Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Christ in the University: The Vision of Schlink

Last week the journal of my university, The Cresset, published a revised version of my professorial lecture that I delivered last February. It examines the vision of Christ in a church-related university that was set forth by the Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink (1903-1984) in his own inaugural lecture at Heidelberg University three score and ten years ago.

As I note in the introductory paragraph, Schlink's professorial lecture still speaks meaningfully to the contemporary situation of a church-related university. His vision is worth re-visiting.

If you'd like to read the essay version of my lecture, it is available online here.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Luther and the Holocaust

Nothing is uglier and more disturbing in Martin Luther's writings than his late-in-life, hate-filled polemics against the Jews. In his infamous 60,000-word 1543 booklet, "On the Jews and Their Lies," he urged secular rulers to burn all synagogues and Jewish schools, to raze all Jewish homes and properties, to confiscate Jewish religious writings, to prohibit teaching by Jewish rabbis, to give Jews no safe conduct on the highways, to stop them from money trading, to send their young men into forced labor, and to expel those who refused to be baptized. Two other anti-Jewish writings from the same year, "On the Schem Hamphoras and on the Lineage of Christ" and "On the Last Words of David," also contain extreme language that is consistent with late-medieval anti-Judaic polemics and that seems to have been motivated by rumors about German Jews blaspheming Christ and of Jewish attempts to convert Christians. (For a brief overview of Luther's writings on the Jews, see esp. Gregory Miller, "Luther's Views of the Jews and Turks," in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology, ed. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L'Ubomir Batka [Oxford, 2014], 427-34).

As Martin Marty rightly notes, it doesn't really help to stress that Luther's verbal attacks here seem to have been motivated largely, if not exclusively, by theological concerns, not primarily racial ones: he hoped that the Jews in the "latter days," which he thought was "now," would read their Bible the way he did, Christologically, as pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Christ, and he got bitterly angry when "the rabbis" saw things differently. So "he struck out at them as enemies of the gospel" [Martin Marty, Martin Luther (Viking, 2004), 169].)

Today, living in the shadow of Auschwitz and remembering the murders of the six million Jews at the hands of Nazi perpetrators--many of them German Lutherans who appealed to the Great German Reformer to justify their attitude and actions--Luther's role in "the teaching of contempt" and his actual wrathful words can only be condemned. That his writings are a part of the pre-history of the Holocaust cannot be ignored. Even when some might point to mitigating factors (e.g., "expelling unbaptized Jews is not quite as bad as trying to annihilate them") or stress how here he shows just how much he was a man of his time (e.g., Erasmus and John Eck were other prominent Jew-haters of that era), we cannot exculpate him or explain away his vitriol and vulgarity. (It is shocking to see garbled passages from "On the Jews and Their Lies" being posted on the internet today by neo-Nazis.) Most Lutheran churches (cf. "The Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community") and the Lutheran World Federation have rightly, publicly condemned Luther's antisemitism and all forms of hatred toward the Jews.

As many scholars have noted, Luther should have known better. Eric Gritsch's recent study of Luther's antisemitism (Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism [Eerdmans, 2012]) is subtitled "Against His Better Judgment." After all, Luther had published a widely read explanation to the Fifth Commandment ("You Shall Not Kill"): "We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life's needs" (Kolb/Wengert, 352). He had regularly preached against hatred of others. Luther certainly did not condone the mass murder of men, women, and children. Earlier in his life, in 1523, he had published a rather remarkable essay for its day, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," which, largely free of the hostility he expressed later on, taught that Christians should not mistreat Jews but be guided by "the law of Christian love" in their actions toward them (LW 45.229). Christians and Jews, he insisted against the anti-Judaism of the Roman Church, shared a common ancestry. Unlike his medieval forebears, Luther frequently taught that "we and our great sins and gross misdeeds nailed Jesus, God's true Son, to the cross" (WA 35.576), and thus "you, poor Judas, we dare not blame, nor the band of Jews; ours is the shame" (ibid.; trans. by Denis Janz, The Westminster Handbook to Martin Luther [WJK, 2010], 78 [slightly rev.]). Moreover, Luther could have viewed Jews from the center of his theology, namely, justification by grace alone through faith alone in the universal atoning work of Christ. The principal scholarly biographer of Luther, Martin Brecht, thus concluded that "in advising the use of force, [Luther] advocated means that were essentially incompatible with his faith in Christ" (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols. [Fortress, 1990-93], 3.350-51). Still, we can only contemplate with the Marburg Lutheran theologian, Hans-Martin Barth, about why there is no connection between faith and love in Luther's anti-Jewish writings, when elsewhere he so strongly stresses that connection. Why could Luther never see "the Jew" as his neighbor? "Why did [Luther] not appeal to his Jewish contemporaries by pointing to the justification of the ungodly? Why is his faith not expressed in good works toward Jews as well, as the Reformer otherwise expects and often declares? If there is no answer to these theological questions, how is it that Luther, the lover of Hebrew and the Old Testament, reacted with such prejudice, and indeed hatred, to the living tradents of the Hebrew language and Bible?" (Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment [Fortress, 2013], 30).

