Here's the paper that I'm going to be presenting at Boston College on Friday.
Exclusion in Embrace: Martin Luther's Interpretation of Judaism and Islam
By Jack D. Kilcrease, Ph.D
This paper will discuss Protestant Reformer Martin Luther's interpretation of Judaism and Islam. It will argue that Luther's attitude towards these two religions was shaped both by the patristic and medieval traditions and filtered through his doctrine of the orders of creation. Because of this, Luther viewed the Jews and Muslims essentially as Christian heretics destroying creation from within the "Estate" or "Order" of the Church. They were not an "other" from outside the order of the Church, but essentially malevolent force from within God's Church. Therefore Luther's attitude should be characterized as one of exclusion in embrace.
Sources of Luther's Understanding of Non-Christian Religions
A. Early Medieval Antecedents.
Martin Luther's treatment of non-Christian religions did not come spontaneously from his own imagination. Although Luther did break with the theology and exegetical practice of the later Middle Ages in certain ways, he also represented in many significant respects a continuation of it. This observation does not in fact conflict with how Luther understood himself. Rather than destroying the previous tradition, he saw himself as purifying it. Therefore, in investigating his view of the other two great Abrahamic religions, we will find it necessary to turn to the antecedents of his treatment in patristic and medieval theology.
We will begin our investigation with Christian theological interpretations of Judaism. Obviously the literature is vast and therefore we cannot adequately summarize it here. Instead, we will highlight a number of important themes in the writings of the Fathers and the medieval theologians that will shed light on Luther's own treatment.
First, there was a common recognition by the Church Fathers and the medieval theologians that the Jews and the Christian Church shared a common heritage. Both groups shared a common source in the OT. Efforts in the second century by Valentinus and Marcion to jettison it were rebuffed by early thinkers like Tertullian and Irenaeus. The problem's relationship to Israel nevertheless remained.
In order to maintain continuity with the OT, while at the same time distancing themselves from Judaism, the Church Fathers used a number of theological strategies. The one of these was the typological and Christological interpretation of the OT. Whereas Israel of the OT, had eagerly awaited Christ (they argued), the present day Jews lacked a proper understanding of their Scriptures. All the Scriptures, Justin Martyr told Trypho the Jew, were centered on and prefigured Christ. Christ himself was in the OT, as the agent of creation and revelation. It was he who was God's Logos, Wisdom, kavod/Glory, and who appeared to the Patriarchs as the Angel of YHWH. Similarly, Irenaeus identified Christ as both agent of creation and the second Adam. The era of the NT was in fact the era in which creation would be repeated and purified by God come in the flesh. Irenaeus not only identified Christ with the new Adam, but Mary with the new Eve. In this scheme, the Jews were to be regarded as the Cain to the Abel of the Church. Not only did God favor the Church's sacrifice of praise in the Eucharist (much like Abel's burnt offerings), but just as he had hated Cain's offerings he likewise despised that of the Jews. As a result, he destroyed their temple in order to publically mark his disapproval of their worship and obstinate rejection of Christ.
Nonetheless, for all this abuse, there was also an eager expectation of an eschatological reconciliation between the Church and the Synagogue. Even with Irenaeus' negative identification of the Jews with the people of Cain, there is implicit in this identification a positive evaluation of them as a sibling people. In the same way, Justin tells Trypho at the end his dialogue that he greatly desires that the Jews might see the errors of their ways and convert to the true catholic faith. Going hand-in-hand with this understanding of kinship between the old and new Israels was the eschatological concept (based on a somewhat questionable reading of Romans 9-11), that before the last judgment the Jews would be converted to the Church en masse. This expectation was held throughout the medieval period.
Development of Christian teaching on Islam was a little bit slower in coming, not least because much of the western Church did not contemplate the direct threat of Islam until fifteenth century. There were other factors as well. Most notable was the massive language barrier, something that was less of a problem in the case of the Church's interactions with the Jews. This is very likely the reason why one of our earliest Christian sources on Islam is the eighth century Greek orthodox theologian John of Damascus, known throughout the medieval west simply as "The Damascene." Although John was a monk and a Greek speaker in Muslim controlled Damascus, he knew Arabic because his father had been bureaucrat in the Arab controlled administration of the Syria. He was highly influential in the east as one of those who made positive arguments in favor of the seventh ecumenical council. His notoriety in the west was mainly transmitted through citations of his work to be found in Lombard's Sentences and in Aquinas' Summa Theologiae.
John divided up his magnum opus, De Fide Orthodoxa, into three parts, one dealing with theological nomenclature, another with dogmatics proper and a third with various heresies. Within the last of these, we receive his treatment of Islam. John informs us that Mohammed was among other things a rank charlatan. His chicanery not only extended to his false teaching, but John also tells us that the prophet used his status as God's mouthpiece to swindle men out of their wives. It should be noted in passing that throughout the Middle Ages the identification of Islam with licentiousness was extremely common.
