Luther and The Protestant's Dilemma

I’ve just read The Protestant’s Dilemma, and found it a helpful, interesting book. But I kind of got a bit lost at the chapter about Luther’s virtue. I’m not particularly interested in the man’s sins, they don’t have a bearing on whether or not he taught true things. The bible is full of men who committed gross sins, but God still used them.

Now, as it happens, I found the rest of the book really convicting and challenging, but honestly, most of the protestants I know would just look at you blankly if you told them about Luther’s sins, and some, like myself would say that David and Moses were murderers but God still gave us scripture through them. To be ultra clear, I’m not saying I think Luther was right, as I’m more and more convinced he wasn’t. but his virtue? Irrelevant to my interests.

I think that many people inside and outside of the faith have virtues. There are some very charitable humanitarians outside of any faith. People tend to be a mixture of both good and evil… though I think for salvation it’s important to place all of our trust in God and to follow His teachings as well as we can. As Jesus teaches us, to love God and to love our neighbour.

Edit: Hopefully I haven’t missed your point entirely as I haven’t read the book you’re referring to. :slight_smile:

No, i don’t think you’ve missed the point :slight_smile: I guess I am saying what you’ve put better - everyone is a mix of good and bad, Luther was no different. I just didn’t connect with that chapter and thought the arguments in the rest of the book were quite strong enough without it.

One problem here is that most of them hold a double standard which somewhat disregards Luther and other n-Cs misconduct while vilifying Catholic leaders and popes for theirs. Neither case is worthwhile…

I have that book and the part you refer to is actually pretty mild compared to some people’s opinions and I suspect that what Devon Rose is trying to say is that in neither case does the truth of teachings (or lack thereof) infer impeccability on the teachers in question, which is correct.

It’s a very good book that I think would be an asset in any Catholic’s library. :thumbsup:

I’ve always wondered if Luther will be accountable (in the afterlife) for corrupting the fullness of the Catholic faith. Personally I’m not judging him, but if a person advocates for the removal of Catholic church doctrines, it seems serious. Of course Protestants love the Lord, however being under the banner of Protest-tant is a dicey business. One is asserting that they protest the teachings of the Catholic Church which by the way was done vehemently by myself at one time.

You make a fair point, and I take it. It is an excellent book, and I have had many fruitful discussions with my staunch Calvinst husband over it. He’s not nearly as staunch as he used to be :wink:

I recently read a book about anti-semitism and I couldn’t believe what Luther had to “say” about Jews - in fact, a whole chapter was devoted to Luther and his ideas about Jews – I believe the Catholic Church definitely didn’t approve of Luther’s beliefs and “argued” with him about them.

Did it also say what others within the Catholic Church said about the Jews? There is no excuse for Luther’s anti-Judaism (anti-semitism is racial. Luther did not oppose the Jewish race, and in fact spent much of his life trying to get Jews to convert). But Luther was not alone, and in many ways, was a product of his time.


Hi Eru,

I have not read this book so it’s really hard to say if I agree or disagree with how it treats Luther. That being said though, I don’t think the issue is Luther’s sinfulness or lack thereof. Much of the history of the man is very ‘under-reported’ in some circles, but the real issue is whether he was right in his doctrinal challenges of the Church.

Was he doing God’s Will when he challenged/refuted/denied more than 4 dozen Catholic doctrines? I think that the answer to this basic question becomes more clear when we look at ALL of Luther’s teachings. His teachings on the Jews, the Peasants, the Anti-Christ, marriage, etc, etc, are, I think extremely helpful in determining whether his better known doctrinal innovations (Salvation by Faith Alone and Sola Scriptura) are really in keeping with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.

There is no question that Luther’s actions against the Jews have earned him a certain very well deserved but also little known ‘reputation’. Barb, if I could ask, what is the name of the book that you are referring to?

Hi Jon,

I think that your comments might inadvertently lead to some people developing a misunderstanding about this situation. While there were Catholics in Luther’s day who wrote against the Jews, nobody, and I do mean nobody but Luther made any of the 7 horrific recommendations that he made as to what should physically be done to the Jews. If you believe otherwise and would like to suggest that somebody (like Eck or anybody else) was anywhere near as ‘harsh’ towards the Jews as Luther, then please post the quotes and then we can all compare them to Luther’s recommendations.

