Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

Anti-Semitism: A Reformed Response

In his seminal work Christian Antisemitism, a History of Hate, former Anglican minister and Professor of Religious Studies William Nicholls, does not pull any punches. His thesis is that Christianity is inherently anti-Jewish, and has been from the beginning.

  • Wayne C. Johnson,
Share this

In his seminal work Christian Antisemitism, a History of Hate, former Anglican minister and Professor of Religious Studies William Nicholls, does not pull any punches. His thesis is that Christianity is inherently anti-Jewish, and has been from the beginning, asserting:

It is now historically clear that anti-Judaism did not begin only in the second century, when the theology of supercession first became explicit. Anti-Judaic hostility is unmistakably present in the later parts of the New Testament itself. The sacred Scriptures of the Christian Church are contaminated with the poison of anti-Jewish untruth. Ever since it has been a recognizable religion, Christianity has been anti-Jewish.1

By "supercession," Nicholls refers to the doctrine held by certain Christians that the New Testament church "replaced" Old Testament Israel. While Reformed Christians certainly believe that the promises of God to His people in the Old Testament are rightly embraced by the church in the New Testament, we also recognize that our view of the covenant and of the Old Testament sets us well apart from Roman Catholics and Lutherans in this vitally important area. The New Testament church does not replace Israel; it embraces the Gentiles.

Nicholls's view, not unrepresentative among today's liberal theologians, is of such a stunningly conclusionary nature, that Reformed believers, no less than the Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologies that are the target of many of his broadsides, must respond in an unambiguous and forthright manner. To remain silent in the face of such a charge is to tacitly consent to its substance, though Reformed history and doctrine suggest a decidedly different conclusion.

Nicholls sees the world through the prism of a sort of anti-anti-Semitism, tracing much of what is wrong in the world to this alleged fatal flaw in Christian theology:

Whether religious or secular, conservative, Marxist, or liberal, all forms of modern antisemitism are branches of the same tree. All of them have inherited from the Christian past the conviction that Jews are bad. For religious antisemites, the Jews are the recalcitrant enemies of God and Christ. For conservatives, they are an unassimilable racial community. For liberals, they are narrow-minded and aggressive, ready to deny to others the political rights they claim for themselves. For Marxists, they are the instruments of American imperialism. New reasons may be given nowadays, but the assumption is old. At the roots of the tree we will find the ancient myth depicting the Jews as Christ-killers.2

While Nicholls' antipathy to traditional Christianity and Biblical authority is obvious, we cannot simply dismiss his overreaching allegations, as long as any significant number of people might otherwise be disposed to believe them. We must also credit Nicholls for so plainly stating his thesis, in an era when liberals often seem incapable of being certain about much of anything.

The Notable Exception: Calvinists
Still, amid the rubble to which he believes his arguments reduce historic Christianity, Nicholls notes a few minor exceptions; notably the Calvinists. Discussing the amazing story of Reformed pastor André Trocmé and the tiny French village of Le Chambon, where virtually every family took in and sheltered Jews from the Nazis, Nicholls attempts to explain, writing:

[T]hey inherited from their Calvinist faith a respect for the Old Testament and for the "people of the book" whom they still regarded as God's chosen people. Their Christian faith took a practical form. The commandment to love the neighbor meant something only if carried out in action.
Theologians may remember the Calvinist idea of the third use of the Law, to guide the actions of a justified person, an idea in fact very close to the Jewish understanding of the role of the Torah. For these Calvinist Christians, simple and untheological as they were, the commandments of God were something to be kept and done. Christian faith in the forgiveness of sins did not remove from them the necessity of action on behalf of other human beings. And so they did act, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and did not think of themselves as heroes.3

Trocmé had inherited from his Huguenot ancestors a deep empathy for the persecuted. He has been slandered and maligned as a pacifist (which he was) and a Communist (which he was not). We in the Reformed community have difficulty accepting the acts of a man like Trocmé unless we have meticulously evaluated every particular of his theology. While there are certainly aspects of Trocmé's theological opinions that would spark debate among his Reformed brethren, for present purposes it seems enough to focus on what was obvious even to Nicholls; there is something different about Calvinists:

