Our articles, 'How the Reformation Changed the World' and 'Here I Stand' received many responses from around the world, mostly very positive. However, there were also some friends who responded in surprise that we could have so positively quoted from Martin Luther, because from what they had heard, he was anti-Semitic and responsible for terrible atrocities against the Jews.
I was even directed towards websites that are dedicated to depicting Luther as an "anti-Semite" who "laid the foundations for the holocaust!"
Luther Was Friend and Advocate for Jews
The accusation that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite, responsible for massacres, reveals an ignorance of history. Luther was pro-Christ and he was zealous in evangelism. For decades he lovingly and patiently reached out to the Jewish people in his are with the Gospel. In 1523, Luther accused Catholics of being unfair to Jews in treating them "as if they were dogs". Luther was outraged and declared that such mistreatment made it even more difficult for Jews to convert to Christ.
Love Your Jewish Neighbour
Dr. Luther wrote: "I would request and advise that one deal gently with the Jews … if we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them, not by Papal law, but by the Law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either".
Outraged by Blasphemy
Fifteen years later, however, the persistent rejection of Christ and repeated blasphemies of Jewish people in his community provoked Luther to write: "On the Jews and their Lies". In this booklet, Luther wrote against the "madness and blindness that blasphemes Christ" in the Rabbinic teachings. Luther declared that he could not "have any fellowship or patience with obstinate blasphemers and those who defame our dear Saviour." These blasphemies included describing our Lord Jesus Christ as "the bastard Son" of "that whore, Mary", and even worse. Blasphemy was civil crime. Luther taught that to tolerate such blasphemy was to share in the guilt for it. Therefore, he proposed measures of "sharp mercy" which included confiscating all Jewish literature which was blasphemous and prohibiting Rabbis to teach such blasphemy.
Context is Everything
However, to quote these reactions of Dr. Luther without explaining their local context of opposing the repeated blasphemies of Jewish individuals in his community, and then to project guilt for the continent-wide, anti-Christian holocaust of World War II upon the great 16th century Reformer is ludicrous. How can any Christian Reformer of the 16th century be blamed for the evils perpetrated by humanists (who clearly rejected Martin Luther's Protestant teachings) 400 years after his death!
Opposing Enemies of the Gospel
Luther was not an anti-Semite. His arguments against Jewish individuals were theological, not biological or cultural. He was speaking out against blasphemy and heresy, not opposing an entire race or nation of people. Nevertheless, the harsh and extreme terminology used by Luther in his writings leave many of his supporters embarrassed and confused as to how man, who so wondrously preached the grace of God, could have been so ungracious in his writings on the Jews.
Beyond the Bounds of Moderation
By his own admission, Martin Luther was often harsh in opposing those who rejected Christ. "I cannot deny that I am more vehement than I should be…" he wrote. "But, they assail… God's Word so atrociously and criminally that… these monsters are carrying me beyond the bounds of moderation."
Christ is our Example
Luther once asked: "What do you think of Christ? Was He abusive when He called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, an offspring of vipers, hypocrites and children of the devil? …the truth …cannot be patient against its obstinate and intractable enemies" (Matthew 23).
The few pamphlets which Luther wrote against Jewish blasphemies, pale when compared to the many books produced by Luther against the Papacy. "We should take him, the Pope, the cardinals and whatever riff-raff belongs to his idolatrous and papal holiness, and as blasphemers, tear out their tongues from the back and nail them on the gallows."
False Teachers and False Shepherds
On another occasion Luther wrote: "Why should we hesitate to use arms against these teachers of perdition, the cardinals, popes and the whole Roman Sodom, which corrupts the Church of God without end, and wash our hands in their blood?"
Scripture Alone is our Authority
"How often must I cry out to you, coarse, stupid papists, to quote Scripture sometime? Scripture! Scripture! Scripture! Do you not hear you deaf goat and coarse…?"
Born for Warfare
Luther admitted that he was, on occasion, bull-headed, coarse-tongued and intemperate. His speech and actions were frequently intense. Luther wrote: "I was born to go to war and give battle to sects and devils, that is why my books are stormy and war-like."
"What good does salt do if it does not bite? What good does the edge of the sword do if it does not cut?"
On another occasion, when he was being publicly criticised, Luther declared: "I'm tough Saxon, peasant. I've grown thick skin for this kind of… "
The Reformer did sometimes, however, regret his outbursts. He explained to his wife, Katie: "Why, I sometimes rage about piddling thing not worthy of mention. …Isn't that shameful thing?" Luther could repent and apologise with wholeheartedness unlike any other. He could also laugh at himself, and was often cheerful and witty when everyone around him was desperate.
We all Share the Guilt for Christ's Death
Unlike many of his time, Luther did not, however, hold Jews alone responsible for the death of Christ. As he wrote in hymn: "We dare not blame …the band of Jews; ours is the shame." Luther frequently emphasised that the blame for the death of Christ was upon each individual sinner, not least himself. Luther continued to the end of his life to maintain an eagerness and desperate longing that Jews might be won for Christ.
Bearing False Witness
It is most disturbing that such humble and God-fearing man, who, against all odds, gave to the church, and the world, the Bible, freely available in the common tongue; who introduced congregational singing; championed justification by God's grace, received by faith, on the basis of the finished work of Christ; who stood for SolScriptura, that Scripture alone is our ultimate authority; and who was so wonderfully used of the Lord to bring about the greatest Biblical Reformation and birth of freedom that the world had ever known, could be the target of such vicious slander.
Do Not Slander One Another
The Scriptures implore us: "Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the Law and judges it." James 4:11
Respect Our Elders
Even more, the Scriptures continually command us to respect our elders, especially our spiritual fathers. "Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly…" Leviticus 19:32. "Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father…" 1 Timothy 5:1. (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19: 3; Deuteronomy 27:16; Proverbs 30:17; Matthew 15:4).
Malicious Slander is Forbidden
137 Small"Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind." 1 Peter 2:1. There is disturbing tendency throughout the church, seen regularly in those homes where they have "roast pastor for Sunday lunch", to continually set ourselves up as judges of those who are better than us. Many have the gift of criticism and ministry of discouragement.
Slander is Inseparable from Malice
As the Scripture so plainly shows us, slander of every kind is inseparable from malice, deceit, hypocrisy and envy. The middle letter of pride is "I", the middle letter of lie is "I", the middle letter of sin is "I", so too the middle letter of Lucifer is "I". Self-centered pride is often at the root of our desire to slander great men and women of the past, and to drag down others whom God has raised up.
Do those who so confidently condemn Martin Luther really believe, in the light of eternity, in the sight of God, that they have served God's people and God's cause and Kingdom with even 1% as much dedication and effectiveness as Dr. Martin Luther? If they do, it betrays an ignorance of history and blindness to their own weaknesses.
It is most encouraging that while Jesus was being crucified on the Cross, he prayed: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Luke 23:34
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Luther and the False Brethren, by Mark Edwards, Stanford
Luther's Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, (1531 – 1546) by Mark Edwards, Cornwell
Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, by Martin Brecht
Martin Luther: The Great Reformer, by J.A. Morrison, Christian Liberty Press
Luther: An Experience in Biography, by H.G. Haile, Princeton
Greatest Century of Reformation (220 pages, 160 pictures, maps and charts) is available from: Christian Liberty Books
PO Box 358
Howard Place 7450