In this excerpt from Ligonier’s 2017 National Conference, Stephen Nichols and W. Robert Godfrey discuss whether Martin Luther was guilty of anti-Semitism.
Stephen Nichols: You know, this is a question you hear a lot, and I think we’ve got to look at the broad context of Luther and then we need to say, that we need to understand him in that context, but we also need to not give him a free pass. So, the first thing we see in Luther is his initial writings to the Jewish people are very favorable. He actually is countercultural in that, and he goes against the current consensus and actually favors a good treatment towards the Jews. As the Reformation went on and a few years on, Luther fully thought that that good treatment towards the Jews would result in their paying attention to the gospel and coming to Christ, and he was not seeing that happen. And he began to question, perhaps, he was too easy on them in his initial writings and should have pressed more, in order for them to be more aware and perhaps be challenged and then come after the gospel.
So, his early writings are very favorable. He begins to think through this, though, in his later writings and the writing that really trips Luther up is his, On the Jews and Their Detestable Lies. And it’s in that writing that Luther unleashes his rhetoric against the Jews and is very forceful in his rhetoric. Now we need to say that he was an equal opportunity offender. It wasn’t just—that rhetoric was not just reserved—for the Jews, he used the same rhetoric for the Papists, for the Anabaptists, for the nominal Christians, that he used for the Jews. But he was wrong. He spoke harshly, and I think he abused his influence that he had in speaking harshly. And so, we need to say that Luther was wrong in that. But this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism, that’s really a 20th-century phenomenon. What Luther was interested in was really following the lead of the Apostle Paul and following the lead of the New Testament. He saw this as a betrayal of Christ, a betrayal of the gospel, as a failure to recognize Jesus’ coming as the Messiah. And so, it was not an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this, it was a theological one. So, the answer to this is we need to understand him in his context, but we should not give him a free pass. And we need to recognize that he has legs of iron but feet of clay. And this is one of those instances where his feet of clay do in fact come through.
W. Robert Godfrey: Just to add one more thing, that’s exactly right—but the one little that should be added is Luther, all his life, longed that Jews should be converted and join the church. Hitler never wanted Jews to join the Nazi party. That’s the difference between anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. Luther wasn’t opposed to the Jews because of their blood. He was opposed to the Jews because of their religion. And he wanted them to join the Christian church. If you’re really anti-Semitic, you’re against Jews because of their blood and there’s nothing Jews can do about that. There’s not change they can make to make a difference. You’re absolutely right, Luther’s language should not be defended by us because it’s violent against the Jews. It was not against an ethnic people, as you said, but against a religion that he reacted so sharply.