Martin Luther

by Cienna Dumaoal

When most people think of Martin Luther, they think of a man stealing through the night to pin scathing condemnations of Catholicism to a weathered church door. No inherent issue exists with viewing Luther in light of the 95 Theses, as many consider them to be the piece of work that effectively set the entire Protestant Reformation in motion. However, one should guard against seeing him solely as the author of the Theses and nothing more. To do so would be to ignore what may be Luther’s most enduring contribution to not only the Christian community but to the world as a whole – the Lutheran Bible. While the Theses may have had a more immediate and more striking effect, the importance of Luther’s translation of the Bible into German cannot be overstated in terms of long-term change. If the Theses produced fireworks – instant and explosive, the Lutheran Bible produced a wildfire. The reverberations of this work spread more slowly, but by the time people began to take notice, it had already overtaken everything in its path, burning brighter than anyone would have expected. What the wildfire of the Lutheran Bible has left in its wake can never be undone, and its sparks linger in the air to this day. The Lutheran Bible changed the world by revolutionizing language, providing widespread access to the Bible, and unifying believers in ways that held both practical and theological importance.

The story of the Lutheran Bible does not begin with Luther. Rather, it can be traced back to the humanistic movement at the end of the Middle Ages, an ideological return to the classical period, during which many Biblical scholars turned back to Greek and Hebrew texts. In doing so, they began to eschew the Vulgate – the Latin translation of the Bible most frequently used in religious life – for the most part. Erasmus of Rotterdam further critiqued the Vulgate, mainly for its lack of refinement. His solution was the Novum Instrumentum (1516), which provided a Greek translation on one side of the page and his own improved Latin translation on the other. While Erasmus’ translation became pivotal in the development of Luther’s, at the time, it served only as a temporary solution to a greater problem – the growing sense of dissatisfaction surrounding the Vulgate. Some found it useful but insufficient. Others found it boring, lacking in any dynamic use of style, and still others found it concerning and anxiety-inducing as a result of its numerous flaws.1 Simply put, people wanted a better Bible.

The Lutheran Bible changed the world first by changing language. To begin with, Luther’s translation revolutionized the German language specifically. Prior to the Lutheran Bible, German remained a completely unstandardized language, mainly consisting of two main dialects – Upper German from the North and Lower German from the South.2 The technical form of German that formed the basis for Luther’s translation was the dialect of the Royal Saxon court, or the Austrian form of Upper German preferred by Emperor Maximilian (1493-1519).3 However, Luther grew up in Saxony, the linguistic middle ground between Upper and Lower German, meaning that although a form of Upper German served as the foundation for the new German created in his translation, he was able to combine it with Lower German as well.4 He used this fact to his advantage in order to craft a book that all Germans could read, because it was written in a language that they could all understand. Luther did more than create a language that every German could understand, though; he made one that they could use. Patrick Cox writes, “But Luther’s real genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text; his translations transformed not just into understandable language, but everyday language.”5 Luther’s translation not only made a way for the German people to read the Bible but also created the language that they use on a daily basis.

However, the impact of Luther’s translation of the Bible on language went beyond simply unifying the German language. It also illuminated the relationship between language and the gospel. Firstly, his work revealed that the language in which the gospel is conveyed does matter. Even a message of liberation can become a message of oppression if expressed in the wrong language. According to Deacon Betsy Karkan, “The claims which stated the simple would be led astray if they were to receive the Scriptures in their own language primarily served to manipulate and control the masses by leaving them in ignorance.”6 Because the common people were not able to understand what the gospel message for themselves, where they ought to have received hope, they actually received the opposite. The Bible was being used to control them, when it was always meant to free them. Only once the people were given a translation of the Bible that they could understand could they truly understand what its words offered them. Herein one can see the vital role that language plays in how the gospel is communicated.

