Before You Call Luther an “Anti-Semite”
Like most of you, I have heard the charge of anti-semitism leveled against Martin Luther many times. Unlike most, however, I decided to discover whether the charge was substantiated by reading his book “On The Jews and Their Lies” (1543).
Actually, and in the interest of full disclosure, I had to read the book three times. The first time I read it in pure shock, wondering, “How could he write this?” The second time, I read it more academically, asking, “What exactly is he saying and why?” The third time, I tried to take a more sympathetic approach, pondering, “Would I really have done any better than him?”
The purpose of this article is not to render a final verdict on Luther’s alleged anti-semitism, but to request that Christians be a little more reserved in their judgment and a lot more respectful toward their German father in the faith.
Know The Whole Story
Twenty years before Luther wrote “On The Jews and Their Lies”, he wrote, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” In that book, he railed against the Papists for treating Jews “as if they were dogs rather than human beings.” He also urged Christians to obey the “the law of Christian love” that the Jews might be won to Christ.
Martin Luther loved the Jewish people with a missionary zeal that is indisputable. In fact, and due to a prima facie reading of Romans 9-11, he sincerely expected to see mass Jewish conversions during his lifetime. It was only after two long decades of “failed” evangelistic efforts that Luther’s love cooled.
Wrestle with Your Theology
As those who are Reformed, we believe that the Word of God, even when shared in the most affectionate and evangelical manner, will ultimately accomplish only two possible ends: It either softens hearts or hardens hearts.
Sadly, Luther watched the latter end occur during his ministry and, rather than adapting his methods (as so many do today), he turned to the scriptures for comfort and counsel. He then concluded that the time had come to shake the dust from his feet and declare, “We are innocent of your blood.”
Whether Luther was correct in his assessment of that particular generation, we may never know. Nevertheless, it does give us cause to wrestle with our own theology. “Cast not your pearls before swine…” (Matt. 7:6). How can we know when that time has come?
Understand the Times
Martin Luther was not an ordinary man. He was an ordained Minister and a “Magisterial Reformer” (which reminds us that the state in his day actively sought guidance from the church in matters of faith and morality).
Not only had the Jews rejected Luther’s free offer of the Gospel, but they also responded with counter-missionary efforts that appeared to be undermining the German church and commonwealth. Luther mentions blasphemy, proselytizing, and usury as examples.
“On Their Jews and Their Lies” was written as advice from the church to the state on how it should address these perceived threats against their society. Part of the advice included forbidding rabbis to teach and burning down their synagogues.
This, of course, is where modern readers become uncomfortable, but we do need to reason through these matters historically and honestly.
Luther did not call for Christians to take up arms against their Jewish neighbors. In fact, he urged Pastors to remind the people that it was not their calling to curse or harm Jews. Luther’s harshest advice was directed to the Princes of Germany.
We may not approve of the medieval system, but let us not anathematize it from our safe distance with an anachronistic kind of scorn. Our pre-enlightenment fathers may have understood more about the functional differences between church and state than we oftentimes assume.
Honor Thy Father
Our Larger Catechism reminds us that the scope of the Fifth Commandment extends beyond the natural family into the realms of both church and state [c.f., WLC 123-133]. Martin Luther, due to his ecclesiastical office and civil influence, is entitled, by God, to receive special honor from us.
Besides his superior calling, let me also suggest that Luther possessed some superior gifts. The thing that surprised me most about his book was not his caustic language, but his constant appeal to scripture. Luther knew the scriptures (yes, even in the Jew’s native tongue) and based his arguments upon them.
We, of course, are not required to agree with his every interpretation or application, but that cavalier judgment of the millennial hipster, “Luther was on the wrong side of history!” seems to reek of the very contempt which the Fifth Commandment so clearly forbids.
Stop Virtue Signaling
We all want to be liked by others. This is a most basic and natural human desire. How far, however, will we go to make sure that others like us? The more carefully I listen to casual conversations, the more I become convinced that we are obsessed with earning the approval of men.
“Virtue Signaling” is a common tactic we employ to increase social standing. Here is an example: “I was at my friend’s house yesterday, who happens to be Jewish, and he said the funniest thing…”
Why did the speaker include the grammatically superfluous “happens to be” phrase? The answer is obvious. The inclusion of that clause was a calculated effort to alert the listener to the fact that the speaker had Jewish friends.
Stop it. We will never be loved by the world. Jesus said so (John 15:19) and we should stop trying so hard to earn its vain approval and praise.
Drop the Term?
The term itself “Anti-semitic” was not coined until three centuries after Luther’s death. It was invented by a political agitator in central Europe and it continues to be used for political purposes today.
You can research for yourselves the politics of German-Jewish relations in the late nineteenth-century, my only point here is this: The charge of “anti-semitism” is technically anachronistic in the case of Martin Luther.
Besides being anachronistic, the term is also somewhat inaccurate. According to scripture, the “Semites” are the descendents of Noah’s son Shem. As we look at the world’s population today, that would include races besides the Jews such as Arabs, Assyrians, Samaritans, etc.
The term “anti-semitic” was-and-is an inherently political word. It has also evolved so much in meaning over the years that its extinction might just be overdue. At very least, let us hold fast to our doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” and handle political-charged words with care.
Read The Book
As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation continues to draw near, many will be focusing on Luther’s contributions to Western civilization. While the multiculturalists will be preparing their litany of accusations to level against him, let us pursue brotherly love and preserve due reverence.
Finally, if you are still concerned about your brother, Martin Luther, please afford him the same courtesy you would expect to receive if the tables were turned and you were the one on trial for “hate crimes.” Buy his book, read it, and “judge ye righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
By Christian McShaffrey