Martin Luther was remarkably intelligent and a brilliant communicator, but his otherwise brilliant theology was marred by anger, anger towards the papal institution as he called the Pope many vulgar names, and anger towards the Jews. This is true even in the Large Catechism, even here he calls the Pope names, and opens his discussion of several of the Ten Commandments with anti-Semitic comments, including the commandment, DO NOT ENVY.
We have another video on the puzzling Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who may have both been a persecutor of Christians while at the same time promoting a stoic philosophy that was similar to Christianity in many respects. If we can learn positive lessons from Marcus Aurelius, we can learn positive lessons from Martin Luther.
Please see the YouTube video https://youtu.be/FQmBggJAhKg
We are today more sensitive to anti-Semitism because of the ugly history of the Holocaust, as indeed we should be. Was Martin Luther inspired by the Holy Spirit? Often times Martin Luther was inspired by the Holy Spirit, sometimes he was not. We are unfortunately compelled to treat Martin Luther like a pagan Greek philosopher, preserving that which is beneficial, and pointing out and discarding those teachings which do not increase our two-fold Love of God and love of our neighbor. Indeed, sometimes Luther’s anger gets in the way of love. However, even Luther’s imperfections can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves.
MARTIN LUTHER’S SMALL CATECHISM
Fortunately, one of advantages of the Small Catechism is its succinctness, which means that it is free of Luther’s faults. We will start with the Small Catechism on the Commandments for DO NOT ENVY:
“You should not covet your neighbor’s house.”
“What does this mean? We should fear and Love God, and so we should not seek by craftiness to gain possession of our neighbor’s inheritance or home, nor to obtain them under pretext of legal right, but be of service and help to him so that he may keep what is his.”
“You shall not cover your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
“What does this mean? We should fear and Love God, and so we should not abduct, estrange, or entice away our neighbor’s wife, servants, or cattle, but encourage them to remain and discharge their duty to him.”
Martin Luther was previously an Augustinian monk, and we know he read St Augustine, as he was a professor and Lutheran theology is founded on Augustinian theology, and he opens his discussion of each of the commandments with the reminder that we should Love God, emphasizing the Augustinian teaching the two-fold Love of God and love for our neighbor is the core of all Christian teaching.
What is also curious about his exposition in both the Large and Small Catechisms is Luther is reluctant to label errant thoughts as sinful. All other commentators in other traditions, including other Protestant commentators, we have studied so far characterize envy as a sin of thought, but Luther just does not want to go there.
Perhaps this reluctance to label thoughts as sinful by Luther’s early experience as an overly fastidious monk who was constantly confessing to his confessor his unworthiness, how his thoughts too often wandered into sin. Even today many young Christians fall into this trap of over-fastidiousness and unending anxiety, as Christians we simply need to confess and forget, recognizing that what is important is that we not feed our temptations, and that we can be both repentant and aware that it is difficult to tell when temptations cross over into impure thoughts. But as the Greeks say, nothing to excess, and anxiety in excess multiplies our temptations.
MARTIN LUTHER’S LARGE CATECHISM
Luther opens his discussion of envy in the Large Catechism with extended anti-Semitic commentary, but we will ignore this elephant in the room until after we discuss the positive lessons he has to offer. We always want to bring out the best in our neighbor, and also in Luther.
Martin Luther is an excellent judge of character. Luther states, “Such is our nature that we all begrudge another’s having as much as we have. Everyone acquires all he can and lets others look out for themselves.”
Dear Gentle Reader, follow Luther’s lead, you can search all day for the verse, God helps those who help themselves, but will do so in vain, for not only did God not say this, this saying is totally repugnant to Christianity.
Luther continues, “Yet we all pretend to be upright, we put up a fine front to hide our rascality. We think up artful dodges and sly tricks under the guise of justice. We brazenly dare to boast of it, and insist it should not be called rascality but shrewdness and business acumen.” Luther is the rare theologian who has some grasp of the law, he talks about lawsuits and bribes and how eagerly people are to steal inheritances from their close relatives.
Luther tells us that just because a judge and a court excuses our actions, that does not make our actions moral and right. Just because a sale has been forced and title passes legally, does not mean that it has been stolen. Sometimes when people gain property by irreparably harming their neighbor, they boast about how great a bargain they drove, and they boast about how much of a steal the transaction was, as if theft is something worth bragging about.
