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A flawed pastor’s tragic mistakes

25 October 2013

Luther's anti-Semitism should be remembered alongside his parish work, says Rod Garner

Conflicted: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1533)

Conflicted: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1533)

REFORMATION Day is less than a week away. On Thursday 31 October, in Europe and beyond, churchgoers will remember a vital moment in the history of Christianity. In Protestant circles, this coming Sunday will also be kept as Reformation Sunday. Both dates are dominated by the action of one man - a complex revolutionary who still inspires and troubles the religious imagination, and tells us something important about the nature of leadership in the Church.

On All Hallows' Eve, Saturday 31 October 1517, "out of a love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it", Martin Luther, already a professor of theology at 33, walked to the castle church in Wittenberg, and attached his 95 theses to the door. Far from initiating an academic debate about their contents, which was his intention, his gesture was to take Christendom in a new direction.

I hope to attend a brief theological college reunion on Reformation Day. A group of us will meet over food, and pray in the chapel that had such a formative influence on us a generation ago. It was there that I first encountered Luther, through a dramatic re-enactment of that Wittenberg moment. Lutherans were present at that service, and I found the occasion enthralling.

My serious reading of the Reformer began around that time. Three years later, I took a quotation from him as a text for my ordination card: "One does not become a theologian simply by reading and studying, but through conflict, temptation, being condemned, dying and living."

Over the years, it has lost none of its power to challenge or console, and I have found it to be the most compelling definition of any serious theological endeavour. But there is more to Luther than theology, or the simplistic picture of the champion of God's grace who defied Rome and brought the word of God to his people in a language that they could understand.

TWO other narratives deserve our attention: one casts a long shadow; the other is redemptive, and reminds us of what lies at the heart of a practical theological vocation. The shadow that dogs Luther - the contradiction in his life and thought - concerns his unflinching allegiance to Jesus Christ, born a Jew, and his implacable loathing of Jews.

Luther kept several secretaries busy with his writings, but even his most fervent admirers regret the publication of his 65,000-word anti-Semitic treatise of 1543, On the Jews and their Lies. This is the text that describes Jews as "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision and law must be accounted as filth".

He urged his readers to purge this taint by burning Jewish schools and houses, confiscating their religious writings, and requiring that they be compelled to work as agricultural slaves. Some 400 years later, such texts featured in the Nuremburg rallies.

Trying to make sense of this contradiction has led some German Lutheran churches to denounce the treatise. Lutheran scholarship has been more cautious, arguing in some cases that the Reformer's rage against the Jews is most evident in his later years, when chronic illness twisted his better judgement.


I FIND this phrase, "his better judgement", instructive. It reminds me that behind the invective of a vile treatise and the image we have of a polemicist and scriptural scholar, there stands a pastor - a cleric of the small town of Wittenberg, whose daily pastoral duties, frequently and properly, took precedence over his writing and lecturing.

Luther baptised, celebrated the Lord's supper, absolved penitents, visited the sick, and held the dying in his arms. He gave hope to the lost, and succour to individuals in need of consolation. Note also the titles of some of his most poignant writings: Fourteen Consolations for Those Who Labour and are Burdened (1520); A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend (1535); A Comfort for Women with Whom Things Have Gone Awry during Childbirth (1542).

In addition to these, there are printed sermons, pamphlets, and personal correspondence that addressed the needs of frightened citizens and grieving souls. In the pulpit, Luther spoke intimately to his people, reflecting not only on what it means to be human, but also how disciples learn to endure the hardships that are necessarily woven into the pilgrim's way.

The pastoral principles that shaped his life were printed in a handbook for pastors, first published in 1582. Many preachers and burden-bearers were sustained by its wisdom and compassion. In the 1530s, at table with friends, Luther teased out the meaning of the Latin word "pastor" (shepherd), and described the calling in terms of speaking and doing the truth "that always feeds and protects".

This aspect of Luther is known by relatively few, and his parish work has often been treated as a mundane sideline to the mercurial vocation that helped to forge a different future for Europe.

To take his pastoral aspect more seriously is to remember that ministry in the Church is not reducible to management. It calls for the deep, difficult, and holy work that constitutes the care of others. Luther's pastoral writings reveal a flawed personality that was also rich and warm. They also tell us that big and decent lives can make big and tragic mistakes. 

The Revd Dr Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and Theological Consultant to the diocese of Liverpool. He is the author of several books, including On Being Saved (DLT, 2011) and How to be Wise (SPCK, 2013).

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