Since I am myself a Lutheran Christian and teach at a Lutheran university, I tend to focus on Lutheran theologians in my course on "Christians in Nazi Germany" (e.g., Althaus, Asmussen, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Elert, Hirsch, Niemoeller, Schlink, Tillich). In that course we also examine Luther's anti-Judaic writings and their reception among Germans between the sixteenth century and the early twentieth. One of the questions we address is, "To what extent does Luther bear responsibility for the Shoah, the mass-murder of European Jews during the Nazi regime?" We look at the evidence and arguments put forth by those who blame Luther most of all for what happened to the Jews during the reign of Hitler. For example, we note that Luther's portrait appears prominently in many Holocaust museums, along with descriptions of his anti-Judaic writings. We also look at assertions by the American journalist, William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), the German writer, Thomas Mann, the Anglican priest, R. W. Inge, and his friend, Peter Wiener (Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor [Hutchinson, 1945]), as well as the following statement by Harvard emeritus professor of law, Alan Dershowitz:

Toward the end of his life--and at the height of his influence--Luther articulated a specific program against the Jews which served as bible of anti-Jewish actions over the next four centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. In many ways, Luther can be viewed as the spiritual predecessor of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, virtually all the themes that eventually found their way into Hitler's genocidal writings, rantings, and actions are adumbrated in Martin Luther's infamous essay "Concerning the Jews and Their Lies." ...It is shocking that Luther's ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches. (Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah [Little, Brown, and Company, 1991], 106-7).

To the above, we can now add the statement by Yehiel Poupko and Rabbi David Sandmel that appeared in the May 10th issue of The Christian Century. Poupko and Sandmel were responding to Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson's essay on Luther that had appeared in the March 15th issue of that magazine. One of their concerns arose from having read the following lines by Wilson: "Luther's fame and eloquence, not to mention his being German and therefore charged with guilt by association with the Nazis, causes him to come under fire more often than others. But the truth is worse: the whole church has been anti-Judaic from the get-go" (Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson, "Still Reckoning with Luther," The Christian Century [March 15, 2017]).

In response to this, Poupko and Sandmel write:
While we agree with most of this statement, it does not adequately describe the direct connection between Luther's Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism--it was more than mere "association." Though Luther cannot be labeled a racial anti-Semite in the 19th-century meaning of the word, his anti-Jewish writings provided a roadmap for later Nazi anti-Jewish actions. Luther's hostility was an absolutely necessary but decidedly insufficient cause for the Nazi murder of the Jewish people. (Yehiel Poupko [Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago] and Rabbi David Sandmel [Anti-Defamation League, New York], The Christian Century [May 10, 2017], 60)
Was Luther's hostility toward the Jews an absolutely necessary cause of the Shoah? This question must be taken quite seriously. If I understand the clarification offered by Poupko and Sandmel correctly, it appears that they think the Holocaust could not have happened were it not for the publication of Luther's anti-Judaic writings, that without Luther's hatred of the Jews the Shoah could not have occurred. That judgment, it seems to me, is questionable, at least if one closely examines the history of the effects of Luther's writings on subsequent generations of Germans, the long and sordid history of racial antisemitism in Europe (both before and after Luther's time), and the differing motivations between Luther's theologically oriented writings (which do, in fact, contain antisemitic statements that are in conflict with the center of his theology) and the Nazis' racially-oriented acts of scapegoating and murder.

I cannot here explore the multiplicity of perspectives on the topic "Luther and the Jews." It is, as they say, a complicated issue. Nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to some works by other scholars that my students and I have found helpful for gaining some clarity. In addition to the important final chapter and conclusion in the above work by Gritsch (pp. 97-142), there is the important essay by Johannes Wallmann, "The Reception of Luther's Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century," Lutheran Quarterly 1/1 (Spring 1987): 72-97, which demonstrates that Luther's 1523 writing was far more well known, studied, and appreciated among German Christians in subsequent centuries than his 1543 works, which were largely ignored, unknown among the mainstream laity, and even criticized by fellow Lutherans (e.g., by his own wife, Katie; by the Lutheran Hebraist, Osiander; by other Lutherans, such as Urbanus Rhegius and Johannes Brenz; by Lutheran Pietists who were concerned for missionary work among Jews). "[Luther's] recommendations concerning social policy in regard to the Jews seem to have had little direct impact, even in Saxony, although they continued to provide a theological framework of interpretation and contributed to fierce anti-Judaism among some Lutheran clergy in the century after Luther's death. Only in the late nineteenth century did his severe anti-Jewish writings have renewed widespread influence, albeit shorn of their original theological context and placed in the framework of developing German anti-Semitism" (Miller, "Luther's Views of the Jews and Turks," 431). (In my opinion, Gritsch gives too much weight to a horrific comment Luther is supposed to have made at his dinner table about how he would kill a blaspheming Jew, if he could. Luther's "table talk" comments are notoriously unreliable as sources. How much beer or wine had the one remembering the supposed comment imbibed? What about Luther himself? Most all context is missing.) Another work that offers a solid refutation of the position of Shirer et al., is the important dissertation by Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth (CPH, 1995).

