Baker Academic

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Did Martin Luther Do More Harm than Good? - Le Donne

Martin Luther is one of those really puzzling historical figures. It is quite difficult to obscure his sins (like, say, MLKJ) and it is really difficult to obscure his positive contributions (like, say, George W. Bush). I've spent most of my adult life reviling Luther for his Antisemitism, which played no small part in the Holocaust. I think that his misguided reading of Paul will continue to plague Christianity for centuries. And, you might have heard, he hammered a wedge into a crack that caused the second greatest Church split in history.

And yet, I am constantly learning more and more about Luther that deserves gratitude.  Indeed, every pastor who loves his wife should thank God for Luther's insistence that clergy have the right to marry. One could argue that modern book culture was a product of sola scriptura. Is it almost impossible to measure the inspiration that Luther had on Martin Luther King Sr.; would there have been a Martin Luther King Jr. without this inspiration? And there was this thing about Church corruption that Luther had an issue with... but, most importantly, he almost single-handedly made it cool to be fat.

So this is an open-ended question: is the world better or worse for the life and works of Martin Luther?


  1. In the wise words of Reverend Lovejoy:

    "Short answer: Yes with an 'if'. Long answer: No with a 'but.' Uh, if you need additional solace, by the way,I've got a copy of something or other by Art Linkletter in my office."

  2. your supposition that luther can be blamed for the holocaust is a tad (ok more than a tad) overdone. please see


    1. I said "no small part" of the blame... surely, you aren't arguing that he deserves none of the blame(?)!

    2. Not that a random voice on the internet carries much authority, but I at least would argue that Luther deserves none of the blame for the Holocaust. I would honestly be interested to hear your reasoning for why he does.

      As I understand it, National Socialism and the Holocaust are direct descendants of German Romanticism--heirs especially of Johann Gottfried Herder's concept of the Volk, and the idea that the German people's land and language made them uniquely special. Jews who were perceived to have no land and no language were by consequence considered the lowest among all people.

      On the other hand, Luther was not an antisemite proper, as antisemitism requires a the modern concept of race and genetics that Luther just did not have language for. The young Luther actually believed that Jewish people would flock to his new theology. When they did not, he unleashed his invective against them, just as he did with Roman Catholics and Anabaptists. We make a mistake if we impute race theory back onto his words.

      In any event, the blood libel was not invented by Luther. It has a long and storied tradition within Western Christendom (which I could see blaming in part for the Holocaust). His words may have been used by Hitler and others as a justification for their actions (they did the same thing with Nietsche), but his theology was certainly not a motivating factor in their ideology or genocide.

    3. Dear Random Voice,

      You make some good points here.

      1) The darkness that motivated his "The Jews and their Lies" was antijudaism and not antisemitism. I do talk a bit about this in my essay in Soundings in the Religion of Jesus. Thank you for the reminder.

      2) German Romanticism certainly played a large part. Although (as you say) European antijudaism has a much longer history. Indeed, there was an era in Spain where the Islamic state provide safe haven for the Jews from the Christians.

      3) The early Luther was quite magnanimous toward his potential converts. He even suggested that Xn men could marry Jewish women. After all, he argued, the taking of Jewish women was no different than buying meat from a Jewish butcher.

      But, if (as you say) blood libel against the Jews has a long history in Christendom, and if this can be blamed "in part" (as you say) for the climate that made the Shoah possible, how can you argue that Luther deserves none of the blame? Apart from Chrysostom, Luther's venom is almost unrivaled. Moreover, his had more influence on Lutheran Germany in the years leading up to Kristallnacht than any other. After all Kristallnacht was a celebration of Luther's birthday.

      Luther's recommendations to politicians at the end of "The Jews and their Lies" provided a script for the Nazis. They follow his advice right down to the burning of Scripture/Synagogues the forced labor of Jewish men and women, the confiscation of Jewish property and the "pain of life and limb" toward Jewish rabbis.

      You say "Luther deserves none of the blame"... can we at least agree than it is more than none? He was not the first to spout hatred against the Jews, but his voice was most influential and provided the greatest justification in that particular time and place.

      Much more, could and should be said, but this is part of my rationale.


    4. "Luther deserves none of the blame for the Holocaust." 0_o

      "As I understand it, National Socialism and the Holocaust are direct descendants of German Romanticism." Riiight, 'cause Christian anti-Judaism wasn't influential at all. Or maybe the signers of the Godesberg Declaration just made a mistake?

      "We make a mistake if we impute race theory back onto his words." No, we make a mistake if we think Christian anti-Judaism didn't help lay the foundation for racial anti-Semitism. Spelling out a nuanced historical connection between the two is not the same as "imputing" the later theory to Luther, as if he would only be culpable in that case.

      "In any event, the blood libel was not invented by Luther. It has a long and storied tradition within Western Christendom."
      So is Christian anti-Judaism part of the historical equation or not? And who said Luther had to invent a discourse in order to be a morally culpable conduit?

      "His words may have been used by Hitler and others as a justification for their actions..."
      And they just randomly selected his work? Nothing in there that might lend itself to their program like, oh say, recommendations of violence against Jews?

