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 Fallacies. Trueman 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).