Likewise, Luther warns against enticing away our neighbor’s wife or servants or cattle. Does this also apply to businessmen who wish to entice away employees as competitors? If so, there are many guilty church-going businessmen ensnared in the sin of envy. To illustrate his point, he tells the story of King Herod and John the Baptist, this is Matthew’s account:
“At that time Herod the Tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.’”
Herod heavily feels his guilt, “For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because John said to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.”
We can see in this story the many sins that the envy of Herod has spawned, both in his heart and in the heart of his brother Philip’s wife whom he stole away, so immediately we have theft and adultery, and slander, since imprisoning John hurt his reputation, then the prostituting of his step-daughter as she dances for her step-dad and his lecherous friends, then the immoral oaths, and then the hateful wife implicates her own daughter and her husband Herod in the brutal beheading of John the Baptist, not to mention that it is impossible for the step-daughter to have a sliver of respect for hen-pecked Herod or her vile mother Herodias.
Luther ends his discussion in a noble discussion, for when we avoid the sin of envy, “God’s purpose is to destroy all the roots and causes of our injuries to our neighbors.” “God wants our hearts to be pure, even though as long as we live here we cannot reach that ideal.”
THE ANTI-SEMITISM OF MARTIN LUTHER
We cannot avoid the anti-Semitism of Luther, his first sentence in the Do Not Envy section says, “These two commandments, taken literally, were given exclusively to the Jews; nevertheless, in part they also apply to us.” Luther doesn’t adequately explain which portion of the Do Not Envy commandments do not apply to Christians, but we do know that Luther views Jews as being morally deficient when compared to Christians. His accusations against the Jews are both historically untrue and slanderous.
Personally, I dislike these sorts of discussions which find fault with spiritual leaders, present or past. But today, in our politics, we see so much racism and anti-Semitism, and they always go together, even among Christians, that we cannot pretend that it does not exist. And Luther broadcasts his flaws so flagrantly that you cannot read Luther without confronting his faults.
There are many books that touch on Luther and his anti-Semitism which you can read if you like, Wikipedia has an article titled “Martin Luther and antisemitism” which seems to accurately summarize the history of this sordid topic. Early in his ministry, Luther in 1523 in his essay “That Jesus Christ was a Jew” that we should be kind to Jews so they may convert.
Luther did not age well. He was disappointed that Jews did not start converting to Lutheranism especially since he showed how superior it was to corrupt Catholicism, so in his bitter anger in 1943 Luther penned the horrific “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Dr Wikipedia documents how this deplorable hit piece encouraged anti-Semitism in the centuries following, and how Adolph Hitler could, without much exaggeration, quote Luther as supporting his anti-Semitic policies. German and European rulers in his day did not implement his suggestions, but Hitler and his SS thugs finally did follow Luther’s advice in Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when so many Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses were looted, burned, and vandalized. Afterwards, Jews were either exiled penniless or sent to the death and work camps.
What were Luther’s suggestions against the Jews?
- “First, set fire to their synagogues or schools,” “so God might see we are Christians.”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them.”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.”
Hitler took all of these suggestions to heart in the night of the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and then shipped many Jews to Auschwitz, the camp sign that greeted the Jews on their arrival proclaimed, “Work will set you free.”
Dr Wikipedia discusses the scholars who have studied the deep ties between the anti-Semitism of Luther and Nazi ideology. Also, most Lutheran denominations have also condemned the anti-Semitic writings of Luther.
Another uncomfortable question is how much indirect influence Luther’s embrace of anti-Semitism has contaminated Protestantism, and all denominations, making it easier for white Christians to embrace racist attitudes and reject what they characterize as Critical Race Theory, which probably means going back to teaching the discredited Lost Cause mythology of the nobility of the Confederate cause in the Civil War, falsely stating that slavery was not a primary cause of the bloody war. We also have a video exploring how white evangelicals oppose the civil rights movement. This is not an idle question, we have another video discussing how the Nazis used the Jim Crow statutes as guidance when drafting their anti-Semitic Nuremberg Race Laws.
Envy breeds anger. Anger, like envy, is spiritually hazardous. Anger dispels doubt, while love often lacks clarity, since love invites reflection that causes us to doubt our motivations and our innermost thoughts. Anger clarifies who our enemies are, anger makes our neighbors our enemies. Politically, anger beats love, anger fights, while love consoles.
 Martin Luther, Small Catechism, included in Book of Concord, translated by Theodore Tappert, assisted by Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 1959, originally 1580), pp. 343-344.
 Martin Luther, Large Catechism, included in Book of Concord, pp. 404-407.