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Meet the Readers: Richard Radcliffe on Luther and the Jews (Conclusion)

June 10th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

See Parts One, Two, Three and Four here.  Many thanks to Richard Radcliffe for submitting the thought provoking essay.


In sum, this essay has posited the thesis that Luther’s later writings demonstrate a virulent anti-Semitism that cannot be excused as the product of debilitating illness or advanced age, accident, incompetence or naiveté.

Thereafter, this thesis has been supported in three fundamental respects.  First, the paper presented the historical evidence of Luther’s own words to show that his attacks were personalized and directed to Jews’ nature, and not generalized to all nonbelievers, and hence, this evidences, in part, Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Second, this paper further supported the thesis by exploring how Luther supported his attacks on Jews with careful exegesis in voluminous works so as to disabuse the notion that Luther’s attacks on Jews emanated from mere accident, incompetence or naiveté.  Third, the thesis was underpinned by the evidence that Luther’s ardent views against Jews were not localized to the final, infirm years of his life, and that he was not sufficiently incapacitated or affected by his illness when he penned these works.

Historian Paul Johnson has perhaps best summarized this data by calling On the Jews and their Lies the "first work of modern anti-Semitism, and a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust.”  (Johnson, 242.) 

Fellow historian William Shirer extended the analysis: “In his utterances about the Jews, Luther employed coarseness and brutality of language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time.”  (Shirer, 236.) 

Johnson’s and Shirer’s charges are serious, and hence, all the more reason not to ignore or downplay this disturbing body of work from one of the greatest architects of the Protestant Reformation.

For these reason, this dark chapter in Luther’s, and by extension, Reformation and Christian history cannot and should not be ignored, obfuscated or explained away. 

Works Cited

Edwards, Mark U.  Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics.  Ithica, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983.

George, Timothy.  Theology of the Reformers.  Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Grisar, Hartmann.  Martin Luther: His Life and Work. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971).

Kooiman, William Jan.  By Faith Alone: The Life of Martin Luther.  London: Lutterworth Press, 1954.

Lau, Franz.  Luther.  (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958).

Luther, Martin.  On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), Vol. 47 (trans. Martin H. Bertram) in Luther's Works.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Luther, Martin.  Against the Sabbatarrians (1538), Vol. 47 (trans. Martin H. Bertram) in Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. 

Luther, Martin.  Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporaneous Letters, Vol. 1 (trans. by P. Smith), 1913.

Montgomery, John Warwick.  In Defense of Luther.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1970.

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  Luther the Expositor: Introduction to the Reformer’s Exegetical Writings.  St. Louis: Concordia Publising House, 1959. 

Scenes in Luther’s Life. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1848.

Schwiebert, E.G.  Luther and His Times.  St. Louis: Concordia Publising House, 1950.

Shirer, William.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.

Vedder, Henry C.  The Reformation in Germany.  New York: The MacMillian Company,  1914.

Ritual Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives presented in this essay are the full responsibility of the author, and in no way represent the opinions or ideas of Mere Orthodoxy or its writers, where “writers” is defined by those who are currently listed on the “Contributors” page.

Read the explanation of "Meet the Readers."

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.