September 21st: Commemorating Luther’s Translation


September 21, 1522: Luther’s Translation of the NT Published

 

Rome’s Censure of Scripture

The council of Trent (1545-1563), in its 4th session, stated:

“But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” [1]

The Wartburg Castle

This 4th session ended in 1546. Its anathema was prompted by Luther’s actions twenty four years earlier, when Luther was hiding at the Wartburg castle after Friedrich the Wise practically arranged for him to be kidnapped and hidden away at the Wartburg, out of the grasp of Catholic law-enforcement.

Revolution or Reformation?

We live in a time of unimaginable freedom, so this situation may seem a bit absurd to us—what was the big problem with translating the New Testament into German? What was it that made the members of Trent agree to such a drastic statement as to not allow anyone to translate Scripture without official approval from Rome? To answer that question truthfully can only be a defense of the Protestant Reformation, for it was indeed a battle between two different views of Scripture itself. Luther believed that Scripture was higher than any ecclesial authority. Higher, even, than the Pope. Rome declared it believed differently in Trent. The Pope and his Church would be the ones to approve or disapprove of any commentaries and translations of Scripture, and they would be the only certified regulators of divine revelation. Therefore, to let Scripture be delivered to an entire people by a single man was dangerous. Even if one were to submit to the words of Scripture, this was rebellion challenging Roman primacy if the Catholic authority were not affirmed before Scripture. So Luther really was a rebel against this institution, and in a time when the Catholic Church had more power than many governments today, a theological rebel was a political traitor, and so Luther’s very life was in danger.

 

Luther’s Heroic Translation

Ravensburg Stadtkirche Reformatorenfenster Luther

We see now that Friedrich the Wise likely saved Luther’s life by absconding him. And it is this time Luther spent in the Wartburg castle that we remember today.  N.R. Needham writes that Luther’s stay at the Wartburg castle was “the most creative year of his life.” He disguised as a gentleman, growing long hair and his beard. Leaving the castle to get fresh air he would stop and chat with passers-by, introducing himself as “Sir George.” The height of his disguise—I’m sure he was very pleased with himself—was when he would ask strangers whether Martin Luther’s whereabouts had been discovered yet.[2] It was during this time that he completed the incredible feat of translating the entire New Testament into German. He utilized the Greek text that Erasmus had prepared,[3] as well as his Latin translation.[4] He completed his translation within eleven weeks.[5][6] Concerning the translation, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

“It was an astonishing achievement at a time of great personal stress and amid the production of a welter of polemical writing. Although time only permitted him to complete the New Testament…this was an extraordinary achievement, which has shaped the German language ever since.”[7]

A Younger Philip Melanchthon

Indeed, according to Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Bible created modern German.[8] Luther “did not expect to finish his translation at the Wartburg,” but he returned to Wittenberg with a complete translation. Then Melanchthon would check the translation before publication. It was what Scott Hendrix calls “a linguistic match made in heaven.”[9]

But this great feat was more than literary, however. Luther’s mission was to make Scripture known again. To spread the gospel so that every person had the opportunity to know the word of God intimately, without having to depend on a middleman. “His translation of the Bible in the Wartburg was an expression of a relationship of love with the word of God….”[10] This was a love that he wanted for the German-speaking peoples to partake in, but how would they love the Scriptures, never hearing them in their own language? This translation was, for Luther, necessary.

And so Luther’s act of translation reminds us of some of the key tenets of the Reformation. First of all, that salvation is by faith alone. Sola Fide. That no amount of indulgences, no works of charity, would make things right between man and God. Only God’s grace through faith would bridge that gap. Second, the priesthood of all believers. The belief that a clergyman is no closer to God than a layman by virtue of his cloth, and that the meek and lowly should not be kept away from the words of Scripture. And finally, Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone has everything man needs for salvation.

So we remember this day, 495 years ago, when Scripture was unleashed for an entire nation. Then things sped up.

 

“The plough-boy with scripture is mightier than the greatest Pope without.”

-Martin Luther

 

Written by Josiah Roberts. Josiah is a graduate of New Saint Andrews College and serves as as Executive Assistant to the Presidentworks at the Davenant Institute. He lives in Moscow, ID with his wife Zoe.

 

NOTES:

[1] Council of Trent (http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct04.html), 19.

[2] N. R. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (averdale North Darlington: EP BOOKS, 2003), 100-101.

[3] He used the 2nd edition of Erasmus’ Greek.

[4] Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 126.

[5] For perspective: an English New Testament has a little under 140,000 words. Imagine transcribing that, then translating it. Writing by hand.

[6] Henry Zecher, “The Bible Translation that Rocked the World,” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-34/bible-translation-that-rocked-world.html).

[7] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: a History, Reprint ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 133.

[8]  David Holmstrom, “How the Bible Came To the Common Man,” (https://www.csmonitor.com/1997/0224/022497.feat.religion.3.html).

[9] Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 126.

[10] MacCulloch, 133-134