The Calvinists held a different view of the relationship between Law and Gospel. Calvin knew of a "third use of the Law," as guidance for the conduct of life for the justified Christian, living in the covenant of grace. Without knowing it, he had in fact come closer to the original Jewish understanding of the function of Torah in personal and corporate life. Thus, Calvinists could look to the Old Testament as guidance for the building of new societies that had thrown off the Catholic yoke, or (later) that of the established churches of the Protestant world.4

Nicholls apparently has difficulty conceiving of Christians doing the right thing on purpose. He called the people of Le Chambon "simple and untheological," and here has Calvin arriving at a theological position "without knowing it." Still, the point is obvious, that Calvinist theology requires engagement with the world in distinctively Biblical terms. In Conscience and Courage, Rescuers of Jews in the Holocaust, Eva Fogelman makes the Reformed/Old Testament connection, as well:

It is of interest that many Dutch rescuers were members of the Anti-Revolutionary Church Party, a group whose members were taught about Jews in positive terms. Members of this party felt a spiritual connection with Jews through stories from the Hebrew Bible and through stories about Jesus. Jews were brothers and sisters to them, not alien beings.5

Like most secular writers, Fogelman is at sea when trying to describe just exactly what it is that these, and other Calvinists, actually believed that impelled such actions; nevertheless, she is to be commended for faithfully reporting what they did, if not quite understanding why.

Active Calvinism
The historical record, of course, is quite clear, particularly in the Reformed tradition known as "activist Calvinism" that had its roots in the German Palatinate centered in Heidelberg. The late Frances A. Yates, a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, portrays Heidelberg as an incubator of the sciences and the arts (for better or for worse, it seems). In her Rosicrucian Enlightenment, she writes:

Though the Palatinate was a Calvinist state, the thought movements within the Palatinate with which we are to be concerned [i.e., Rosicrucianism, alchemy, and other pre-Enlightenment movements] have little, indeed nothing, to do with Calvinist theology. These movements are a remarkable example of the trend to which H. Trevor-Roper has drawn attention,6 namely that activist Calvinism attracted liberal thinkers of many different types attracted because activist Calvinism represented a stand against the extreme forces of reaction, a guarantee that within its sphere of influence the writ of the Inquisition would not run.7

Centuries later, Hitler and the Nazis were also learn that the Reformed Churches were to present a different, and much more militant, problem for them in their attempts to create a "German Church," for racially pure "German Christians." While there were many godly Christians of the Lutheran Churches who joined the "Confessing Church" and signed the famous Barmen Confession against the Nazi state's claims of authority, the proportion of Reformed churches who refused to submit was much higher.

The fact that Karl Barth was a leader in this opposition, and a prominent co-author of the Barmen Confession,8 has, as in the case of Trocmé, often clouded the central issue to people who otherwise would advocate his views and applaud his courage. We need not agree with all (or even little) of Barth's theology to agree with the Barmen Confession's appeals to the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Reformed creeds, upon which it based its wholesale rejection of the Nazi's authority.

The Nazis, under a plan drawn up by Rudolph Hess, made a determined effort to take over the nation's churches. They did this by exploiting the practice in which residents of a city needed only to pick up a ballot from the local church in order to be able to vote in ecclesiastical elections. After brown-shirted Nazis took over region after region, the battle came down to the infamous "Brown Synod"9 of September, 1933, so named because so many of its elected delegates wore the brown shirts of the Nazi movement. The small opposition, calling themselves the "Young Reformation Movement," was vastly outnumbered only 75 of the 229 delegates present.

When the vote was taken to endorse the so-called "Aryan paragraph," requiring that pastors and their wives be free of "Jewish blood," the 75 walked out of the meeting, after which Nazi puppet Ludwig Muller was elected Reich bishop.

