A Legacy of Shame: Luther and the Jews

A Legacy of Shame: Luther and the Jews

Some years ago I was standing at a pedestrian crossing in the town of Echterdingen, near Stuttgart in Germany. It was a Sunday morning. The crossing light was at red. I looked quickly left and right, there was no car in sight and so I crossed. An elderly couple, probably coming from the same Lutheran service that I had been attending, audibly tut-tutted their disapproval at my anarchic initiative and remained stolidly where they were until the green light gave them permission to cross the deserted street. Was I unfair to see in this suspension of private judgement a vestige of what may, for better or worse, be called 'Erastianism'; the belief widely held in pre-war Germany that to disobey the State was to disobey God?  I think not. In that moment I gained an insight into how a monster such as Adolph Hitler might hold sway over such a decent and civilized people as the Germans, and how something so inherently evil as the Final Solution might be possible in a state with so great a Christian heritage, given that that state had acquired such extensive powers over religious and cultural life. And for that Martin Luther carries a share of the blame. 

As Carl Trueman has pointed out, during the early part of the Reformation Luther entertained the hope that Jews who were disgusted by the idolatry of medieval Catholicism and had endured mistreatment at the hands of the papacy would speedily join him in working for religious reform. To win them for the Reformation he wrote, in 1523, an appealing tract entitled That Christ was born a Jew, and stated his hope that: 

if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.
Luther's naivety was, however, soon disabused. His well meaning overtures were rebuffed and he, being infamously irascible responded with the summary harshness contained in his malevolent 1543 tirade, On the Jews and Their Lies. Attempts have been made to show that an older wiser Luther returned to his gentler original attitude, but they are not altogether convincing.  

Not all the Reformers approved of Luther's attitude. There is a letter from Bullinger of Zurich to Martin Bucer in which he likened Luther's stance on the Jews to the Inquisition. Calvin's attitude too was generally benign, although his remarks could at times be acerbically medieval and his Geneva had no room for Jewish residents. But to give Calvin his due, it was he not Luther, who restored the Law to its rightful place in Christian life and it was Calvinists, such as the Jewish Christian John Immanuel Tremellius (1510-1580), who took part in the compilation of the Heidelberg Catechism, who were among the foremost Christian Hebraists in the succeeding two centuries. In addition, the post-Reformation rapprochement between Protestants and Jews may be substantially credited to Calvin's influence in the socio-economic and  political realms, which, in turn, inspired a generally philo-Semitic attitude among the English Puritans and provided a rationale for Oliver Cromwell's granting Jews permission to resettle in England, from which they had been banished since 1290. It was Calvinism that made Scotland a country where Jews have always been treated as 'aboriginal Presbyterians,' as Chaim Bermant once put it. In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries Calvinism contributed to pioneering missions to the Jews, and in the twentieth century influenced the production of the Balfour Declaration and the proclivity of British and American politicians to favour the formation of the State of Israel. 

But notwithstanding more benevolent attitudes, the evil genie was out of the bottle and Luther's hate-filled book was destined to play out its ominous role in the development of anti-Semitism in continental Europe. If the immediate effect of Luther's anti-Jewish attitude was the paralysis for two hundred years of Protestant attempts to evangelise Jews in Germany, his longer term legacy was to bequeath to Germany a toxic influence which conditioned a generation either to support the Nazis or, in a miasma of apathy, to abdicate responsibility. At his Nuremberg trial, the notorious Nazi propagandist, Julius Streicher said in his defence that he was, after all, only repeating what Luther had said. Whilst for its part, the German nation, having been inclined for so long to the view that to disobey the State was to disobey God, shrugged off any sense of personal liability in the matter. Indeed, the most frequently heard defence plea in the courts that tried Nazi war criminals was the supine remark that "I was only following orders." Of course, there were those who cried behind the curtails when they came for the Jews, as there were those, like Bonhoeffer, who were courageously bent on intervention to remove Hitler and, if necessary, pay for it with their lives. But, if, as Martin Neimoller once admitted, Hitler's war required a moratorium on Christianity, then Luther's stance on church and state as well as on the Jews eased the difficulty and salved the conscience. 

