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Luther: The Brilliant Killer



No one would argue that Martin Luther was not one of the key figures in Church history. How can it be then that the Nazis claimed him as one of their own? We’ll take a brief moment to look at the testimony of Martin Luther and the battles he faced in the aftermath of his confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church.


Luther started his religious journey as a monk. He did not enter the monastery with a sense of calling or even a relationship with God, but because he made a vow “when a bolt of lightning struck him down”[1] that his life was spared he would enter the monastery.[2] He survived, and quickly became a monk, keeping his word.


This was a much different time than when the desert monks developed the monastic movement. Abbas, Anthony, and the oft-quoted Poemen were deeply humble men who genuinely loved God. There was much corruption in the late medieval Church. Gerald Sittser reports, “Many parish clergy kept concubines, charged fees for services, and demonstrated appalling ignorance of the Christian faith. Bishops and cardinals enjoyed the wealth and prestige of high office without actually having to perform their duties.”[3]

 

Luther’s first issue was his own salvation. The matter was finally settled in his famed “tower experience” when he became “convinced him that God offers righteousness through Christ in response to faith, not human works.”[4] This change was immediate: “This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself.”[5]

 

This deep revelation brought about his second issue which would change history. He saw clearly that the church was corrupt. Not only were many bishops ignorant of the sacred texts, but the people had no access to the Scriptures and the language of the church was Latin, which ordinary people did not understand.[6] As Providence would have it, the printing press had just been invented. There were other issues. Luther charged through the “‘priesthood of all believers’ … “that there was no genuine difference of status” between clergy and laity.[7]

 

But the flame that lit the reformation was Luther’s response to the selling of indulgences. This clever fundraising trick assured people that their deceased relatives would be released from purgatory. This inflamed Luther, feeling that “it reduced salvation to a sum of money.”[8] He posted his ninety-five theses challenging a plethora of what he felt were unbiblical abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. But for this, we might not know the name Martin Luther.

 

Reflections

Sadly, it does not appear that Martin Luther went deep into formation. His words endorsing racism and murder make one question whether he was a disciple of Christ. When the peasants revolted, supposedly based on his writing, he recommended killing them with no mercy.


To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. … Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog! … If they say that I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like mad dogs.[9]

 

In response to the killing of 100,000 peasants, Luther wrote: “It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants in the insurrection, for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is upon my shoulders, but I cast it upon the Lord our God.”[10]

 

Luther had a crude way of communicating truth. In 1530, he said, “I am like ripe s---, and the world is a gigantic a—hole. We probably will get off each other soon.”[11] I cannot imagine the Desert Fathers, who dared not waste speech, using such imaging.  

 

Luther was sure that Jewish people would respond positively to his message of justification by faith. Luther scholar Eric W. Gritsch says that Luther gave credence to the blood libel that Jews killed Christian children. Luther says that this crime “still shines forth from their eyes and their skin. We are at fault and not slaying [the Jews].”[12]

 

Luther’s famous sevenfold solution to the “Jewish problem” from his book entitled Concerning the Jews and their Lies is chilling:



First, their synagogues should be set on fire. … Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. … Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer-books and Talmuds. … Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more. … Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jew. … Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury [charging interest on loans]. . . . Seventhly, let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses. … We ought to drive the rascally lazy bones out of our system. … Therefore away with them. … To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.[13]

 

Many justify the lack of godliness in Luther saying that his argument was merely theological. Dr. Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary,[14] says that Luther was just angry about the law as a means of righteousness when he called for the murder of Jews. Another Luther apologist said these hateful words must “be understood in light of Martin Luther’s theo-centric mind: he was not condemning based on race, but rather based on theology.”[15] The fact that he called for the murder of others, based on theological reasoning, makes little difference. It’s shocking even to hear the argument to justify Luther’s godless words. Luther once said, “Melanchthon (his successor) cuts with a knife; I swing with an ax,”[16] justifying his crude form of communication.  


But we don’t see Calvin speaking like this. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, they celebrated the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s birth with a poster that read, “Hitler's struggle and Luther's teaching provides the best defense for the German people.”


While Luther was one of the most consequential and courageous theologians in history, he was not an example of someone filled with the fruit of the Spirit; he did not develop a godly character and was reckless with his tongue. For all the good he did theologically, his rash and irresponsible words brought death and destruction.

 

[1] Burgess, Stanley M.. The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 17 Martin Luther (1483-1546) Kindle Edition.

[2] Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (IVP Books, 2007), 214.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Burgess, The Holy Spirit, Martin Luther.

[5] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 215.

[6] Alistair McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 163, Kindle.

[7] Ibid., 169.

[8] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 216.

[9] Martin Luther, Erlangen Vol 24, 294.

[10] Martin Luther, Tischreden; Erlanger Ed., Vol. 59, 284.

[11] Matin Luther, “Letter to Melanchthon,” 1530.

[12] Michael Brown, “American Gospel Downplays Luther’s Antisemitism,” The Line of Fire, March 18, 2024, YouTube video, 16:11, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaO_FK37sUs.

[13] Martin Luther, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, cited in Talmage, Disputation and Dialogue (New York: KTAV, 1975), 34–36.

[14] Robert Godfrey, “Luther’s Untamed Tongue: The Man, the Mistakes, & the Mission,” Patrol, accessed April 1, 2024, 00:50, https://wearepatrol.com/blog/part03.

[15] Courtney Cherest, “Luther’s Untamed Tongue: The Man, the Mistakes, & the Mission,” Patrol, accessed April 1, 2024, https://wearepatrol.com/blog/part03.

[16] Stephen Nichols, “Luther’s Untamed Tongue: The Man, the Mistakes, & the Mission,” Patrol, accessed April 1, 2024, 00:01, https://wearepatrol.com/blog/part03.

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This is an excellent article! I agree with everything you have written.

The only thing I would like to add is that Lutherans and other Reformers 500 years ago clearly distinguished between "Anti-Semitism" (hatred of the Jews based on ethnicity) and "Anti-Judaism" (adversity to Rabbinic Judaism). The contemporary Germans of Luther's time clearly saw him as an Anti-Judaist and not an Anti-Semite.

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