Matheson describes this group of young Christians and their actions a few weeks earlier:

The opposition to the German Christians in the church elections of 23 July 1933 was ill-organized, ill-financed and except in Southern Germany [emphasis added], attracted little support. The emergence of such groups as "Gospel and Church,"however, was significant for the evolution of the Confessing Church. They were sponsored by the Young Reformers Movement, which sought the renewal of the Church, but on a firmly Scriptural and non-political basis.10

The impact the Barmen Confession had was largely a matter of how the various church bodies received it. Barnett writes:

The Lutherans saw the Barmen Declaration as a church document to be pondered and elaborated upon, corrected and further developed theologically. The Reformed and Old Prussian Unionviewed it as a full confession, as significant as the Augsburg Confession of 1530. As the foundation of the Confessing Church, it gave church protests against Nazi infringements on the faith a status confessionis [i.e., confessional status].11

The Reformed Church certainly had its collaborators, but they are more notable by their scarcity. The few identified collaborators in the Hungarian Reformed Church, for example, tended to filter into the refugee camps, where in some cases they miraculously transformed themselves into anti-Communists and immigrated to the United States. (One even became a prominent professor at a small Virginia college, such was the gullibility of well-meaning conservatives eager to provide a forum against bolshevism.)

To understand how compromised "German Christianity" became, one need only look to the words of "German Christian" Herr Krause, speaking to 20,000 at the Sportspalast rally, November 13, 1933. For Calvinists, with their Old Testament and their third use of the law, Krause's speech must have been spine-chilling indeed.

What Protestants really wanted was the completion of the national mission of Martin Luther by a second German Reformation. This will result not in an authoritarian, clergy-dominated church, but rather in a church for the German people, a church able to accommodate the whole breadth of a racially attuned experience of God.
Can our Reich church, our provincial church, achieve this? Only, my evangelical compatriots, if it renounces all violation of religious life, and turns its back on any "Christianity on command" the liberation of all that is un-German in liturgy and confession, liberation from the Old Testament with its Jewish recompense ethic, from all these stories about cattle-dealers and pimps. This book has been characterized quite rightly as one of the most questionable books in the world's history. It just will not do for German Christians pastors to explain: "We stand where we have always stood on the basis of the Old Testament," although on the other hand, the guiding principles speak of "racially attuned Christianity." In practice, the one excludes the other.
Our provincial church will also have to see to it that all obviously distorted and superstitious reports should be expunged from the New Testament, and that the whole scapegoat and inferiority-type theology of the Rabbi Paul should be renounced.
Theology has always tried to separate God and man, tried again and again to justify its own existence by proving that man is fallen, weighed down with original sin, and therefore in need of salvation the church can offer. We recognize no God/man division.12

As with Nicholls, so with Krause — we commend both for stating their theses so succinctly. Both basically see the Bible as the problem, the one as the root of anti-Semitism, the other as a piece of Jewish propaganda. Both call for this whole Christian business to be turned on its head.

"Unto good works..."
Yet, the testimony of history says that it is not only possible, but necessary, that Christians who take the covenant of God and the authority of His Word seriously, will act and think in radically different ways than their humanist counterparts. For those to whom there is no "God/man division," there is no real higher authority apart from brute force. For the Calvinist, and his emphasis on the Creator/creature distinction, submission to God's law is a necessary outworking of justification, for "we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

The doctrine of the covenant also calls us to a far different view of the relationship of Jews to Christians than that which Nicholls suggests is typically Christian. We see a unity of God's covenant people in Old Testament and New. The Old Testament is about the coming of Messiah. While Messiah came first to the Jews, Paul explains that through the rejection of Christ by Israel, the way of salvation was opened up to the Gentiles exactly as promised in the Old Testament

Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles. (Rom. 11:11)

Still, Paul says we Gentiles are "unnatural branches" that have been "grafted in." How much better, he says, when the natural branches are grafted back in? The picture Paul paints is one of a covenant people composed almost exclusively of the descendants of Abraham, that is suddenly greatly expanded, to accommodate the marvelous outpouring of God's grace, that we who are Gentiles after the flesh, might be called into His Kingdom through the blood of Christ. He intimates that his prayer that "all Israel should be saved" in some substantive way is meant to apply to a future ingathering of Jewish believers.

