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Developments in Western Christianity from Martin Luther to Pope John XXIII

Apr 09,2017 - Last updated at Apr 09,2017

Martin Luther’s “opening” of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to his followers caused Western Christians, initially Protestants and, five centuries later, Catholics, to rediscover the link between Christianity and Judaism.

The licence given to the average man to read the Bible opened the gates for the eventual rehabilitation of the Jews in the West. Until that time, the Jews, accused of being Christ’s “killers”, were expelled from almost every European country, most notoriously Spain in 1492.

The rediscovery of the Old Testament, with its rich images, stories, names, places and ideas captivated the imagination of the intelligentsia, whether clergy or laymen, as well as artists, poets, litterateurs and musicians.

The Jews were rehabilitated first into the fold of Protestantism and, following the Nazi atrocities of the 20th century, which led to the issuance of the Nostra Aetate by the second Vatican Council in l965, finally rehabilitated into the fold of Catholicism.

Since then, both Western Protestantism and Catholicism celebrate their “roots’” in Judaism: the Old Testament.

On this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, it is important to note the impact of this historic event on the life of every Arab, until today, and to also note that in the Arab Muslim culture and tradition, no edict was necessary to make the Jews acceptable in their societies.

Such racism as exists in the West never existed at religious or political levels in the Arab Islamic civilisation. 

On the contrary, Jewish prophets and certain traditions are shared, with frequent reference to them found in the Holy Koran.

This year will mark the 500th anniversary of the historic second major split within Christianity, after that of 1054.

The leader of this second schism, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, was angry and disgusted not only with the sale of “indulgencies” by the Catholic Church but, more importantly, with the philosophical and doctrinal underpinnings of church teachings that made such sales permissible.

In an open letter to Pope Leo X, in 1520, he vented his anger, stating: “… the Roman Church, once the holiest of all, has become the most licentious den of thieves…”

It is the Protestant Reformation, that overwhelming revolution, that even now reverberates with cataclysmic echoes casting a shadow on the world of today and even beyond.

Luther was tempestuous and an honest man with a knack for expressing himself in a most direct way regarding not only his harsh critique of the Pope, whom he once called the “Anti-Christ”, but other theological and temporal issues as well.

He was once called “the last man of the Dark Ages and the first of the modern age”, ushering in the Renaissance era with its emphasis on individual liberties and the major ideas of the Age of Reason.

As an honest monk, he expressed himself forcefully as the occasion arose, and thus one finds his life and his writings, rarely systematic, often even contradictory, for he was not so much interested in symmetry as he was in preaching his forceful creed.

He was, first and foremost, a religious man concerned with salvation, who wanted religion to be understood by the average human being, without recourse to an intermediary between himself and God.

He wanted every man to read the Bible for himself, in his own language and not the Latin, which could only be read and understood by priests.

To facilitate this idea, he translated the Bible into German and encouraged lay people to participate in church services by singing hymns and chorales, some of which he composed and popularised himself.

He went on to introduce and sponsor the idea of mass education, thus making it possible for each man to read and interpret the Bible for himself, based on his belief that all men are equal before God.

These teachings coincided in time with the ushering in of the Age of Reason in Europe, and later to the New World.

It is also the age in which the great cities of Europe, with large concentrations or inhabitants, began to emerge, and the time that the city states in Germany were ready to free themselves, not only from the Roman Empire but also from the power and influence of the Catholic Church and the Papacy.

Peasantry, as well as the new conglomerates of city dwellers, were immediately attracted to Luther’s message, a message that the new escapees to the New World, the early American Puritans, carried with them to the new world.

Luther was one of the few revolutionaries in history fortunate enough to live to experience his success.

From Europe, his message of “human equality before God, with whom any man can communicate without the intercession of a priest” reached North America.

The vastness of the new continent allowed not only for physical individualism and self-reliance in earthly matters, like the conquering and developing of the land, but also in matters concerning the relationship between man and his God.

Luther’s opening of the Bible, the New Testament as well as the Old Testament for the perusal of any and all men was a development allowing for individual imagination to roam at will, unfettered by priestly intervention.

The Old Testament, with its mixture of faith, myth and reality, captured the imagination of the settled as well as of itinerant Gospel preachers in the vastness of the new world; it was but a short step to begin to identify the land, as the “promised land”, the “new Israel” and the new settlers as the ancient “Israelites” escaping their supposed bondage.

Such an outcome was never contemplated or even imagined by Luther himself whose negative and anti-Jewish views some claim paved the way for the development of the racist Nazi anti-Semitism of the 20th century, a charge of which he should be absolved since his attitude towards the Jews was definitely on religious, not racial, grounds.

