Part IV: Martin Luther’s Antisemitic Theology

Promissio is a central Latin concept in Luther’s theology. It is used by contemporary Lutherans who reject Luther’s antisemitism to demarcate that antisemitism from his authentic Christian theology. The concept allows Jews and Christians to be united in hope and offers an appropriate definition of the relationship between the church and Israel, Christians and Jews, and allows the displacement of both anti-Judaism and antisemitism from Christian theology. The theory of substitution and the theology of exclusivity both go down the drain with this revision. Instead, a doctrine of simultaneity is put in its place whereby God establishes a lasting relationship with both Jews and Christians. Does Martin Luther allow for such a change?

Romans 9 read as follows:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[b] In other words, it is not the children by physical (my italics) descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Salvation is supposedly clarified by Paul. But what if Jews do not accept parallelism? What if Jews do not accept the distinction between eschatological Jews and Christians versus the concrete people of Israel? What if such an effort does nothing to diminish antisemitism but merely shifts antisemitism to the political realm thereby allowing religious Christians to escape from their responsibility for antisemitism? In fact, the liberal effort at reconciliation could be read as more an effort to detach Christianity from antisemitism that to really reconcile with Judaism and Jews.

Look at the current context – the rise in antisemitism both in Germany and across Europe with 90% of the incidents linked to far-right groups in contrast to the UK where the issue of antisemitism is roiling the Labour Party. (See the 2019 Fathom Report, Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party.) Was it two weeks ago when Germany’s commissioner on antisemitism warned Jews that it was dangerous for Jews to wear a kippah in public?

A member of my class on Gentile views of Jews asked me whether the Lutheran church had ever renounced Luther’s antisemitism. As I answered in the last blog, Sister Joela who has been so active in campaigning for the removal of the “Jedensau,” certainly recognizes Luther’s failings with the Jewish people, but celebrates his revolutionary role in democratizing the Bible. “We don’t want to distance ourselves from Luther’s wrongs, but to identify, grieve, and ask for forgiveness.”

Initiated by Rev. John Stendahl of Amherst, Mass., and approved overwhelmingly at the church’s annual assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America formally renounced Luther’s antisemitic attacks in 1993. The assembly directed its ecumenical affairs department to prepare a declaration to Jews “repudiating the anti-Judaic rhetoric and violent recommendations” of Luther and grieving at “the tragic effects of such words on subsequent generations.” The declaration expressed “our desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ in love and respect for the Jewish people by pledging to oppose the deadly workings of anti-Semitism in church and society.”

However, the Norwegian state Lutheran church took until November of 2016 to pass an equivalent motion. But, in contrast to Gregory Baum, Norwegian evangelicals are some of the strongest supporters of Israel, continually visiting even in periods of terrorist attacks. Is Luther’s antisemitism in which he refers to Jews as “alien murderers and bloodthirsty enemies” whose synagogues, homes and prayer books should be destroyed and their property confiscated so easily separated from his theology? Roman Catholics in the 1965 Nostra aetate rejected the view that Jews had been responsible for the death of Jesus. However, this reading by Protestants and Catholics, went back to the disciples of Jesus, particularly Paul.

The Lutheran World Federation [LWF] based in Switzerland published a 200-page edited collection in January of 2003 called, A Shift in Jewish-Lutheran Relations? A Lutheran contribution to Christian-Jewish dialogue with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Judaism today. But two essays, one by León Klenicki and the other by Wolfgang Kraus, took up the issue of the link between Christology and antisemitism. The publication ended with a number of resolutions affirmed by the LWF on the issue:

We encourage the member churches to create and support opportunities for their members to learn about Jews and Judaism, and the heritage we share. Trust and common understanding must be nurtured beginning with the young and through face-to-face encounter.

We encourage the member churches to advocate for adequate legal proscriptions and remedies against racist and antisemitic activities, using the legal tools of human rights in this effort.

We encourage the member churches to raise their voices against antisemitism and anti-Judaism wherever they appear and actively to support Jewish communities in maintaining their traditional observances.

We affirm the cooperation that has grown between Jews and Lutherans in work for peace and justice, social relief and community development, and we encourage all who are engaged in such work to continue.

We encourage the LWF to continue its support of Jewish-Lutheran dialogue in the member churches.

We especially encourage the engagement of younger leadership in the dialogue, to help assure its continuation and its relevance to contemporary culture.

We encourage the LWF and member churches to convene theological consultations to pursue the theological, exegetical, missiological and pastoral issues that have been raised in and by the dialogue and our own plenary sessions.

We express our gratitude to the LWF for its leadership in this consultation and in the promotion of Jewish-Lutheran understanding.

