In Defense of Martin Luther (part 7)
|November 21, 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
a. David and Bathsheba
b. Luther’s biblical understanding of the Jews
I think it might be reasonable to stop with the last point – that Luther’s hostile comments about Jews in the last few years of his life were a fall into sin by a great man who earlier presented many excellent biblical truths. Since, however, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what Luther actually did say, it is also reasonable to spend some time clarifying just what his views were. They are different from what many people think, and far removed from the new forms of racial, philosophical, and cultural anti-Semitism that emerged out of secular thought in the 19th century.
The anti-Jewish “logic” that Hitler used in Mein Kampf was not that of Luther but of much later German “thinkers” (such as those mentioned earlier). Hitler’s belief that the Jews weakened Germany biologically in its struggle for survival of the fittest had to do with concepts of racial purity and social-Darwinism that no one in Luther’s time would have accepted (if such ideas could even have been imagined). The one reference to Luther in Mein Kampf has nothing to do with Jews. It merely refers to Luther as a “great reformer,” along with Frederick the Great and Richard Wagner (vol. I, chapt. viii).
Hitler does quote the 19th-century “philosopher” Arthur Schopenhauer on the Jews, though (vol. I chapt. xi) – and this comment, referring to “the Jew” as “the great master in lying” included Schopenhauer’s belief in the falsehood of the Old Testament. There are a number of aspects of Schopenhauer’s thought that mesh well with Hitler’s (along with great differences as well of course) – including the primacy of will over intellect; life as essentially struggle; people as being no more than animals; and Christianity as a harmful and alien Semitic import. This gives credence to reported comments by Hitler that he had at one period in his life studied Schopenhauer diligently.
By the way, Hitler dismissed the Old Testament as historically inaccurate, and claimed in Mein Kampf that the Jews never had their own state or their own culture, and never were nomads either, but always and only parasites feeding off of other peoples. In claiming that the biblical record was culturally conditioned rather than divinely inspired, Hitler was squarely in the mainstream of secular liberal thought (including of course so-called liberal so-called Protestant so-called theology). Hitler made many references to God. His “god” was the god of German philosophy, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.
Returning to the subject of Luther, it should be stressed here that Jews and Judaism had nothing to do with his main Reformation goals or writings. To my knowledge, none of the works written in his prime show him worried about any sort of a Jewish “problem.” Taking Luther’s comments on Paul’s teachings about the Jews in the apostle’s Letter to the Romans as contrary evidence of a life-long obsession is absurd. Luther had much to say about the whole letter – was he supposed to skip passages about the Jews that were an integral part of the text?
What Luther does say in this context (in his “Preface to Romans” at any rate) is not anti-Semitism, but only basic biblical teaching. For example, with reference to chapter 2 of Romans, Luther states that Paul teaches “the Jews are all sinners.” But, Luther goes on to explain that chapter 3 shows that the entire human race is under the same condemnation: “In chapter 3, he [Paul] treats of both kinds together [Jews and Gentiles], and says, of one as of the other, all are sinners in God’s sight.” As Paul wrote, “…we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin … There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:9-10).
Statements by Luther in the context of biblical commentary can be made to look bad when applied to Jews only, without mentioning that these negative statements also apply to humanity as a whole. That Jews resisted God’s grace and were under condemnation for their present-day rejection of Christ was equally true, in Luther’s view, of the Turks, the Papists, the radical Protestant sects, and outwardly decent ordinary Germans, even seeming Protestants, who were in fact without Christ. Luther saw Jewish unbelief as human unbelief, and applied John 3:36 to everyone, not only Jews (“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him”).
Moreover, Luther considered the Old Testament to be the Word of God. He translated it into German for the benefit of German people; he appealed to its teachings often in his Reformation debates and teachings; and he had deep respect for the Jewish men of God in the Old Testament. He wrote in his “Preface to the Psalms” (1528), “Where can one find nobler words to express joy than in the Psalms of praise or gratitude? . . . So, too, when the Psalms speak of fear or hope, they depict fear or hope more vividly than any painter could do, and with more eloquence than that possessed by Cicero or the greatest of the orators.” Even in his anti-Semitic tract On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther states that the Jews of the Old Testament era were honored and chosen by God above all other nations; that God gave them a country and did great works with them through kings and prophets (“great patriarchs, excellent kings, and outstanding prophets”); that God did these things so that Christ, the Messiah, might come from such excellent and noble ancestors.