Eric Metaxas, History Writing, and Martin Luther

Earlier, in my critical review of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, I noted that there were a few significant historical and theological inaccuracies in the book.  Later this week, having read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, I hope to interact a bit more with Metaxas’ biography.  For now, I want to point out Metaxas’ inaccurate portrait of Martin Luther and the Jews.

The topic of Luther and the Jews is a large one and has been discussed by many scholars and theologians for many years.  It’s not an easy subject; there are quite a few angles and different nuances to consider (obviously we can’t do it all here).  Metaxas oversimplifies the issue by attributing Luther’s later polemical writings against the Jews to his crankiness, anger, and multiple illnesses.  In just three pages, Metaxas says that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings had everything to do with his ailments near the end of his life: Meniere’s disease, constipation, hemorrhoids, mood swings, depression, gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, short temper, and uremic poisoning.

Here’s how Metaxas explained it.

“As his health declined, everything seemed to set him off….  His language waxed fouler and fouler. … Luther seemed to have an absolutely torrid love affair with all things scatological.  So it is in this larger context that one has to take his attitude toward the Jews, which, like everything else in his life, unraveled with his health  …What he wrote during this time would rightly haunt his legacy for centuries and would in four centuries become the justification for such evils as Luther in even his most constipated mood could not have dreamed.  …As the lights began to dim, he became convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent, and his thoughts toward everyone took on darker and darker tones.  The thought of reasoned persuasion went out the window; at one point he called reason ‘the devil’s whore.'”

In other words, Metaxas said that Luther’s poor health and fanatical grumpiness near the end of his life showed he was coming apart at the seams – this is why he was so anti-Jewish later in his life.

Here we have an example of irresponsible historiography.  I’m wondering if Metaxas has even read and studied Luther.  Based on these statements, it doesn’t seem like he has.  In fact, Metaxas’ bibliography doesn’t include any of Luther’s writing or secondary sources on Luther’s life and theology.  He talks about the “larger context” of Luther’s life, but this is no larger context at all; it’s simply one of many things to consider when dealing with Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.

The last sentence quoted above shows that Metaxas indeed misreads Luther.  Luther didn’t write against reason simply because he was grumpy and constipated; there’s a ton of theology, history, and philosophy behind Luther’s distaste for unaided human reason.  For Luther, unaided reason had to do with the theology of glory, which attempted to climb up to God while avoiding the suffering and death of Christ on the cross.  The reformer discussed this already in 1518, well before the end of his life.  Concerning Luther’s scatological language, Heiko Oberman’s interaction with it is certainly more accurate than Metaxas’.

Metaxas is simply wrong here.  Luther’s writing on the Jews deserves more nuance.  It is foolish and inaccurate to attribute it to the end-of-life rantings of an angry and sick man.  (By the way, some of Luther’s later sermons are outstanding explanations of the gospel).  I’m not trying to absolve Luther here, I’m simply arguing for better history writing.  There are other such examples in other sections of Metaxas’ book where he muddles up history and theology, which is part of the reason I don’t recommend this book if you want an accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.

In case you’re interested, Carl Trueman discusses this very topic – Luther and the Jews – in chapter three of Histories and FallaciesTrueman takes a far more modest, contextual, and nuanced approach to Luther’s writings on the Jews.  In summary (read it for yourself!), he notes that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings were somewhat typical in the late medieval era and were based on religious and theological beliefs rather than ethnic distinctions.  Again, this doesn’t necessarily absolve Luther, but it gives us a more nuanced, balanced, and contextual approach than Metaxas does in Bonhoeffer

In Trueman’s words, “Every historian makes mistakes; the important thing is to gain an understanding of why they are mistakes.  Once that is done, they become much easier to avoid in the future” (p. 168).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

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4 comments on “Eric Metaxas, History Writing, and Martin Luther

  1. It appears that the main reason you do not recommend Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer is the inaccurate portrait of Martin Luther and the Jews within the book.

    You mention that there are “other sections of Metaxas’ book where he muddles up history and theology.” I think they need to be spelled out.

    You reject such a large book based on one very small section of the book (Luther and the Jews) when the book is about Bonhoeffer, not Luther’s theology or writings.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christopher. If you follow my link above (the words “critical review”), you’ll see some other specific areas where there are inaccuracies. I thought about writing a list down, but don’t have the time or energy to do so. Also, others who are even more critical of the book have done that, so I don’t want to do work that’s already been done. You’ll have to search for other critical reviews. They are better than mine!

      Also, the snipped of Metaxas’ discussion of Luther shows a historical fallacy (something like anachronism). The overall gist of the book is also anachronistic, as I show in my “critical review.” The big anachronistic fallacy is that Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer in an American, politically conservative, evangelical Christian manner, which is quite a false picture.

      I’ve just finished Bethge’s large biography of Bohnoeffer. Bethge was a good friend of Bohnoeffer. His biography is far more accurate than Metaxas’. Of course, everyone who writes history does so with some bias/presuppostions; we just need to be aware of them.

      The main reason I don’t recommend Metaxas’ book is because I believe, along with others, that it is an inaccurate portrayal of Bonhoeffer. But I’ll post more on this next week, DV.

      shane

      • Now I see your point. When I read the book I did get the picture that Bohnoeffer was a conservative evangelical. Which was different than I had heard for years. Until I read your blog I had not read any critical reviews of his book. I’ll look for one now and look for more from you next week.

        I have not read Bethge work. I am sure I will get a different picture of Bohnoeffer when I read Bethge’s biography. Just like you, I don’t have time to read too many large books–which Bethge’s is. Maybe this summer?

        At least Metaxas does write well. I can’t imagine reading the book otherwise!

  2. […] writing and a compelling subject don’t necessarily commend this work as good biography (here’s a take over at the Reformed Reader). Let me try to […]

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