Dialogika Resources

Luther, Lutheranism, and the Jews

Representatives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) met in Stockholm in July 1983 to mark the 500 centenary of Martin Luther. The LWF Assembly, meeting in Budapest the next year, voted to receive the LWF-IJCIC statements with gratitude and to commend them to the LWF member churches for study and consideration.

Joint Statement

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary on Luther’s birth, representatives of the world Jewish community and world Lutheran community have met in Stockholm July 11-13, 1983, for their second official dialogue.

Meeting in Stockholm, we are mindful of the compassionate response of Scandinavian Christians to the plight of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution forty years ago. This spirit renews our faith in the human capacity to confront evil with courage and determination.

The deliberations on the theme of “Luther, Lutheranism, and the Jews” were informed by an openness of views and a spirit of mutual respect for the integrity and dignity of our faith communities. The discussions revealed a depth of mutual understanding and trust.

  1. We affirm the integrity and dignity of our two faith communities and repudiate any organized proselytizing of each other.

  2. We pledge to combat all forms of racial and religious prejudice and express our solidarity with all who suffer the denial of full religious freedom.

  3. Sharing in the common patrimony of the Prophets of Israel and inspired by their vision, we commit ourselves to strive for a world in which the threat of nuclear warfare will be ended, where poverty and hunger will be eradicated, in which violence and terrorism will be overcome, and a just and lasting peace will be established.

We welcome this historic encounter, which we prayerfully hope will mark a new chapter, with trust replacing suspicion and with reciprocal respect replacing prejudice. To this end, we commit ourselves to periodic consultations and joint activities that will strengthen our common bonds in service to humanity.

Lutheran Statement

We Lutherans take our name and much of our understanding of Christianity from Martin Luther. But we cannot accept or condone the violent verbal attacks that the Reformer made against the Jews.
Lutherans and Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible differently. But we believe that a christological reading of the Scriptures does not lead to anti-Judaism, let alone antisemitism.

We hold that an honest, historical treatment of Luther’s attacks on the Jews takes away from modern antisemites the assumption that they may legitimately call on the authority of Luther’s name to bless their antisemitism. We insist that Luther does not support racial antisemitism, nationalistic antisemitism and political antisemitism. Even the deplorable religious antisemitism of the 16th century, to which Luther’s attacks made important contribution, is a horrible anachronism when translated to the conditions of the modern world. We recognize with deep regret, however, that Luther has been used to justify such antisemitism in the period of National Socialism and that his writings lent themselves to such abuse. Although there remain conflicting assumptions, built into the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, they need not, and should not, lead to the animosity and the violence of Luther’s treatment of the Jews. Martin Luther opened up our eyes to a deeper understanding of the Old Testament and showed us the depth of our common inheritance and the roots of our faith.

Yet a frank examination also forces Lutherans and other Christians to confront the anti-Jewish attitudes of their past and present. Many of the anti-Jewish utterances of Luther have to be explained in the light of his polemic against what he regarded as misinterpretations of the Scriptures. He attacked these interpretations, since for him everything now depended on a right understanding of the Word of God.
The sins of Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks, the violence of his attacks on the Jews, must be acknowledged with deep distress. And all occasions for similar sin in the present or the future must be removed from our churches.

Hostility toward the Jews began long before Luther and has been a continuing evil after him: The history of the centuries following the Reformation saw in Europe the gradual acceptance of religious pluralism. The church was not always the first to accept this development; yet there have also been examples of leadership by the church in the movement to accept Jews as full fellow citizens and members of society.

Beginning in the last half of the 19th century antisemitism increased in Central Europe and at the same time Jewish people were being integrated in society. This brought to the churches, particularly in Germany, an unwanted challenge. Paradoxically the churches honored the people Israel of the Bible but rejected the descendants of those people, myths were perpetuated about the Jews and deprecatory references appeared in Lutheran liturgical and educational material. Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was used to justify passivity in the face of totalitarian claims. These and other less theological factors contributed to the failures which have been regretted and repeatedly confessed since 1945.

To their credit it is to be said that there were individuals and groups among Lutherans who in defiance of totalitarian power defended their Jewish neighbors, both in Germany and elsewhere.

Lutherans of today refuse to be bound by all of Luther’s utterances on the Jews. We hope we have learned from the tragedies of the recent past. We are responsible for seeing that we do not now nor in the future leave any doubt about our position on racial and religious prejudice and that we afford to all the human dignity, freedom and friendship that are the right of all the Father’s children.

Jewish Statement

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther, representatives of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) have met for three days in Stockholm with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation to examine the theme: “Luther, Lutheranism, and the Jews.”

During this year, members of the world Lutheran family have been reviewing the teachings and actions of Luther and their religious, social and political implications. The teachings of Luther have profoundly affected the course of Jewish history, especially in Europe. We are aware of the exploitation of Luther’s anti-Judaism by the Nazis to sanction their genocidal campaign against the Jewish people.

In recent years, Lutheran leaders in Germany, Scandinavia, the U.S.A. and elsewhere have made significant efforts to uproot these teachings of contempt that emerged in the writings of Luther in the 16th century. We are heartened by the affirmative direction of the Lutheran-Jewish relationship as manifested in our dialogue in Stockholm.

The Jewish participants welcome the commitment of the Lutheran partners in dialogue to respect the living reality of Judaism from the perspective of Jewish self-understanding and their undertaking that Lutheran writings will never again serve as a source for the teaching of hatred for Judaism and the denigration of the Jewish people. This heralds a new chapter in the relationship between Jews and Lutherans which should find a practical expression in teaching, preaching and worship as well as joint activities for social justice, human rights and the cause of peace.

We pledge ourselves to collaborate with our Lutheran colleagues in facing these common challenges. We trust that this year of Martin Luther observances will thus prove a turning point leading to a constructive future between Lutherans and Jews throughout the world.