The Luther No One Wants To Be

July 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

luther

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how Carl Trueman changed my mind about Martin Luther. It is only fitting since he was partially responsible for my original disinterest in Luther. Although I might have been aware before I read Histories and Fallacies, that was the first extended discussion I came across related to Luther’s anti-Semitism.

For those that aren’t aware, the key writing is Luther’s 1543 treatise, On The Jews and Their Lies. There, he says things like this:

God has struck [the Jews] with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming…. (in Luther’s Works, vol. 47, ed. Franklin Sherman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 267).

When he mentions “the blood of the children they have shed,” he is referencing the so called “blood libel.” Trueman explains, that, “This was the claim that Jews kidnapped Christian children and offered them in ritual sacrifice, and it is clearly part of a culture that treated Jews with deep suspicion and fear” (Histories and Fallacies, 133). As Trueman goes on to explain Luther’s anti-Semitism, it clearly emerges that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that Luther hated the Jews. That was fairly common in medieval Europe.

What is more interesting is the reason why the Jews were so hated. We tend to infer, based in large part on the Holocaust, that the motivations were primarily racial. Trueman says not so fast, and explains that our categories of race applied to the medieval context are anachronistic. If we remember that this was the height of Christendom, you can see how the Jews would be ostracized for primarily religious reasons rather than racial ones. So long as the Jews remained outside the church, they would arouse suspicion and fear. 1

While this was the case for most people, it was surprisingly not Luther’s original position. The historically remarkable thing is not that Luther hated the Jews. Rather, it’s that in 1523 he would write a book called Jesus Was Born A Jew and say things like this:

If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either (from vol. 45 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962, 229).

Go back and read the first quote again. Granted, these quotes are 20 years apart, but one could hardly imagine a more complete 180. As Trueman explains in Histories and Fallacies, and I think reinforces indirectly in Luther on The Christian Life, the reason Luther changed his mind about the Jews is because they didn’t convert like he expected them to. As he points out,

Luther thinks that the Reformation will carry all before it; and, like many Christian before and since, he thinks he is living at the end of time where the return of Christ will be heralded by a mass conversion of the Jews. Indeed, there can be no doubt that Luther desired to see the Jews converted to Christianity because he was convinced that he was living at the end of time when the eschatological conversion was imminent” (Histories and Fallacies, 136).

In a similar way, Luther would eventually realize that you couldn’t just preach the gospel and call it a day. When there wasn’t a mass influx of Jews in the wake of the Reformation, Luther not only resorted to traditional anti-Semitic writing, he kicked it up a notch. The reception and use of his writings by later Germans would prove disastrous to say the least. This is the Luther that no one wants to be. We might want to emulate his commitment to the gospel in the face of rivals, but wouldn’t admire his condemnation of the Jews when they didn’t come to Christ.

Though not exact, I see a parallel with those today who are ministering in, with, and to the gay community. It is perhaps tempting to think that all one needs to do is preach the gospel and the converts will come. Or, to think that once converted, one can simply “pray the gay away.” In reality, neither of these things are guaranteed. This is not to say neither happens, but unrealized expectation can lead one to re-think the viability of the power of God to change lives. Or, cause one to categorize a group of people as hostile to the gospel in a way that forecloses future ministry. I would imagine that some of the animosity from Christians toward the gay community could be traced to attempts at ministry that didn’t go so well. That’s not true in each and every case, but it is easy to write off and stereotype a group of people when representatives of that group aren’t responsive.

When our involvement in Christian ministry doesn’t lead to the results we were expecting, it is certainly frustrating. But, that frustration can quickly turn dangerous and in Luther’s case proved deadly. What we say and do in the wake of our frustrations can have a lasting impact. And while we want to have a lasting impact if we’re involved in ministry in the first place, this isn’t the kind we’d want to be remembered for. Luther helps serve as a reminder to be faithful to our calling over the long haul even if doesn’t prove to be as fruitful as we might have liked.

Notes:

  1. Here’s the quote from Trueman: “For Luther, the problem with Jews is a fundamentally religious one, as it was for all western European societies during the late Middle Ages. Luther had no real concept of race in the way that we do today. His world was one of religious categories, not biological or pseudo-biological ones. For him the problem was thus one of ideological commitment, connected to the issue of social assimilation. To put it bluntly: how does a society where the state and the church are essentially two sides of the same coin assimilate those who, by their very definition, are not members of the latter? The answer is simple: either it does not assimilate them and instead persecutes them, or it tries to convert them (either by persuasion or by force) and thus make them part of the church. Once converted, the problem ceases because it is an issue of religious conviction, not one of race. A Jew who becomes a Christian is easy to fit into a society, all good members of which are baptized and respect the church” (Histories and Fallacies, 136).

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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