Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Something from Luther

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church is coming up quickly.  2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of that event.  It is highly likely that we will hear and read a lot about Martin Luther during 2017, and as that year approaches.

The comments about Luther will be both positive and negative.  He will be portrayed as a hero of the Christian faith and Christian Church, and he will be vilified as a schismatic, a destroyer of the Christian Church, and a tool of Satan himself.

In conjunction with that last phrase, you can lay down good money right now that one of the quotes of Luther which will be trotted out is something he said about the Jews which was quite vicious and condemnatory.  (I don't have the reference before me, but a quick web search will produce numerous web site which will quote it--almost as if this were the only thing Luther ever wrote.)  It was written late in his life--perhaps when he was in a particularly foul mood, as he often was about the Gospel not being believed and cherished by one group or another.  (He even raged about his fellow Wittenbergers from time to time.)

One of the results of having so many of your thoughts and words written and recorded is that people get to see your most brilliant thoughts and your most regrettable ones.  Luther's cruel remarks about the Jews late in his life are among his more regrettable moments.  As modern day Lutherans, we can't deny that he said them.  Nor are we obligated to defend them.  Luther was not perfect or divinely inspired.  He said some things which were wrong.  He wrote other things which modern ears find highly offensive, though they were not as offensive in his own day--his enemies were equally as vicious against him.

Nonetheless, we will have Luther's quote against the Jews trotted out again and again as 2017 approaches.  Rather than try to defend or explain it, perhaps the best retort is to refer people to other Luther quotes about the Jews.  Below is a part of a 20 page treatise entitled, "That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew," written in 1523.  Far from being anti-Semitic, it highlights Luther's mercy toward the Jews, especially that they would hear the Gospel, believe in Jesus as their Christ, and be saved.


            “Therefore I will cite from Scripture the reasons that move me to believe that Christ was a Jew born of a virgin, that I might perhaps also win some Jews to the Christian faith.  Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks—the crude asses’ heads—have hitherto so treated the Jews that anyone who wished to be a good Christian would almost have had to become a Jew.  If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.

            “They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property.  When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery.  When the Jews then see that Judaism has such strong support in Scripture, and that Christianity has become a mere babble without reliance on Scripture, how can they possibly compose themselves and become right good Christians?  I have myself heard from pious baptized Jews that if they had not in our day heard the gospel they would have remained Jews under the cloak of Christianity for the rest of their days.  For they acknowledge that they have never yet heard anything about Christ from those who baptized and taught them.

            “I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs.  They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn.  If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been any Christians among the Gentiles.  Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them.  For even we ourselves are not yet all very far along, not to speak of having arrived.”
That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, May(?), 1523

Luther's Works, American Edition, Vol. 45, pp 200-201

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