The Haunted Legacy of Martin Luther

A warehouse at Auschwitz, storing clothes of camp victims, after liberation in January 1945. How much did Martin Luther’s rhetoric lead to the Holocaust? (Credit: National Archives)

Martin Luther is one of my theological heroes. But like any other fallen human, Luther was far, far from perfect. He was the Reformation’s chief champion of salvation by faith, and faith alone. But he also had a dark side…  (NEWS FLASH)… just like you and me.

As we remember the 500th anniversary of when this obscure monk, turned bible professor at a university in Wittenberg, famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, on Halloween, we mainly think of Luther’s attack on the abuses of the medieval Western church, a corrupt institution that instilled fear and anxiety among the people, and financially profited from such abuses. We also think of Luther’s famous stand for the Scriptures alone (sola scriptura), as the ultimate source of truth. I could go on with praises for Luther. We all owe an immense amount of gratitude to God for raising up a Martin Luther.

Luther was also a man who enjoyed life. He enjoyed good food, and having a good time with friends and family. He was comparatively more jovial than his later Reformed counterpart in Geneva, John Calvin. You could count on having a fun night, out on the town, with Martin Luther. With John Calvin? Well, you would probably be in bed before 9pm.

Luther preached a Gospel of grace, and grace alone…. and for the most part, he lived it.

I am a Martin Luther guy.

But this does not tell the whole story about Martin Luther. Luther had his blind spots, his dark side, if you will. To ignore these shortcomings is to fail to tell the whole story. There are possibly three elements to Luther’s legacy that still haunt the great German Protestant Reformer.

Three Elements of Luther’s Darker Legacy??

The Peasants Revolt of 1524-1525: The economy of feudalism in medieval Europe kept thousands in poverty. It did not help matters that the medieval church owned a large percentage of property, and used the sale of indulgences to put more wealth into the hands of corrupted church officials. So when Martin Luther went on his campaign against the sale of indulgences in the church, many German peasants looked to Luther for inspiration.

At first, Martin Luther was sympathetic to the cause of the peasants. But when armed bands of revolting peasants instigated scattered violence against the civil powers, Luther became fearful, feeling that the rebels had betrayed him. He shifted radically, urging the civil magistrates to put down the rebellion, and hold nothing back. From the printing presses of Wittenberg, his well-distributed pamphlet, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,

“For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”

Like an inflammatory Twitter tweet, by a popular figure, gone viral, the situation went from bad to worse. Luther’s allies among the German nobility took the Reformer’s words with full force. They gave no quarter. Without Luther’s measured sympathy, the peasant revolt was doomed in their attempt towards positive social change. The poorly armed bands of peasants were no match against the well-equipped state militias. Before it was all over, at least 100,000 peasants lay dead, all across Germany, with only minimal casualties among the wealthy and powerful.

Think about that: 100,000 people, many of whom looked to Luther for leadership, were brutally crushed and killed.

To his credit, Luther became horrified by the relentless and draconian actions of the nobility against the peasantry.  Towards the end of the revolt, in a letter to Archbishop Albrecht, Luther wrote:

“God has decreed that those who show no mercy should also perish without mercy. It is not good for a lord to raise displeasure, ill-will and hostility among his subjects, and it is likewise foolish to do so…. I hope your Grace will act as a Christian in this matter.”

However, critics of Luther maintain that Luther’s eventual call for moderation came too-little, too-late. It was Luther’s failure to more swiftly condemn the violent suppression of the peasants that helped to inspire, in the 19th century, communists like Karl Marx, to conclude that religion was but just an opiate for the masses. The communist revolutions of the 20th century were seen as justifications, illustrating what should have happened in the 16th century peasants revolt, if Luther had not himself betrayed the peasantry.

Did Luther Misunderstand the Apostle Paul?  A second charge against Martin Luther is that he misunderstood the teaching of the Apostle Paul. In 1977, E. P. Sanders, a biblical scholar (who for a very brief time served as a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary) wrote a book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, that reshaped the contours of New Testament studies.

Luther radically broke from the theological tradition of the Western medieval church. Yet Sanders maintained that the Apostle Paul was more profoundly influenced by ancient Judaism, than what has been traditionally believed about Paul, since the Protestant Reformation. While Luther was right to criticize the abuses of the medieval, Roman Catholic church, Sanders believed that Luther had mistakenly interpreted some of the key ideas in the biblical thought of the Apostle Paul. Sanders thesis has remained a controversial topic of study among theologians for the past forty years.

Was the Reformation’s abrupt distinction between forensic justification and sanctification, something directly derived from the Apostle Paul? Or was the common understanding, taught in Luther’s way, of justification by “faith alone,” separate from “works,” an innovation in the mind of Luther, as a way of breaking the legalistic hold of the medieval church, on European Christians, in the 16th century? Was Paul actually more Jewish in his thinking, more than what Luther gave him credit for?

Bible scholars have had mixed reactions to this “New Perspective on Paul.” Some believe that Luther did indeed get Paul right, and they dismiss this “New Perspective” as obfuscating the principles of the Reformation. Others maintain that while Luther was partly right about Paul, the tradition founded by the influential Reformer needs at least some overhaul, thus urging a fresh look again at the teaching of Scripture.

Far too many people hold to a form of “cheap grace,” claiming salvation by “faith alone,” without ever seriously considering the importance of having a changed life, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sure, the “New Perspective of Paul” controversy may sound like academic theology gone overboard. But it has real world implications in how ordinary people read the Bible, and live it out.

Luther’s deadly rhetoric against the Jews. This I find to be the most difficult problem with Luther. This was Luther at his absolute worst.

