Martin Luther’s attitude toward the Jews took different forms during his lifetime. He had a great influence on what it meant to be a Christian in German, but unfortunately, this influence was used by the Nazis many years later to mislead many.
It is been said that ideas have consequences–consequences that bless or destroy. People’s behavior good or bad does not come out of nowhere. It comes from prevailing views of reality that take root in the mind and bring forth good or evil. So when it came to the Jews, Luther outlined a plan for dealing with the Jews that the Nazis exploited.
Luther thought the Jews would be on his side; at first his attitude towards the Jews was very good. He was even frustrated at how the Catholic Church had treated the Jews. In 1519 he asked why Jews would ever want to become converted to Christianity given the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them. He wrote that:
The Jews are blood-relations of our Lord; Jesus Christ was born a Jew. If it were proper to boast of flesh and blood, they belong more to Christ than we. I beg, therefore, my dear Papist, if you become tired of abusing me as a heretic, that you begin to revile me as a Jew. They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. I hope that if one deals with the Jews in a kindly way and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.
Luther believed beyond reasonable doubt that the Jews could convert to the Christian faith and he like the apostle Paul hoped to give them the inheritance that was meant for them in the first place, before we the Gentiles were grafted in. The Bible declares that Salvation belongs to the Jew first (see Romans 1:16).
He continued dealing with them in Christian love, but he probably knew they would not all be converted. But this did not bother him, as he said, if some of them are still stiff-necked, what does it mean? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christian either.”
His pamphlet “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew” exemplified a man who really cared about Jews and his writings were read and circulated. However this good attitude towards the Jews didn’t last long. He thought he could win the Jews with a few kind words. When this did not happen he was bitterly disappointed.
Luther was even disgusted with the letter of James, claiming it contained nothing evangelical and failed to show Christ. (In fact Christ is only mentioned twice in the whole letter.) According to notable Bible Teacher David Pawson,
Luther called it a ‘right strawy epistle’, meaning that there is no corn in it, just straw, which is just about as insulting a remark as you can make. He said, ‘I do not believe it is apostolic. It would be better not to have it in the New Testament.’ When he translated the Bible, he put James in an appendix at the end, together with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. He didn’t quite have the courage to cut it right out, but he shifted it out of the main text.
In his assessment of the letter, Martin Luther completely missed the point. He said it contradicts Paul and all the other Scriptures, but Luther was no more infallible than the Pope he opposed. He was too focused on the doctrine of justification by faith to see how important James’ emphasis really was. Faith must act and be worked out. What God has worked in has to be worked out in the world, in an alien atmosphere.
Was Martin Luther Anti-Semitic?
It has been claimed by historians that for much of his adult life, Luther suffered from various diseases which probably caused mood swings and depression.
As his health deteriorated, everything seemed to frustrate him. So in all probability, it could have been his health problems and his disappointment with the obstacles that the Reformation was facing or other probable causes. Some have written that he was not an anti Semite, that his motives for dealing with this subject were religious. The Word of God was His greatest treasure; this love for the Word prompted him to react violently when others disrespected the Scriptures.
All this may have affected Luther, but again all these are only part of the picture. When he wrote his vile treatise “Against the Jews and their Lies” he called them a base and whoring people.” So how could he write that if at all he was wasn’t anti-Semitic? He might not have had a special hatred for Jews, but could have been offended by their rejection of Christ.
He also had a strong language and he did not reverse this harsh language for the Jews alone. He used it on Muslims, Catholics and fellow Protestants. Luther called princes, “the greatest fools and worst knaves on earth” monks, tame dogs that lie on pillows and whistle with their hind ends.”
He also said of his own people, “I know that we Germans are brutes and stupid swine.” At one point he called reason “the devil’s whore.” He blasted the Catholic Church’s regulation of marriage and accused the church of being “a merchant selling vulva.” He attacked King Henry VIII as “feminine in appearance” and blasted his theological opponents as “agents of the devil” and “whore mongers.”His language became fouler and fouler.
