Did Martin Luther King, Jr. Agree With His Namesake? Doubtful, But It Helped Him Succeed

On this day, every year, America celebrates the man who had a dream; a dream of equality where his children would not be judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.  The “Reverend” Dr. King is much less known for his extremely liberal take on the bible.  Today I want to take an honest look at MLK and see where his theology was in direct contrast with that of  fundamentalists, including that of his namesake, and some of the benefits that were visited on him by this open-minded approach.

The Journey to Liberalism

Dr. MLK, Jr. was born into a fundamentalist environment, but his naturally curious nature caused him to begin rejecting some of the more fundamentalist teachings.  At age 13, he rejected the bodily resurrection, much to the chagrin of his fundamentalist churchgoers.  From his paper, “An Autobiography of Religious Development

The lessons which I was taught in Sunday School were quite in the fundamentalist line. None of my teachers ever doubted the infallibility of the Scriptures… I accepted Biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being… At the age of 13 I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From the age of thirteen on doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.

In most protestant churches, a belief in the bodily resurrection is seen as a necessary core component of theology, since “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” 1 Corinthians 15 (with context). Martin Luther also makes this fact explicitly in his Small Catechism, stating,

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

However, this liberal trend of doubting the bible’s infallibility continued while he was in seminary.  In one of his papers (with an incredibly long title), he examines the cultural context that caused the Christians to ascribe the divine sonship, the virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection to Jesus (all major points of the Apostle’s Creed as well as Luther’s aforementioned catechism).  On the virgin birth, King states,

To begin with, the earliest written documents in the New Testament make no mention of the virgin birth. Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, the most primitive and authentic of the four, gives not the slightest suggestion of the virgin birth. The effort to justify this doctrine on the grounds that it was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is immediately eliminated, for all New Testament scholars agree that the word virgin is not found in the Hebrew original, but only in the Greek text which is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “young woman.”

Christopher Hitchens points out this fact nearly identically in his book, “God Is Not Great.”  In another essay, “A Study of Mithraism,” King identifies the astonishing fundamental likenesses between Christianity and the mystery religion popular at the time of the formation of the Christian religion:

…it is to be noticed that they possessed many fundamental likenesses; (1) All held that the initiate shared in symbolic (sacramental) fashion the experiences of the god. (2) All had secret rites for the initiated. (3) All offered mystical cleansing from sin. (4) All promised a happy future life for the faithful.

Such words are commonplace among atheists, as proof that Christianity borrowed heavily from existing traditions, resulting in an amalgam of religious memes and tropes that caught on, and was finally brought to the forefront of tradition under Constantine.  Again, this interpretation stands in contrast to his namesake, who stated in “Luther’s Words, W.II, 626″

I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has erred.

King’s liberal attitude, however, allowed him to attract men and women from across fundamentalist divides, thus unifying people from different sects under a single cause.  Were he alive today, he would be as criticized as Rob Bell is for his more open stance of a literal interpretation. This liberal take on the bible also allowed him a modicum of openness to differing views that is not commonly seen at the forefront of the Christian face put forth in America today.

King’s Religious Overtones

Despite his liberal underpinnings, King followed his father’s footsteps as a pastor, and continually pointed to God as the reason for his fight.  However, he also venerated men such as Mahatma Ghandi on a level seemingly equal to Jesus (again to the chagrin of Christians who would not recognize Jesus’ humanity first and foremost).  King’s visit to India served to inform him of the use of nonviolent protest as a method of revolution, which he used as a model for America’s own civil rights movement.

King’s history as a pastor served him well when he jointly formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a consortium of African-American pastors and churches.  The group would jointly participate in civil disobedience and protests to raise awareness to the problems of the civil rights communities of the day.  Religion has historically served as a unifying force, and it did so here as well, as the civil rights movement continued and ultimately succeeded in ending the dichotomy and inequality that America had seen for many years.

King’s Continued Vision of Equality

King imagined a world of equality, and throughout his life, found common ground with people of different beliefs.  He drew his inspiration from the words of Christ, but his methods from Gandhi.  He did not discount the man simply because he held different beliefs.  If King were still alive, or had lived beyond his years to see the polarization of the religious right and the pervasiveness of dichotomy that exists today, I’m somewhat certain he would be appalled.

He ultimately valued the truth and reality of things, which is precisely what excised me from the Christian tradition.  In a culture where lies are peddled as truth, he would have found many more enemies today than friends in much of the Christian community.  He certainly wouldn’t judge people just on their religious or non-religious underpinnings, as is evidenced by his treatment of those throughout his life with differing convictions.

By Jonathan Rosenberg, Image Reporoduced With Permission


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