Secondly, the Lutheran Bible shows that the gospel was not meant to be expressed in only one language. If this statement were true, then the gospel would only be meant for one type of person. Karkan writes, “Using a language only those with power and influence could understand, many false doctrines and practices were being introduced with little objection.” This fact shows the evils that can stem from the belief that the gospel only belongs to the privileged. Luther believed that everyone has a right to interact with God’s Word in their own language, because he truly believed God intended it to be so. For this reason, he not only chose to write in the language of the common people, but he actually designed his word choice so that the text could be easily read aloud, giving even the illiterate a chance to hear the Word of God.7 Luther’s translation of the Bible changed the world because it showed that the gospel should not be restricted to one language. Rather, it was meant to be proclaimed in all of them.

Secondly, the Lutheran Bible changed the world by providing widespread access to Scripture. First of all, Luther furthered the Protestant cause through his work, as once people could read the Bible for themselves, they did not want to return to having others read it for them. As Reverend Jason Lane writes, “In order to loosen the chains of papal captivity, Luther placed the Scriptures in our laps.”8 Lane speaks correctly when he claims that part of Luther’s motive was liberation of the common people from the authoritative rule of Catholicism. Luther’s end goal, however, was a return to Scripture alone as the basis for faith. He was not only anti-Catholic; he was pro-Scripture. Understandably, the Catholic church accused the new translations of leaning Protestant, although, in most cases, they were simply translations of Scripture into different languages. The simple fact that translations were becoming available to people in their own languages was enough to draw them from Catholicism to Protestantism, in many cases. In reality, the most Protestant-leaning aspect of many of these translations was the fact that they were intended for people other than the clergy. Either way, the fact remains that the Lutheran Bible was able to advance the aims of the Protestant Reformation at a much faster rate than would likely have otherwise been possible.

The widespread access to Scripture which Luther’s translation provided did not only further the Protestant cause, though. It also redefined how Christians viewed their sacred texts. Firstly, Luther’s translation showed that the Bible belongs to everybody. Before the Lutheran Bible, a significant amount of elitism surrounded the Scriptures, as religious circles became permeated with the idea that only the rich and educated had the right to know what their holy texts actually said. According to Deacon Betsy Karkan, “In the very places God had promised He would always be present—His Word and His Holy Sacraments received in the Divine Liturgy—only the clergy and literate upper classes could receive them in a language they understood.”9 Luther’s more privileged contemporaries believed that the gospel was too holy to be written in the language of the common people, but Luther knew that a gospel accessible to all people was exactly what Christ would have wanted. The gospel was never meant to be set apart from people; its explicit purpose is to enter into the reality of their lives. The message of Christ’s redeeming love is directed at average people, and the average person has a right to know about it.

Furthermore, Luther’s work revealed that the Biblical texts are meant to be experienced in a deeply personal manner. Because of his theological convictions, as well as his convictions about the behavior of the Catholic church, he placed a high value on the ability to read the Scriptures for oneself. Lucy Proudman notes, “Luther also advocated the idea of sola scriptura, which is the belief that only the Bible can tell us the truth…Luther perceived the issue of indulgences as a clerical con against the masses, and hence the urgency of providing the laity with access to biblical scripture, so that they could discern the corruption in the church for themselves.”10 Luther believed that faith existed between an individual and God alone, as opposed to between the individual and God with the church as the interpreter. He wrote in a letter to John Lang, “I wish…that this book alone, in all languages, would live in the hands, eyes, ears and hearts of all people.”11 Luther’s concept of sola scriptura means that Scripture is sufficient to sustain a personal relationship with God, without the need for outside interpretations. Scripture was not meant to be read to the people of God; it was meant to be read by them.

The final way in which the Lutheran Bible changed the world was the unity it created for believers throughout Germany as well as throughout Europe. The publication of Luther’s translation coincided with the invention of the printing press, which allowed his work to reach more people than it would have otherwise. Also, due to the political state of Germany in the early 16th century, the use of colloquial German was increasing, as well as the demand for German publications.12 Henry Zecher reports, “It was the first time a mass medium had ever penetrated everyday life. Everyone read Luther’s new Bible or listened to it being read.” Not only did Luther’s translation create a unity never before seen in the German people, but it initiated widespread efforts to translate the Bible into languages besides German, as well. Translations from Holland, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark – directly inspired by the Lutheran Bible – began to appear not long after its initial publication. Lutheran’s most notable successor was William Tyndale (1494-1536), who was martyred for his efforts to translate the Bible into English.13 As personal interaction with God’s Word increased, so did solidarity among believers.

