Luther and the Jews revisited: reflections on a thought let slip.

Author:McNutt, James E.
Position:Martin Luther - Essay

Historical and theological work on western anti-Semitism cannot proceed far without the emergence of Martin Luther's legacy. Any discussion of the roots and ramifications of Europe's perceptions and conduct toward Judaism and the Jews must eventually confront the reformer's "paper trail." Indisputably, Luther's vociferous attacks on the Jews in the later years of his life left an indelible stain on his career and, in ways he could have never foreseen, played a tragic role in anti-Semitic propaganda on the eve of the Holocaust.

Generations of historians and theologians have labored through the context and sources concerning Luther's Jewish problem, with Thomas Kaufmann's essay, "Luther and the Jews," standing as the definitive historiographical treatment to date. (1) By consensus, Luther's writings on the Jews created a painful stumbling block not only to those who by confession bear his name, but to Christianity as a whole. The following seeks no revision of that conclusion, but rather revisits the issue by way of seminal insights put forth by several prominent scholars over the past quarter-century. In briefly reviewing newer methodological approaches to the historical Luther, this essay seeks to better grasp the manner in which the reformer himself approached the question of God, and how, in the case of the Jews, this very fallible man fell prey to theological hypocrisy. Ironically, woven into Luther's legacy of hate were threads of theological discourse that may well contribute to positive ecumenical relations today. Two years before his ultimate explosion against the Jews, while enmeshed in the labors that shaped his entire human experience, Luther culled from scripture a radically theocentric perspective on Judaism that stood in stark contradiction to his later assertions. Extracting from St. Paul de facto human ignorance in matters of divine mystery, he confessed a salvation rooted only in God's hidden purpose. Tragically, the reformer failed to apply these exegetical considerations to the Jewish people. Our challenge is to take up those thoughts Luther let slip, and in doing so, avoid in our day the failure so damning in his own.

Half a century ago, Henrich Bornkamm lamented the narrow theological focus of Luther research that contented itself with concentrating on the first decade of reform. (2) Exemplified by Roland Bainton's Here I Stand, Luther's thought--often stripped of historical contingencies and broader social context--was said to be fully present by 1525. Bainton allotted only fourteen pages to the last sixteen years of Luther's life, and justified his stance by claiming that the last quarter of Luther's life was "neither determinative for his ideas nor crucial for his achievements." (3) Though taking nearly a quarter of a century, a new school of scholars eventually rose to Bornkamm's challenge and began intensive research into the final two decades of Luther's career. Their efforts initiated a new era in Luther studies by providing a fuller and more dynamic portrait of the reformer's work within his sixteenth-century environment.' (4) Martin Marty's recent biography embodied the tendencies of this approach, masterfully presenting Luther's theological themes in the social settings of "monastery, home, church, university, and empire." (5) This new perspective made evident that Luther's vilification of the Jews could not be isolated from the broader framework of his theology, and, in turn, his theology could not be adequately grasped apart from the contingent circumstances enveloping the man himself.

With regard to Luther "the man," the contribution of the late James Kittelson proved seminal. For Kittelson, Luther's genius found expression in the lifelong dynamic of contextual theologizing, not in artificially constructed systems or isolated fragments of thought elevated to the status of timeless truth. (6) This was not to imply that Luther's confession lacked inner consistency, only that ever new and often unforeseen circumstances confronting the reformer shaped the very expression of his thought. This perspective, however, carried profound ramifications. Insistence on Luther's historicity and rejection of timeless artificial systematization dealt a fatal blow to the iconic image of Luther as an ethereal divine oracle; what Kittelson called a "Luftgebilde." (7) However disconcerting to some Lutherans, this perspective provided the opportunity to engage Luther on a different level from that at which he was often presented. Rather than an abstract source for selective theological talking points, we are confronted with a fallible human making his way day to day, confessing and teaching to the best of his ability amidst ever evolving conflicts. Consequently, critical engagement with Luther must not just consider his specific assertions, but grapple with the events motivating those assertions. To this point Kittelson argued:

In thinking about Luther der Mensch, the issue is not simply one of gathering all these many citations about what one might call his interior life, but approaching them from a proper point of view. Surely this point of view is his public career as reformer, professor of theology, and in particular as advocate of what he called "the theology of the cross." To him this theology was not just an occasion for joy at having been liberated from sin, death, and the devil- although it was that at its end-point--but it started as a theology that viewed humanity, and his own, in all its agony. (8) Kittelson's comments harken back to the hermeneutical scheme of Pauline scholar J.C. Beker, who suggested that the genius and particularity of Paul's theological method was his ability to correlate his...

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