Luther on Paul and Judaism

On the phrase “The right hand of fellowship” in Galatians 2:9, Luther comments as follows.

There is only one and the same Gospel for Gentiles and Jews . . . There is no partiality; but the Word and its teaching are one and the same for all men, no matter how diverse the mask or social position may be. The apostles circumcised; Paul did not. But both he and the apostles left circumcision free for those who had been born in it, for the apostles could distinguish the Gospel from the law in a way that was both wise can correct. I also believe that if the believing Jews at the time had observed the law and circumcision under the condition permitted by the apostles, Judaism would have remained standing until now, and the whole world would have accepted the ceremonies of the Jews. But because they insisted on the Law and circumcision as something necessary for salvation and constructed an act of worship and some sort of god out of it, God could not stand for it (“Lectures 1535”, Luther’s Works, vol. 26, 104-05).

I find the comment about the whole world accepting the ceremonies of the Jews filled with irony. Luther however seems to follow Augustine’s view that the early Jewish believers continued to follow the Mosaic Torah, perhaps excluding Paul.

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  • Wayne Coppins

    Hey Joel. Interesting post. My memory may fail me here, but I think Luther may also have some interesting reflections on this point in the same section of Galatians in his 1519 commentary. Indeed I think they may go in a slightly different direction there, which is noteworthy if true. Similarly Gerhard Ebeling’s commentary on Galatians is interesting in this regard, i.e., as one of the most influential Lutheran of Lutherans revisiting this issue.

    • jwillitts

      Wayne: Luther’s 1519 lecture notes are of course much briefer than the 1535 revision. There is nothing dissimilar to the sentiments expressed in 1535. He says this at one point:
      “To be circumcised is not an evil thing; but now that Christ alone justifies us through grace, to be forced into circumcision as if this were necessary for your justification–this would be wicked and an insult to Christ’s justifying grace. After Christ, therefore, the works of the Law are like riches, honor, power, civic righteousness, and any other temporal thing. If you have them, you are not on this account better in the sight of God; if you lack them, you are not on this account worse. But you would be very wicked if you were to assert that you must have them in order to please God” (LW 27.203)

      Another interesting passage in the near context is this statement about freedom (a topic I think you know something about!)
      “For the freedom of which he boasts that we have it in Christ consists in this, that we are not bound to a single outward work but free with regard to anything you please, in regard to anyone you please, at any time, and in any manner, except where an offense is committed against brother love and peace . . .” (LW 27.204)