses), Bishop Martin Sasse published a tract titled Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them! Sasse quoted from Luther’s 1543 writings and argued Luther’s goal was finally being achieved. Through Sasse and others, Luther’s name and work were used to prepare the ground for the Holocaust, in which my own great-grandmother was murdered and my great-uncle and great-aunt were brutally incarcerated. The Holocaust was fully underway by 1943—exactly 400 years after Luther shut his ears to the Bible and unleashed his anti-Semitic furies.” I fully agree with Howard and I identify with the loss of his family. I lost my four half-brothers and my half-sister. I lost my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Both my parents were slaves in Nazi concentration camps. This suffering can in a sense be attributed to the foundation of German anti-Semitism laid by Martin Luther. How can anyone think that this should not harm his reputation?
Luther gloriously understood justification by faith as revealed in Romans 4-5. Sadly he misunderstood or ignored God’s faithful love for the Jewish people and God’s eternal choice of them despite their unbelief as revealed in Romans 9-11. As we commemorate Reformation 500, it’s crucial to remember all the truths taught in the book of Romans, the truths Martin Luther recognized and the truths he ignored as well.