Whether or not Luther was ‘anti-semetic’ is a question of much academic debate, and that debate too is very revealing. Furthermore, it should be noted that Luther’s recommendations actually did have real world consequences, consequences that have been recorded in history.

God Bless You Jon, Topper

Correct. How does that saying go? Until you walk a mile in someone’s shoes…It is far too easy to look back with the knowledge of history and be judgmental of everyone.

Hi Barb,
Before my earlier comment to you is misconstrued, or even misrepresented, I am in no way making any kind of comparison between Luther’s anti-Judaic writings and that of anyone else. It was only my intention to point out that Luther’s did not occur in a vacuum, or even in an era of pro-Jewish sentiments among Christians of central Europe at that time.

ISTM that both Catholics of good will and Lutherans of good will would share in the condemnation of such writings and positions, regardless of which side they came from.


Thanks, and I agree. I think it is far more important to look back and make a judgement about the thinking and the position espoused. As I just mentioned to Barb, Christians of good will on both sides reject the anti-Judaism that Luther projected, and that of others as well.


Most certainly.

Hi Jon,

I agree 100% and I also agree that it is important to make a judgment about the position espoused. Noted Luther biographer Richard Marius put it this way:

“…….Luther’s expressions about the Jews varied over his lifetime, but it seems foolish and even immoral to seek to mitigate or explain away or cover over his prevailing hatred for the Jewish people.” Marius, “Martin Luther, The Christian Between God and Death”, pg. 372

Of course nobody defends Luther’s writings and actions against the Jews, but by the same token, I don’t think that the importance of the Jews in Luther’s theological thought is all that well understood either.

Recognizing the delicacy needed in discussing this subject, possibly the best way to approach it is by referencing primarily Lutheran Scholars who have devoted a great deal of research and thought to the subject. Lutheran Professor Eric W. Gritsch wrote an excellent analysis of the topic in “Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism, Against His Better Judgment”. “Martin Luther, The Bible, and the Jewish People” by Lutheran Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna (both of whom are Professors at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, is another excellent resource.

In regards to the importance of the Jews in Luther’s theology:

“….a grim problem at the heart of Lutheran (and Protestant) origins, [is] that of Luther and the Jews. The literature on the subject is substantial and divisive. While efforts to absolve Luther as simply a man of his times – as one who merely passed on and perpetuated what he himself had already received from his cultural and theological tradition – have generally been jettisoned, there still persists even among the educated public the perception that the truly problematic aspects of Luther’s anti-Jewish attitudes are confined to the final stages of his career……Luther’s theological evaluation of Judiasm and the Jewish people remains essentially unchanged from the earliest stages of his career….When one reads Luther with a careful eye toward ‘the Jewish question’ (and without a predisposition to exonerate him), it becomes apparent that, **far from being tangential, the Jews are a central, core component of his thought and that this was the case throughout his career, not only at the end. ** If this is in fact so, then it follows that **it is essentially impossible to understand the heart and building blocks of Luther’s theology (justification, faith, salvation, grace, freedom, Law, and Gospel, and so on) without acknowledging the crucial role played by ‘the Jews’ in his fundamental thinking.” **Schramm and Stjerna, “Martin Luther, The Bible, and the Jewish People”, pg. 3-4

Luther’s writings and actions against the Jews are sometimes represented as an aberration or an anomaly within his theology. However, according to these two Lutheran Professors, understanding the building blocks of Luther’s Theology, including justification, faith, salvation, grace, freedom, etc., requires an understanding the ‘crucial role’ of the Jews in Luther’s fundamental thinking. Obviously this is an important topic.

God Bless You Jon, Topper

I take objection to comparing Moses and David to Luther. Moses and David were on the whole men of extraordinary holiness. Whatever you think of Luther’s teaching, I don’t think he’s a strong contender for the heavenly hall of fame.

Maybe not, but the point was that they were flawed individuals who were used by God. And I have to say I don’t like to downplay their flaws, a little murder here and there is not a minor thing, or a blip on an otherwise good character.

I have no dog in the fight to prove Luther’s saintliness, he was, from all the evidence a flawed and ordinary man. I confess I don’t understand the Catholic need to either make everyone flawless if they’re holy or heretics wholly wicked. I’ve always found official saint’s flaws really encouraging in that they encourage myself, a deeply flawed individual, to reach for the very holiest life.


