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Beyond politics

Evaluating accusations of sexual misconduct

The past two days have brought more Roy Moore accusers, but the big news is the new front in the sexual predator wars: Washington, with accusations against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that contain photographic evidence. This development shows how the current cultural moment can be a positive one for a Biblical sexual ethic—if we don’t let short-term considerations overwhelm our theology.

Two thousand years ago the New Testament displayed a pro-woman outlook. In opposition to Rome’s condescension to women as property, the Gospels and the Book of Acts show them, like men, as made in God’s image and worthy of respect. Women followed Jesus, witnessed the empty tomb, and were central in the formation of early churches. The Apostle Paul told men to love and defend their wives and not treat them as sexual playthings or kitchen help who could be dismissed for burning dinner.

Over the past week the spotlight on sexual predators moved from Hollywood and New York to Alabama, but that’s a temporary stopping point on the road to Washington. I’ve only spent a not-so-grand total of about three years in D.C., but even I have heard of the sexual harassment and more that young women face there. It’s important for evangelicals not to defend un-Biblical treatment of women but to expose and reduce it.

We can’t do that if in every instance we calculate whether it will work to our immediate political detriment. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem did that regarding President Bill Clinton in 1998. She acknowledged in a New York Times column on March 22, 1998, that “President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy. But feminists will still have been right to resist pressure by the right wing and the media to call for his resignation or impeachment.”

Steinem said the Monica Lewinsky affair really did not count, despite Lewinsky’s age and the power differential, because she welcomed the attention. Regarding Clinton’s attack on Kathleen Willey, Steinem said he “made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”

Steinem concluded by saying it didn’t even matter that Clinton lied under oath, because “we have a responsibility to make it O.K. for politicians to tell the truth—providing they are respectful of ‘no means no; yes means yes’—and still be able to enter high office, including the Presidency. Until then, we will disqualify energy and talent the country needs.”

Liberal social critic Caitlin Flanagan wrote earlier this week in The Atlantic that “The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles.”

And that returns us to a central question concerning U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore: We still don’t know whether he did what he’s accused of, but some WORLD members have told me that if he made passes at young women and tried to get physical with some but gave up when they pushed him away, so what? In other words—and keeping in mind differences between the accusations against Moore and those against Clinton—some conservative evangelicals are now acting toward Moore as feminists acted toward Bill Clinton.

Again, I have no problem with those who thoughtfully consider all the evidence. My concern is with those who say the evidence doesn’t matter because Republicans MUST win this election.

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Associated Press/Photo by Nell Redmond (file)

November 6 at 8:55 AM


Mourners attend a candle light vigil after a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 5. (Joe Mitchell/Reuters)

While millions of other Christians were singing hymns or opening their Bibles or taking communion this past Sunday, at that very moment, a gunman was opening fire on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Tex. This, believed to be the largest church shooting in history, ended with at least 26 people killed, according to authorities.

Several children were among the fallen, including pastor Frank Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter Annabelle. Whatever the shooter’s twisted objective might have been, we do know this: It won’t work.

The goal the gunman sought, to terrorize worshipers, has been attempted constantly over the centuries around the world by cold, rational governments and terrorist groups — all thinking that they could, by the trauma of violence, snuff out churches, or at least intimidate those churches into hiding from one another. Such violent tactics always end up with the exact opposite of what the intimidators intend: a resilient church that, if anything, moves forward with even more purpose than before. Why

Whether they are crazed loners in the United States or jihadist cells in Syria or governing councils in the old Soviet bloc, these forces fundamentally misunderstand the source of Christianity’s strength in the first place. Killers assume, after all, that gunfire or poison gas or mass beheadings will show Christians how powerless we are. That is true. They assume that this sense of powerlessness will rob the community of its will to be the church. That is false.

If they looked overhead, in almost any of the churches they attempt to destroy, these killers might see what they miss: the cross.

The church was formed against the threat of terror. Jesus himself stood before a Roman governor who told him that the state had the authority to kill him, in the most horrific way possible — staking him to a crossbeam to bleed slowly to death before a jeering crowd. That’s, of course, exactly what Pilate did— and the empire’s intimidation seemed to work, at first.

Most of Jesus’ core followers went into hiding, out of fear that they would be endangered next. That’s exactly what crosses were designed to do: Their public display was to warn people that they could be the next in line

The very ones who scattered, though, soon returned, testifying that they had seen the crucified Jesus alive. The result was an open proclamation of the Christian message that led to thousands joining themselves to the tiny persecuted movement. Within a matter of centuries, the terrorists themselves, the Roman Empire, would be gone, with the church marching forward into the future.

