Lutheranism & Anti-Semitism

Reformation 2012, Volume XXI, Number 4

Table of Contents

(A feature article from the journal: Luther's Alleged Anti-Semitism by Ronald F. Marshall)

Lutheranism & Anti-Semitism

Lutheranism & Anti-Semitism

Many American Lutherans have rejected Luther because of his alleged anti-Semitism or supposed hatred of the Jews — even formally condemning him twice for this at national conventions in 1974 (American Lutheran Church) and 1994 (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). These critics believe that Luther spews forth his hatred in his famous 1543 treatise The Jews and Their Lies (AE 47:137–306), a book that supposedly inspired Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as he devised his plan to kill off the Jews throughout Europe.

It has become fairly common to suppose that “Luther’s diatribes in the sixteenth century are an eerie foreshadowing of Nazi practices four centuries later.” Even “Thomas Mann linked Luther to Hitler as did Lord Vansittart, once the highest civil servant in the British Foreign Office, Archbishop Temple and the Very Reverend R. W. Inge of the Church of England shared this opinion, and so did William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a bestseller.” The prestigious Luther scholar George Wolfgang Forell concludes that in Luther’s critique of the Jews, “the great theologian of the cross revealed his triumphalist Achilles’ heel.”  Other scholars agree. James M. Kittelson says this treatise is a “poison” in the church. Heiko A. Oberman says Luther’s attitude towards the Jews, expressed in the 1543 treatise, “becomes a pawn of modern anti-Semitism.”  Martin Marty says that Luther is at his worst when writing this treatise. The treatise contributes to Marty’s overall judgment that Luther is an unjustifiably “extreme” thinker. And Eric W. Gritsch argues that Luther “is not just ‘anti-Judaic’ (as some Luther researchlabeled him), but genuinely ‘anti-Semitic.’ . . . Moreover, Luther himself was willing to kill ‘a blaspheming Jew.’”

While many who reject this 1543 treatise do not reject what Luther says elsewhere, a growing number of authors do. For instance, an increasing number of authors argue that Luther is not only too harsh with the Jews, but also too harsh in condemning homosexual behavior (AE 3: 255).8 Words like these from Luther’s students make him appear guilty as charged. It surely does not help that a vicious anti-Semite in Hitler’s government was named Martin Franz Julius Luther (1895–1945).

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