Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Puritanboard on Luther's Anti-Jewish Writings

I occasionally lurk around over on The Puritan Board. Generally, I find the folks who participate on these boards helpful and insightful. I really don’t have much to add to any of the discussions. I read what they write in order to learn. I did though actually find a subject that I actually could’ve participated in- but by the time I got there, the thread was locked.

The thread was entitled, “Reformed evaluation of Luther's purported anti-Semitism?” What’s interesting about this thread is rarely does one find a bunch of Reformed folks discussing this subject- even rarer is finding a debate going on about it. Most of the time this is one of those topics Roman Catholics bring up to “prove” Luther couldn’t have been any type of Reformer because of his anti-Jewish attitude. Generally speaking, we Reformed disagree with Luther on particular things, but still find him to be a man of great abilities, and appreciate his stand against the Roman Catholic Church- so you won’t find many detailed discussions delving into his flaws and sins. We know he was a sinner. We know he had glaring faults. But we also know sola scriptura and sola fide are not true or false depending on how evil or perfect Luther was. They are true because God has spoken in His Word.

For the most part- you can read through the thread from the Puritanboard and find some accurate helpful information- which is much different than if you were to be reading Roman Catholics discussing this subject. One particular person though made some arguments in the thread I wish I could’ve responded to. I did send him an e-mail and direct him to my work on this subject, and I also let him know I was going to discuss his points here. He is more than welcome to respond. He is Reformed, I am Reformed. We should be able to discuss our differences with straightforwardness and kindness. I felt it would be interesting to comment on this subject in the context devoid of Roman Catholic polemics.

This issue is extremely complicated, and requires everyone to keep their guns in their holsters. Let me say up front, I disagree with Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and find what he wrote in some instances to be horrible. But one must do careful research to understand what he wrote- lest one accuses him of crimes worse than he actually committed. Most of my responses here are shorter versions of what I wrote in my paper, Martin Luther’s Attitude toward The Jews. For brevity, I only touched on the basics.

Primarily, these are the errors I found this person commits in his evaluation of Luther:

1. He focuses on only one treatise from Luther, and that selectively- not accounting for statements from Luther that say the opposite of what he’s trying to prove.

2. He seems to be unaware of Luther’s lifelong attitudes and changes, and doesn’t account for the historical background to Luther’s later comments.

3. He appears to be unaware of the Luther’s theological paradigm of law vs. gospel and his eschatological expectation that strongly influenced his writings, particularly Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.

4. He applies an anachronistic understanding of anti-Semitism to Luther.

*His words will be in Red, mine will be in black, citations from Luther will be in blue.*

“Luther was an anti-Semitist. We should repudiate his views. His views went much beyond a dislike for the Jewish faith. In fact, he makes some of the same arguments later used by Hitler: the Germans are kept down by the Jew!”

Luther was not technically an anti-Semite. He had nothing against Jews as “Jews.” He had something against their religion because he believed it denied and blasphemed Christ. In other words, his position against them was theological, not biological. As proof, Luther had no objections to integrating converted Jews into Christian society- a true anti-Semite on the other hand, simply hates Jews for being Jews.

Rather than being motivated by biological factors, Luther’s criticisms were motivated by theological concerns. Luther directed intensely abusive language against Anabaptists, lawyers, the papacy, and the Jews. Luther felt these groups were united in the conviction that men were ultimately made right before God by the law. Anabaptism held a moralistic view of the gospel with an emphasis on the heavy burden of righteousness placed upon men in order to be accepted before God. Lawyers made their living by imposing the law. The papacy was viewed as the antichrist, which promoted a false religion with a false view of salvation through obedience to the law. The Jews had a religion based upon works righteousness. When Luther attacked these groups, he felt he was attacking the devil- the underlying spirit of works righteousness

After posting a section of quotes from Luther’s treatise, On The Jews And Their Lies, he then said:

“Many of the quotes deal with them as a people (i.e., how "they" - the Jews- get rich off of "us" - the Germans). Read more closely: he distinguishes between the "blasphemies" (the Jewish beliefs) and the people from which they come. He may hate their beliefs, but he also hates the people. Furthermore, in another place he actually refers to them as a "wretched race." (Though I will grant that by race he couldn't possibly have meant all that the word entails in modern parlance... but again, the point is that he treats them as a people.)”

Luther used similar rhetoric with the same groups I listed above. The reason? Luther’s apocalyptic expectation. For him, it was definitely the end of the world, at any moment. By any means possible, Luther wanted those groups that actively taught works righteousness driven from the land. Again, it had nothing to with race- it had to do with religion and works righteousness.

A tactic of Luther, for better or for worse, was to discredit his opponent’s message, as well as the messenger. In other words, Luther’s skilled rhetoric attacked the content and the person. Sometimes this was done masterfully- like in his response to Erasmus in the Bondage of the Will. In his later anti-Jewish treatises, this ability was responsible for the severe-ness against the Jews as people. In order to have works righteousness swept from the land at the end of the world, Luther will stop at nothing to attain this.