In his writings, he acknowledges the link between Judaism and Christianity; he simply wanted Jews to convert to what he considered the true religion, which recognised Jesus as the Messiah.

Luther’s message was attractive not only because it offered freedom of choice and an emphasis on faith in man and his ability to reason for himself, but also because it provided pride in the German language and the development of mass education, which paved the way for the rise of a common cultural heritage.

Otto Von Bismarck’s success in uniting Germany in the late 19th century should be credited to the labours of Luther, who was responsible for the creation of a German identity and culture.

Particularly attractive among American Protestants, who had recently escaped from religious persecution in the Old World, was the idea of the second coming of the Messiah, to be preceded by the final battle of Armageddon.

Nelson Bell, father-in-law to the Evangelist Billy Graham, and editor of the publication Christianity Today, wrote in 1967, following the Israeli war, that “for the first time in 2000 years Jerusalem is now in the hands of the Jews [which] gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible…”

These strong sentiments were echoed by a number of protestant American religious and political leaders, including a succession of American presidents: Lyndon Johnson stated before a Jewish audience in 1968, “… most, if not all of you, have very deep ties with the land and the people of Israel, as I do, for any Christian faith sprang from yours, the Bible stories were woven into my childhood....”

Jimmy Carter spoke of Israel as, “a return at last, to the Biblical land from which the Jews were driven…. The establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfilment of the Biblical prophecy…”

Reagan was a firm believer in the Old Testament prophecies, especially those of the Battle of Armageddon.

He once stated: “… for the first time everything is in place for the Battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ … Ezekiel [38] tells us the Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel will come out of the North… now Russia has set itself up as Gog … it fits the description of Gog perfectly…”

In Grace Halsell’s book “Prophecy and Politics”, published in 1981, she states that president Reagan was convinced that he had “a mandate to spend trillions of dollars preparing for a nuclear Gog and Magog War…” 

Every American president since then has maintained very strong support for Israel.

There is strong evidence to suggest that, however the great reformer Luther may have felt about Jews, his strong belief in the equality of every human before God and allowing all to read the Bible opened fantastic vistas for the average Protestant who became especially attracted to the Old Testament with its rich tapestry of tales about creation itself, the origin of man and the imaginative history of the “chosen people” and their exploits.

Soon, a treasure of images was opened in the arts, letters and literature, and indeed in every facet of life.

Names of people, places, themes of thought, plots and colourful images found in the Bible found their way into daily Western life and, in poetry, arts letters and music, became integral parts of the culture.

Luther’s message of equality before God was a step towards paving the way for equality before the king and perhaps inspired the intelligentsia of the Age of Reason.

The process of reconciliation of Western Christianity with Judaism was never easy or simple, taking generations to take root and become, yet, another strand in the cultural weave of the West with pockets of resistance and racist anti-Semitic sentiment persisting in many countries until now.

But it is for sure an irreversible, historical development that, hopefully, will some day lead to the great reconciliation between the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.




While the eyes of the world were riveted on the aftermath and consequences of World War II and its barbarian Nazi atrocities, and while we, Arabs, were stunned and mesmerised by the creation of Israel in the late 1940s, a quiet, yet, a major historic ideological and religious earthquake was taking place within Western, more precisely, Catholic Christianity.

Very few are aware of the historic implications of Nostra Aetate, issued at the conclusion of the second Vatican Council.

Juxtaposing this encyclical with Luther’s 95 themes, one can conclude that a major overhaul of Western Christian theology had quietly and imperceptibly taken place: the very philosophical, religious and intellectual underpinnings of Catholic thought changed, perhaps bringing them closer to the realities of modernity with its emphasis on reason and the labours of man.

The second Vatican Council, called for by Pope John XXIII, was a historic gathering of some 2200 Roman Catholic bishops, cardinals, prelates and other church leaders for the purpose of re-examining the position of the church and its orientations and polices in modern times.

Specifically and initially, however, the Pope wanted the church to take a close look and re-examine its historic teachings, policies, attitudes and behaviour towards Jews and Judaism.

Pope John XXIII, had witnessed the Nazi horrors and barbarous atrocities, first hand, during World War II when, as a cardinal, he tried to help Jews in any way he could: by providing sanctuary, false identification and even baptismal papers in order to save them.

A gentle, humane human being, he was shocked by this experience, which made him determined to examine the religious and cultural milieu that allowed such a racist and hate-motivated Nazi ideology to take root, survive and turn otherwise ordinarily civilised people into instruments of hate and terror, condemning people to torture, death, concentration camps and gas chambers.

