The festivities in Germany and around the globe celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation have begun! These great festivities will culminate on October 31, 2017 as this was the exact date when Martin Luther hammered the 95 Theses to the door at the Wittenberg Chapel (arguments against the system of indulgences practiced by the medieval Catholic church). Of course, there is some discussion about the historical accuracy of this event as he may have simply sent the 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainze (in today’s Germany).
This event caused a spiritual revolution that transformed what followers of Jesus believed and the ways in which we practice our faith. There will be a lot to read and view about these events in the months ahead and it would be enriching for believers to better understand the role of Martin Luther and the impact of the Reformation.
But, may I let my guard down a little bit and tell you how I really feel about Martin Luther—especially during this 500th anniversary? The truth is Luther has always fascinated me, even before I became a believer in Jesus.
Last year I visited Wittenberg, along with some staff and friends, and a theologian on our German Beit Sar Shalom Board gave us a tour of the charming little city which became the epicenter of a spiritual earthquake that continues to shape the way millions of Christians view their faith.
I must admit I was uneasy during the tour as I grew up in a Jewish home where Martin Luther was well known, but not for his spiritual leadership! We were raised to believe that Luther was an antisemite and that he even influenced Hitler! I know this sounds harsh and perhaps unfair, but this is how I was raised.
One of the reasons I felt I could not believe in Jesus is because I would then be linked to Luther and others of his ilk whom we believed hated the Jews and laid a theological foundation for the persecution of my people.
Well, many years have gone by and I have studied the life of Luther and come to love many Christians who have a high regard for him. I have read some of Luther’s writings (he was prolific!) and especially focused on his mention of the Jewish people. I wondered how a man who was brave enough to withstand the church leadership of his day on issues he believed were unethical and unbiblical, and then to call Christians to a deeper commitment and understanding of the Scriptures, could also say the things he said about my people?
To this day, I am still perplexed, but Luther was a very complex and perplexing man! I realize now that there were “extenuating circumstances” and that Luther needs to be viewed in the context of his culture and time he lived. Yet, there is really no way we can excuse what he said that was ultimately so harmful and destructive to the Jewish people. What is most concerning for me is that Luther and others who had harsh and derogatory words to say about the Jewish people is part of what keeps my people from discovering the Jewish Messiah who loves them and died for their sins.
I recognize that we are all sinners and need to love the person and hate the sin. I also realize that Luther did a lot of good for mankind by refocusing believers on the Bible and the message that faith alone is what enables us to take the Gospel to heart and be saved. For these things and more we should be grateful to Martin Luther. But we do not honor the man by ignoring his sin and the ways in which he spoke about God’s chosen people. He understood what it meant to be truthful and we should do the same.
I will not try to clarify these issues any further but will leave that up to a Lutheran theologian who has studied the life and writings of Martin Luther in great depth and recently co-authored a book entitled Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Hans Wiersma teaches at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and comes from a family that has always loved the Jewish people. I hope you enjoy this guest article!
And there is more to come as well from Vladimir Pikman, who leads the work of Chosen People Ministries, called Beit Sar Shalom, in Germany. He will bring us up to date on what the Church in Germany is saying about these issues.
Thank you for praying for Chosen People Ministries! Your encouragement is a blessing to us!
In our Messiah,