THEOLOGIAN OF THE HOLOCAUST
Martin Luther's anti-semitism has often been treated as though it were a personal weakness or aberration from which he suffered in his later years. That is incorrect on two counts. First, he was an advocate of hatred from the beginning. Second, his anti-semitism is built into his theology.
He hated the Jews of the Bible as much as he hated the Jews of his own day. His theology justified and invited the Holocaust. He can accurately be called the "Theologian of the Holocaust."
Hatred and Theology
Early on, in his struggle against the papacy, Luther said some compassionate things about the Jews. He commented: "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God (11:22). ...In contradistinction to this (lesson) many exalt themselves in an amazingly stupid manner and call the Jews either dogs or accursed, or they insult them with other abusive words, though they themselves do not know what kind of people they are and what is their standing in God's sight. They want to convert the Jews by force or invective. May God resist them." 1
Luther desired that Jews 'convert and become Christians,' yet he recognized that the Church was the greatest obstacle to that happening. In a pamphlet entitled "Jesus Christ was Born a Jew," Luther stated, "If the apostles, who were also Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles have dealt with the Jews, no Christians would ever have emerged from among the Gentiles." 2
"For our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks - the gross asses' heads - have treated the Jews to date in such fashion that he who would be a good Christian might almost have to become a Jew. And if I had been a Jew and had seen such oafs and numbskulls governing and teaching the Christian faith, I would have rather become a sow than a Christian." 3
Yeshua said, "By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matt. 12:37) Luther himself, in his own abusive insults and curses directed at the Jewish people and in his appeals for their destruction, far surpassed those whom he criticized. There is no one who exceeded him in this regard.
His anti-semitism did not begin later in his life. He expressed it from the beginning. His "compassionate" remarks were merely a device to strengthen his attacks on the papacy.
His Commentary on Romans is considered one of the most influential books of all time. It formed a major part of the foundation on which the Reformation was built. It was written from sermons which Luther delivered in 1515-1516, a year or two before he nailed "The Ninety-five Theses" to the Wittenberg church door.
Much of Romans speaks of the continuing role of the Jewish people in God's plan of redemption for the world. Luther responds in basically two ways: he says nothing or he greatly distorts the text to say something derogatory.
A few of his comments on Romans 11 show how he handles the Biblical text. Paul begins the chapter by affirming God's faithfulness despite Israel's sin. "I say then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject His people, whom he foreknew.... " (vv.1-2)
Luther comments: "The Jews arrogantly assumed that they were God's people, simply because the heathen were not His people." 4The Jews didn't assume that they were God's people. God repeatedly told them they were. As the Lord told Moses, "So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt." (Exod. 3:10) As Moses told Israel, "For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth." (Dt.7:6)
Towards the end of Romans chapter 11, Paul explains how the blindness of part of Israel to the gospel is only temporary. It is a means to open the door for Gentiles to be saved too. God will put an end to that blindness, because, "As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sakes; but as far as God's choice is concerned, they are beloved for the sake of the patriarchs." (v.28)
Luther comments: "As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes (11:28). The word 'enemies' must here be taken in a passive sense; that is, they deserve to be hated. God hates them, and so they are hated by the Apostles and all who are of God. This is shown by the opposite term 'beloved.' They are hated and at the same time beloved. They are hated 'concerning the gospel...for your sakes.' That is to say; As you are loved for receiving the Gospel, so they are hated for rejecting the Gospel." 5
Verse 28 says, "...but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers." The "they" who are beloved are the same people, the same "they," who were yet opposed to the gospel. In other words, God still loves those Jews who do not believe because of His love for their fathers.
Luther's treatment of the text is unbelievable. Paul says that God loves them. Luther says the meaning of that is that God hates them. For Luther, the meaning is not only that God hates them, but also that Paul hates them. To the contrary, Paul was willing to be damned forever for the salvation of his unbelieving brethren. Not only, according to Luther, do God and Paul hate them, but so do the other "Apostles and all who are of God." According to Luther, someone who does not hate the unbelieving Jews is not of God.
