Was Luther guilty of anti-Semitism?

NICHOLS: This is a question you hear a lot, and I think we've got to look at the broad context of Luther. 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.

The first thing we see in Luther is that his initial writings about the Jewish people are very favorable. He actually is counter-cultural in that, and he goes against the current consensus and actually favors a good treatment towards the Jews.

As the Reformation went on, Luther fully thought that that good treatment towards the Jews would result in their paying attention to the gospel and coming to Christ. He was not seeing that happen, and he began to question that 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 were 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.

We need to say that he was an equal opportunity offender. That rhetoric was not just reserved for the Jews. He used the same rhetoric for the Papists, Anabaptists, and 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 twentieth-century phenomenon. What Luther was interested in was following the lead of the Apostle Paul and following the lead of the New Testament. He saw this as a betrayal of Christ, as a betrayal of the gospel, and as a failure to recognize Jesus' coming as the Messiah. So it was not an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this. It was a theological one.

So the answer to this is that we need to understand him in his context, but we should not give him a free pass. We need to recognize that he has legs of iron but feet of clay. This is one of those instances where his feet of clay do in fact come through.

GODFREY: That's exactly right. But the one little thing that should be added is that 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 no change they can make to make a difference.

You're absolutely right. Luther's language should not be defended by us because it is violent against the Jews. But it was not against an ethnic people, as you said, but against a religion that he reacted so sharply.

Lightly edited for readability, this is a transcript of W. Robert Godfrey's and Stephen Nichols'  answers given at our 2017 National Conference. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.