In the last years of Luther’s Luther life, he came to believe all the popular slanderous myths about the Jews- and I think this may have been the result of the reports of proselytizing he was receiving, as well as his frustration in converting any of them, combined with cultural prejudice that is inherent in sinful humanity. By any means possible, he wanted works righteousness groups removed for the sake of the gospel. When Luther picked an enemy, no amount of rhetoric would stop him from making his case.

Here though we can fault Luther theologically. He violated his own principle of the Theology of the cross. The Theology of the cross places the Christian as the enemy of society- the gospel is trampled and scorned by the world and by those in power. In its weakness and foolishness though, the Theology of the cross knows the gospel is actually strength. The Theology of the cross expects a life of suffering. It expects to be attacked and assailed. It expects these things because this is what happened to Christ. Using force to drive away one’s enemies in the name of the gospel is the work of a theology of glory. It is using power and might instead of using weakness and suffering.

Luther hated Jews. Not just their beliefs, but the people. He hated them for being different. Period. Give it whatever slant you want, but according to his own words, he wanted to burn down their homes and run them out of town upon fear of death. His words indicate that at least one reason why he hated them was because they were successful while the German people were not. Note the significance of this: He doesn't think of them as successful Germans who happen to be Jews. He thinks of them as something different than the German people. Whether it was race (yes, I've seen caricaturized pictures of Jews from this period, so the Germans were aware of the "physical" signs of Jewishness) or simply ethnic/cultural, he thought of them as NOT German. He used Gospel pretenses to demonize and attack them... just as was done throughout much of "Christian" history.I don't have to agree with Jewish theology to agree that they have often been wronged by "Christians."

One can greatly appreciate your compassion and concern for the Jews. However, you are selectively citing Luther to prove your point, and are not accounting for all his statements about the Jews, nor do you take into account statements that contradict your opinion in the very Luther treatise you cite.

On The Jews and Their Lies is often quoted and cited as the clearest example of Luther’s anti-Semitism. Interestingly though, this very document proves that Luther was not a biological anti-Semite, he was not against the Jews as people, nor did he seek for their extermination. In that treatise, Luther launches into a long section against any notion that the Jews are better than anyone else. He puts forth an alleged popular anti-Jewish argument that they thanked God that they were not born gentiles or women. In arguing against this caricature, Luther mocks those who think any one particular people is better than another:

“…[T]he Greek Plato daily accorded God such praise and thanksgiving—if such arrogance and blasphemy may be termed praise of God. This man, too, praised his gods for these three items: that he was a human being and not an animal; a male and not a female; a Greek and not a non-Greek or barbarian…Similarly, the Italians fancy themselves the only human beings; they imagine that all other people in the world are nonhumans, mere ducks or mice by comparison.” (LW 47:140)

Luther insists that before God, we are all equal, and this equality consists in the entire human race standing condemned by our sin before a holy God:

“…[T]o strut before God and boast about being so noble, so exalted, and so rich compared to other people—that is devilish arrogance, since every birth according to the flesh is condemned before him without exception in the aforementioned verse, if his covenant and word do not come to the rescue once again and create a new and different birth, quite different from the old, first birth.” (LW 47:142)

"Oh, what do we poor muck-worms, maggots, stench, and filth presume to boast of before him who is the God and Creator of heaven and earth, who made us out of dirt and out of nothing! And as far as our nature, birth, and essence are concerned, we are but dirt and nothing in his eyes; all that we are and have comes from his grace and his rich mercy.” (LW 47:154).

For around 20 years, Luther said little about the Jews, and what he did say was positive (when judged by the standards of popular culture of his time). Luther’s “anti-Jewish” writings span only his last 8 years (1538-1546), which makes the reason for his harsh writings not as easy to explain as put forth by the gentleman from the Puritanboard. These writings cannot be easily dismissed as saying: Luther hated Jews and was an anti-Semite.

Remember even in these later years, Jews who converted were not seen as “evil.” Luther was not against the Jews for being “Jews”- he had no objections to integrating converted Jews into Christian society: “Now, in order to strengthen our faith, we want to deal with a few crass follies of the Jews in their belief arid their exegesis of the Scriptures, since they so maliciously revile our faith. If this should move any Jew to reform and repent, so much the better.”

Luther’s An Admonition Against The Jews (1546), which was added to his last sermon summarize what his later position was towards them. Luther admonishes his hearers to “try to bring them to the Christian faith” and to treat them in a “Christian manner,” which harkens back to his positive treatise of 1523. On the other hand, he is firm that if the Jews do not embrace Christianity “then we must not suffer them to remain for they daily abuse and blaspheme Christ” and if they continue partaking in an anti-Christian religion, “we must not suffer them to remain.” This is indeed the later Luther, intolerant of non-Christian religions that he considered in league with the Devil.

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