Martin Luther: Warts and All
On 31st October 1517, a young monk nailed a large, handwritten notice to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was an act that would change the course of history. The ninety-five theses, or propositions, on the notice challenged the very authority of the Roman Catholic Church and would put the life of the young Martin Luther in danger. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience were not high on the agenda of the early sixteenth century Church but the Reformation that would follow in the wake of Luther’s bold challenge would change of all that.
Had it not been for the newly invented technology of printing, Martin Luther’s broadside might have been a storm in a teacup. But printing was to Luther what Twitter is to Donald Trump. It wasn’t Luther himself who began printing and distributing thousands of the Ninety-Five Theses but there were no copyright laws in sixteenth-century Europe so there was nothing the young monk could do, even if he had wanted to, to halt the progress of truth.
I confess to having a love-hate relationship with Luther. I am in awe of the fearless young firebrand (and fearless old firebrand, for that matter). I love his life-affirming earthiness, which twenty-first century evangelicals prefer to ignore or forget.
There has been no one else like Martin Luther in the last five hundred years. He was hot-headed and vulgar (as his Table Talk makes clear), he loved strong German beer, he was a hypochondriac (he complained a lot about his bowels), appears to have been almost permanently constipated and by all accounts, suffered from uncontrollable flatulence. All that I can forgive because it reveals Luther as a man of his times, a man of flesh and blood and not a porcelain saint. But Luther’s attitude to the peasants, the Anabaptists and the Jews is inexcusable.
Luther wasn’t always intolerant. In his 1523 tract, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, he railed against the priests who had “dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings [and] done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery.”
“If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews,” said Luther, “there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them.”
But fifteen years later, when reports reached Luther that Jewish people were using their newly-granted liberties to try to convert Christians to Judaism, he hit the roof. In 1543, three years before his death, Luther published another two tracts: On The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name. They make uncomfortable reading all fans of Luther.
In her 2017warts-and-all biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Lyndal Roper says Luther alleged that the Jews look for biblical truth “under the sow’s tail,” by which he meant their interpretation of the Bible comes from a pig’s backside. And, indeed, an image of Der Judensau (The Jew’s Pig) remains on the façade of the Stafkirche in Wittenberg, where Luther preached. A woodcut of the Judensau was featured in On the Jews and Their Lies.
Woodcut of Der Judensau
The crude, vulgar and insulting image shows Jewish people suckling on a pig and eating its excrement while a rabbi lifts the tail of the unclean creature to peer up its anus for biblical understanding. I have nothing but contempt for the anti-Semitic Luther and the Establishment Luther. I am ashamed that Adolph Hitler, a thorough-going pagan, was able to find inspiration for his anti-Semitism in the writings of the bitter, twisted old Luther, who no doubt had been ground down by a life of religious conflict.
It was no coincidence that Kristallnacht occurred on Luther’s birthday and that Hitler implemented Luther’s advice on how to treat the Jews in On the Jews and Their Lies: burning Prayer Books and the Talmud; attacking Jewish businesses and schools; forbidding rabbis to teach and offering no protection against violence to the Jews.
Messianic Jewish scholar Richard Harvey has written Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies. While expressing appreciation for Luther the man of vision and courage and the restorer of the great biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, Harvey acknowledges that the great Reformer was “profoundly anti-Semitic”, as evidenced by On the Jews and Their Lies. But, says Harvey, “I want my Jewish family and friends, and especially Messianic Jews, to engage with the many positives that can be found in Martin Luther’s life, learning and legacy, and not dwell exclusively on the undeniably significant and overwhelming legacy of his anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.”
When John Frederick the Elector of Saxony issued a decree of expulsion to the Jewish community of Saxony, Rabbi Josil of Rosheim sought a meeting with Luther. Knowing Luther had influence with the elector, Rabbi Josil hoped Luther could act as a mediator between the Jews and John Frederick and persuade him to repeal the edict. Luther, whose attitude toward the Jews had already become hostile, refused to receive the rabbi. How different might subsequent history have been had Luther met Rabbi Josil.
While not wishing to minimise, excuse or cover up Luther’s later hostility towards the Jewish people, I remain grateful to Luther for putting the supremacy of the Bible as the sole basis of faith back on the Church’s map. I thank God for Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith and for his courage in defending the doctrine. When I was reading read Luther’s commentary on Galatians, a theological pedant sniffed that Luther got “a lot wrong”. I said I was amazed at just how much Luther got right, bearing in mind his background! Luther was a great man to whom we are all indebted. He knew himself to be a great sinner who needed an even greater Saviour. To risk his life by standing against the religious and political might of the Roman Church took immense courage, and Luther’s faith and courage should inspire us all today.
Luther’s insistence that the Bible alone is the only authority for what Christians believe and how Christians live is still a live issue: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Her I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen” (Luther to the assembled princes and authorities at the Diet of Worms on 18th April 1521).
Luther’s recovery of the Bible truth that salvation is by faith alone, through God’s grace alone through Christ’s life, death and resurrection alone remains his greatest legacy: “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on you what was mine; yet set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not” (Letters of Spiritual Counsel).
A Catholic priest once approached me with the suggestion that we share each other’s pulpits. He had that agreement with all the other Protestant ministers in the town. He believed everything I believed, he told me. He believed in "conversion", being "born again" and "giving your heart to the Lord". Everything. That was why he got on so well with Protestants.When I asked what he thought about justification by faith, he looked at me as though I was from another planet. “Oh, I don’t believe in that. That’s a Pauline concept.”
“Well, Martin Luther,” I thought, “You were right. Justification by faith alone is the ‘mark of a standing or falling church’.”
In this age of atheism, unreason, relativism, post-truth, gullibility and intolerance, Luther continues to stand as a champion (albeit a deeply flawed champion) of reason, conscience, truth, the Bible and Christ. May the Church have the courage stand with him, God helping us. Amen.