Since yesterday was Reformation Sunday, our talks among the congregants eventually drifted to the question of charges of antisemitism toward Martin Luther. As a Protestant, Reformational Christian, I deeply admire Luther for what he did and accomplished, but never venerate the man nor overlook his (many) flaws and faults. His writings against the Jews are one of his flaws that we justly decry and lament. Like Zwingli’s maiden or Calvin’s handling of Servetus, these are historical instances that need to be placed in their context, condemned for what was sinful, and examples to learn from.
The first thing to remember when thinking about this subject is how Luther’s contemporaries thought about the Jewish question. In the 1530’s and 1540’s, the whole question of how to relate to Jewish people and the Judaic belief system was a highly charged and volatile issue. Writers from both the Catholic and Protestant perspectives both defended and attached Jews for everything from heresy, usury, treason and anarchy, and the ritualistic murder of children. Further, in a point that is often overlooked, there is a difference in Christians writing “anti-semite” material vs writing “anti-Judaic” material. The first attacks an ethnic people group, the second attacks a religion and belief system at odds with the claims of Christianity. The first is decidedly anti-Christian, the second is decidedly necessary for Christian apologists (see: the entire book of Galatians).
Luther’s writings on anything Jewish generally start positive and continually decline over the course of his life. His earliest writing emphasizes the fact that Christ is Jewish in ancestry and ethnicity. He can admit, “If some of them [Jews] should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either” (see his “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew” LW 45:229). Fifteen years later he wrote Against the Sabbatarians, a letter attacking legalistic practices that some Christians were engaging in by trying to observe Old Testament (Jewish?) rituals. Due to the nature of the content, Luther was critical of these practices, and even included a mild slur regarding Jews “given to babbling and lying.” Things would reach a low point, however, five years later when Luther wrote his infamous “On the Jews and their Lies.” When people refer to Luther’s antisemitism, they are referring to this work.
It must be remembered, that Luther’s reading of Scripture taught him that the Jewish people would convert en masse to Christianity near the end times. Luther had hoped that his own recovery of the Gospel under the rags of medievalism would spur the Jewish people to faith in the Messiah. When this didn’t materialize, this failure, coupled with Luther’s own personal problems, brought out some of Luther’s harshest vitriol for the Jews.
For more, see Probst’s article “Martin Luther and ‘The Jews:’ A Reappraisal”
How should Christians respond today? Clearly, Luther had amazing insights into Scripture. Clearly, Luther said some terrible things about Jewish people. But for Christians, Luther isn’t authoritative. We are not obligated to follow him, here or anywhere else. So, we take that which is good and avoid the rest.