Moving on to a theological treatment of Mohammed and his teaching, John views them as expressing the same faulty tendencies to he perceives in Judaism. Islam, like the heresy of the Jews, falls into the opposite ditch from that of the Greek pagan polytheists in its assertion of unitarianism. Instead, John tells us, the Christian Church has taken the via media of accepting the fact of both unity and multiplicity in the being of the one God. Whether or not we think John argument is theologically cogent, what is important is that John views Muslims as existing within the continuum of possible teachings standing in continuity with the Christian faith.
In spite of this classification of Islam in the east as a Christian heresy, the western theologians initially viewed Islam somewhat differently. Adam Francisco notes that western Medieval Christian theologians in their earliest polemics (notably of Pope Urban the II in his preaching of the First Crusade) viewed Muslims without qualification as satanically inspired pagan barbarians. With greater contact though, the view of Christian theologians shifted to seeing Islam as the culmination of the great heresies of Christian antiquity. One extremely influential exponent of this view was Riccoldo da Monte di Croce. Riccoldo was an Italian Dominican of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century who spent time in the Middle East as a missionary, particularly in Mesopotamia in the vicinity of Bagdad. From his experience, he wrote a polemical tract against Islam which became standard in the late Middle Ages. In it, he openly describes the Koran as "refuse." Riccoldo does not use this merely as a general term of derision, but rather as a description of the work as an accumulated dung pile of the heresies of the ancient Church. Without making many fine distinctions, he describes Mohammed as reviving the heresies of Sabellius, Eunomius and Arius. In light of the fact that Mohammed did not accept Christ's pre-existence as both Arians and the Modalists did, this comparison is obviously somewhat strained; nevertheless, it demonstrates that Riccoldo interprets Islam in a similar fashion to the Damascene.
Riccoldo not only viewed Islam as the culmination of the history of heresy, but also as an eschatological agent of the Devil within a threefold scheme of Christian history. This periodization vaguely resembles the theology of the Franciscan Joachim of Fiore, whom Riccoldo was likely familiar with. Nevertheless, instead of world history, Riccoldo divided up the history of the NT church into three periods. These three periods represent times of persecution rather than the persons of the Trinity as in Joachim's work. In the first period, the Church had been oppressed by Jewish and pagan authorities. The second period began in 310 A.D. with the beginning of Constantine's patronage, the Church had been oppressed by the heretics Sabellius, Arius and the like, and was rescued by Hillary, Athanasius and Augustine (actually Sabellius lived prior to this period, but people in the Middle Ages were less cognizant of the chronology of the ancient Church). The third period of the Church's oppression came with the advent of the "false brethren" of which Mohammed was the greatest. This represented a period of time in which the enemies of the true faith would attempt to destroy the Church from within. Mohammed and his religion represented the most pernicious attack on the Church to date. This period of Church history would last for an indefinite period culminating in the last judgment.
Riccoldo was not alone in his identification of Islam with the eschatological mask of the Devil. In fact, medieval Christians often identified the coming of Islam with the advent of the Anti-Christ. In their commentaries, both Nicholas of Lyra and Paul of Burgos identified Islam with the final desperate attempt of Satan to destroy the Church and subvert the reign of God. Burgos and Lyra, read the book of Revelation from the "Historicist" perspective which identifies the Apocalypse as a summary of Church history painted in allegorical images. According to them, Mohammed and Salah Al-Din (the Sultan of Egypt and Syria during the period of the Third Crusade), were represented by the Dragon of John's visions.
Luther's view of Judaism and Islam in Context.
A. Luther's Treatment of Judaism
Luther understanding of the other Abrahamic religions developed in several stages. We will therefore proceed by discussing Luther's interpretation of Judaism and its stages, and then move on to Islam. It will be argued that in continuity with his medieval predecessors, Luther viewed Jews and Muslim as essentially on the level of other Christian heresies. Nevertheless in contrast to his medieval predecessors, Luther's critique of their heresy took on a unique shape due to his understanding of the gospel and the "Orders" or "Estates" of creation.
In recent years, the existentializing tendencies of early twentieth century Luther scholarship has come under attack due primarily to a better understanding of the medieval and Renaissance background of Luther's theology. Notably, the German Luther scholar Oswald Bayer has sought to interpret Luther's theology within the framework of the three "Orders" or "Estates" of creation. In what follows, we will work from Bayer's perspective.
