In my first few hundred pages of reading Church Dogmatics I kept encountering passages in the small print sections that were clear, clever and vividly expressed. I thought, Now Barth is writing in a way I can understand. Then, at the end of these statements, I would see that they were attributed to Luther. (The reason I initially thought that these statements came from Barth was that they were usually not marked off by quotation marks.) As with the name John Calvin, Barth always uses just the last name of these prominent Reformers: Luther and Calvin.
Two things became readily apparent in these quotes from Luther:
-Barth was very fond of Luther whom he seems to quote on nearly every other page.
-Luther was a much better writer than Barth.
My own response to Martin Luther is mixed, even conflicted. I have always admired Luther’s courage to question the Church with his 95 Theses posted on the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany. I admired his heroism in refusing to recant from his teachings when he appeared before before Emperor Charles V. I’ve appreciated Luther’s understanding of the Christian message of the Good News that we are justified in God’s sight by grace through faith, and not on the basis of our good works. I was impressed to learn that the prior monk abandoned his vows of celibacy to marry Katharina von Bora who left a convent to be his wife. Together they had six children. Luther was familiar enough Hebrew and Greek to translate the Bible into German. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, Luther’s translation was widely read in Germany and is credited with standardizing the German language. Luther’s theological insight and personal boldness began the Protestant Reformation. The fact that Barth quotes Luther so frequently is an indication of Luther’s lasting impact on the Church and the study of theology.
It was not until some years after I graduated from seminary that I discovered something about Luther that was extremely unsettling. Martin Luther wrote one of the most terrible essays against Jews imaginable. In an treatise called “On the Jews and their Lies” Luther used shockingly vulgar language to advocate setting fire to Jewish synagogues and schools, taking away their homes, forbidding them to pray or teach, or even to utter God’s name. Luther wanted to “be rid of them” and requested that the government and ministers deal with the problem. He requested pastors and preachers to follow his example of issuing warnings against the Jews.
Defenders of Luther try to excuse the great reformer by explaining that he wrote his terrible essay toward the end of his life in 1543, three years before his death at the age of 63, and that he suffered from multiple debilitating illnesses during the last 15 years of his life. Others point out that Luther lived in a time when antisemitism was common.
I do not find these excuses persuasive. Luther’s antisemitic essay is serious blotch on his career and Christians today should repudiate it, not excuse it.
Not surprisingly, the Natzis quoted Luther’s essay as part of their propaganda against Jews. It is terrible to realize that the vile words of the revered reformer were used to support the Holocaust that consumed over six million Jews.
I’m left with haunting questions: How could someone who was so right about understanding the basic Christian message be so wrong in his antisemitism? To what extent can I regard Luther’s writings as useful? Should I ignore all that he has to say or be selective in my appreciation? I also wonder to what extent Barth was aware of Luther’s antisemitism. As I continue to read Church Dogmatics, I will pay attention to Barth’s use of Luther and remember that even the admirable followers of Jesus, can be deeply flawed.