Martin Luther’s Antisemitism

This entry is part 8 of 34 in the series The Lutheran Difference.

So a few weeks back, I saw a comic from a Christian cartoonist who goes by Adam4D that caused me to chuckle just a little. Then cringe. Then nod sagely.

What caused such a range of reactions from me? This right here:

Okay, so it’s a bit extreme. I’m assuming we can chalk this up to hyperbole. But for most people, anti-Semitism is almost synonymous with Luther, and that’s because of what the Nazi’s did with Luther’s writings during World War II. For many people, Luther’s teachings on the Jews were just the first step toward the Holocaust.

This is something I get asked about from time to time. After all, I voluntarily label myself as a Lutheran, as someone who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin on what he taught. So what are we to make of Luther’s anti-Semitic writing?

Well, first of all, we can’t deny that it exists. It does. And yes, the Nazis did use Luther’s statements to justify their abominable slaughter of the Jews. But before we condemn all of Luther’s followers for what Martin himself wrote, we need to consider a few factors.

1. Luther’s statements were prompted, not by hatred, but by theological frustration. Luther believed that the reason why the Jews hadn’t converted to Christianity was because they could see through the falsehoods taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Luther harbored a belief that, when the Gospel was restored to its true purity, the Jews would recognize Jesus as the Savior they had been waiting for and then convert en masse.

Are any of us surprised that didn’t happen?

Well, Luther was surprised. In 1536, Elector John Frederick issued a decree that banished Jewish people from his lands. A Hebrew scholar asked Luther to intervene with the Elector. Luther refused, saying that the reason why was because the Jews refused to recognize Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. So he was okay if they were banished and if their synagogues and books were burned. It’s harsh and certainly not to be commended, but it was born out of Luther’s frustration with the Jews’ supposed stubbornness in clinging to their faith.

And really, Luther’s writings about the Jews aren’t really all that unique or out of character for him, because…

2. Luther tended to treat anyone who disagreed with him with a great deal of scorn and written abuse. The things that Luther wrote about the Jews is despicable, no doubt about it. But at the time, Luther really didn’t have a lot of patience for anyone who ignored the Gospel. He would unleash his considerable ire on anyone who disagreed with him. If you think what he wrote about the Jews is bad, you should check out what he had to say about the pope and the Catholics. There’s a reason why there are so many Luther insult generators on the Internet. The man was not known for his restraint when it came to dealing with his detractors.

This is the best way to put it, from a biography of Luther:

During the last decade of his life, Luther vehemently assaulted any opposition to the gospel, whether it came from Jews or anyone else.

Does this excuse his reprehensible writings about the Jews? Not at all. But it does put them in context.

And really, there’s only one more thing that I think needs to be said:

3. All major Lutheran denominations have roundly condemned and refuted Luther’s antisemitic writings. Every single one of them. We know that he messed up. We know that he shouldn’t have written those things. And every single church body has officially said that Luther’s statements on the Jews doesn’t represent us.

Here’s the thing: Luther isn’t Jesus, and no Lutheran would claim that he is. We know that he was a fallen, sinful human being. There were times when he sinned and sinned egregiously. This is one of those times, and it was a doozy. While Lutherans hold to much, most, or close to all of his teachings, we do not agree with him on what he wrote and especially not the way people used what he said for such evil purposes.

So this wraps up our look at Luther’s life. Next week, we’ll start talking about where Lutherans find their beliefs.

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