We find the best representation of the idea of the three estates in Luther's commentary on Genesis of the 1530s and 40s, though as Werner Elert points out, the three estates appear in the Reformer's thinking as early as 1519. Luther recognized God interacting with the world through a threefold governance of the family, the Church and the state. Luther describes these as universal estates or visible divinely established institutions that form the universal setting for human life. Whether or not they are corrupted (for example, in the form of false religion or a tyrannical state) is irrelevant in that are still present and determine the structure of human life. Among these, God established both the Church and the family before the Fall. After the Fall, he establish the state to deal with the chaotic effects of human sin. In paradise, the Church was the first estate to be established by the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Such a work was meant to be a channel human worship of God. Breaking the commandment, God gave a second word, that of the protevangelium, the promise of a savior who would crush the Serpent's head. Faith in the promise of the coming Savior effectively defined the estate of the Church from the beginning and all legalistic forms of religion (meaning for Luther, this meant all false religion, of both a Christian and non-Christian stripe) were merely corruptions of the estate of the Church.
The framework of the three estates will shed light on how Luther appropriated the patristic and medieval traditions regarding the other Abrahamic religions. From early in his career, Luther viewed the Jews as obstinate half-Christians who simply needed both patience and the correct explanation of the Scriptures, something denied them by the Papacy.
We see this attitude present throughout Luther's career. Luther's early theological writings of the 1510s deal very little with the Jews. The only significant aspect that might be pointed to is the fact that in his commentary on Romans of 1516, Luther rejects the common medieval-patristic interpretation of Romans 9-11 (mentioned earlier) that posited an eschatological conversion of the Jews to the Church. This does not mean that the young Luther had a lower opinion of the Jews than his medieval predecessors. In fact, the opposite is the case. In 1519, Luther mounted a positive defense of the Jews by suggesting the servitude of the Jews to the Gentiles (which had passed into the law of the Holy Roman Empire from the Code of Justinian) was illegitimate. Christian mistreatment of the Jews would not lead them to Christ. In his commentary on the Magnificat, written in the early 1520s, Luther stated that the Jews were not an especially wicked group of people, but rather a group of people who believed that they could justify themselves through the law. This is the fault of the whole human race and particularly of the Church of Rome. Lastly, the positive defense of the Jews extended into Luther's treatment in his treatise That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew. The Roman Pontiff, argued Luther, had so corrupted the Christian faith that the Jews were more likely to wish to be transformed into "hogs" than be Christians. Jews should be treated with brotherly love by Christians. The pure gospel would lead to Jewish conversion to the Christian faith. Throughout the 1520s and 30s, Luther invited Rabbis to come to Wittenberg to debate the Scriptures. Luther made creative exegetical arguments regarding the content of the Hebrew Scriptures which he believed would convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jewish leaders proved unwilling to accept his arguments.
What this appears to suggest is that Luther's view of the Jews was in many respects the same as that of the medieval and patristic authors. We can also observe how his teaching during this period was uniquely shaped by his concept of the righteousness of faith and the orders of creation. First, the Jews participated in the estate of the Church with the rest of humanity. Their participation, from Luther's perspective, was corrupted by their wrong reading of the Scriptures. This wrong reading was the result of the estate of the Church's corruption that had occurred in Genesis 3 onward and consequently was not really unique to them. Believing that they were saved by works and sharing a common Scriptures, they participated in the same corruption of the estate of the Church that the Papal party did.
As time went on, Luther grew more hostile toward the Jews. Like many events in throughout Luther's life, the shift in his attitude was brought about by gastrointestinal difficulties. Allowing scatology to shape theology, Luther complained in 1528 letter to Melanchthon that he had had an epic bout of diarrhea after eating kosher food. Luther thought that he might possibly have been poisoned. The Reformer went on to complain that the Jews ate foods which disagreed with the Gentiles because they wanted to assert their superiority and separation from Gentile culture. For this reason, in order to humble them he insisted that the kosher foods should be banned.
Throughout the 1530s and then the early 1540s, Luther became increasingly apocalyptic in his thinking. Part of this apocalypticism was a growing suspicion of religious minorities (such as the Anabaptists and other quasi-Pentecostal movements whom he described derisively as Schwärmerei) and frustrated with what he considered to be obstinacy of the Jews. Therefore in 1543, Luther published the treatise Against the Jews and their Lies. In this short work, Luther urged his Prince to resend the toleration which he had previously allowed the Jews. The Jews despise Gentile Christian, Luther stated, calling them Goyim, and perverting the passages of the OT which offer proofs of Christ's Messiahship. They should no longer be given the civil privileges of peace and freedom, but should be pressured to join the Christian Church. Such pressure would involve legal disabilities, namely, their Synagogues should be burned down, they should be given no legal protections (for example, safe conduct), and their rabbinical books should be destroyed. Those who served as Rabbis should cease doing so and work with their hands. The finally, Luther suggested that if these measures failed, expulsion from Saxony would have to be the final step.