We call for patience and perseverance by all who share this goal, until the long-term process of change on which we have embarked is brought to fruition by the one God of Jews and Christians.

Christian hostility to Jews and Judaism is primarily motivated by religion and in contrast to classical, pagan anti-Judaism and, on the whole, constitutes a continuum ever since the second century CE. Christians defined their own identity in contradistinction to Judaism. At the same time, they attempted to demonstrate their superiority over Judaism.

Throughout Luther’s writings, but more specifically in three of his books, it seems that Luther cannot escape a discussion of Jews and how to deal with them. After all, Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Why? Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, he placed the blame on the Talmud and its teaching, a theme I discussed already. The Talmud, he claimed, provided not simply an incorrect, but a satanic version of the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to some views, antisemitism did not emerge and develop over time for Luther; it remained a constant.

Luther, however, became more rabid and more preoccupied by the subject as he grew older. Early on, he blamed the failure on the bad pedagogy of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Jews resisted conversion with the rise of the Protestant reformation, and particularly the gospel according to Luther, he blamed the stiff-necked Jews. Further, because of their satanic character, their conversions had to be suspect and regarded as likely opportunistic. Luther believed that Jews, even converted ones, were a contaminant and threatened the purity and piety of the church. Therefore, Jews had to be suppressed. Therefore, their living among Christians had to be made impossible. Therefore, they had to be expelled from living among Christians. And, at times, Luther even argued that they should be killed.

The problem is that the Reformation had a great deal to do with three doctrines even more than criticisms of the Catholic Church. As did Paul as I read him, Luther argued for justification of salvation by faith alone; the Church was not needed as an intermediary. Secondly, the Bible, not the Church, was the sole authority in matters of faith. Thirdly, if the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and the Bible as the ultimate authority rather than the Pope were not sufficient, the implication on man’s nature and his relationship to God is enormous. If man does not accept Christ as his saviour, if man does not accept the Gospels as the living word of God, then he is inherently materialistic, self-centred, immoral and no more than a beast indifferent to the common good.

These basic premises impacted not only on Luther’s break with Roman Catholicism but on his views of Jews. As we shall also see it had an enormous impact on his view of education, which I will deal with in my final section.

As I have tried to show, Lutheran Churches have recently worked assiduously to distance themselves from the anti-Judaism and antisemitism of Martin Luther. However, if there is a deep connection between that antisemitism and his Christian theology, this is more difficult to do. Further, if Martin Luther’s doctrines of supersession, that Christianity displaces and replaces Judaism, cannot be divorced from his doctrine of “by faith alone,” if his doctrine of exclusivity cannot be divorced from his doctrine that the Bible alone is the source of all truth, and, finally, if these doctrines are inseparable from both his and Paul’s views of human nature, then it is difficult to see how Lutheranism can be so easily separated from anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, he became a leading figure in the Reformation that transformed Christianity. However, the doctrines he propounded had an intimate interconnection with his anti-Judaic stands and the eventual emergence of the full-blown murderous antisemitism of the Nazis.

It is true that initially Luther was generous towards the Jews – but only in the hope that they would convert. Paul held the same position. Verses in the Tanach on prophecy and messianism were interpreted as prefiguring the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah. In his 1523 volume, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther wrote, “We gentiles are relatives by marriage and strangers, while they [the Jews] are of the same blood, cousins and brothers of our Lord.”

But what if most Jews were not open to conversion and those that did were by and large doing so for personal advancement, then Jews turning their backs on Christ was a rejection of his mission to save the Jews as well as everyone else. Doesn’t that failure reflect negatively on the power of the Holy Spirit, on Jesus as a teacher and ultimately on God? Luther joined the chorus that held that Jews had been brainwashed by the Talmud since the message of the Bible was, for him, unequivocal.

In On the Jews and their Lies, Luther wrote: “beware of the Jews…God’s wrath has consigned them to the Devil who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the Scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense.” The Jews were the Devil incarnate. How else could they resist the salvation offered by Jesus?  Further, there was only one reading of the Bible and it was not subject to various competing interpretations as the Talmud presumed. Jesus, Paul and Christians had the only correct interpretations. But what if the Bible could be dissected into two parts, those that were eternally and fundamentally true and those that erred because they were rooted in the particular circumstances of history? Who could make such an interpretation? Was this cop-out not a sell-out to the Talmudists?

Even more fundamentally, if Jews “by their nature” were largely closed off to the teachings of Jesus, they must be stiff-necked for a reason. If you combine the core Lutheran theology with the actual behaviour of Jews with respect to the offering of Christianity to them, there was no help for them. They were indeed the devil’s disciples.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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