On those who blush at Luther and Their Lies

So there's a really fascinating book entitled "Martin Luther and the Jewish people" by Neelak S. Tjernagel. Tjernagel graduated from our Thiensville Seminary in 1932. He taught for a number of years at what is now Concordia University, Chicago, and authored the 1984 Synod Convention Essay for the ELS. You can read a brief biographical sketch written by none other than Herman Otten at Steadfast Lutherans.

His book was published by Northwestern Publishing House, the publishing arm of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. This book provides and antidotes to the common refrain among some that Luther was an antisemite, that Luther was senile in his old age when he wrote On the Jews and their Lies. (One thing I should mention up front: the version of the on the Jews and their Lies you probably read, or more likely didn't read but are talking about it, was an abridged version. Yes, that includes the version published in Luther's Works. Additionally, regarding the title - Pastor Brian Wolfmueller provides evidence that he was responding to a Jewish tract entitled "on Luther and his Lies.") Tjernagel defends both Luther's use of language as being common to his day, (and not particularly egregious compared to other well-known authors of his day) along with defending his clarity mind until death. Finally, Tjernagel points out that Luther makes clear distinction between Judaism as a theology, and Jews as a race. This is a key insight because several documents are aimed at either the Jews as a people or Judaism, but some talk about both. Reading clearly is important: Luther is fairly tame when it comes to the Jewish people but is very outspoken about their theology as would make sense. But even so, Luther reserved even worse polemics for the Pope.

Finally, Tjernagel makes a clear and useful distinction between anti-Semitism and racism, and a good reminder that we can't be revisionists when it comes to history. We live in a unique time of religious plurality, for better or for worse (worse, IMO), and this has not been the case throughout history. But let's dig in.

From the Preface (xi):

"It is not strange, therefore, that among Luther's writings his diatribes against the Jews should be the occasion for offense in the eyes of the contemporary world. We feel no compulsion, however, either to condemn or to condone Luther's outbursts. But we do have the obligation to try to understand the historical setting, the conventions of his time, and the basic motives and convictions behind what he said and wrote."

Luther made a distinction between Judaism and Jews:

"When Luther condemned Judaism it was never on racial grounds. Not once did he make the slightest suggestion that they were in any way inferior to other people.  He made, however, many references to heretics, bringing under a single head of condemnation all who rejected the Savior, Jesus Christ. Luther considered the papists the apostates of the New Testament, the Judaizing Jews the apostates of the Old Testament."

His thesis is best summarized at the beginning of Chapter 5 (46):

"We shall look carefully at Luther's references to the Jewish people in the last ten years of his life. we believe that they will demonstrate that he did not have a racial bias against the people of Hebraic extraction. He did object to their false teachings and to their slanderous and blasphemous characterizations of Jesus and his mother Mary."

As an example of the distinction between the Jews as a people and the Jews as a theology: Rabbi, Josel of Rosheim, appealed to Luther to request a letter of safe passage for him from the Elector. Luther's response (48):

"My dear Josel: I would have gladly interceded for you, both orally and in writing, before my gracious Lord, just as my writings have greatly served the whole of Jewry. But because your people so shamefully misuse this service of mine and undertake things that we Christian simply shall not bear from you, they themselves have robbed Me otherwise have been able to exercise before Princess and Lords on your behalf.

For my opinion was, and still is, that one should treat Jews in a kindly manner, that God may perhaps look graciously upon them and bring them back to their Messiah- but not so that through my good will and influence they might be strengthened in their error and become still more bothersome.

I propose to write a pamphlet about this if God gives me space and time, to see if I cannot win some of your venerable tribe of the Patriarchs and prophets and bring them to your promised Messiah."

Luther denied the request to appeal for safe passage for Rabbi Josel because the Rabbi would have used that safe passage to teach in his profession as Rabbi. But as individuals, Luther reflects that we should treat Jews kindly.

So the elephant in the room, obviously, is Luther's On the Jews and their Lies. According to the author this has scandalized 20th century Christians. But Tjernagel does a good job of breaking down this document. The first part was Luther's advice addressed political authorities and the second part ecclesiastical leaders. In the first part his counsel is very sharp because government bears the sword. The second part, his counsel to pastors and the people, was more restrained while he did advocate separation from the Jews (not unlike other biblical admonitions to stay away from people that would lead you astray), he forbade cursing them or harming their persons. Luther also encouraged pastors to warn Christian youth about the teachings of Judaism so they would be prepared for it. Luther held that while the Jews were at liberty to believe what they wished, it was intolerable for them to revile the Son of God publicly.

Luther's advice to the state included the burning of synagogues, destruction of their property and writings, forbidding rabbis to teach publicly, abolishing safe conduct, prohibiting usury, and teaching them to work by the sweat of their brow. The work of the sword.

Luther made distinctions between civil and ecclesiastical authority, and he also made distinctions between theology and race. We need to take those nuances into account when we read his works, and honestly whenever we read anyone's works! 

Part of the reason this made sense in Luther's head, and it confuses us, is because he saw both the blessing and the curse in Scripture. As our Catechism show, each of the ten commandments has a "thou shalt not" and a corresponding "this do." For example, in the following polemic addressed to Duke George of Albertine Saxony, (68)

"I cannot pray, without thereby having to curse. If I say: "Holy be thy name," I must in addition say: "cursed, damned, and disgraced must be the papists name and all who slander by thy name." If I say: "Thy kingdom come," then I have to add: "Cursed, damned, destroyed must be the papacy with all kingdoms that opposed to thy kingdom." If I say: "Thy will be done," then I must add "cursed, damned, disgraced, and to nothing must be all the thoughts and plots of the papists and all who strive against thy will and advice." In truth, I pray thusly daily without fail both orally and in my heart, and with me all who believe in Christ, as I also feel indeed that it will be heard... Still I hold a good, friendly, peaceful and Christian heart towards everyone. Even my greatest enemies know that."

Melanchthon, in commenting on Psalm 119:53 ("Horror hath taken upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law") said of Luther "You have that same kind of wrath within you. It is a heroic virtue." 

I think the problem is less with Luther and more with our modern sensibilities, in two parts. First, we live in a pluralistic society. Our sense of the meaning of freedom of religion has been distorted. Do recall - the first amendment to the Constitution only restrains the federal government from establishing a religion - many of the states already had Christian state religions - and the prohibition, much like the electors in Luther's day. The founders' intent was to protect the various Christian sects. It was only as recently as 1985 when this legal protection was redefined to apply to the atheist and heathen in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree. Second, we overvalue winsomeness. Unlike Luther who could not pray "holy be Thy Name" without calling the Pope and all who slander Thy Name cursed, damned and disgraced, we struggle to present the full counsel of God from our pulpits. There are pastors who will avoid talking about social and civil issues by abusing the two kingdoms doctrine, as if God had nothing to say about societal issues and civil government other than Romans 13. How many of our churches even have an image of our Savior on the cross, much less a crucifix on the altar? We do Luther a disservice when we attempt to judge him by our modern sensibilities. The case can be made from the book of Concord and the Bible that men have become weaker with age, as the world grows older we become less courageous, less zealous, lazy, and then we try to spin our modern sensibilities into virtues when we compare ourselves to our predecessors. In reality, if we judge Luther by today's standards, we're really no better than the woke left destroying statues! Some among us are more than happy to throw Luther under the bus as needed to appeal to a wider audience.

The next time you hear a WELS Lutheran say something naive like "Luther lost it in his later years" or "We can't condone Luther's antisemitism," point them to this handy little volume published by their synod.