6/24 Flashback: Luther and Mohler

6/24 Flashback: Luther and Mohler June 24, 2022

From June 24, 2015, “Baptist white supremacy and Luther’s antisemitism“:

There’s a revealing parenthetical aside in Al Mohler’s “The Heresy of Racial Superiority — Confronting the Past, and Confronting the Truth.” Mohler is trying to do two things at once, and he’s not quite sure he can do both. He wants to denounce “the heresy of racial superiority” as a heresy, but he also wants to say that the Southern Baptist Founding Fathers who espoused this heresy should not be dismissed as heretics.

In general, I’m inclined to go along with that fine distinction. I believe that no Christian has ever had the full and final ideal of perfect orthodoxy in all things. I believe that everyone’s theology is problematic, partial, and riddled with error. But that’s far easier for me to say, since unlike Al Mohler I haven’t built my entire career on the claim of being a stalwart defender of the One, True Orthodoxy against the onslaught of squishy liberals, modernists, post-modernists, and all of the other barbarians at the gate.

My understanding of “heresy” is also, in a sense, more Calvinist than Mohler’s — at least in the way that Mohler describes and ascribes this particular heresy among his Southern Baptist ancestors. In his view, the “heresy of [white] superiority” is a kind of appendage of error — a distinct extra thing that doesn’t belong. It is a tumor that hasn’t metastasized and can safely be excised without damaging or disturbing any of the surrounding tissue or any of the other systems in the body. But that’s not how sin and error work. They tend to be pervasive — metastasizing and infecting the whole. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. This is one of the profound insights of Mohler’s own Reformed tradition.

Yet here, somewhat understandably, Mohler seems to argue for something other than “total” depravity. This particular sin and heresy, he wants to say, can be extracted and removed without having to alter our understanding of anything else. In this case, he suggests, we can unleaven the whole loaf of bread.

Which brings us to that little side comment in Mohler’s post:

And now the hardest part. Were the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heretics?

They defended all the doctrines they believed were central and essential to the Christian faith as revealed in the Bible and as affirmed throughout the history of the church. They sought to defend Baptist orthodoxy in an age already tiring of orthodoxy. They would never have imagined themselves as heretics, and in one sense they certainly were not. Nor, we should add, was Martin Luther a heretic, even as he expressed a horrifying anti-semitism.

Protestant Christians today still revere much of Martin Luther’s theology, even as we (mostly) reject his truly vicious antisemitism. Mohler is arguing, or perhaps simply hoping, that we can do the same with Boyce and Broadus and Manly — preserving and venerating most of their theology while rejecting their white supremacy as an unfortunate, unnecessary, tangent.

But I don’t think the example of Martin Luther argues in the direction that Mohler thinks it does.

It seems simple enough to regard Luther’s theology like a dim sum buffet. We’ll keep this, but not that. We’ll embrace his doctrine of justification by faith alone but reject his suggestions about burning Jewish schools and synagogues or prohibiting rabbis to teach. The former is a Good Idea and the latter is a Bad Idea, so we take the one but not the other. Easy peasy.

Alas, though, these two things are not quite as distinct and easy to separate as we might like to think. It turns out that Luther’s idea of justification by faith alone informed his antisemitism and, at the same time, that antisemitism informed his doctrine of sola fide. Both were tangled up with, among other things, Luther’s misunderstanding of the first-century Judaism of Saul of Tarsus and thus of his misunderstanding of the theology he taught after becoming the Apostle Paul. Untangling all of that turns out to be a very complicated business. It is no simple matter to reconstruct a “pure” theology of Martin Luther minus the antisemitism.

Likewise, it is no simple matter to reconstruct, or to abstract, a “pure” Southern Baptist theology minus the white supremacy.

But this is not simply an analogy. These things are related. Both are bound up with and derived in part from what Willie James Jennings calls the “Gentile forgetfulness” of western Christianity:

Christian faith grew from spoiled soil, from a way of reading Scripture and understanding ourselves as followers of Jesus that was distorted almost from the beginning. This first aspect of racial faith emerged from forgetting that we were Gentiles. Christian belief in God begins with the astounding claim that we have met God in a Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, a vagabond rabbi who came not to us but to his own people, Israel. The “us” in that sentence is Gentiles, those not of Israel, those not Jewish. And by Jewish I mean (generally speaking) all those inside the history of Israel, who would identify themselves, theologically or ethnically, inside that history.

We Gentiles were outsiders to Israel. We were at the margins. So our engagement with Jesus was engagement from the margins, not from the center of power or privilege. In fact, anyone in Israel who connected themselves to Jesus moved to the margins. They became what theologian Shawn Copeland calls “a thinking margin.” Thinking from the margin is thinking from the site where one can see the operations of power and oppression and spy out the possibilities of freedom. To be a thinking margin means that one always claims the identity of one who others didn’t imagine would be included and one who never forgets the feeling of being the outsider who was included by grace.

Somewhere, probably in many places and many times, Gentile Christians got tired of remembering that they were a thinking margin that had been included in Israel’s promise. They decided — we decided — that those who followed Jesus were the only people of God and that Jewish people, Israel in the flesh, were no longer the people of God. We also decided that we should look at the world as though we were at the center of it and not at the margins with a Jew named Jesus. We forgot we were Gentiles, the real heathens. A Christian world was turned upside down and remade in our image.

Jennings’ prescription is implicit in his diagnosis. He doesn’t tell us how to separate a pure, abstract orthodoxy from the contaminants of heresy. He doesn’t tell us how to separate the loaf of our traditions from the leaven of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. He doesn’t tell us what to keep and what to discard, or what to think or what to believe or what to affirm. He tells us where to go.

Go to the margins. Start there. Not here.

This is, again, what Daniel José Camacho is getting at when he writes, per James Cone, “The black church that the white theological builders had rejected was actually the hermeneutical cornerstone for properly understanding God and Jesus.”

It’s there, on the margins, that we’ll find those who are getting it right when those at the center of power or privilege are getting it wrong. Go to a church on the far side of Boundary Street and you’ll encounter a Christianity that got right everything that Boyce and Broadus got wrong.


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