The reason was not that the church came to believe that they could find safety in the threats of violence. The reason was that the church came to conclude, in the midst of the violence, that death is not the endpoint.

Much of the New Testament is made up of letters from the apostles of Jesus on why the cross is, counterintuitively, the power of God. The Christian gospel does not cower before death. Those who give their lives in witness to Christ are not helpless victims, in our view. In fact, the Book of Revelation maintains that those who are martyred are in fact ruling with Christ. This is not in spite of the fact that they are killed. They triumph even as they are killed. That’s because they are joined to a Christ who has been dead, and never will be again

The day of the shooting was, for many churches, a day of remembrance for the persecuted church. Christians do not see as victims those around the world who are rooted out of their churches, even lined up and executed. We see in them the power Jesus promised us: the power that is made perfect in weakness.

To eradicate churches, our opponents will need a better strategy.

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Martin Luther - Reformation Day

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation — especially of Martin Luther — was that the word of God comes to us in the form of a book, the Bible. Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.

The life-giving and life-threatening risk of the Reformation was the rejection of the pope and councils as the infallible, final authority of the church. Luther’s adversary, Sylvester Prierias, wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic” (Luther, 193). It followed that Luther would be excluded from the Roman Catholic Church. “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils” (Luther, 204).

This rediscovery of the word of God above all earthly powers shaped Luther and the entire Reformation. But Luther’s path to that rediscovery was a tortuous one, beginning with a lightning storm at age 21.

Fearful Monk

On July 2, 1505, on the way home from law school, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and was hurled to the ground by lightning. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Fifteen days later, to his father’s dismay, Luther left his legal studies and kept his vow.

He knocked at the gate of the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order. At 21, he became an Augustinian monk. At his first Mass two years later, Luther was so overwhelmed at the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away. The prior persuaded him to continue.

But this incident of fear and trembling would not be an isolated one in Luther’s life. Luther himself would later remember of these years, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction” (Selections, 12).

Luther would not be married for another twenty years — to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525 — which means he lived with sexual temptations as a single man till he was 42. But “in the monastery,” he said, “I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me.” His all-consuming longing was to know the happiness of God’s favor. “If I could believe that God was not angry with me,” he said, “I would stand on my head for joy.”

Good News: God’s Righteousness

In 1509, Luther’s beloved superior and counselor and friend, Johannes von Staupitz, allowed Luther to begin teaching the Bible. Three years later, on October 19, 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and von Staupitz turned over to him the chair in biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which Luther held the rest of his life.

As Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages, his troubled conscience seethed beneath the surface — especially as he confronted the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16–17. To Luther, “the righteousness of God” could only mean one thing: God’s righteous punishment of sinners. The phrase was not “gospel” to him; it was a death sentence.

But then, in the work of a moment, all Luther’s hatred for the righteousness of God turned to love. He remembers,

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” . . . And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

He concludes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Standing on the Book

Luther was not the pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, but he did share the preaching with his pastor friend, Johannes Bugenhagen. The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture. For example, in 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the next year 137 sermons. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529 we have 121 sermons. So the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.

Over the next 28 years, Luther would preach thousands of sermons, publish hundreds of pamphlets and books, endure scores of controversies, and counsel innumerable German citizens — all to spread the good news of God’s righteousness to a people trapped in a system of their own merit. Through it all, Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.

Luther said with resounding forcefulness in 1545, the year before he died, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.”

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 Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at 9Marks.

The chime rang out from the bell tower. Time to gather for Mass.

Yet this was not a regular Sunday. Someone told us we would hear a homily. Usually we only heard homilies at Lent or Advent, as well as on the feast day of our church’s namesake. But this was October, and we weren’t sure why we would hear a homily in October.

Then Jonas, the cloth merchant, explained. Last week’s business took him to the town across the ridge. All his customers there were still reeling from what they had heard last Sunday. Their priest read a homily that could only be described as a tale of horror. He described dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory. He put his hand to his ear and bent down toward the ground as if he could hear the groans. He depicted flames so real that everyone in the pews thought they felt the temperature rising. One customer told Jonas that women had actually swooned. Afterward, no one dared to utter a single word. All shuffled out in silence.

