Eric Gritsch’s Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment will go down as the definitive treatment of Luther’s views on the Jews and the subsequent ages’ attempts to handle and explain those views. It is a fascinating and well-done book when it is explaining Luther’s thoughts and the handling of those thoughts by Luther’s followers. It is a hopelessly muddled book when Gritsch imposes his own views and assumptions about what Scripture itself says on the subject. I note that Gritsch passed away last December. This is sad to hear as he was apparently quite a prolific Luther scholar.
As for Luther’s views, the evidence seems straightforward enough: the younger Luther was largely tolerant of Jews. The older Luther developed what can only be described as a tragic and wicked obsession with railing against the Jews. In the case of Luther’s later views, the term “anti-semite” would appear applicable. However, the question of whether Luther’s views were technically “anti-semitic” or rather “anti-Judaistic” is up for debate. That is, Luther’s railings, while deplorable, seemed to be driven more by theology than race. While it is true that some of the later Nazis used Luther’s terminology, it is almost certainly true that Luther did not share the race-based loathing of the Jews that Hitler did. It is perhaps an academic point, however, since Luther eventually came to call for the expulsion of the Jews, the confiscation of their property, the burning of their synagogues, the burning of the Talmud, and harsh civil punishments against the Jews. In his Table Talk, in answering a student’s questions about whether or not it is permissible to strike a blaspheming Jew, Luther replied that it was of course permissible, and he would run such a Jew through with the sword if he could as well.
The point about “anti-semitism” vs. “anti-Judaism” is raised merely for the sake of accuracy concerning the motivations behind Luther’s anger. I certainly do not offer it as an excuse. I fully recognize and bemoan the fact that the upshot of Luther’s views was a call for civil oppression of Jews. It is a sad and deplorable fact. Roland Bainton observed that it would have been best had the Lord taken Luther home before he had the chance to write such lamentable words. From a human perspective, this would seem to be a valid sentiment, though, of course, God’s timing in life and death is always perfect.
Gritsch’s handling of the issue of how Luther’s followers, then and now, approach these aspects of Luther’s thought is very interesting. In general, it seems there was a widespread (intentional?) ignoring of these views until the modern era when they were more openly evaluated, discussed, and bemoaned. Few have attempted to defend Luther’s views, though some have pointed to his old age, his health, and other such factors to try to understand why he became as obsessed as he did. Many have pointed to Luther’s earlier tolerance and even kindness to the Jews, and this is certainly a valid thing to do, for Luther’s later screeds against the Jews are not the sum total of his thoughts on the subject, lamentable though they are.
Gritsch’s insertion of his own assumptions, inherited from the the world of leftist biblical scholarship, are quite frustrating even as they are predictable. Gritsch outright assumes that the Bible clearly teaches the universal salvation of the Jews on the basis of the first covenants. Furthermore, he says that no responsible scholar would find Christ in the Old Testament the way Luther did. He presents these thoughts not with a recognition of the complicated and debated issues behind such assertions, but rather as simple, brute facts with which any reasonable person must agree. One wishes that Gritsch would have confined himself to the historical investigation of Luther’s views without assuming such a patronizing mastery of these complex issues.
As I listened to Gritsch’s discussion of Luther’s views my heart grew heavy. There is no excuse. Luther really became unhinged on the issue, and it is more than regrettable. On the question of the Jews themselves, I would only say, contra Gritsch, but in accordance with, I believe, the teachings of the New Testament, that it is right to pray for the salvation of the Jews through the shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that such a prayer rightly offered should not and, indeed, cannot legitimately lead to the obscene anti-semitism/Judaism exhibited in Luther’s later thought.