I haven’t yet read the book. Could you give some insight on the book? Perhaps a little synopsis?Is it good? What exactly is the dilemma? What points made you think?

A synopsis is difficult, as it’s quite like a catechism, in that each ‘dilemma’ is set out in a chapter devoted to it. I found all of the stuff about sola scriptura and the closing of the canon very compelling. I found myself asking my husband if he had an answer to these proposition, and he had to admit he didn’t. I’ve been quite feisty in the past in defending Sola Scritpura, but this is the book that finally stripped out the last nail that held me to the concept.

I believe the point of the book was to point out that there WAS sin in his life, and maybe… just maybe the reason Luther went off on plenary indulgences was because of a guilt thing, not a theological thing.

The others who bring up the Saints have a point too.

David didn’t need to kill Uriah without the sin of adultery.
Moses didn’t need to strike the rock without the sin of pride.
Paul didn’t need to kill the Christians without the sin of pride.

Luther didn’t need to reject tradition without the sin in his life.

I can see how it looks like “oh, he was a bad man”, but we all have sinned. It is not so much sin as a problem (because Jesus took care of that problem), but what it causes us to do.

Luther had issues with penance. Because as you seek reconciliation in your life, you see the same thing over and over and over and … well, you get the point. So let’s do something about the need for this by changing the theology.

Problems always abound when we attempt to cover our sin instead of confessing it to God.

Hi Q,

I agree.

We all know that God has, is, and will again in the future work through sinful men. The question in the case of Martin Luther is whether He actually did? Did God chose to ‘Reform’ the Church through this particular man?

It would seem that if God wanted to work through a man to correct the ‘wrongs’ of the Church, He would pick a man who would be ‘attractive’ to others, a man who would exemplify the kind of attributes that others would want to emulate. If this were the case, it would seem that Luther would be a ‘strange choice’.

Lutheran Professor James Arne Nestingen points out the dichotomy involved in Luther’s nature and character:

“Martin Luther the historical figure assigned to teach biblical studies at an obscure university……Martin Luther, cultural symbol, parted company on or about October 31, 1517, and have had an unpredictable relationship ever since. Assessing the differences is the critical task in approaching this compellingly attractive and equally repugnant man.” Nestingen, “Companion”, pg. 240

It would seem that if God really wanted to have people follow His choice to lead a ‘Reformation’ of the Church, He would not have chosen someone who could be described (by a Lutheran) 500 years later as ‘equally repugnant’. After all, we know that Luther’s positions on things like the Peasants, the Jews, the Anabaptists, etc. did a great deal to drive people AWAY from his radical theology. God certainly could have chosen a ‘reformer’ to correct the Church who could have ONLY been ‘compellingly attractive’ if He had wanted to.

Richard Marius comments specifically on Luther’s dealings with the Jews and his character:

“**Luther’s virulent railing against the Jews seems to reflect an aspect of his character. ** As a man capable of giving complete devotion to the task at hand, all the power of his amazing personality was directed at whatever object was in front of him. Something about him calls to mind a high-volume fire hose with a reservoir of enormous volume and force behind it, directed by small focus of the nozzle and so delivered with shattering intensity against the Jews or the pope or rulers who displeased him or his foes on every hand so that one might suppose that these antagonists commanded his life and all his energy……**that Luther’s hostility to Jews was not the same as modern anti-Semitism does not excuse it. It was as bad as he could make it, and that was bad enough to leave a legacy that had hateful consequences for centuries.” **Marius, pg. 379-80

As for Luther’s teaching – it would seem that Luther’s teachings about and against the Jews are a good example of the “quality” of his ability to discern Christian teachings in Scripture. In “On the Jews and Their Lies”, in which Luther made his horrific ‘recommendations’, he referenced Holy Scripture more than 150 times. In his mind his recommendations were very much supported by Scripture. Either Luther was very wrong in his exegesis of Scripture about the Jews – OR – God actually wanted the Jews to be dealt with in Luther’s extremely harsh manner that Luther dictated.

The question then becomes:

Do we think that Luther correctly interpreted Holy Scripture on the matter of the Jews?

If not, then why would we assume that he correctly interpreted Scripture on all of those other matters where he defied the teachings of the Church?

God Bless You Q, Topper

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