Inevitably, the Holocaust compelled a radical re-appraisal of Jewish-Christian relations and gave rise to extreme sensitivity over Jewish evangelism, especially when Jewish writers connected Christian mission with genocide. The Nazi's adoption of some of Luther's known hostility towards the Jews seriously compromised the task of Jewish missions. Blu Greenburg is not untypical when she writes:

I see mission through the unique...event of the Holocaust. Would those who preach conversion for all Jews really want a world Judenrein, a world free of Jews? ...After the Holocaust, can any well-meaning Christian look into my eyes and make that claim, the call for a kind of "spiritual final solution". [1] 

Whilst the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting in Amsterdam in 1948 resolutely condemned anti-Semitism it affirmed Christian witness to Jewish people. But since 1948 the guilt-ridden continental European churches have sought either to play down or reject Jewish missions. The Dutch Reformed Church (GKN) abandoned mission in favour of dialogue and endorsed the Christian kibbutz Nes Ammim's renunciation of any pretension to engage in missionary proselytism. In 1980 the Synod of Protestant Churches of the Rhineland stated: 'We are convinced that the Church has the testimony to bring its mission to other people - but not to the Jewish people.' The following year, the Church of Scotland abandoned its traditional and honourable history, and, influenced by Two Covenant theory, affirmed the priority of theological dialogue over mission to the Jewish people.    
Of course, the church owes a incalculable debt to Luther, a great, though sinful and seriously flawed man, and it would be arrant folly to deny it. As Berthold Schwarz, of the Freie Theologische Akademie, Giessen, Germany has commented, 'Gordon Rupp had it right when he wrote about Luther: "I confess I am ashamed as I am ashamed of some letters of St. Jerome [and] some paragraphs in Sir Thomas More ...and must say that their authors had not so learned Christ, and that, thank God, this is not the major part of what they had to say."' We need, therefore, to take an honest and thoughtful, not a naive, approach to the problems he has bequeathed to us.

Instructively, the Jewish Christian writer, Jacob Jocz was of the view that Luther 'with all his venom was not an anti-Semite in the modern sense.' And I find it interesting that William Cunningham, renowned for his love of the Jewish people and his commitment to their evangelisation - he was a member of the first Church of Scotland Jewish missions committee and, after 1843, its Free Church counterpart - considered that it was Luther's notorious attitude to the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse, rather than his vituperation against the Jews, that was "probably the darkest spot in his history." [2]  Of course, had he lived in our post-Holocaust age, he may have seen things differently. We shall never know. But this suggests to me that Cunningham might have corroborated Trueman's inclination to see Luther's hostility to the Jews as a repugnant moral aberration rather than a systemic theological weakness. 

Notwithstanding Luther's unchristian cruelty in his attitude to the Jews - and the Anabaptists and peasants too, for that matter - we cannot but thank God for this man who clarified for the church the cardinal doctrine of justification by faith alone. There is, surely, a wise example to follow in Augustine's sage advice concerning Platonism, "separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel."  Finally, let us not forget that any failure of ours to proclaim the gospel of justification by faith alone to the Jewish people of our time is a form of religious anti-Semitism as inherently evil as the philosophy of the Nazis.

John S. Ross is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and  Lecturer at Dumisani Theological Institute. He has taught Judaism and Jewish Missions at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales, and The Highland Theological College. His PhD, from the University of Wales (Lampeter), was awarded for a study of Scottish Missions to the Jews. He joined the Dumisani staff in 2008. John is married to Elizabeth, they have three adult children.  

 [1] Blu Greenburg "Mission Witness and Proselytism" in Tanenbaum, Wilson, Rudin (eds), Evangelicals and Jews in an Age of Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984),  p.229-230.
 [2] William Cunningham, Discussions on Church Principles: Popish, Erastian, and Presbyterian (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1863), p.473.