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Monday, August 30, 2010

Carl Trueman on the Connection Between Martin Luther and the Holocaust

Carl Trueman is a Reformed theologian and Church historian. He teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Recently on his blog (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3), he made an attempt to deny any connection between the anti-Semitism displayed by the German reformer Martin Luther and the holocaust in 20th century Nazi Germany. Some historians have argued that Luther's views as enunciated in his 1543 treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, were instrumental in bringing about the Holocaust 400 years later in Nazi Germany (see for example, Hector Avalos's chapter in The Christian Delusion [ed. John W. Loftus] entitled, "Atheism Was Not The Cause Of The Holocaust."

Trueman's argument is threefold. First, he maintains that Luther's ideas were formed and shaped by his times and were not unusual for his day. Trueman writes:
In fact, sad though it is to acknowledge, the 1543 tirade against the Jews is pretty typical of medieval and Renaissance rants against Judaism. Of course, nasty comments about Jews are the stock in trade of Christian writers right back to the Apostolic Fathers of the late first and early second centuries (e.g., The Didache; the Martyrdom of Polycarp); but by the late Middle Ages anti-Jewish diatribes were something of an established form, with their own themes and idioms. Looked at in this way, Luther is not actually doing anything unusual.

Trueman is correct. The anti-Jewish sentiment displayed by Christians during Luther's time was not anything new. Not only did it go back to the Apostolic Fathers as Trueman admits but it goes all the way back to the New Testament itself. The author of Matthew has the Jews saying: "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt. 27:25). In the book of Acts, the Christians consistently blame the Jews for the death of Jesus (Acts 2:23; 3:13-14; 5:30; 10:39, etc). Jews have been called "Christ-killers" since the first century.

How the fact that Luther is reflecting the thought of his times excuses him, Trueman never says. Luther was bold enough to stand against the current theological and ecclesiastical thought of his times, why couldn't he take a stand on this matter as well?

Trueman's second line of defense for Luther involves the fact that Luther's hatred for the Jews was inspired by religious issues and not racial ones. He asks the question:
Did he [Luther] write against Jews because he was racist in the modern sense? The answer is no. Race as we think of it today is really a concept of relatively modern provenance, something that arguably emerges in the nineteenth century as interest grew in biology, evolution etc. The ideology of the Holocaust was undoubtedly racist in this sense: the Nuremberg laws of 1935, which effectively paved the way in judicial terms for what became the Final Solution, made it clear that conversion to Christianity did not exempt someone: for the Nazis the matter was one of blood (albeit built on completely fallacious science) not of religion. For Luther, however, Judaism was a religious category. he had no real grasp of racial identity and no concern for the kind of racial issues which dominated Nazi ideology.

I would agree that Luther's attitude towards the Jews was inspired more by religious issues than racial ones but does that really matter? Is it any more palatable to mistreat and abuse people because of their religion than it is because of their race? The mistreatment is the problem not the reason underlying it. While the Nazi's and Luther may have had different motivations underlying their hatred for the Jews, the fact is that they were in agreement on their hatred.

The third line of defense for Luther is that he was caught up in a faulty eschatological scheme according to Trueman:
The reason lies with Luther's understanding of the times in which he was living. Scholars have become increasingly aware over the years that Luther is part of a late medieval culture of eschatological expectancy. To put it simply: he thought his rediscovery of the gospel was a sign that history was about to end, with the triumph of the church and the return of Christ.

This connects to his early attitude to the Jews. The 1523 treatise was written in the context of great hope for the gospel, and his advice then is to reach out to them as positively as possible, to win them for Christ. When we move forward to 1543, by contrast, Luther is old, ill, and, above all, disillusioned both by the divisions among the Reformers and the way in which the gospel has not carried all before it. In such a context, he looks for those who are responsible; and, among them, he sees the Jews, those who have the Holy Scriptures but who adamantly refuse to see Christ therein. It is this that drives him to write such a bombastically bitter and hateful treatise against them.

Once again, I fail to see how this excuses Luther. The fact that he believed the end was near suddenly makes it okay for him to call for the mistreatment and abuse of the Jews?

Trueman's purpose in his blog series seems to be to eliminate any connection between Luther's treatise on the Jews and the holocaust implemented by the Nazis. He is correct that the motivations were not precisely the same as the Nazi's, and in fairness to Luther, he did not advocate the extermination of the Jews as did Hitler, but it seems to me indisputable that Luther's writings, as well as the long tradition of anti-Semitism displayed by Christianity, laid the foundation for the awful treatment of the Jews demonstrated by the Nazis. As Avalos makes clear in his article, there is a much stronger connection between Christianity and the holocaust than there is between atheism and the holocaust.


  1. Hi Ken,

    I think he's just addressing the common claim that Luther's actions "led to" or caused the Holocaust. From his blog:

    "But didn't Luther hate the Jews and write pamphlets about them that led to the Holocaust?"

    The facts that Trueman present don't make Luther's views any less reprehensible, but they do provide some context to go along with Hector's chapter. Some people read Hector to be saying that Hitler was directly motivated by Luther's anti-Semitism.

  2. Disclaimer: I have not read Trueman's articles yet.

    If Trueman is trying to refute a direct claim of Luther having guilt for the Holocaust, rather than defending Luther as a person, I still don't think it can hold water. Luther was an influential leader, then and carrying through until today. His writings have endured, and without question were used by the Nazi's to justify their cause. Therefore his actions had a direct impact on the Holocaust, whether or not it was a commonly held attitude in the 1500's.

    Ken, curious as to why Trueman wrote these. Obvious reason I suppose is that Luther is revered today by protestants tracing there heritage and theology back to him. But it seems so pointless, to defend people whose actions were reprehensible. I am always surprised when people go down that path.

    As a side, I was at a conference years ago where John Piper, after quoting extensively from Luther in a sermon, added the disclaimer to those who might be offended by Luther because of unnamed wrongdoings. He said something to the effect of, "Luther sinned much, but repented much." Then, as now, my thought was, why quote from him in the first place then? And also, "Is that supposed to make it OK?"

  3. J.S.,

    I would agree that Luther's views did not cause the holocaust but I think it is naive to say that it did not lay a foundation upon which something as horrible as the Holocaust could be rationalized by Christians.

  4. ATime,

    I think conservative Protestants such as Trueman feel a need to try to defend Luther because after all he is the father of Protestantism.

  5. It is quite surprising that a visionary like Luther was anti-Semitic to the point of influencing Hitler with his anti-Jewish ideologies. In his book ‘On Jews and Their Lies’, he says set fire to their synagogues or schools, destroy their houses, take away their prayer books and Talmudic writings and take from them all cash and treasure of silver and gold.