In spite of the fact that Luther was anti-Semitic; the Lutheran Church was a remarkable one, a church which existed against the wishes of the man who founded it. Luther did not want a church named after him. Luther felt that all those who believed in Jesus should be called Christians. He felt that having many sects divided God into many gods. Richard Wumbrand considered Luther a split personality because, although anti-Semitic, he wrote some beautiful things about Jews:
We shouldn’t treat the Jews so badly, he said, because among them are future Christians…if the apostles, who also were Jews, had treated us, the Gentiles, as we treat the Jews, no Gentile would have ever become a Christian.
But we should consider the history of anti-Semitism as well. Luther was not the first to speak unkindly about the Jews. Anti-Semitism in Christianity began with the statements of the early church fathers, including Eusebius, Cyril, Chrysostom, Augustine, Origen, Justin, and Jerome who labelled the Jews as “the Christ killers.”
The Romans disliked them. They were slaughtered during the Crusades. In 1290 England expelled them, they were expelled from France in 1306 and 1394, Hungary in 1349 and 1360, Germany in 1348 and 1498, Austria in 1421, Lithuania in 1445 and 1495, murdered and expelled in Spain 1492, and Portugal in 1497.
Three years before Luther’s death, he listed some reasons why he hated the Jews and one of them was they blasphemed the Lord Jesus Christ. Another reason was, along with most Europeans, he could not tolerate the Jewish practice of lending money at interest. He found this act detestable. Had he stopped here and forgave the Jews, his legacy after four centuries would have been different. But he did not end there, he went on to propose what he thought should be done about the situation.
This proposal provided many suitable texts for Hitler’s program of extermination. The most vicious, statements Luther ever penned were to be found in his tract entitled “Concerning the Jews and Their Lives.” His “honest” advice consisted seven points:
- First their synagogues or churches should be set on fire. And whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians…
- Secondly, their homes should be broken down and destroyed.
- Third, they should be deprived of their prayer books and the Talmud in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blaspheme are taught.
- Their rabbis must be forbidden under the threat of death to teach anymore….
- Their passport and travelling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to Jews. Let them stay at home.
- They ought to be stopped for usury. For this reason, as said before, everything they posses they stole and robbed us through their usury, for they have no other means of support.
- Let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the axe, the hoe, and the spade, the distaff, and the spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses as is enjoined upon Adam’s children.
It is reported that two days after writing this tract, Martin Luther died! The last consideration would be to quote this treatise which is more than 180 pages, in its right context. These words from Luther were not inspired at all. His writings prove that Martin Luther was a sinful human being just like every one of us.
In the larger scope of things, we may have preferred Luther to react differently by exercising a little more patience and longsuffering. On the other hand, we cannot overlook and only accuse a man whom God used to restore an important truth to the church at large. He cannot defend himself now. Maybe he repented afterwards for this sin of anti-Semitism before he died as this prayer depicts in one of his treatises:
With prayer and fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might at least save a few of them from glowing flames. Avenge ourselves we dare not. Vengeance a thousand times more than we can wish them already has them by the throat.
Indeed, ideas have consequences, some bad and others good, so the Nazi’s were glad that Luther’s earliest statements still existed in writing, so they published them for their own evil schemes, without even considering their original meaning. The hundreds of thousands of sound doctrine and sensible views were ignored by these evil madmen as noted by Eric Metaxas:
Luther’s foulest condemnations of the Jews were never racial, but were stirred because of the Jews’ indifference to his earlier offers to convert them. The Nazis, on the other hand, wished adamantly to prevent Jews from converting. But when one considers how large the figure of Luther was still magnified over Germany, one can imagine how confusing all this was.