All this happened last Sunday, Jonas said. Then on Monday a monk named Tetzel pulled into the same town in a grand wagon. Trumpets blew and banners unfurled. The archbishop’s own guards surrounded him. In the shadow of the steeple in the middle of the town square, his attendants set up a table. They piled a stack of parchment high on the one side and cautiously placed a chest on the other. The chest had three locks. Everyone knows that if a chest has three locks it’s owned by three people who don’t trust each other.

Then Tetzel cried out, “Friends of this town, you have heard how your loved ones suffer in purgatory. You have heard their cries. The flames have reached up and licked your very own boots.”

“How shamefully,” Tetzel continued, “you go about your business. You spend your money on every little trifle. And, oh, how your loved ones suffer. Enough. Step forward. Leo X, the Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ on earth, has been gracious and merciful to you and has affixed his seal to this indulgence. Now come and do your duty. And now you have a very special deal reserved for you. For a little extra guilder you can free yourself from purgatory. Yes, God be praised, give to the church your mite and the gracious Holy Father in Rome will see to it that you and all your dead relatives will be in Paradise itself, not enduring for a moment the purging flames of purgatory.”

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice:

Every time a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal. For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’s book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).

Almost certainly, the most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

In the centuries preceding the Reformation, preaching had been in steady decline. Eclipsed by the Mass and rendered non-essential by the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism, preaching had lost the primacy it once enjoyed in the days of the early post-apostolic church.

By the 15th century, only a small percentage of people could expect to hear their priest preach to them regularly in their local parish church. The English reformer Hugh Latimer spoke of “strawberry parsons” who, like strawberries, appeared but once a year. Even then, the homily would often be in Latin, unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).

The most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, John Calvin wrote, pre-Reformation sermons were usually divided according to this basic pattern:

The first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.

As a result, ignorance of God’s Word and gospel was profound and widespread.

Centrality of the Sacred Desk

In eye-catching contrast, the reformers made the sermon the focal point of the church’s regular worship, even emphasizing it architecturally through the physical and conspicuous centrality of the pulpit. And while today we tend to think of the leading reformers as theologians (and therefore, not preachers), it was preaching—especially expository preaching—that normally defined and took up the bulk of their ministry.

For a quarter-century in Wittenberg, Luther preached through the Bible, usually at least twice on Sundays and three times total each week.

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If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

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Nuremberg, 1946

In 1946, Julius Streicher was on trial for his life. He had published the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and had been captured at the end of World War II. The Allies put him on trial alongside 23 other prominent Nazis at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. During the trial Streicher was asked: “Witness, what aims did you pursue with your speeches and your articles in Der Stürmer?” Streicher replied:

I did not intend to agitate or inflame but to enlighten. Anti-Semitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. . . . In the book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent’s brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them. Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution.

Streicher was a propagandist who devoted his life to spreading slander and falsehood, but on this occasion he was telling the truth.

Wittenburg, 1543

The book Streicher mentions, The Jews and Their Lies, was written by Luther in 1543, three years before his death. It was closely followed by another anti-Semitic treatise: Vom Schem Hamphoras (On the Ineffable Name). Oxford University historian Lyndal Roper summarizes the content of these two works in her recent highly acclaimed biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet [review]:

The Jews, he alleges, look for biblical truth “under the sow’s tail,” that is, their interpretation of the Bible comes from looking in a pig’s anus. . . . They defame Christian belief, “impelled by the Devil, to fall into this like filthy sows fall into the trough.” If they see a Jew, Christians should “throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away.” Luther calls for the secular authorities to burn down all the synagogues and schools, and “what won’t burn should be covered over with earth, so that not a stone or piece of slag of it should be seen for all eternity.” The Jews’ houses should be destroyed and they should be put under one roof, like the gypsies. The Talmud and prayer books should be destroyed and Jewish teachers banned. They should be prevented from using the roads, usury banned, and the Jews forced to undertake physical labor instead. Assets from moneylending should be confiscated and used to support Jews who converted. This was a program of complete cultural eradication. And Luther meant it. . . .

Luther’s anti-Semitism then reached a crescendo of physical revulsion. He imagined Jews kissing and praying to the Devil’s excrement: “the Devil has emptied . . . his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews, and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat, drink, and worship.” In a kind of inverted baptismal exorcism, the Devil fills the mouth, nose, and ears of the Jews with filth: “He stuffs and squirts them so full, that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes, it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.” Whipping himself into a frenzy, Luther invokes Judas, the ultimate Jew: “When Judas hanged himself, so that his guts ripped, and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss (as one calls it) with the other relics, and afterwards together they ate the shit and drank, from which they got such sharp sight that they are able to see such complex glosses in Scripture.”