      "...but his theology was certainly not a motivating factor in their ideology or genocide." The question is not limited to the issue of "motive," which is a narrowly psychological way to frame it at that. Nor is the moral question limited to key architects of the Nazi party and the Holocaust; it must include the complicity of (Protestant) Christian groups and institutions. And they were more than happy to see Hitler as Luther's heir while Jews died.

    5. I always get a little nervous when Jim starts debating Jim.


    6. If only Jim deigned to answer...

  3. Aquinas was making being fat cool way back in the thirteenth century, and he was part of a mendicant order.

    1. We should create a fantasy baseball team composed of the best fat theologians... I would have Ernst Renan lead off and play shortstop.

    2. Chesterton was accused (by Shaw) of being the cause of a famine, so I think he could bat cleanup.

  4. Thankful for Martin Luther. I guess we disagree on whether he misread Paul. I'm thankful for these books and scholars:

    Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics by Stephen Westerholm

    Where is Boasting?: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1–5 by Simon J. Gathercole

    Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective by Peter Stuhlmacher

  5. Better is better done without. The enemies we have are already God's hand - whether the first or second or third great split in tradition, and the creation is good. The healing of creation, the gifts we have for each other, the achievement of the Shema - that God is one - that we should be one (John, Romans) - also good. I tend to agree with the French proverb: le meillure est l'enemie du bon. I have to take the whole 9 yards including the weal and the woe. Job makes my argument for me.

  6. I believe corruption was at such a fever pitch that SOMEONE had to set their hair on fire to get the push back going. I might compare him to Sam Adams. A violent, corrupt man who was VERY good at lighting fires and not so great at putting them out.

    We all too often endow our movement leaders with super human powers...

    Are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to be judged similarly because of their perpetuation of slavery? Perhaps? Tricky business applying 21st century ethics to previous centuries, but I still think it's important.

    Keep pushing Dr. Le Donne

    1. ah yes... Thomas Jefferson is another one of these perplexing figures.

  7. I think he was a bit polemic and reactionary (in more ways than one considering his obesity). James, on top of being a Jewish-Christian, must of been skinny and attractive. But I am in no way qualified to make a serious remark, so i joke.

  8. Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

    1. ...said while eating a big helping of corn made possible by natives and shucked, cooked, and served by his unrecognized children.

  9. Exactly. Is it worse that they sing of freedom and the wrongs of slavery will holding them? Or worse that Luther writes of grace while railing against a group of people who are "chosen" be God.

  10. Here are a few of my favourite Luther Quotes:

    "God has given to the people this world and all its treasures, even though He knew they would be sinners. Can you imagine, then, what treasures He has for those who have become righteous through faith, of whom He knows that they will remain righteous for eternity?" (2224. Off the Record with Martin Luther, p. 109).

    "I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess."

    Luther explains the importance of knowing the original languages of Scripture:

    “In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his Word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. . . . Let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held.”

    "Human reason either abandons hope or becomes too cocksure. Where it abandons hope, those die without the cross and without the light. Where it is presumptuous, they are deceived and the result is the same. (6572, Off the Record with Martin Luther, p. 302).

    "I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self."

    "The Lord commonly gives riches to foolish people, to whom he gives nothing else."

    "Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God."

    "If I am not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there."

    "You should not believe your conscience and your feelings more than the word which the Lord who receives sinners preaches to you."

    “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”

    “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: "I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

    “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

    “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”

    “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

    “Peace if possible. Truth at all costs.”

    “When God's righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God's action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which a person is justified (declared righteous) is not his own but that of another, Christ.”

    “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”

  11. Better. But it could and should have been much better.

    When it comes to anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism or whatever you want to call it, Martin Luther was the Lance Armstrong of Christianity. It makes me feel sick to make a comparison like that, like I’m trivializing something important, but the analogy is apt and I’m going to run with it. Lance doped and all cyclists of his era doped, just like Luther’s anti-Jewishness was typical of hundreds of years of Christian anti-Jewishness. (I’m not the guy to go around ranking famous Christians by their anti-Jewishness – everyone gets to be evaluated on their own terms.) But Lance was in a position – because of his power, influence, money and fame – to have taken a stance against doping that would have meant something. In some analogous fashion, if Luther had taken a stance that the Jews were to be left alone to pursue their destiny without interference from the church, it might have stuck. It might have changed the course of history. Maybe not. We’ll never know. But no single person had a better chance of changing Jewish-Christian relations for the better than Martin Luther – that is, not until 1945.

    I’m not going to discuss the Shoah in this context. If you say that nothing could have prevented the Shoah, I’d agree. If you say that any number of things might have prevented the Shoah, I’d also agree.

    I’ll add something, for the oddness that it is worth: I think I have enjoyed studying Martin Luther more than any other single figure of Christendom I could name.

    I apologize if I’ve offended anyone. A famous first.

  12. When you say, "It is quite difficult to obscure (Martin Luther's sins (like, say, MLKJ)" what 'sins' of MLK,Jr. are you referring?