Still another important and most helpful study is the new work by Thomas Kaufmann, Luther's Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (Oxford, 2017). Following the path taken by the late English Luther scholar, Ernst G. Rupp, whose own criticism of the position taken by Wiener et al. is devastating, Kaufmann argues that the appropriate way of dealing with "Luther's Jews" is to see them in historical context, "by locating the reformer in the history of medieval anti-Semitism" (Kaufmann, 151). In this history, according to Rupp (and Kaufmann), Luther is an appalling, disgraceful chapter, but no more than one chapter. Seeing him in historical context "is the only option," one that "creates the right critical distance" (Kaufmann, 156). But that historical context, as Kaufmann stresses, also includes the history of the reception of his writings. The most extreme consequence of that history is how the Nazis claimed Luther's support for their policy of extermination of the Jews.

Certainly, Rupp, Gritsch, Kaufmann, and several other historians reject a simple "causation" between Luther's anti-Judaic writings--which largely reflect the hateful perspective he had received from his medieval teachers, one that was shared by Erasmus and others, and then transmitted in numerous ways to subsequent generations--and Hitler's racist-nationalist-pagan-technological program of Jewish annihilation. Historicizing Luther means both relativizing his work and making it possible "to resist the tendency to read modern ideas into historical figures and subjects" (Kaufmann, 159). In light of the work by Gritsch and Kaufmann, it is difficult to see how Luther's anti-Judaic polemics is an "absolutely necessary, if insufficient cause of the Holocaust." To be sure, Luther's hateful words against the Jews, later used by several Nazis, likely made Hitler's aims easier to execute, but it is quite possible, alas, that the Shoah would have occurred, even if Luther hadn't written those words. More plausible is the thesis of Milton Himmelfarb; "No Hitler, No Holocaust."

In the fall, I will be leading a group of 120 alumni and friends of Valpo University to Germany in order to observe the official anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Valpo's chorale will be singing in the Castle Church on October 31. My group and I will be visiting places connected with Luther and J. S. Bach, including Buchenwald. On the day of our visit there, I will tell my fellow travelers, we cannot avoid addressing the issue of Luther and the Holocaust.

Addendum (6/7/17): My wife, my mother, and a few other Lutherans have told me over the past couple of days how troubled they are to have learned about Luther's antisemitism and his hateful polemics against the Jews. I have responded briefly to them by noting that Luther was a sinner like the rest of us, that he, too, needed God's unmerited forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The heart of Luther's theology thus applied to Luther himself, namely, God's justification of the ungodly.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A One-Day Workshop on Luther's Approach to Biblical Interpretation


The Christian Church today is divided by differing understandings of Biblical authority and Biblical interpretation. These issues were also at the heart of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s dispute with the established church 500 years ago.

How did Luther understand the authority, the content, and the purpose of Holy Scripture? How did his views change over time? And what, if anything, does this mean for us?

Instructor: The Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker (Ph.D., the University of Chicago), Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind.

One-day Workshop: Thursday, May 18, 9:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

This workshop is also being offered as a live or recorded webinar at the same price as attendance in person. Sign up deadline for the webinar is May 8. An online registration key will be emailed to those signed up for the webinar in advance of the event.


Aquinas Institute of Theology

23 S. Spring Ave.,

St. Louis, Mo. 63108

Tuition (lunch included): $45 by May 4; $50 after May 4

To register for this course, PD 131, click here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pericopes for the Week: Orwell and Arendt

Like thousands of other troubled Americans, I have been re-reading George Orwell and Hannah Arendt. I first read their writings in a required freshman-level humanities course at Concordia College, Portland, Ore. That was in the fall of 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

George Orwell

In light of yesterday's delusional tweets (not to mention earlier Alice-in-Wonderland tweets that have now been definitively falsified in the House Intelligence Committee hearing) and the subsequent WH briefing, here are six pericopes for the week, two from Orwell's classic 1984 and four from Arendt's timely 1971 essay, "Lying in Politics," which she composed in the wake of the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

First, Orwell (from chapter one of the book, the forbidden text that Winston secretly reads near the middle of 1984):

Oceanic society rests ultimately on the belief that Big Brother is omnipotent and that the Party is infallible. But since in reality Big Brother is not omnipotent and the Party is not infallible, there is the need for an unwearying, moment-to-moment flexibility in the treatment of facts. The key word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. (George Orwell, 1984 [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949], 175)

...Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies--all this is indispensably necessary (ibid., 177).