What Luther writes is not interpretation. These are not comments on what Paul wrote. They are comments in spite of what Paul wrote. They are comments in defiance of what Paul wrote.
This Commentary on Romans is his foundational theological work. Luther said these things before the Reformation even began. He built his theology and life on this distortion and hatred. Martin Luther's anti-semitism is built into his theology from the beginning. It is integral to his view of salvation by faith without works. For Luther, good works are what the rejected Jews presented to God.
It is warp and woof of his teachings against the Law. He taught that Moses and everything Jewish had to vanish.
It is the reason for his denial of the Millennial reign of Messiah on the earth. A millennial kingdom meant that the God of Israel was still faithful to His peole. Luther would not accept that.
In Gen.12:3, God promises Abraham "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." God later repeats this promise to all Israel.
In his Works, Luther comments on Gen. 12:3. He sums up the situation of the Jews somewhat strangely: "In short, they have no hope for salvation except to invent some idea about God's mercy and goodness." 6
Are these the comments of a man who lets the Scriptures determine his theology? Do Jews need "to invent some idea about God's mercy and goodness"? Isn't God merciful and good? For that matter, does anyone, including Luther, have any hope for salvation outside the reality of God's mercy and goodness?
Neither the hatred nor the system of "interpretation" were original with Luther. But he created a theology which placed the destruction of the Jews in a favorable light. In this way, Luther became the theologian of the Holocaust.
Inviting the Holocaust
Though Yeshua, all the apostles, and all the early believers were Jewish, Luther had his own analysis: "A Jewish heart is so stock stone devil ironhard, that in no wise can it be moved; they are young devils; damned to hell; to convert these devil's brats is impossible." 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.' " 8
Luther did not stop with writing off the Jews. He took his followers beyond that. "If they could kill us all, they would gladly do so, aye, and often do it, especially those who profess to be physicians. They know all that is known about medicine in Germany; they can give poison to a man of which he will die in an hour, or in ten or twenty years; they thoroughly understand this art."
"...they are a heavy burden on us, a scourge, a pestilence and misfortune for our country. This is proved by the fact that they have often been expelled by force..." 10
After slandering the Jews and presenting them as an object of contempt, Luther taught his followers the first step of his solution: "The Jews being foreigners should possess nothing, and what they do possess should be ours. For they do not work, and we do not give them presents. None the less, they keep our money and our goods and have become our masters in our own country and in the Dispersion. When a thief steals ten guelders, he is hanged; but when a Jew steals ten barrels of gold through his usury, he is prouder than the Lord himself!" 11
He attributed his curses and judgments on the Jews to the Lord. "Everything concurs with Christ's judgment that the Jews are venomous, bitter, vengeful, slimy snakes, assassins and devil's children, who steal and wreak havoc on the sly because they cannot afford to do in the open. A Christian has, next to the devil, no more venomous, bitter enemy than the Jew...(The Jews ought to convert,) "but if they refuse, we should neither tolerate nor suffer their presence in our midst!" 12
"Know, O adored Christ, and make no mistake, that aside from the Devil, you have no enemy more venomous, more desperate, more bitter, than a true Jew who truly seeks to be a Jew. Now whoever wishes to accept venomous serpents, desperate enemies of the Lord, and to honor them to let himself be robbed, pillaged, corrupted, and cursed by them, need ony turn to the Jews." 13
It should be kept in mind that Luther did not hate only Jews. He also hated the Catholics, the Muslims, and other reformers. His response to the Peasant's Revolt was hatred of the peasants.
He embraced the Imperial Church of Augustine and exalted the secular power. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, following Augustine and Luther, codified the principle that "The religion of the prince is the religion of the people." One's religion was determined by one's civil ruler. Dissent was rebellion. Gone was Biblical faith.