This summary provides only a sampling of Luther’s hate-filled vitriol. Multiple passages in his 1543 writings against the Jews are just as abhorrent.

America, 2017

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Exasperated by the widespread selling of indulgences—pardons for sin sold by the Roman Catholic church to fund clerical debt and architectural projects in Rome—Luther bravely declared that Christ’s merits are “freely available without the keys of the pope.” Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses set in motion the Europe-wide revival of biblical faith we call the Reformation. Luther has accordingly been the historical figure placed front and center in this year of commemoration known as Reformation 500.

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, however, Reformation 500 puts me in a strange position. Luther’s gospel service cannot be denied; I myself have benefited from it greatly. But his attitude toward my own race was one of unrestrained hostility. How should I think about such a man? To frame the question more broadly, how should Luther’s anti-Semitism affect his legacy?

I have three proposals.

1. Luther’s anti-Semitism should be acknowledged without qualification.

I’ve noticed a pattern when Christians address the subject of Luther’s hostility to the Jews. First there’s acknowledgement; then comes an attempt to dial down the awfulness and make it less troubling. The desire to defend Luther is understandable—we owe him so much. But the excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, at one recent conference a speaker said this: “Luther was wrong . . . but this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism. That’s really a 20th-century phenomenon. . . . It wasn’t an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this; it was a theological one.” You can almost hear the audience’s sigh of relief. But the notion that anti-Semitism is a modern phenomenon is a fallacy. Although the term itself is relatively recent (according to the Anti-Defamation League it was first used in 1873), the reality it describes dates back to the 5th century B.C., when Haman “sought to destroy the Jews” simply because they were “the people of Mordecai,” his enemy (Est. 3:6). Whenever Jews are singled out for hostile treatment, that behavior can rightly be described as anti-Semitism. In any case, there’s ample evidence that Luther’s theological opposition to Jews was paired with ethnic hatred. Why else would he repeatedly picture them smeared with pig manure? To take a people’s distinctive feature—in this case Jewish avoidance of pigs—and maliciously turn it against them is textbook racism.

Others attempt to defend Luther by stressing that in his younger days he had been much friendlier to Jewish people. In his 1523 tract, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, he reminded readers that “the Jews are of the lineage of Christ” and called for better treatment of Jews than they’d received from the popes. While it’s true Luther wasn’t anti-Semitic throughout his life, it’s a serious mistake to make too much of the point. Imagine suffering vicious racial persecution. Would you gain any comfort from knowing your persecutor hadn’t always been a racist? What’s more, Luther’s friendliness to Jews in the early 1520s seems to have been predicated on the progress he expected them to make toward faith in Christ. So from the Jewish perspective, he wasn’t necessarily offering them safe harbor, come what may.

A third way people try to reduce the horror of Luther’s anti-Semitism is by presenting him as a person of his time, a fellow traveler in a generation given over to Jew-hatred. According to this argument, while Luther should be faulted for failing to overcome his culture, we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn, because every culture, including our own, has its blind spots. The problem with this argument is that Luther had in fact overcome his culture’s blind spots, at the time of the 1523 tract mentioned above. It’s like a white pastor in 1930s Mississippi calling for a radical easing of Jim Crow laws, only to double down on segregation two decades later. The one thing you couldn’t say in that pastor’s defense, given his earlier record, is that he simply went along with his generation’s blind spots.

I would advise anyone addressing Luther’s anti-Semitism to say it was evil, and the more closely you look at it, the worse it gets. Any temptation to sugarcoat this bitter pill should be resisted.

2. Luther’s anti-Semitism should—as far as possible—be understood.

The inevitable question raised by Luther’s anti-Semitism is how someone who did so much to glorify Jesus could disobey him so flagrantly in this area. The New Testament describes Jewish people who reject Jesus as “natural branches” broken off the “olive tree” of God’s people. It says to Gentiles, “Do not boast over those branches. . . . They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:18–23). Luther knew those verses. He translated each of those words from Greek into German! Why did he put them to one side, and others like them, in order to pour forth his white-hot hatred?

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions. Explanations can easily morph into excuses like the ones discussed above. But insofar as they’re possible, explanations can help us avoid the same evils by revealing the missteps that take a person down dark paths.

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions.

