Luther and the Jews: The Impact of Luther on Theology and Society

By: David Zadok

Presented on LCJE – Europe, Berlin, 2017.

 

© David Zadok

 

Introduction

This year the world, and certainly Germany, is celebrating the 500th year of the nailing of the Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Apparently, he wrote them between April and October of 1517, and on the 31st of October, he publicized it. Not very far from where we are, at the Berlin State Library, there is a copy of the 95 Theses as a placard on display. That special day in history traditionally has become Reformation Day, which many reformed churches celebrate in various ways.

 

There is no question that Martin Luther became a controversial person, certainly for us Jewish people and probably others because of his writings, theology, and attitudes toward the Jews. While Luther initially was very sympathetic towards the Jews, later in his life he turned his tongue and ink against the Jews.[1] Though some historians and theologians tried to explain the reasons for the change in his tune and tongue towards the Jews, there is no excuse or explanation that can satisfy the reason, not even in the context of the atmosphere and attitude of his day toward the Jews. Unfortunately, Hitler and the Nazis implemented some of his writings and suggestions, in particular, those writings in the “The Jews and Their Lies.”

 

Maybe, more than any of his contemporaries, we know Luther’s thoughts and words, since many of them were committed to writing. Luther and Katharina von Bora, his ex-nun wife, would invite dozens of students to their home for dinner.  Martin would teach, encourage, exhort and answer the questions of his students. Many of them took detailed notes of everything he said, and two decades after his death, many of the notes were published in German under the title Tischreden. “Table Talk” as it is known in English, became a six-volume work. Luther was not only a prolific writer but also a talker!  

 

In 1546, Luther preached his last sermon from Psalms 68:19-20 (God of Salvation), in the same church where he was baptized. In the time between his baptism and his last sermon, the church, its theology and the world changed greatly, and through his writings, he continues to make an impact on the world. Today, 500 years later, through the Protestant movement, the church, and the world has changed significantly because of Luther and his courage to stand on the Scriptures alone, despite a long tradition that dictated otherwise. I think that outside the Lutheran and Reformed world, most people are not aware of the significant light that he shone in the Dark Ages on the church and society. While the sphere of his influence was mainly the church, he also impacted the society, as I hope we can see in several areas.

 

Unfortunately, whenever we speak of Martin Luther, the great reformer, we should not forget to recall his horrible writings and attitude towards the Jews, especially in the latter part of his life. It is often the case that great men who have had a vast influence on the world, have also had significant shortcomings. This is true of giants like Samuel, David, and Solomon, though I am not putting Luther in the same category as them. At times, we wish we could rewrite history, but history is His Story, and God in his total sovereignty allowed and allows horrible things to happen. Even giants of faith have failures. Martin called for the abolition of Catholicism and was sure that the Jews would be won for the gospel.  When they were not, his attitude toward the Jews became hateful and harsh. He renewed all the old charges of the past – that they are ritual murderers, usurers, parasites, worse than devils, doomed to hell, and anti-Christ.

 

Dr. John MacArthur in his forward in The Legacy of Luther refers to Luther’s many shortcomings, especially his anti-Semitism, writes these words:

“It would be folly to pretend that these traits did not exist. But Luther was, after all, a product of his times. It is a sad fact of history that parochial points of view, illiberal opinions, and harsh rhetoric were quite common features in the discourse of the early Reformation— on all sides of the debate.[2]

This helps us to see the atmosphere that prevailed at the time.

 

A Very Bold Man

I believe the first point that needs to be made about the man, who brought about the Reformation and its Solas, is that he was a very bold and courageous man. Luther, who was but a simple monk with a very sharp mind, stood against the Church of Rome, which was the largest, strongest and richest institution of that time. He stood against the emperor, the magistrate, and the pope himself, but he did so with fear and trembling and not arrogance. This is evident in his last defense when he stood before his accusers and asked for 24 hours to rethink his position. The next day he made the famous statement: “Here I stand.”[3] To make such a stand takes a very special and unique man. Such men are very rare.

 

 

Theology

The various biographies written over the years about Luther are certainly worth reading. From the monastery, he was eventually sent as a pilgrim to Rome and later he was sent to a school of theology to become a professor. He was a clever man with a sharp mind, who had memorized all of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, and people saw the potential in him, and therefore encouraged him to pursue theology. In the school of theology, he started to read Augustine who quoted the apostle Paul. That, in turn, led Luther to spend more time reading the Scriptures in their original language. The European Renaissance, among its many other contributions, heralded the recovery of Greek and Roman classical literature. This desire to go back to the ancient culture assisted in the recovery of the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.[4] As Luther read and studied the scriptures more, he started to realize that the righteousness that God requires of us, is not something we can achieve, rather Christ provides righteousness for us in his perfect obedience. This eventually led to what is called “justification by faith,” and not by our own works. Luther spent much of his time studying the Epistle to Romans, Galatians and also the Psalms. The simple words of Romans 1:16-17 and especially the last part of the verse that “the righteous shall live by faith” was a new discovery for him that eventually led to a 180-degree change in his understanding of man’s salvation. The righteousness that was required of us, was the righteousness of Christ that He imputed to us by our faith.