Whether such an ingathering occurred in Paul's time, or is yet future (an eschatological debate left for another time), one thing is certain the God of Abraham is our God only because God in His mercy opened the door of salvation and compelled us to come in. There can be neither pride nor prejudice in such a matter, only gratitude, that while we were yet sinners, He loved us.

For the present time, our prayer is the same as Paul's that all Israel might be saved and it doesn't matter how you define "Israel." We want the church "spiritual Israel" to be saved. We want our Jewish neighbors to be saved. We want the millions of residents of the State of Israel to be saved. That is because we believe with our heart of hearts that those who die without Christ will spend eternity in Hell, whether they are Jew or Gentile. The issue is not race, but faith.

Prayer for the salvation of others, of course, is quite a different thing than acts of coercion. Since we believe that salvation is through grace alone, statist action to impose religious belief is utterly foolish. It is also wrongheaded to suggest that any group of people, regardless of nation or race, is more fallen than any other. Romans 3 addresses this, expressly noting all were concluded under the curse of sin, whether by being without the law, or failing to keep the law, so that salvation might be by grace, and not of race or works.

Living "peaceably with all men"
What shall we say then? Surely we resent the sting of such accusations against all of Christendom that have increasingly characterized modern treatments of anti-Semitism. Yet, we, as Reformed Christians, must resist the temptation to harden our hearts when unfairly maligned.

Our Reformed forebears took to heart the commandment that "If it possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men." The Reformed societies of Holland, Brazil, Suriname, New England, etc. frequently took in Jews expelled from Roman Catholic countries, looking upon these as not only occasions to show Christian mercy, but as opportunities to benefit from their skills in the Hebrew language.

By the patient example of these godly Christians, we can temper our own responses when subjected to unwarranted criticism, for we cannot expect every non-Christian Jew we meet to have studied the nuances of Christian history and draw the distinctions we would draw.

Our response for slander within Christendom, however, is another matter. Increasingly, we have seen the charge of "anti-Semitism" tossed about as a brickbat in theological debates, particularly in the area of eschatology. These brethren need to repent of their grievous sin and seek God's forgiveness for fueling the fires of discord and racism. Premillennialists can be excused, because they don't know any better. But between amillennialists and postmillennialists, the rhetoric has occasionally reached shameful levels.

It is not our calling to justify ourselves before the world, but rather to live by faith, justified in Christ. We will continue to be slandered by those whose brush is far too broad, yet our response must be guided, not by a worldly standard of "fairness," but by the genuineness of our love for the gospel. Most importantly, we must redeem the times in which the Lord has placed us, adding our own chapter of right conduct to the generations of Calvinists who have gone before.


1. Nicholls, William, Christian Antisemitism, A History of Hate (Northvale, New Jersey, Jerusalem, 1995), 418-9.

2. ibid., xxiv.

3. ibid., 361-2.

4. ibid., 273.

5. Fogelman, Eva, Conscience and Courage, Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York, NY, 1994), 164.

6. H. Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London, 1967), 204 ff.

7. Yates, Frances A., The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Routledge, London and New York, 1998) 25.

8. Matheson, Peter, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI, 1981), 45-7.

9. Barnett, Victoria, For the Soul of the People, Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York, 1992), 34.

10. Matheson, 29.

11. Barnett, 55-6.

12. Matheson, 39-40.

  • Wayne C. Johnson

Wayne C. Johnson is a veteran political campaign consultant and Trustee of the Chalcedon Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].

More by Wayne C. Johnson