Martin Luther’s Mistake
by Paul Harris
I grew up attending a Protestant church on Sundays. Today, there are about 800 million Protestants in the world.1 The Protestant tradition began in 1517 with Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses.”2 Martin Luther believed that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. Because Jews rejected this belief, Martin Luther turned against them. In his 1543 essay, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Martin Luther advocated extreme violence against Jews. He urged his supporters to “set fire to their synagogues or schools….I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.…I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings…be taken from them….that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them….[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.”3 In the 1930’s, Martin Luther’s essay was used by Nazis to generate hatred against Jews. So Martin Luther may bear some responsibility for the Holocaust.
What was Martin Luther’s mistake and how can we correct it? How could he advocate extreme violence toward other people in the name of Jesus? Does this violent attitude come from the Bible? Can a desire for salvation combined with a fear of damnation lead one to evil? What is the appropriate attitude for Christians to have toward non-Christians?
Is the way to salvation faith, or is it love? “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him….There is no fear in love….If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:16-20.)
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13.) Why is love greater than faith and hope? First, God is love. No one says that God is faith or God is hope. Second, faith and hope refer to the future. Love is eternal. Third, people have different faiths and different hopes. These differences lead to conflicts which keep people apart. Love brings people together. When asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40.)
1 Jay Diamond, Larry. Plattner, Marc F. and Costopoulos, Philip J. World Religions and Democracy. 2005, page 119. "Not only do Protestants presently constitute 13 percent of the world’s population—about 800 million people—but since 1900 Protestantism has spread rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America."
2 Simon, Edith (1966). Great Ages of Man: The Reformation. Time-Life Books. pp. pp. 120-121.
3 Michael. Robert. "Luther, Luther Scholars, and the Jews," Encounter 46 (Autumn 1985) No. 4:343-344.