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Eric W. Gritsch’s Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism
Darrell Jodock

In this volume, Eric Gritsch, Professor Emeritus of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, examines what Luther had to say about the Jews. At first, there were some bright spots. Luther’s 1523 treatise, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” encouraged Christians to “remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the image of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord” (64). Christians should be guided by “the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us” (65). But by 1543, Luther was calling for burning synagogues, confiscating Jewish books, revoking safe conduct, and requiring Jews to do manual labor.

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As the subtitle of his book indicates, Gritsch’s outlook reflects that of Heinrich Bornkamm, who wrote in Luther and the Old Testament that Luther’s anti-Semitism was “neither in harmony with the core of his theology nor with the stance of the Apostle Paul regarding the relationship between Jews and Christians. Consequently, Luther’s attitude to the Jews is against his better judgment” (138). The principal way in which Luther violated his better judgment was by concluding in the late 1530s, after he had heard reports of Jewish proselytizing, that the Jews were under God’s judgment. Luther had repeatedly argued against appeals to the “hidden” God, but at this moment his conclusions about God’s judgment moved beyond what had been revealed. In violation of his own better judgment, he claimed to know the hidden will of God. Gritsch also cites the 1964 Danish Løgumkloster Report that criticized Luther for going against his better judgment. It pointed out that Luther had opposed any kind of “theology of glory” that viewed God in terms of might and triumph, but in his later writings about the Jews he no longer left the future in God’s hands. There “a theology of glory does break in” (119).

Luther’s stance in the 1540s went against his better judgment in other ways. He had earlier argued that governments had no authority over the religious lives of individuals; belief was beyond the limits of temporal authority and was to be a matter of persuasion, not coercion. He also had argued that governments should not confiscate books. What seems to have aroused his heightened opposition to the Jews was news that he began to receive in 1538 that Jews and Sabbatarians were seeking converts. This behavior violated a view held by many in his day—a view Gritsch does not discuss very fully—that, even if an unorthodox private belief could be tolerated, the government had the responsibility to regulate public preaching. When a government failed to carry out this function, Luther tried to jar it back into action. 

The book contains three chapters. The first is an essay on “anti-Semitism.” Gritsch explores the complexity of the term and its linkages with racism. For the author, “anti-Semitism” is essentially an irrational hatred of, hostility toward, or prejudice against the Jews. Because Luther’s stance went beyond a calm theological judgment, Gritsch quite understandably dismisses the claim of some other scholars that Luther was “anti-Judaic” rather than “anti-Semitic” (xi). But Gritsch’s exclusive reliance on the concept of “anti-Semitism” obscures an important distinction between “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism.” To be sure, the two concepts overlap, and the effects of one are not necessarily less serious than the effects of the other, but the distinction is still helpful. “Anti-Judaism” operates in a religious framework. It rejects the validity of a religion—of Judaism. In Luther’s case, it involved supersessionism, the idea that Christianity had superseded Judaism and that the latter was a thing of the past. This theological basis remained constant; it was present in 1523 as well as in 1543. On the other hand, modern anti-Semitism has a racial basis. For it, Jews are a malignant presence in society, whether they are religiously observant or not. For anti-Judaism, a Jew who converts ceases to be a problem. For anti-Semitism, a Jew who converts is still a Jew. My purpose is not to “save” Luther from the charge of anti-Semitism, but to argue that the distinction between “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism” is useful when understanding what undergirded Luther’s position and when sorting out its relationship to the Holocaust. Even if he misinterprets the Scriptures, Luther bases his arguments on the Bible rather than racial theory. By contrast, Nazi anti-Semites claimed the support of nineteenth-century racial interpretations of history and early twentieth-century biological science. This shift mattered, because, in the end, removing “the malignancy” was only possible with “the final solution.”

The second chapter is a survey of what Luther had to say about the Jews. Gritsch begins with Luther’s biblical interpretation. Following and intensifying a long interpretive tradition, Luther’s basic starting point was that Christ could be found in the Old Testament. This led him “to distinguish between the old pious Israel, with the promise of salvation, and a Talmudic Judaism, cursed by God for its rejection of Christ” (35). “This distinction between ‘faithful Israel,’ known through the prophets, and an anti-Christian Judaism is the foundation of Luther’s anti-Semitism” (35–36, italics omitted). He thought rabbinic Judaism had separated the commands from the promises of God. The result was “a religion of self-righteous legalism” (139). Whereas Paul had declared that “all Israel will be saved,” Luther “ignored, indeed rejected, Paul’s ‘eschatological reservation’ for Jewish-Christian unity (Rom. 11:25–32)” (140). Luther could not believe that all Jews would be converted. This “blocked Luther’s better judgment, namely, that Paul was quite clear in his view of the relationship between Jews and Christians—they are kin in a never-ending covenant” (41). The chapter goes on to sketch Luther’s views from the 1520s through the 1540s. This chapter constitutes almost one-half the book. It is a valuable chapter, nicely done.

The third chapter traces the reception of Luther’s ideas throughout the history of Germany from the Reformation to the twentieth century. To oversimplify the story, Luther’s views are called into play during the nationalistic era of the 1880s and again by the Nazis in the twentieth century. Beyond that, his writings about the Jews are largely ignored, even while anti-Semitism is kept alive by other sources. Furthermore, as Gritsch points out, with only one reference to the Jews in the Lutheran Confessions, Luther’s hostility did not become part of normative Lutheranism.

Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism provides a helpful survey of Luther’s statements about the Jews. It neither whitewashes the story nor exaggerates the influence of Luther’s harsh words. The book also provides a helpful summary of post-Reformation developments. The author has done a service by making the contents of this book available in a single, up-to-date volume.

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