Was Luther anti-Semitic?

Was Martin Luther anti-Semitic? Did he really hate Jews?

The short answer to both your questions is “no.”  A longer answer is found in an October 2013 Forward in Christ article.  The article addressed the question:  “How can we respond to those who say that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite because of his condemnation of the Jews? My friend thinks that we Lutherans shouldn’t follow such a man.”  The following is the response to that question and statement.

There are two questions here, one asking why we “follow Luther” and another asking if Luther was anti-Semitic. Both questions are worth asking and answering.

How do Lutherans regard Luther?

Perhaps uninformed people really think that Lutherans idolize or inappropriately revere Luther. We can assure them we don’t. Rather, we cherish and thankfully embrace key concepts that God restored to their rightful place in the church through Martin Luther. By grace alone, through faith alone, by Scripture alone, and through Christ alone are truths the Reformer championed. Highlight these truths for your friend. This is what true Lutheranism is all about.

Lutherans have never believed or taught everything Luther said or wrote was correct. Luther said and wrote some things that would have better remained unspoken and unwritten. This should not be surprising when one considers how much he wrote. Let’s be quick to cherish divine truths given renewed prominence through Luther and equally swift to acknowledge the man’s imperfections.

Was Luther an anti-Semite?

Accusations of anti-Semitism against Luther usually stem from reading his 1543 tract On the Jews and Their Lies, in which the Reformer used immoderate language and gave questionable counsel on how to deal with Jews at that time. While we have never endorsed what and how he wrote in that treatise, we also believe a fair, historically-sensitive appraisal of the man and his message will show the Reformer was not anti-Semitic. Excellent books have been written on this topic, but here we must limit ourselves to these brief points:

•    Luther also wrote about Jews in sympathetic ways and rebuked European Christians for their treatment of Jews. Here’s one example: “The fury of some Christians (if they are to be called Christians) is damnable. They imagine that they are doing God a service when they persecute the Jew most hatefully, think everything evil of them, and insult them. . . . Whereas, according to the example of this psalm (14:7) and that of Paul (Romans 9:1), a man ought to be most heartily sorry for them and continually pray for them. . . . They ought to attract them by all manner of gentleness, patience, pleading and care” (What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. 2, 683).

•    Luther’s attitude is more accurately characterized as anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism. His opposition was not racial or ethnic, but theological. He was targeting people who persistently and vigorously rejected the truth of salvation through faith alone in Jesus the Messiah and Savior of the world. Luther wrote harshly against the Roman pope and his theological supporters for the same reason.

•    Like everyone else, Luther was a child of his times. It’s difficult for people today to put themselves into his historical context, yet it’s unfair to judge him according to our standards of civility. Luther’s language sounds cruel, but his opponents often used similar language, and literary style of the era included harsh ridicule, name calling, and deliberate excess.

Ultimately we must conclude that the treatise in question doesn’t represent Luther at his best. We cannot endorse or excuse what he wrote. From a historical viewpoint, it should not surprise us that he sometimes shared unacceptable attitudes of his day. What is amazing is how often he rose above his times and advocated magnificent and eternal truth, most of all the full and free gospel of forgiveness.