In Defense of Martin Luther (part 6)
|November 4, 2011||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
6. a. David and Bathsheba
Turning now to the serious problem of Luther’s attacks on the Jews, there is much that needs to be said on his behalf – not that Luther should be shielded from just criticism. The hostile comments he made about the Jews towards the end of his life were, in my view, his greatest single mistake. They have often been used to link him, and Christianity, to the Nazis – not that this is solely a Protestant issue. Medieval anti-Semitism is also commonly mentioned in this context.
Nevertheless, while it is a problem, it is not an insurmountable one, and there are a number of aspects to Luther’s comments that are often overlooked or misinterpreted. First, though, to put this in perspective, it might be helpful to look at David and Bathsheba. I had some doubts about making this point first, fearing it might come across as nothing more than an evasive tactic, but a more detailed study of Luther’s beliefs about the Jews will follow.
All Bible-believing Jews and Christians recognize David as a man of deep faith, mightily used of God. His psalms and prayers as preserved for us in Scripture have been a source of spiritual light to countless people of both faiths over the centuries – yet, at one point David fell so deeply into sin as to take Uriah’s wife, and have him murdered.
How could such a great man of God have sinned so terribly? We don’t need, by the way, to consider the lame excuses some have offered to try and minimize David’s fault. The prophet Nathan said to him directly that he was guilty of killing a man and taking his wife, and that in so doing he had “despised the commandment of the Lord,” and that God would raise up evil against him as punishment. David did not respond with clever and tricky evasions, but confessed his sin and was duly punished before receiving forgiveness.
A great man of God stumbled badly – but does this minimize his undeniable achievements? What would we think of someone who said “I refuse to read any of David’s psalms. They can’t be any good, look at the sort of man he was”? We would consider such a person to be blind to the wonderful truths which David, inspired by the Spirit of God, presents to us, and ignorant of the extent to which the greatest and the best of us, even spiritual leaders, are vulnerable to sin.
Pascal has pointed out how Christianity provides an explanation for both the greatness and the fallenness of man. We are great, or potentially great, because we are made in the image of God, and are not accidental little bits of slime living to no end in a pointless universe. But, we are corrupt, even vile, because of sin, and the hosts of innumerable tendencies to wrongdoing. These truths of our divine origin and our natural depravity, as Pascal also points out, both elevate us and humble us, giving us self worth without pride, and humility without despair. They explain David’s greatness and baseness. They explain, I believe, Luther’s as well.
Luther was in my view a great man of God who stumbled and fell late in life, long after his primary contributions had been made. This fall (as well as his other faults and errors) should not distract from his extraordinary achievement in redirecting the emphasis of much of Western Christianity from the Church and its human traditions to Christ, the written Word, and the Spirit. By these last three alone we can we find salvation and eternal life. Parenthetically, I may speculate that God allowed Luther to fall at this point, so we would not be tempted to put him on a pedestal of spiritual greatness where no human being belongs.
Luther’s angry outburst may have been influenced by years of serious health problems (which he alludes to in his notorious tract, On the Jews and Their Lies). I have seen in my own family that protracted health problems in old age can over time lead to significant alterations of personality. Luther may also have been bitter about the fact that the Reformation had gone in so many different (and in his view wrong) directions.
Whatever the extenuating circumstances may have been, it is a fact that Luther did a great deal, as much I dare say as any other single individual, to facilitate the transition from medieval to modern Europe. All who value liberty of belief and conscience as opposed to unquestioning obedience to higher earthly authorities of any sort should recognize Luther’s contribution.
It is also a fact that the Jews were decently (if not perfectly) treated in every single country where the Reformation took root. No countries in Nazi-occupied Europe were more helpful to the Jews than countries like Holland, Denmark, and Norway, with their strong Protestant (even Lutheran) backgrounds. Even Germany prior to World War I, though not without problems, provided a favorable setting for a dynamic and flourishing German-Jewish culture.
Moreover, there are many American Christians today who respect Luther, even read his writings with care and share many of his basic beliefs, but bear no trace of anti-Semitism and are even supporters of Israel’s fundamental right to exist as a Jewish state (though they may or may not disagree with specific policies). If German history had not taken such a disastrous turn in the modern era, Luther’s tract would be completely ignored today.