Luther and the Jews. That´s a mouthful. Thomas Kaufmann has said, what is to be said and the recent publication on the “Wittenberger Sau” gives an update on the present controversy. It´s causing waves even across the Atlantic as Nathaniel Jensen pointed out to me. In the ongoing polemics around the plaque on St.Mary´s, I miss aspects of Luther´s context and the hermeneutical and theological challenge he faced headon. So, please bear with my attempt to tackle the thorny issue.
Luther´s relation to Jews changes as he grows older, but in one issue he remains constant – and that´s the basic message on the altar of “his” church St. Marys, which proclaims the apostlic words of St. Paul as foundational and central to its entire setup:
For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ.1. Corinthians 3,11
In the early days of the reformation Luther had high hopes of Europe seeing the light of the Gospel as he had done by God´s grace alone. In the latter stages of his life the old stalwart had lost quite a bit of the earlier hopes. The emperor had denied the reform and actively strove to crush it. The pope had refrained from meaningful reform. The peasants had resorted to force and the nobility had reacted in kind – both against the outspoken critique of the Reformer. The sacramentarians refused to accept Luther´s reading of scriptural foundations. Enthusiasts continued to flit about as their spirits felt inclined. Humanists like Erasmus had not been convinced. Close connections had turned their back on the Wittenberg movement and gone their own way.
Despite all these disappointments Luther was no pessimist. Not by a long shot. He did not give up the faith. He was not down in the dumps although he had enough reason for sure. Despite serious health issues, he was surprisingly active and productive. At the end he was still busy trying to resolve family disputes amongst local royals of Mansfeld in his birth town Eisleben. It was just, that his faith did not rely on princes. He knew, that even amongst the best of men and in the most prominent families, the most positive was but bleak, miserable and nothing much to build our sure hopes on. His faith was firmly grounded in Jesus Christ alone.
There hope springs – and that eternal. Hope and faith as matters of the 1st commandment are reserved for God alone. He alone can help. He alone will help and change all and everything for the best. That´s for sure. This was Luther´s trust to the end: Our help is in the name of the Lord. And if You ask, who that is, He is called Jesus Christ, the Lord of hosts (Sabaoth). There is no other God. He must prevail. He is victorious and reigns now and always. Now we believe this, although we don´t see it clearly yet. However, there will be a time, when we all will see it. Then, when he returns in glory and all knees will bow before him and all tongues will confess, that he is Lord of all and God alone. He holds the field victorious: Das Feld muss er behalten!
See, Luther initially nurtured high hopes, that the people of old Israel – the Jews – would see the light and come to believe the gospel, that Jesus Christ is their promised Messiah after all. The Son of David, the sure hope of Abraham and the promise of all the prophets from the very beginning. That was his hope. Jesus Christ is the only way to life and salvation. There is not use trusting in the flesh, bloodlines or gene pools. No racial advantage whatsoever. For Luther that was a matter of God´s faithfulness, the trustworthiness of his holy Word, the promises made true one and all in the one, born of the Virgin Mary – just as His gospel preached and the apostles taught in His name and authority and we have believed with the one holy christian church – made up of Jews and Gentiles from the very start.
The Letter to the Romans and Galatians is nothing but a strong case by the apostle St.Paul that IX was the fulfilment of the Old Testament hope and faith. All else was vain and plain shit as the holy Apostle explains drastically to his beloved Philippians. That is why the Old Testament has to be read from this Christological perspective and in the light of His fulfilment. That´s the clue for understanding the Old Testament. Without Jesus Christ, the Old Testament remains empty, cultural trappings, historical detail yes, beautiful sure, but lastly without eternal perspective – without salvific importance – and thus in the big scheme of things vain and worthless, just some rustling in the wind.
Luther saw a lot of good in the Old Testament – poetry, wisdom, richness, tons of good history – but the crown jewel, the pearl worth all else is Jesus Christ alone. He is the one to come and crush the head of the serpent, the root of Jesse, the Son of David, the promised one, virgin´s boy child – Son of Man, the ancient one of old – the bread of life, water of life, the true vine, the good shepherd, the final and true temple, the one holy divine sacrifice, effective, salvific, sufficient, vicarious, justifying and totally redemptive – once and for all. No need for any more of that kind etc. etc.
Everyone, who doubted that was on the false track and barking up the wrong tree. And Luther would not let him get away with that – be it pope, emperor, Turk (Muslim), professor of whoever. Luther was enrolled in the Lord´s army. He was on a mission from God. Called to be apostle to the Germans. Prophet of truth and faithfulness. This was an epic battle with eschatological consequences. It´s a question of either or, for or against – no middle room. No room for cheap grace or pardon. No prisoners taken either. That explains partly the drastic words and crude style adopted in this struggle. After all it was a matter of life and death – not just academic fancy. Luther´s fight was part of the heroic efforts to clean out the filthy pigsty after centuries of neglect, decay and serious corruption. Luther saw himself as doing the rough job, whilst leaving the niceties to his sidekicks – Melanchthon & Co.
At the frontline university Wittenberg Luther had the chair for biblical studies concentrating on the Old Testament. So, he was responsible to teach proper exegesis, hermeneutics and application of the biblical text i.e. understanding, preaching and teaching the text in a time and age, when the Old Testament was seriously underrated, misread and misunderstood by most. This is very real stuff. Sort of a Semiotics professor like Umberto Eco of that time. Or Salman Rushdie in the Islamic realm. No quarter, no pardon. It´s serious stuff – discrediting holy writ as Satanic verses. It earns You a Fatwa. Well, Luther knew all about it. By discarding canonic law, he risked being outlawed. Well, he got what he bargained for, but gave his opponents their fair share too.
