In Defense of Martin Luther (part 11)
|February 9, 2012||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
2. Unclean language
3. Hostility to science and reason
4. Luther’s responsibility for later events in German history
5. Luther and German nationalism
a. Some misconceptions
b. Luther’s worldview
c. Modern nationalism
6. Luther’s anti-Semitism
a. David and Bathsheba
b. Luther’s biblical understanding of the Jews
c. What Luther did not believe about the Jews
d. Why Luther was angry at the Jews
e. Advocacy of violence against the Jews
7. Luther and the Nazis
8. Modern hostility to Luther
8. Modern hostility to Luther
Noted historian Martin Gilbert opens his otherwise excellent and deeply moving book, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews in Europe During the Second World War, with a reference to Martin Luther, as if that were the starting point for modern German anti-Semitism. But Luther’s attacks were the conventional anti-Semitism prevalent throughout Europe at that time – what was unique about Germany?
Many factors emerged in the 19th century that were very far removed from Luther’s day, as has already been mentioned. In particular, new ideas about the Jews began to emerge out of the “Enlightenment” that were very different from the religious anti-Semitism of the past. The new brand of anti-Semitism was concerned with issues of philosophy, race, and culture derived from secular thought.
There were also major political and economic changes which contributed to making Germany a world power instead of a disorganized collection of small states, and major social changes as well. But Gilbert refers to the 19th century in two sentences as only a time of progress for Jews. Walter Laqueur, however, in the concluding summary of his A History of Zionism, points out that along with the great advances made by German Jewry, there was at the same time increasing hatred against Jews, and an intensification of anti-Semitism.
To view the 19th century, the century in which Hitler was after all born and raised, as if it had nothing to do with what happened a few decades later, is a remarkable oversimplification. But it is an oversimplification that is gratifying the secular mindset, for which just about anything is justified as long as it makes Christianity look bad.
To overlook these issues, to ignore such anti-Semitic thinkers as Lagarde, Langbehn, Wagner, Chamberlain, Fichte, and Kant, and to point only at Luther is at best bad history. It is at worst dishonest. To explain the origins of the Holocaust in depth was admittedly not the purpose of Gilbert’s book, but since he marred an otherwise brilliant book by rambling in a disorderly fashion in the introduction about anti-Semitism in eastern Europe, he could easily have added a paragraph or two to his lengthy book explaining that modern racial and secular anti-Semitism had many totally different themes from the earlier religious variety.
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that “…the Jew cannot possess a religious institution, if for no other reason because he lacks idealism in any form, and hence belief in a hereafter is absolutely foreign to him” (vol. I chapt. 11). That the Jews were (among other things) only materialists with no concept of a hereafter was an idea stressed by Kant, not Luther. It shows a form of anti-Jewish “thought” that emerged out of the so-called Enlightenment, predicated upon the belief that the Old Testament was a merely human and historically inaccurate book.
But, in today’s cultural climate, many will applaud an attack on Luther who do not want to hear that Kant introduced new anti-Semitic themes predicated not on Luther’s belief in the Bible, but on modern secularism’s rejection of it. Moreover, as Professor Zygmunt Bauman suggests in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, pointing the finger at religion may be a way to dodge one of the most troubling aspects of the Holocaust – that it was a “characteristically modern phenomenon, which took place in modern culture using modern technology.”
How much easier, just to blame it on religion, without considering that it was the rejection of religion and the reliance on human reason alone which led to this catastrophic breakdown of civilized norms. The path that led to the Holocaust is a complex one – and I, for my part, do not believe that the 16th century is the logical place to start.
There are those who think that by attacking Luther they can at the same time attack the truths that he so effectively represented. That God exists; that the soul lives after death; that there will be a day of judgment, followed by heaven or hell; that we are all guilty of sin before God and can find forgiveness only in Christ, the Christ of Scripture – these things are hated in the modern era, and attacks on one of their most effective representatives must be understood in this context. But, the truth of what Luther believed does not fall because of an uncharacteristic lapse in his life, any more than the truths of Judaism fall with the sins of David and Solomon, or with the sins of the patriarchs who wanted to kill Joseph.
If someone wants to try and come to an understanding of Luther, two sympathetic biographies, such as Here I Stand by Roland Bainton and the more recent From Out of the Storm by Derek Wilson are useful starting points. Bainton’s book is more overtly religious, and (as I recall) makes no mention of Luther’s Jewish problem, but both are sympathetic and also historically valid. Wilson’s biography devotes a chapter to Luther’s anti-Semitism (chap. 16, “A Death too Late?”), and deals with the issue fairly if briefly.
For an introduction to Luther in his own words, his “Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings” is a good overview of how he saw his own life and work. Written in 1545, the year before his death, it contains no mention of Jews or Judaism. His “Preface to the New Testament” and “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans” are also useful for those who are not totally incapable of reading or understanding anything having to do with biblical teaching. These are conveniently presented in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, John Dillenberger, Ed. (New York, 1962).
Luther was a major figure in Western thought. It is too bad his great contribution to Western progress and democracy is systematically belittled and distorted by people incapable of understanding it. Much of what we consider to be positive about Western culture came not only out of the Renaissance and the “Enlightenment,” but out of the Reformation as well. To omit this fact is to present a false picture of Western culture.