The main factor leading Luther toward anti-Semitism was his longing for a unified Protestant society. He wanted the “two kingdoms” of church and state to create a community that crushed or banished all threatening groups. In this way he sought a kind of Protestant medievalism. The theological changes he introduced were enough for him; in every other respect he wanted to preserve the medieval order.

So when the 1525 Peasants’ War threatened the medieval political settlement, Luther urged the German princes to “smite, slay, and stab.” When Anabaptists threatened Protestant unity, Luther and his colleague Philip Melanchthon accused them of sedition and blasphemy, and in a 1531 memorandum they argued such offences merited the death penalty. Luther’s comment on this action is telling: “Although it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.” Luther’s unwillingness to see the civil order subverted either politically or theologically meant he ran out of patience with the Jews and could no longer endure their presence in Protestant territory.

He felt he had a God-given right to live in a unified society in this world, and that error fueled his anti-Semitism. Surely there are lessons here for Christians in America today.

3. Luther’s anti-Semitism should harm his reputation.

The essence of the Reformation is that we’re saved not on the basis of our own deeds, but through faith in Jesus. That is why, in the brilliant novel The Hammer of God, a Lutheran pastor joyfully says, “I go about my duties as might a prison warden who carries a letter of pardon for all his criminals.” The pardon Jesus offers through his atoning death covers all our sins, even those as vile as Luther’s. To use Luther’s own formula, the believer is simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and a sinner).

And yet Luther himself writes, in his 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian, “The inner man, who by faith is created in the image of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in whom so many benefits are conferred upon him; and therefore it is his one occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in love that is not constrained.” That is indeed the Bible’s vision for the Christian life (see Romans 6:15–23), and why we should particularly celebrate those Christians who, by the Spirit’s power, live out that vision most comprehensively.

With that in mind, it seems to me Luther is a man we should honor but not celebrate.

For the rest of the post…

  |   October 2, 2017   |  by Russell Moore

A few hours ago I was on the phone with a friend in Las Vegas. He and his neighbors had just lived through, and will be living through for some time, the trauma of seeing in their own city the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I reflected after that conversation what my friend, a strong Christian and a respected leader, would say when asked by those around him, “Where was God in all of this?” He will have a word for his community, but for many Christians, when disaster or great evil strikes, this is a hard question to answer. Maybe that’s you.

The first thing we must do in the aftermath of this sort of horror is to make sure that we do not take the name of God in vain. After a natural disaster or an act of terror, one will always find someone, often claiming the mantle of Christianity, opining about how this moment was God’s judgment on an individual or a city or a nation for some specified sin. Jesus told us specifically not to do this, after his disciples asked whether a man’s blindness was the result of his or his parents’ sin. Jesus said no to both (Jn. 9:1-12). Those self-appointed prophets who would blame the victims for what befalls them are just that, self-appointed. We should listen to Jesus and to his apostles, not to them. Those killed in a terror attack or in a tsunami or in an epidemic are not more sinful than all of the rest of us.

We live in a fallen world, where awful, incomprehensible things happen. When an obvious and egregious injustice such as this one is done, we should stand where God does and see this as real evil, not as an illusion of evil. This means that our response to such should not be some sort of Stoic resignation but instead a lament with those around us who are hurting.

Christians sometimes suppose that our non-Christian friends and neighbors want to hear a detailed explanation, to justify God in light of such horror. The Bible doesn’t give us easy answers. The Word of God instead speaks of the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7). When tragedy fell upon Job, an ancient follower of God, and asked why such happened to him, God did not fully answer him. God instead spoke of his own power and his own presence. That’s exactly what we should do.

We do not know why God does not intervene and stop some tragedies when he does stop others. What we do know, though, is that God stands against evil and violence. We know that God is present for those who are hurting. And we know that God will ultimately call all evil to a halt, in the ushering in of his kingdom. We know that God is, in the words of the hymn, both “merciful and mighty.”

When my wife and I were going through a difficult time, years ago, a friend stopped by, a respected theologian who spoke often and well of God’s sovereign providence. I expected him to speak to us of how God was working in this tragedy we were facing. He didn’t. He cried with us. He sat with us. He prayed with us. And as he left, he turned and said, “Russell, I don’t know why God permitted this to happen to you, but I know this: Jesus loves you, and Jesus is alive and present right now in your life.” I’ve never forgotten those words.

Our neighbors do not need us to provide easy answers to what is, this side of the eschaton, unexplainable. What they need, though, is a reminder for us that life is not the meaningless chaos it seems to be. There is a loving Presence at work in the universe.

For the rest of the post…

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