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

June 8th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

See Part One and Part Two of this series.

B. Luther’s Views Are Not Based on Personal, Emotional Outbursts, But On Longstanding Reflected Exegesis of Scriptures—A Hallmark of His Distinguished Career.

A second reason why Luther’s views must be considered the product of genuine anti-Semitism is that they are the product of his extended exegesis of Scriptural passages, reflection and reasoning, and not the product of an aberrational emotional outburst.

That Luther had opportunities to reflect before penning his prodigious, written attacks cannot be legitimately disputed. The work, On the Jews and Their Lies (also translated as Against the Jews and their Lies), spans approximately 170 pages in the English translation published in Luther’s Works. (Luther, Jews, 137-306.) As a result, the sheer length of this product evidences, at the very least, a sustained thought-process. In addition, Luther wrote other, earlier indictments of Jews further showing that it was not a one-time diversion or tangent. (See, e.g., Luther, Against the Sabbatarians, 65-98, and Luther’s Letter to George Spalatin, Correspondence, 28-29.)

That Luther knew what he was doing cannot be doubted. In his polemical Against the Sabbatarians from 1538, “Each of [its] arguments was drawn out and buttressed with careful examination of the appropriate texts from Scripture.” Moreover, its “language is still, for the most part, temperate and restrained.” (Edwards, 127.)

In the later On the Jews and Their Lies, his arguments were too drawn from his exegesis of numerous passages of Scripture, including Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Jeremiah, 2 Samuel, Haggai and Daniel, for example. (Edwards, 128-30.) Indeed, at least one commentator on Luther’s exegesis in On the Jews has deemed it “serious, although often unoriginal, exegesis.” (Edwards, 130.)

Luther was no knave. He earned the degree of Doctor of Theology, and “became the head of the theological faculty” at the University of Wittenberg. (Vedder, 12.) A hallmark of his career has been his unusual ability to exegete Scriptures. “The study of Luther is bound to figure prominently in the history of exegesis, not only because he himself was so predominantly an exegete…but also because the study of Luther and of his theology has always been a factor of decisive significance in Protestant theology.” (Pelikan, 32.)

Similarly, Luther has been lauded as a Biblical exegete of the finest variety. “Neither the study of Luther’s polemics nor the study of his early development could ignore his exegetical work. After all, what he was defending against the theologians of Rome was a particular interpretation of Scriptures, together with his right to maintain such an interpretation. Luther’s polemical works, therefore were inextricably bound up with his conception of what the Bible meant.” (Pelikan, 41.)

Jaroslav Pelican continued, quoting Luther: “’I [Luther] was forced and driven into this position in the first place when I had to become Doctor of Holy Scripture against my will. Then, as a doctor in a general free university, I began, at the command of pope and emperor, to do what such a doctor is sworn to do, expounding the Scriptures for all the world and teaching everybody. Once in this position, I have had to stay in it, and I cannot give it up or leave it yet with a good conscience.’ From statements like this it is clear that for Luther himself the polemical assignment of the theologian had to be subordinated to his exegetical assignment. Even in carrying out the former, Luther strove to keep the discussion on an exegetical plane. Although he was often no more successful in this than his opponents were, it does seem an injustice to both him and his opponents if historians and biographers ignore the exegetical bent of their writings.” (Pelikan, 47.)

From this text and others, one can draw the ineluctable conclusions that Luther was not only trained at the highest levels as an exegete, he vigorously conducted his career as one devoted to faithfully exegeting Scripture, and distinguished himself as a skilled and persuasive exegete. As a result, this forecloses the proffered apology for Luther that he was naive or incompetent in his interpretation of Scripture.

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 the “Meet the Readers” series.

(Updated to fix coding).

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.