LUTHER AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Throughout Tanakh, God promises to punish Israel for her sins and then restore her to Himself. Both before and after his resurrection, Yeshua affirmed that God would restore the kingdom to Israel.
John speaks of it in Revelation. Paul also writes of it. In Rom.11, he explains that God will remove the blindness from those in Israel who cannot see the truth and hope of the gospel. Then, all Israel will be saved.
Luther comments: "I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits (11:25). From this passage it is generally concluded that the Jews at the end of the world will be converted to faith. However, it is true that this passage is so obscure that hardly anyone will be persuaded with absolute clarity, unless he follows the verdict of the Fathers (Augustine, Chrysostom, Theodoret) who interpret the Apostle in this sense. The meaning then, is: The Jews who are now fallen, will be converted and saved, after the heathen according to the fulness of the elect are come in. They will not remain outside forever, but in their own time they will be converted.
"So all Israel shall be saved...for this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins (11:26,27)" 1
Luther stated clearly the meaning which others had found in the passage. He could state it, but he was unwilling to accept it.
The apostles, believing the prophets, wrote of the restoration of the Jewish people in the last days. That culminated in a Millennial reign of Yeshua upon the earth. He would return to destroy the nations which would come against Jerusalem at the end of this age. Then he would restore the Davidic kingdom to Israel. From Israel he would rule over all the earth.
The disciples of the apostles believed this and taught it. The historical record shows that. That was orthodox faith. There is no evidence to the contrary. To depart from it was heresy.
As Justin Martyr said to Trypho: "For even if you yourselves have ever met with some so-called Christians, who do not yet acknowledge this, but even dare to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob...But I, and all other entirely orthodox Christians, know that there will be a resurrection of the flesh, and also a thousand years in a Jerusalem built up and adorned and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, and all the rest, acknowledge." 2
According to Luther, the Church Fathers saw the national salvation and restoration of Israel "with absolute clarity." Luther followed Augustine for much of his theology, but not here. Augustine did not find the restoration of Israel obscure. He said, "The belief that in the final period before the judgement this great and wonderful prophet Elijah will expound the Law to the Jews, and that through his activity the Jews are destined to believe in our Christ, this is a very frequent subject in the conversation of believers, and a frequent thought in their hearts." 3
For Luther, however, the passage was quite obscure. There are no words in the passage that are difficult to understand. It is not difficult to follow Paul's reasoning. The only thing that makes the passage obscure is a theology that has cut off the Jewish people.
Why did Luther find the passage obscure? His difficulty with the text does not seem to be with understanding it, but rather with believing it. There is no place for it in Luther's theology. So he dismisses it as "obscure." Later in his life, the obscurity vanished, and he found it to clearly speak of the Church. For the early Church, that would have marked Luther as a heretic.
Luther adamantly maintained that, "The promises made to Abraham do not refer literally to Abraham's blood and seed, nor is the biblical prophecy of salvation addressed to the Jews as Jews: Christians may 'despair of the Jews with a clear conscience.' The Jews have been rejected by God. The homelessness of the Jews provides Luther with such overwhelming proof of this that he feels safe to take an oath: If it should happen that the diaspora comes to an end and the Jews are led back to Jerusalem, then we Christians will follow on their heels and ourselves 'become Jews.' " 4
If the biblical prophecies of salvation addressed to the Jews are not addressed to the Jews as Jews, then what about the biblical prophecies of judgment that are addressed to the Jews? By what rule of interpretation did Luther appropriate one for the Church and not the other?
Luther saw confirmation of his theology in the Diaspora. "In brief: Because you see that after fifteen hundred years of misery (when no end is certain or will ever be so) the Jews are not disheartened nor are they even cognizant of their plight, you might with a good conscience despair of them. For it is impossible that God should let his people (if they were that) wait so long without consolation and prophecy." 5
"Or if such an event fails to come about, then let them head for Jerusalem, build temples, set up priesthoods, principalities, Moses with his laws, and in other words themselves become Jews again and take the land into their possession. For when this happens, they will see us come quickly on their heels and likewise become Jews. But if not, then it is entirely ludicrous that they should want to persuade us into accepting their degenerate laws, which are surely by now after fifteen hundred years of decay no longer laws at all. And should we believe what they themselves do not and cannot believe, as long as they do not have Jerusalem and the land of Israel?" 6
Luther needed the degradation of the Jews to confirm his doctrine and method of interpretation. For someone who claimed to have a faith solely in what the Scriptures taught, it is notable that he rejected all of what the Scriptures clearly taught about the restoration of the Jewish people and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom upon the earth.
According to Luther's own words, a faith based on the appropriation by the Church of these scriptures would have to be abandoned with the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. That visible return, in our generation, is sufficient reason to abandon Luther's denial of the plain meaning of the text.
1. Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther, Translated by J. Theodore Mueller, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976, P.162
2. Justin Martyr, The Dialogue with Trypho, trans. by A. Lukyn Williams, P.169, Sec.80.1-5
3. City of God, Augustine, Bk.20, Ch.29, P.957
4. The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, Oberman, P.49
5. WA 50:336, 1-6 in ibid., P.64
6. WA 50:323, 36-324, 8 in ibid., P.64
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