    1. Hi Dave, thanks. I suppose that I was thinking particularly of his plagiarism and his infidelity. Nothing that King David didn't do.

    2. Thx for the answer.

      As per your statement about Luther, "It is quite difficult to obscure his sins (like, say, MLKJ) and it is really difficult to obscure his positive contributions (like, say, George W. Bush).", how do you respond to when someone says;

      1. Bible scholarship tends to find 'plagiarism' (I know there was no law against it at the time) throughout the Old and New Testaments and they are the founding documents of the three monotheistic faiths. What, then, is wrong with plagiarism, in your mind?

      2. Infidelity is a personal failure and doesn't come close to the devastation caused by the un-needed War in Iraq, which killed tens of thousands civilians and shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. So why is MLKs 'sins' hard to obscure while GWBs good(what good do you mean?) can't be overlooked?

      Thx for your thoughts on this.

    3. Dear David

      1) I don't think that plagiarism applies to ancient authors. I was drawing out an anachronistic absurdity to amuse myself.

      2) I suppose that my initial point was that all historical figures have good and negative aspects of their legacy. Some (not many), however, get painted as ideals while others (not many) as pariahs. MLK's - while having a generally positive legacy - happens to be human (surprise!). W's legacy - while generally negative - is also human (not so sure about Dick Cheney). For one thing, W threw more money at the African AIDS epidemic than any other president... not normally remembered because of his many, many other sins.


    4. Thanks for clearing up your reasoning. W's legacy also includes a generous prescription drug plan.

      It's always seemed to me, when talking about 'immorality', most conservative Christians mean 'individual failures' and most progressives think in terms of 'collective failures'. These questions were meant to understand your position better.

      Be well,

  13. I had the great privilege of sitting in a Seminar one semester (ca. 1980) with Heiko Oberman while he was working on his book, Die Wurzeln des Antisemitismus (1981). One thing that was very clear is that Luther's antisemitism was the good news. Much more radical thought, speech and action was in evidence in those days. While that does not let Luther off the hook, it put the entire question into perspective for me.

    German Christians (perhaps especially academics) are still wrestling with the aftermath of that history, including the "failure" to openly denounce Hitler and Nazi anti-Jewish actions by the framers of the Barmen Declaration. Locally, German Christians today still wrestle with the failure of their forebears to speak out against Nazi atrocities in their own towns and regions.

    For our part, I suspect we Americans would do well to come to grips with the antisemitism that was rampant in the U.S. in the 1930s and afterwards, rather than assume our own innocence in the matter.

    1. previous post by "unknown" is from Scott Caulley-- I did not intend to be anonymous.

    2. I am a first-year student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The post on the "fantasy team for Jesus nerds" which had my NT professor Dale Allison as #1 is what brought me to this site and I am finding it to be a wonderful resource.

      I am currently taking an introductory course on the Reformation which has given me my first real knowledge (outside of the film "Luther") about Martin Luther's role in church history. While we learned much about him and his theology, we learned nothing of his reading of Paul. Would anyone be able to briefly sum this up and explain what you see as "misguided reading" or at least point me in the right direction as to what I could read on this topic?

      I hope to become a somewhat active reader here, although being so new to all of this, some conversations are bound to be far over my head.

    3. Hi Maxwell, take as many classes from Dale as you can.

      On the Luther reading Paul thing. There's tons written on this. This critique is the basis for the "new perspective" on Paul (which isn't all that new anymore). The Paul Page will have lots on this, but I have my students read the first three chapters of The Justice of God by Dunn and Suggate. This is a very succinct treatment with both the positives and negatives of Luther's program and an introduction to the new perspective.

      Hope this helps, and welcome!


  14. I went to Lutheran Church Missouri Synod schools from K through 8. I was taught the Scriptures and their theology. I learned that the Catholics were wrong and the Bible is true. I eventually figured out that Luther didn't fix everything. I am very grateful for this influence.

    So now we are living in the age of what McGrath calls a dangerous idea, that there is no ultimate human authority about heavenly things, but we all need to figure this stuff for ourselves. That drives a lot of great thinking and scholarship. That's a good thing.

    As for the sins of antiwhoeverism and slavery, a culture needs to recognize them, realize that they are wrong, and change. These cultural shifts are almost tectonic in nature and take a lot of time, so it's hard to hold someone responsible as knowingly doing wrong when basically everyone is oblivious to the fault.

    And that Luther film makes a point about misusing another's ideas. When Luther is in hiding his colleagues use his ideas to go on a rampage, killing and burning because people disagreed with them. So while these people were under Luther's influence, they certainly were not doing what Luther thought they should be doing. That's not Luther's fault.

    1. I don't see how anyone who has read "The Jews and their Lies" could (or should) let Luther off the hook as someone who was misunderstood. It seems that the perpetrators of Kristallnacht understood him quite well.


    2. Took a look at the Wikipedia page re "The Jews and their Lies" and, whoa, that's some nasty stuff! The Lutheran school I went to neglected to add that to the required reading for some reason so I was unaware of it. Thanks for pointing it out.