 

The doctrine of Justification by Faith was probably the greatest theological understanding or re-understanding that Luther offered to the church. In his time, the church, the Church of Rome, had turned salvation into an expensive business for the people, but very cheap in the eyes of God.[5] You purchased salvation for yourself through relics and indulgences, and you could even buy graces for your relatives who had died and who were supposedly in purgatory waiting for the good works of their relatives to help them. And of course, you had to do many good works to “earn” your way to heaven, and you were also required to make penance, and payments. These were heavy burdens to put on the weak shoulders of the people, who could never be good enough before a righteous God. That kind of theology led them away from God. Even Luther at one point in his life came to hate God because he thought that God demanded of him a kind of righteousness that he could never offer. He was certainly not the only one who felt this way. But this burden eventually helped Luther to come to a realization that the righteousness that God demanded of him, was fully imputed to him by the works and sacrifice of Christ. Jesus’ life and death, his works on our behalf was a gracious gift for us. He worked so that we may rest in his accomplished and completed work of salvation. In 1533, Luther made this statement:

“Our Lord Christ alone is our cover of mercy, which He puts on us Himself, so that God would see us no longer as sinners, but accept us as righteous, holy, pious sinners, and give us eternal life.”

This discovery changed everything for Luther, and it continues to change and shape our theology and our Christian lives.

 

Worship and Singing   

Luther’s understanding of the Scriptures impacted not only his Soteriology but also the act of worship and singing in the church. Since the Word of God took its rightful place above tradition, the pope and everything else, Luther saw many areas in which the church was not following the Word of God. One such area was worship. The people of God ought to worship Him in Spirit and in truth and be active participants. Luther and other reformers including John Calvin saw a great importance in public worship and reformed it as well. We come to worship not as passive observers, but as active participants. That changed the whole understanding of the church service. It revolutionized a thousand or so years of high church tradition. The chanting of texts unintelligible to the common man, elaborate vocal and theatrical performances were changed into simple scripture based singing by the people of God. Luther thought that the singing of hymns during worship was so important that he wrote some great ones.  My favorite one is “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which has even been translated into Hebrew.[6]

 

Vocation & Liberty

In the 16th Century and before, the church saw only the vocation of the clergy as a calling. It was only those who “served” the church that had a call and importance in the eyes of God, and all other vocations though necessary, had no real “importance” spiritually. So if you wanted to be really spiritual then you would become a monk or a nun. Luther in his writing “The Freedom of a Christian,”[7] presented his view of the “priesthood of all believers.” The teaching of the Scriptures that there is but only one mediator between man and God, really means that every Christian, no matter what he does for a living, can approach God directly without the need for a priest or anyone else in the church. Because of this truth, the Christian is free from everything, but obedience to God. So the follower of Jesus can have any vocation – as long as it not against the Word of God, and it is indeed a call. This view helped many Christians to see the importance of their work even if it is not in a church, monastery or a theological school, and to use their vocation for the glory of God and not for just earning a living.

 

Also, in his work “On Secular Authority,” he reasons about the limit of the sword that God has put in the hand of civil or secular authority. In some way, Luther’s idea of two kingdoms is taken from Augustine’s book The City of God. The division between the authority of the church and that of the civil government, put things in the right place.

 

 

The Bible and the German Language

One of the other great contributions of Luther was the translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the German language. His translation enabled the “simple and the peasant” to read the Word of God in his own language and to understand it. By translating the Bible into German, Luther also created a unified German language. Eric Metaxas in his 2010 Biography of Bonhoeffer, which became a New York Times bestseller, writes these words about the influence of Martin Luther:

Luther’s influence cannot be overestimated. His translation of the Bible into German was cataclysmic. Like a Medieval Paul Bunyan, Luther in a single blow shattered the edifice of European Catholicism and in the bargain created the Modern German language, which in turn effectively created the German people. … Before Luther’s Bible, there was no unified German language. It existed only in a hodgepodge of dialects.[8]

 

Conclusion

In a short paper like this, it is not possible to lay down the huge and deep impact that Martin Luther’s teaching and writing have had on the church and the society, from his time until now. The Church of Jesus Christ is in a far better place today because of the boldness of Luther. While we cannot deny or excuse his harsh and hateful words against the Jews, we can neither ignore his major contributions. Dr. Robert Godfrey, who was the president of the Westminster Seminary in California, once told that Church History can be divided into four parts: the church was formed, and then deformed – Luther and other reformers reformed the church, and now the church is transformed – transforming the world.

 

I want to encourage everyone to become familiar with his life through the many biographies and movies that have been made. At the beginning of this year, another documentary came out on the occasion of the 500-year celebrations called “Martin Luther Documentary” by Stephen McCaskell. I highly recommend it, as it really helps us see the world in which he lived and how he changed it. It also gives a deep look into the man Luther. To my surprise, they did not try to ignore his anti-Semitic tendencies.

 

Today, our world desperately needs men with boldness like that of Luther. While in many ways we live in a far better world than he lived in, yet the church of Jesus Christ is under attack. False theologies from within the church and increasing secularism and extreme Islam, persecute and threaten the church in many parts of the world. May God grant his church many men with boldness and courage like Luther, but without Anti-Semitism!

 

Amen.

 

 

[1] Early in his life he wrote these words: “The Jews are blood-relations of our Lord; if it were proper to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews belong more to Christ than we. I beg, therefore, my dear Papist, if you become tired of abusing me as a heretic, that you begin to revile me as a Jew.”

[2] R. C. Sproul, Stephen J. Nichols. The Legacy of Luther (Kindle Locations 220-222). Ligonier Ministries, Inc. – USA.

 

[3] Some historians believe that Luther said these words: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” And that the statement “Here I stand” was added later.

 

[4] It was then that he saw some discrepancies between the Latin translation of the Bible used by the church and the Hebrew and Greek text of the Old and New Testament.

[5] Pope Leo X needed funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica, so the church started to sell indulgences. John Tetzel was a Dominican monk who sold indulgences in Saxony. He was a shrewd salesman who was willing to make any claim that will help sales!

[6] משגב, מעוז, אלוהינו, מגן חזק ונשק.

[7] Written in November 1520.

[8]  Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville Dallas Mexico City Rio De Janeiro, Thomas Nelson, 2010), 20