Hannah Arendt
And now Arendt, who offers a glimmer of hope:

Under normal circumstances the liar is defeated by reality, for which there is no substitute; no matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough, even if he enlists the help of computers, to cover the immensity of factuality. The liar, who may get away with any number of single falsehoods, will find it impossible to get away with lying on principle. This is one of the lessons that could be learned from the totalitarian experiments and the totalitarian rulers' frightening confidence in the power of lying--in their ability, for instance, to rewrite history again and again to adapt the past to the 'political line' of the present moment or to eliminate data that did not fit their ideology....   For the trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.... The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.... That the public had access for years to material that the government vainly tried to keep from it testifies to the integrity and to the power of the press even more forcefully than the way the Times broke the story. What has often been suggested has now been established: so long as the press is free and not corrupt, it has an enormously important function to fulfill and can rightly be called the fourth branch of government. Whether the First Amendment will suffice to protect this most essential political freedom, the right to unmanipulated factual information without which all freedom of opinion becomes a cruel hoax, is another question. (Hannah Arendt, "Lying in Politics," as quoted in Crises of the Republic [New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972], 7, 31, 36, 45)

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Tour of Stade/Schwidder Churches in Chicago

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Des Plaines
The collaboration between architect Charles Stade and his liturgical designer/artist, Ernst Schwidder, produced some remarkable church buildings and worship environments in the Chicagoland area in the 1960s. Stade, who was also the principal architect and designer for Valpo's Chapel of the Resurrection, designed four suburban churches in the early 1960s that received awards from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. These same churches--St. Paul Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, St. John's Lutheran in Lincolnwood, Good Shepherd United Methodist in Park Ridge and St. Peter Lutheran in Arlington Heights--were selected in 1978 by the AIA and the Chicago Historical Society to become part of the Chicago Architectural Archive.

St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit
According to Stade's obituary in the Chicago Tribune (he died in 1993), one of his teachers had told him once, "If you like people, you will do something that will make them happy; it could just be a good cocktail lounge."

His design preparations included getting close to the people who would use his buildings, "to walk and talk and eat and live with them," and, in the case of church buildings, also to worship with them.

For additional information on Stade, who attended Concordia University, Chicago, and was a life-long Lutheran Christian, go here.

Ernst Schwidder
Schwidder, who was the son of a Lutheran pastor, became the first director of the arts department at Valpo. He began his collaboration with Stade in the early 1960s and left the university to work full-time with Stade in 1963. Even after returning to his native northwest, Schwidder continued to work closely with Stade on several church projects. According to the website devoted to his work, "During this transition, [Schwidder] shifted his methods from those of a painter to those of a sculptor; he worked first with repoussé copper and later with wood carving. He preferred rough-hewn surfaces with chisel marks, textured for touch. On more than one occasion, he humorously called himself a 'chiseler.'”

For additional information on Schwidder, who died in 1998, go here. An exhibit of some of his artistic creations will be on display at this year's Institute for Liturgical Studies, April 24-26, on Valpo's campus. For info on that, go here.

On Sunday, April 23, my colleague Gretchen Buggeln (Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts), Pr. Joel Nickel (emeritus pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church, Stayton, Ore.), and I will be leading a pre-ILS tour of several of these churches: St. Peter Lutheran Church, Arlington Heights (where we will also worship); Immanuel Lutheran Church, Des Plaines; St. Mary Catholic Church, Des Plaines; Korean Bethany Presbyterian Church, Lincolnwood (formerly St. John Lutheran Church); St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit; and Peace Memorial United Church of Christ, Palos Park. We will also drive by a few other Stade church buildings, for example, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Park Ridge, and we will visit his former house there, which also contains some Schwidder art.

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Des Plaines
Dr. Buggeln, who has written extensively about Stade, will examine his distinctive style of church architecture. Pr. Nickel, who is an artist in his own right and an expert on Schwidder, will comment on the latter's liturgical art. I will throw in my occasional two cents regarding the theological significance of these worship environments.

The tour will leave Valpo's Arts and Sciences parking lot at 8:30am on Sunday, April 23, and will return to our campus around 9:30pm. The cost for the tour (including a box lunch) is $65. The group will also eat dinner together at a Chicago area restaurant (for an additional cost).

For more information and/or to register for the tour, please contact me at my Valpo email address: matthew.becker@valpo.edu. Space is limited.