For almost 2,000 years, a theology developed around the theory that the Jews had lost favour with God and that they were no longer the “chosen people”, having rejected Christ and being his “killers”.

It was just such a cultural atmosphere that provided the space and encouragement for the development of racism and hate ideologies.

His personal contact with ordinary Jews, mostly in tragic situations, further sensitised the Pope to the Jewish plight in Western civilisation, which allowed anti-Semitism to find a place in its folds.

Of particular significance was his meeting with a French Jewish intellectual activist of note, author of several respected, widely renowned books on Jewish-Christian relations, Jules Isaac.

Born in 1877, he had witnessed the terribly tragic trial of Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, who was wrongfully accused and condemned simply because he was a Jew.

His widely publicised trial in the 1890s was absolutely unjust and prompted well-known journalist and novelist Emile Zola to write the book “J’Accuse”, in which he accused the French system of injustice and racism, 

Like Pope John XXIII, Isaac wanted to understand the roots of prejudice and bias in Western civilisation.

In one of his books, “Jesus and Israel” he claimed the roots of anti-Semitism are caused  by misinterpretations of certain texts of the Christian faith.

After meeting with the Pope in 1960, at which time they shared their similar views and jointly condemned racism and anti-Semitism, the Pope called for the convention of Vatican II.

Although Cardinal Augustin Bea, renowned Hebrew Bible scholar, was responsible for writing the Nostra Aetate, Isaac and Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, a powerful and convincing intellectual who had also witnessed first-hand the inhumane Nazi atrocities, played an important role in the drafting and even the wording of its final draft.

Initially, the council was supposed to address the issue of Catholic-Jewish relationship, but because of resistance from some church leaders, particularly from the Middle East, the mandate of the council was expanded to consider relations with Islam and other religions as well.

Within the Vatican, there was much debate on every aspect of the entire idea, and the process involved hundreds of meetings that lasted for three years, from 1962 to 1965, at which time the document Nostra Aetate was finally issued.

Pope John XXIII died in the spring of 1963 and was succeeded by Pope Paul VI who carried on the process of his predecessor until the Declaration was finally issued.

The process of formulating the Declaration took so long due to political manoeuvring within the council between its different wings: conservatives, liberals and independents.

At stake was not only a radical reorientation of the church’s negative view of the Jews, which had persisted for almost 2,000 years, but its future course as well.

Nostra Aetate, exonerates the Jews, for the killing of Christ, further stating: Catholicism itself “… remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New covenant to Abraham’s stock … among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets… the salvation of the church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus…. Indeed, the church believes that by His Cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles…. True, the Jewish authorities… pressed for the death of Christ,… still …His passion cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today…”

Though the Nostra Aetate is a very short document, no longer than three pages, it is perhaps one of the most important encyclicals ever issued by the Catholic Church in its entire history.

Not only did it relate Catholicism to its “roots” in the Old Testament, it also changed the church’s attitude and relationships with Islam and even “other religions”.

Islam, however, receives special, though briefer, attention than Judaism.

In paragraph three, Nostra Aetate proclaims: “The church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore God, living and subsisting Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit whole heatedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honour Mary… they await the Day of Judgment … they value the moral life and worship God… Since in the course of centuries… few quarrels and hostilities have arisen… this sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding …”

In a final reconciliatory note, the Declaration states: “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.”

Though the reference to Islam is much briefer than that accorded to Judaism, it was an historic acknowledgment and reversal of the church’s traditional negative attitude.

Arab and other Middle Eastern Christians whose background, roots and civilisation is Arab and Muslim, welcomed the Nostra Aetate and hoped that the historic reconciliation between the two previously antagonistic faiths, Judaism and Christianity would be followed by a sincere effort by the Vatican and the Catholic Church to reconcile with Islam.

While the Vatican and Jewish groups worldwide have held hundreds, even thousands, of meetings, conferences, visits and colloquia, culminating even in normalising relations between the Vatican and the Zionist state of Israel, relations with Islam, by comparison, received scant attention.

No serious or sustained efforts in that direction were pursued by the Catholic Church, nor indeed even by the Arab states themselves, with the exception of the sustained efforts by the leadership of Jordan, the late King Hussein and now King Abdullah who, like his father, welcomed to Jordan the visits of every Pope since the 1950s and who held, participated in and hosted scores of conferences and gatherings to develop the relations.

Although the efforts of the Vatican, headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran and coordinated by Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, director of the Centre for Relations with Islam, are fruitful and commendable, more rigorous efforts are needed.



The writer was director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies and former foreign minister of Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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