Especially in light of the horrors of the twentieth century these proposals cannot be anything less than appalling. Nevertheless, they are not indicative of Luther holding similar views to those of later ninetenth century and twentieth century German anti-Semites, as has frequently been charged. The Reformer's dislike of the Judaism was religious rather than racial or ethnic. Neither did he wish the extermination of the Jews, but rather their conversion. Therefore, as we noted earlier, we must explain the Reformer's attitude from other sources.
Part of the explanation of Luther's views come from his appropriation of the Historicist school of interpretation, present in the author Paul of Burgos and Nicolas of Lyra. As previously noted this exegetical tradition argues that the book of Revelation should be understood as an allegorical blueprint for Church history. In his preface to Revelation of 1521, Luther openly accepts the Historicist interpretation of the Apocalypse. According to Luther, Church history had run its course and stood now at the end of the Millennium described in Revelation 20. Soon, Luther warned, Gog and Magog would make their final desperate attempt at destroying God's creation.
In a little known piece written in 1540/1 entitled Supputatio Annorum Mundi crystallizes the intensification of the later Luther's apocalypticism. Luther's starting point in this work was an apocryphal saying attributed to the prophet Elijah quoted in the preface and originally recorded by John Carion in chronicle of 1532, stating that: "The world will stand six thousand years: for two thousand years it is empty; for two thousand years the law; for two thousand years the Messiah." Based on this saying and calculations made on the basis of the genealogies of the OT, Luther estimated that the world would last for another 50 years. Because this was the case, representatives of the Satan and the Anti-Christ- the Enthusiasts, Anabaptists, Antitriniarians, Jews, Muslims and the Papacy- were now ganging up on the true Church. It was the responsibility of those in the civil order to resist this in the form of their support of true teaching of the gospel and suppression of heresy and blasphemy before the coming of the final apocalyptic break. Hence, from this perspective, repression of the Jews was a necessary part of the work of the civil estate in the last days.
B. Luther's Treatment of Islam.
This view of history not only shaped Luther's view of Judaism, but that of Islam. Beyond this, there was an added historical backdrop to Luther's thinking on Islam, that of the Turkish advance into southeastern and central Europe. In number early pieces of the mid-1520s, he argued that it was the duty of princes to attack and conquer the Turk. Later, he came to identify the Turk with the agents of the Anti-Christ. The Pope was of course the chief manifestation of the Anti-Christ in that he had placed himself above Christ and his word of the gospel, thereby becoming an alternative mediator between God and humanity. Unlike many modern Evangelical Christians who identify the Anti-Christ as a demonically possessed person attacking the Church from the outside, Luther understood the Anti-Christ as a force standing within the Church, corrupting it by resisting the power of the gospel. He takes this stance in an important passage in Bondage of the Will of 1525, wherein he interpreting the "temple" of 2 Thessalonians as the Church and the "man of lawlessness" as the institutional Papacy. The Papacy is the Anti-Christ because, Luther state, it sits in the "midst of God's temple" (the Church) exalting himself over Christ's supreme headship. Later, in the Smalkald Articles and in the Genesis commentary, the Papacy was identified again with Satan and the original corruption of the estate of the Church. Adam and Eve had been the first Enthusiasts who sought God above his Word in the false mediator of the Serpent. So to the Papacy and its representatives claim of alternative mediation and thereby used its false authority to suppress the clear word of the gospel.
Likewise, Islam must stand within the estate of the Church otherwise it would not be an expression of the Spirit of Anti-Christ. The Turks and their prophet Mohammed essentially make the same claims as the Papacy. Without any clear proofs of prophecy, Mohammed insisted that he was God's mouth piece and that he could prescribe works that would justify humanity before a holy and wrathful God.
In Luther's later writings wherein he examines the Koran (which had recently been published in a Latin translation at Basel, due to his encouragement), he saw Islam as simply the military expression of the attack of the Spirit of Anti-Christ on the three orders. Just as the Papacy attacked the orders through clerical celibacy, political power grabs and Pelagian suppressions of the gospel, so Islam also attacked them by its works righteousness, imperialism, and its sexual licentiousness. "If" Luther said "the Papacy is the Spirit of Anti-Christ, the Turk is his body." In these writings, Luther finally identifies the Papacy with Gog and the Turk with Magog of Revelation 20 and Ezekiel 38-40.
Luther's treatment of Judaism and Islam represents a fascinating example of the dialectical development of Christian doctrine. Luther's conceptions of Judaism and Islam represent an imaginative blend of the tradition that he had inherited filtered through the lens of his doctrine of sola fide and the three orders. Recognizing this helps us better understand Luther and place him within his original historical context.