See Part One, Two and Three of this excellent series by Richard Radcliffe.

C. Luther’s Ardent Views Against Jews Were Not Localized To The Final, Infirm Years Of His Life, And Cannot Be Excused By Advanced Age Or His Illnesses.

Some have posited that these writings should be excused because they resulted from the illnesses he was dealing with at the end of his life. (Montgomery, 145.) However, the evidence shows that Luther’s rants against the Jews predated his declining health and advancing age, and did so by decades. Indeed, 29 years before he penned On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther wrote the following correspondence to George Spalatin in 1514:

“I have come to the conclusion that the Jews will always curse and blaspheme God and his King Christ, as all the prophets have predicted. He who neither reads nor understands this, as yet knows no theology, in my opinion. And so I presume the men of Cologne cannot understand the Scripture, because it is necessary that such things take place to fulfill prophecy. If they are trying to stop the Jews blaspheming, they are working to prove the Bible and God liars.

But trust God to be true, even if a million men of Cologne sweat to make him false. Conversion of the Jews will be the work of God alone operating from within, and not of man working-or rather playing-from without. If these offences be taken away, worse will follow. For they are thus given over by the wrath of God to reprobation, that they may become incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction.” (Luther, Correspondence, 28-29; emphasis supplied.)

Also, it appears this “illness” was not as debilitating as argued by the apologists. “But the life of Luther, from the year 1522 to his death, is but little more than the ripening of fruit that had previously attained its full growth. He was by no means changed. He possessed the same zeal, and strength, and energy…” during this time. (Scenes, 212.)

Notably, Luther’s last years, from 1537 to the end, were characterized as “the happiest years of his life” notwithstanding his frequent illnesses. (Schwiebert, 745.)

Similarly, the illness did not prevent him from productive work. It has been written that “notwithstanding his afflictions, he continued to take part in literary controversies almost until his last breath.” (Grisar, 564.)

Another commentator, focusing on Luther’s later writings, has concluded: “It would appear, therefore, that the vulgarity and violence was by choice. Luther could turn it on and off as it suited his purposes. His illnesses may have made him more irritable and less inhibited, but he had not lost complete control.” (Edwards, 19.)

In addition, Luther produced quality scholarship during the period he was also producing On the Jews and Their Lies. (Grisar, 564-65.) If he were so incapacitated by his maladies that his faculties had failed him, it does not follow that he would be able to produce presentable scholarship during the same period of time. Mark Edwards has written in this vein: “When all is said and done, the common description, and explanation, for the polemics of the older Luther—that they are the product of an ill and aged man—is not particularly illuminating historically. This explanation fails particularly to explain the wide range among the polemics of the older Luther and, more importantly, the function the polemics performed within the larger Reformation movement.” (Edwards, 19.)

Finally, it should be remembered that Luther died at a relatively young age, even in the context of his time. He died at the age of 62. (Lau, 33 and 156.) So the particularly odious writings, such as On the Jews and Their Lies, were authored while Luther was in his 50s, hardly an age characterized by senility.

Further, there is no allegation in the literature that Luther suffered from a mental illness or defect, but rather his ailments were physical. (See Schwiebert, 580.)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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