The constant repetition of Luther’s ugliest statements served the Nazi’s purposes and convinced most Germans that being a German and being a Christian were a racial inheritance, and that neither was compatible with being Jewish. The Nazis were anti-Christian, but they would pretend to be Christians as long as it served their purposes of getting theologically ignorant Germans on their side against the Jews.
Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918)
Adolf Hitler exploited Luther’s writings to the maximum to deceive the church that was ignorant of the Holy Scriptures. Let’s not forget by this time Julius Wellhausen a German rationalist, Old Testament scholar, intellectual and theologian had presented to the Christian community in Germany and Europe a new and better way of understanding the Bible.
Wellhausen concluded that those portions of Scripture that deal with sophisticated doctrine (the one God, the decalogues, the Tabernacle, and so on) may have been inserted at later dates than those passages that were simple narratives.
According to Wellhausen, then, some passages, including all Deuteronomy, were written as a result of an evolutionary process and not by divine revelation. His doctrine regarded Israel’s history prior to the beginning of the monarchy of Israel as uncertain. Exodus, he thought, was completely historical; prior to that, all was a myth.
Wellhausen’s scholarship became an important contribution to liberalism as it sought to demythologize the Bible by taking God and spiritual things out of it. Through this, he opened the door for subsequent scholars to expand the base of liberalism and add to it their own interpretations of biblical truth. Some found the Bible to be an endless round of allegories rather than necessary historical truth.
Although the Bible still remained, because of Wellhausen it was dry pages of variable human theory, rather than the living, breathing revelation of the eternal God…. Again, the insistent message was that anybody by the name of Moses was irrelevant, and that in these documents we have a representation of myths that teach us something about God, rather than anything that should be called divine revelation. Revelation disappeared, and reason took its place. As a consequence, the Christian religion became a complex set of rationalizations, rather than the revealed truth of God.
This defection from the orthodox (Jewish) view of Scripture was evisceration of Christianity, leaving it a mere religion, without life, without hope, and without authority. Christianity in Germany and Europe in general retained all its external forms but it became totally different from the inside—the substance, the core—yes, the life of Christianity was gone.
The idea that God had revealed Himself in His inspired, infallible Word slipped through the fingers of an unsuspecting church in those days. Quickly, the state churches embraced the rationalist point of view and lost the concept of divine revelation. Along with this they lost faith in the Bible.
Hal Lindsey, in his book The Road to Holocaust, points out that the error was often unintended:
The false form of the Church emerged through wrong theology initiated by men who were not evil. The early Church Fathers, like Origen and Augustine, had no idea of the far reaching implications of their errors, especially in the area of prophecy.
At first, the errors were gradual, but as time went on, the resulting consequences gained momentum. For instance, Origen (185-253 A.D.) is considered to be the father of the allegorical method of interpretation. His knowledge of philosophy and theology brought him fame and throughout the Roman world, even by the Emperor.
Because of his influence, many of his students became leading theologians using his allegorical method of interpreting Scriptures. This further helped to establish this kind of teaching in the Church, thereby laying a foundation of anti-Semitism which gained momentum in successive generations.
So when Hitler came to power, he showed a proper appreciation of the continuity of Church fathers errors and in particular Luther’s history when he declared that the first large-scale Nazi pogrom in November 1938, was an operation performed in the honor of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday.
In his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler raved, saying,
Hence today, I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself of the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. I do insist that sooner or later…..Christianity will be overcome and the German church established. Yes, the German church, without a pope, without the Bible, and Luther, if he could be with us, would give us his blessing.
In a nutshell, we all change the world a little every day and ideas have consequences. So we ought to bring all our ideas under the authority of God’s Word. Despite his negative views on the Jews and his theological errors, this man, on that day, changed history in unimaginable ways. All true Christians can now agree on this:
By grace alone, by faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God. We owe Martin Luther a debt of gratitude for having taken a courageous stand to restore a doctrine of grace to a church that had gone into apostasy.
Until next time…The Lord willing.
Image credit: Desiring God.com