Luther was known to have a sharp, and sometimes acerbic, wit. He could hand out some biting criticisms, that needed to be said. However, there were times when Luther’s words made for more harm than good.

In Luther’s early years, he had a very positive attitude towards the Jewish people. He criticized medieval church leaders for making it difficult for Jewish people to hear and appreciate the Gospel. But Luther eventually had a falling out with some Jewish rabbis, nearby Wittenberg, and Luther used his talent as a writer to malign them. As he entered his final years, plagued with sickness, the great Reformer unleashed yet another pamphlet on the presses, filled with anti-semitic rhetoric, On the Jews and Their Lies.

I will never forget visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where one of the first exhibits reveals quotations from Luther’s pen, about the Jews, such as these:

“Set fire to their synagogues or schools…[their houses should] be razed and destroyed… their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb…safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.” 

And this was some of the “nicer” stuff Luther wrote….

As an admirer of Luther, I was sickened by Luther’s words. Nazi propaganda under Hitler’s WWII regime used Luther’s own words to spread fear and hatred of Jewish people. Until recently, many popular biographies of the great German reformer have chosen to ignore this ugly wart in Luther’s writings. Even Roland Bainton’s 1950s still highly recommended, classic work, Here I Stand, largely ignores or otherwise downplays Luther’s embarrassingly anti-Jewish attitudes. Of all of the controversies surrounding Martin Luther, Luther’s statements towards the end of his life about the Jews are, by far, the most disturbing.

Mourners pray after the October, 2017 Las Vegas shooting. From Peasant revolts, to European antisemitic acts of terror, to senseless shootings in America, our world has been filled with violence. Are we willing to look to Jesus, as the one who can cure this sickness of the human heart?

Lessons Learned from Luther’s Liabilities

It would be very easy to ignore such criticisms of Luther. But this would not be honest and truthful. We must face up to difficult, uncomfortable facts we learn about those, whom we admire. Just consider that Moses was a murderer, Abraham pimped his wife, and David was both an adulterer and a murderer.

At the same time, it is all too easy to brandish others as being evil, without taking a hard look at ourselves. We live in a day and an age where the foibles and faults of popular and historical figures make for easy targets in the media, and even day-to-day conversation. But the Bible is quite clear that all of us as humans have fallen short of the glory of God (Roman 3:23).  It is very easy to decry the imperfections in others and completely ignore our own faults.

Here is a relevant example: The brilliant British historian, David Starkey, produced a 2017 documentary for the BBC, Reformation: Europe’s Holy War. Starkey compares the violence associated with the Reformation, with the religious violence of ISIS, in modern day Syria. Martin Luther is viewed as a uncompromising religious zealot. As an atheist, Starkey believes Luther to be the personal force behind such violence, describing Luther as an incredible yet “awful man.” Starkey even calls King Henry VIII’s break from Rome, in the 16th century, in his home in Great Britain, as the Reformation’s version of “Brexit.”

True, the Reformation did unleash tragic violence , and Luther bears some responsibility. But what Starkey fails to take into account, is that the contemporary trend towards atheism, that seeks to marginalize the God of the Bible, has had its own horrific consequences. As Westerners increasingly embrace a post-Christian narrative of reality, so has the degraded moral sense of being accountable to God, moved our society into a different phase of violent degeneracy.

Think about mass shootings. We typically dismiss terrorists as “mentally ill,” or “madmen.” But should we not be surprised when people, who have no fear of God, justify themselves in committing atrocities in our day? How else can you explain it, when a wealthy, yet isolated millionaire, having no identification with any faith community, largely unknown to neighbors and family members, indiscriminately murders 58 people, wounding hundreds of others, at a concert in Las Vegas?

If Luther were here today, having the opportunity to look back upon the negative side of the Reformation, and his own statements, I hope to believe he surely would repented of those wrongs, for which he participated in. I can not say the same thing about a loner like Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas mass murderer.

Luther had his sins. But we have ours, too.

In such cases, discernment is needed. We must call out sin, where sin is to be found, and never hide from that. But we must also recognize truth, wherever we find it, whenever God chooses to reveal something of Himself, through the lives of fallen creatures, such as the great Martin Luther.

Additional Resources:

This was a pretty heavy blog post for me to write, so please allow me to step back for a moment: If Martin Luther were alive today, he would probably be an absolute terror on Twitter. He had a very colorful way with words, and he could dish out some pretty inglorious insults. For a lighter take on Luther’s use of language, you might find the “Luther Insulter” to be at times somewhat offensive, but often quite humorous, too.

For more information on Luther’s antisemitism, and how we should think about it today, here is an excellent blog by a messianic Jewish pastor, Bernard N. Howard, at The Gospel Coalition. Also, Pastor John Piper has a very helpful, 7 1/2 minute video essay, that provides some perspective on how to process the moral failures of one’s historical heroes. I highly recommend this for your viewing:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “The Haunted Legacy of Martin Luther

  • Clarke Morledge

    A faithful Veracity reader notes that there is a distinction to be made between anti-Judaism on a theological level, versus on a racial level. Luther was concerned about theology and not about race. So, to call Luther “antisemitic” is controversial, as “antisemitism” is more of a 20th century concept, and not a clear 16th century phenomenon.

    I would agree with that. However, the lack of any measured constraint on Luther’s part in making his theological case, paved the way for the more racialized abuse heaped upon European Jewry, by folks like the Nazis. He could have made his point without calling for the physical destruction of synagogues and calling for the revocation of safe conduct on the highways.

    Unguarded speech can cause great trouble, and Luther gives us a prime of example of this type of sin.

    For some added context to Luther’s “antisemitism,” here is a Q&A session from a Ligonier Reformation conference:

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