Thomas Müntzer and his crazy enthusiasts had earned Luther´s wrath by misusing scripture, misquoting him and just going off like loose cannons, but proclaiming to be faithful interpreters of Holy Writ. Well, Luther would have none of that. He fired volley after volley against these obvious false prophets, heretics, sectarians, ideologues and demagogues. There band was ever growing: Pope, sacramentarians, Erasmus, Karlstadt etc. The list was sheer endless.
The Jews claimed special right to the Old Testament. Luther´s knowledge of the Jews was scant. There were none living in Wittenberg and hardly any in Saxony due to political rulings. He did meet a handful during his lifetime, but those weren´t the best experiences either. So he relied mainly on hearsay – social media/fake news – for his updates. Sometimes he even twittered stuff like: “My sore neck/throat is hurting. Probably the Jews in the village we just passed are breathing their icy curses down my spine, causing my suffering.” Well, You better take that with a whole load of salt. It´s not the gospel. Don´t take it as such. Luther didn´t either. He said and twittered a lot of things. Not all memorable. Not all pure bullion either. This kind of stuff did not make it into the confessions. Don´t You mistake it for such.
However, Luther´s knowledge of the Old Testament was not negligible. It was profound. And he was an expert. Probably the expert for that matter. And that was, what this battle was about. He would not cede this place voluntarily to anybody denying Jesus Christ´s sole legitimacy to victoriously fulfilling all and every OT prophecy with a loud yes and clear Amen. Those, who taught a message from the OT without or beyond Jesus Christ by reading it as some sort of occult code of numerical values attached to the Hebrew alphabet like the Kabbala – giving special attention to the magical name of God (Shem Hamphoras) and misusing it as some holy grail, lost arc and secret code – are just fooling around or if they believe it themselves, seriously mislead others, while in deep trouble of losing out on the true meaning of the biblical message – the saving Gospel of IX – the Scriptures, that give life as they proclaim IX, the Son of the living God and born of the Virgin Mary as the Apostolic Creed teaches. Reading the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament in such a cabbalistic way, was practically like looking for the truth in a teacup or searching for it in tealeaves. It´s speculative nonsense. Truly fake news. Conspiracy theories going haywire. Or take reading someone´s palm of the hand or the flight/song of some bird. It´s brain-dead. Or in the intestines of an opened-up yet living cat/fowl or human child as Greek and Germanic runic readers, soothsayers, seers, fortunetellers, wizards used to do.
Or – and that is the point of the graphic tableau on St. Mary´s depicting the “Judensau” – reading the Bible from a Cabbalistic point of view is like looking into a porker´s backside. You´ll find no answer there. It´s bottled shut. You don´t find the saving truth in cabbalistic interpretations and such speculative rereading of God´s Word. You should just stick to the text and read it as it points to Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of the only saving faith. That´s what the plaque insinuates. It´s not about race and it´s not about the Jews per se, but rather addressing a certain hermeneutic, which lastly proves to be detrimental and fatal. It´s the dramatic struggle for the true understanding of the biblical message, which is not found in the cabbalistic reading, but in the Christian understanding of the Old Testament as recorded in the New Testament. Here in Jesus Christ, You find life and salvation. That´s the teaching of the church. And outside of the church there is no salvation. That´s why the plaque is outside the church and crying out a dire warning to the Israelites then and now – just like the prophets used to do ages back – return to the Lord Your God. For He is one and there is no other. His name is Jesus Christ. The Lord of hosts (Sabaoth): He holds the field victorious. Amen.
In a time, when people are going on to the streets for freedom of expression and religion, when people get all worked up about Mohammed caricatures, a reminder might be in order, that this is something of a polemical cartoon from Ages past – long before Luther already – posting its drastic message, which truth be told, is still part of the Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself told the Jews:
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.Gospel of St. John 5,39-40
Remember the one and only living God´s rules laid down in Deuteronomy for us and our salvation? Well, right there in the 18th chapter we read His voice loud and clearly:
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn the abhorrent practices of those nations. There must never be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer. Whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord, and because of these detestable things the Lord your God is about to drive them out from before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God. Those nations that you are about to dispossess listen to omen readers and diviners, but the Lord your God has not given you permission to do such things.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked the Lord your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore or see this great fire anymore lest we die.” The Lord then said to me, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command. I will personally hold responsible anyone who then pays no attention to the words that prophet speaks in my name.
“But if any prophet presumes to speak anything in my name that I have not authorized him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die. Now if you say to yourselves, ‘How can we tell that a message is not from the Lord?’ whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.”Deuteronomy 18,9-22
Luther´s writings are explosive and not only with regards to the Jews. In an age of political correctness and given the challenges of giving no offense he is a loose cannon and his writings a veritable minefield. Still, it´s helpful to remember, that for Luther these considerations were unheard of and that for him it all boiled down to the 1st commandment – and whether Jesus Christ is Lord or not. That really is the crucial matter – and like any good prophet, Luther presses that point home – much like the orthodox adage – in a state of confession there are no neutral issues. The decisive problem is clear cut – either for or against. No middle ground. You are either inside or outside the church – and Jesus Christ is the corner- and touchstone.
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