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Eric Gritsch: “Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism”

December 19, 2011

Yesterday, I noted the “bizarre defense” of Martin Luther’s (and Søren Kierkegaard’s) anti-Semitism in the Danish state church’s official newspaper – including the equating of the moral responsibility of the “Jews” as “Christ killers” with Hitler and the Holocaust.   (“See how closely lies and murder are connected with each other – both with the Jews and with Hitler. The lies of the Jews crucified Christ. Hitler’s lies murdered six million Jews.”)

I was pleased to see the announcement of what promises to be a more sober Lutheran evaluation of Martin Luther’s attitude towards the Jews, Eric Gritsch’s (Lutheran Theological Seminary) Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism:  Against His Better Judgment.  (I presume that the ambiguity of “His” in the title is deliberate.) Gritsch describes his book as follows:

eric_w_gritschMy new book, Martin Luther’s Antisemitism, investigates a contradiction in Luther’s life and thought: his intensive hatred of Jews and his invincible faith in Jesus Christ, a born Jew. This contradiction has created intense debate through five centuries of Luther research, and it has divided those who admire his great fame as a mover and shaker of world history.

Fortunately, the very long period of anti-Jewish hatred, known as “anti-Semitism,” in Western culture is subsiding. But those who hated Jews used Luther to justify the actions born of their cruel prejudice, ranging from legalized persecution by church and state in the centuries after the Reformation to the racist program of extermination of Jews in the death camps of the German dictator Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. The church persecuted Jews as the unrepentant killers of Christ, as lost souls stubbornly unwilling to convert. The German racist state killed Jews as an inferior race that had no right to exist. Both found support in the writings of Martin Luther. That is why Luther’s picture dominates not only in Protestant churches, where he is praised as the great pioneer of freedom from ecclesiastical tyranny, but also in museums commemorating Hitler’s Holocaust — his massive systematic destruction of Jews.

Admirers of Luther claim that his hatred of Jews was the result of frustration caused by his failure to convert Jews — as well as by painful medical issues affecting his stomach, kidneys, and heart. That, they say, is why he produced his most hateful writings against the Jews in the final years of his life.

9780802866769In the book, I take a critical look at what Luther said and did regarding Jews during his long career as a Bible professor in a cruel anti-Jewish Christian culture. It is the story of one of history’s most renowned Christians wrestling with academic pride and cultural prejudice, with the Old Testament  — the Jewish Bible — and with the ever-present Christian campaign against unconverted Jews. It is the story of a man who ignored even the warning of his biblical hero, the Apostle Paul, to be patient with the Jews as “the people of God” who would one day, perhaps in the final day of the world, join Christians to celebrate the one and only covenant God made with human creatures, beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus.

It is said that big men make big mistakes. Readers will be able to recognize Luther’s mistakes as links in a chain that pulled him further and further away from an attitude of respect and toleration for Jews as the biblical people of God. Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism depicts Luther as a famous example of the intensive struggle with the enduring question of Christian-Jewish relations. It is a great historical tragedy that he, of all people, fell victim to the error of anti-Semitism — albeit “against his better judgment.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 1:24 pm

    “his intensive hatred of Jews and his invincible faith in Jesus Christ, a born Jew. This contradiction”

    Is this really a contradiction? Embarrassing, maybe, but contradiction? I never got this. Why shouldn’t the Son of God appear in the garb of a person of the most sinful, stubborn people on earth if his mission is redemption? The parable of the good Samaritan seems to be cut from a similar cloth.

  2. December 20, 2011 4:50 pm


    I wonder if Gritsch looks at how much Martin Luther regards Jesus ultimately a Jew? The parable of the good Samaritan gives Luther reason, it seems, to let the Lutheran “Christ” be more of a Christian (since the Samaritan is a Christ-prototype, who is half not a Jew). Robert C. Schultz translates Paul Althaus quoting Luther as saying,

    “And yet because the Christian is involved in the work of cleansing and sanctifying and constantly allows the Samaritan to heal him and no longer increasingly corrupts himself with uncleanness, all this is graciously imputed and given to him for the sake of the word through which he allows himself to be sanctified and cleansed; he is forgiven and must be called clean”

    I believe I’ve found that in one of Luther’s works as this:

    Doch weil der Mensch im Werk der Reinigung oder Heiligung ist und sich immerfort durch den Samariter heilen läßt und sich nicht mehr weiter in Unreinigkeit verdirbt, so ward das um des Wortes willen, durch das er sich reinigen….

  3. December 20, 2011 5:04 pm

    By the way, I realize I wasn’t clear. When I said “embarrassing,” I didn’t mean “embarrassing to Christians that Jesus was a Jew,” but more like embarrassing to Christians that Luther should have displayed hatred toward Jews.

    I see it as something that might be embarrassing, more than a contradiction, because I don’t see human nature as being unable to venerate a person and not celebrate his culture at the same time. If anything the opposite is more common. “Some of my best friends are . . . ” is often said in all sincerity.

    Thank you for bringing Luther’s interpretation of the good Samaritan to my attention.

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