Luther called for the destruction of the rebels, i.e. those he hated. "We need only to quote from the writings of Urbanus Rhegius, Luther's trusted associate, in support of this. He said, 'When heresy breaks forth...then the magistrate must punish not with less but with greater vigor than is employed against other evil-doers, robbers, murderers, thieves, and the like....
"Therefore a Christian magistrate must make it his first concern to keep the Christian religion pure...All who know history will know what has been done in this matter by such men as Constantine, Marianus, Theodosius, Charlemagne and others.' " 14
Why were these Luther's heroes of Christian histroy? Constantine? the pagan pontifex maximus who conquered the Church with the sword, brought multitudes of unbelievers into it, and authorized the execution of all believers who wouldn't submit to his adulterations?
Luther claimed that only the State could license ministers of the Church. If any man presumed to preach or teach without being licensed by the State, "They must neither be tolerated nor listened to, even though they seek to teach the pure Gospel, yes, even if they are angelic and simon-pure Gabriels from heaven...Therefore let everyone ponder this, that if he wants to preach or teach let him exhibit the call or the commission that drives him to it or else let him keep his mouth shut. If he refuses this then let the magistrate consign the scamp into the hand of his proper master- whose name is Meister Hans.' Meister Hans is a euphemism for the hangman!" 15
These were not idle words. They were carried out. "[T]hey took the Anabaptists to the torture chamber. We read: '...he was thrice stretched; he prays God to give him grace to bear the torture. He is told to confess in plain language why he has left the pure teachings as taught by Martin Luther and others.' " 16
Luther had early seen quite clearly the nature of the system he was advocating. "The Pope hath...mixed and confounded matters ecclesiastical and political together; which is a devilish and hellish confusion." 17
The goal for Luther was to use that "devilish and hellish" mixture to eliminate the Jews completely. "First, their synagoges should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it. And this ought to be done for the honor of God and of Christianity in order that God may see that we are Christians, and that we have not wittingly tolerated or approved of such public lying, cursing and blaspheming of his Son and his Christians...Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed....Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds...Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more...Fifthly, passport and travelling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to Jews...Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury...Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the axe, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses..To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden- the Jews." 18
If you remove Luther's distortion of the Biblical text and his rejection and hatred of the Jews, his theology disintegrates. His theology comes from his anti-semitism. They cannot be separated.
Some of Luther's supporters treat his anti-semitism as though it were an aberration to be overlooked. They look at his role in the Reformation and his theological contributions as though they outweighted his sins. They seem to think that he was saved by his good works.
It is not, however, evident that his works or his theology were good. Did Hitler do anything that Luther did not recommend? Hitler said, "I believe that I am today acting according to the purposes of the Almighty Creator. In resisting the Jew, I am fighting the Lord's battle."
Hitler was never excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. Apparently he did nothing that it thought deserved excommunication. The same must be said of the Lutheran Church and the Nazis who remained Lutherans in good standing. Had their deeds been totally unacceptable, they would have been excommunicated.
1. Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther, Translated by J. Theodore Mueller, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976, P.160
2. "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," Weimarer Ausgabe [WA] 11:315.19-21, Quoted in The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, Heiko Oberman, Fortress Press, Phila., 1983, P.93
3. "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," WA 11:315,19-21, Quoted in Luther's Last Battles: A Study of the Politics and Polemics, 1531-1546, Mark Edwards Jr., Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, 1983, P.121
4. Commentary on Romans, Pp.155-156
5. Ibid., Pp.162-163
6. Luther's Works, Vol.2, Genesis, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1960, P.263
7. Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther, Translated by Erasmus Middletown, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976, P.223
8. The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, Oberman, P.49
9. The Crucified Jew, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, P.56
10. Ibid., Pp.72-73
11. Ibid., P.72
12. WA 51:196,16f.; cf.ibid. 53:530,25-28; 31f, Quoted in The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, Oberman, P.113
13. The Crucified Jew, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, P.73
14. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Leonard Verduin, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1964, P.50
15. Ibid., Pp.184-185
16. Ibid., P.235
17. Commentary on Galatians, P.62
18. Ibid., P.73
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