As well as bringing about unity on a practical level, Luther’s translation revealed what unity can mean in a theological sense. As William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson write, “It contributed enormously to the development of Modern High German, to creating a unified German culture extending well beyond the political boundaries of today’s Germany, and is considered, in its own right, one of the foremost achievements of German literature.”14 First of all, the Lutheran Bible showed that when people have more access to the Bible, they initially see similarities before differences. Part of the reason that the Lutheran Bible was so revolutionary was the fact that it gave a large amount of people access to Scripture at the same time. The result of this, at least in the beginning, was an increased sense of unity among believers. Because the book unified their language and their standard of living as more and more people gained access to it, it also unified them as a whole. Zecher stated, “So universal was its appeal, and so thoroughly did it embrace the entire range of the German tongue, that it formed a linguistic rallying point for the formation of the modern German language. It helped formally restructure German literature and the German performing arts.”15 The Lutheran Bible became a source of unity for the German people, because it highlighted their similarities over their differences. This fact reveals how exposure to Scripture can unify people in powerful ways.

The obvious and natural response to this idea is the fact that more access to Scripture has in many cases led to division, rather than unity. One could even argue that as individual copies of the Bible become more widespread, the body of Christ becomes more fractured. While the initial effect in Germany and other areas of Europe was a unifying one, the trajectory of history since then seems to suggest – if not demand – an alternate perspective. With the ability to interpret comes the opportunity to disagree. One cannot help but see why the Catholic church preferred to keep Bibles only in the hands of those whom they could trust to interpret it in a predictable manner. When the people were simply being told what the Bible said, they could not disagree with one another, because they were collectively being fed the same information. However, once the ability to read Scripture was placed in the hands of the people, everything became much more convoluted, as anyone could have an opinion about what Scripture was saying. Many would say – and would be correct in saying – that the Lutheran Bible caused less unity, not more.

Although unity was one of the immediate effects of Luther’s translation of the Bible, the theological implications of this practical fact have become more complicated in time. Unlike matters of language or access to Biblical texts, the answer to the question of whether the Lutheran Bible caused more unity or more division has changed over time. However, one would be foolish to imagine that Luther did not foresee this matter. According to Lane, “That is the risk Luther took when he set out to translate the Bible… God’s Word is placed into the hands of sinners who do not by nature want to submit their reason, will, or passions to the wisdom of God.” Luther’s Catholic opponents claimed that his plan would cause division among believers, and they were correct. The widespread distribution of the Biblical texts led to denominational splits, doctrinal differences, and blatant disagreements within the body of Christ. Luther probably understood enough about human nature to know that this scenario was actually quite likely, yet he chose to create his translation, all the same.

The only explanation is that Luther was much less concerned with unifying believers, and much more concerned with enlightening them. The entire reason that he wanted to make the Bible more widely available was the fact that he placed his faith in God’s word over human nature. As Lane says, “Luther’s confidence was not in the wisdom of the interpreters, but in the unchanging Word of God.”16 Unity was a positive side effect of Luther’s work in the beginning, yet it was never his ultimate goal. He wanted to place Bibles in the hands of normal people, and he understood that this action would lead to division and disagreement. However, if the people are disagreeing, it meant that they are reading Scripture for themselves, which is exactly what Luther would have wanted.

Translating the entire Bible into an entirely different language is no small feat. Luther seems to have been well aware of this fact, as he wrote, “O God, what a hard and difficult task it is to force these writers, quite against their wills, to speak German. They have no desire to give up their native Hebrew in order to imitate our barbaric German. It is as though one were to force a nightingale to imitate a cuckoo, to give up his own glorious melody for a monotonous song he must certainly hate.”17 The thirteen years during which Luther labored over these texts were not spent in vain, however. The Lutheran Bible quite literally changed the world. It revolutionized the use of language, both for the Germans and for Christians as a whole. It provided widespread access to the Bible, which not only aided the Protestant Reformation but also helped believers to view the Scriptures in an entirely new way. Finally, it provided unity, at least for a time, showing how the Bible in the hands of ordinary people can both bring them together and drive them apart. Just as any monumental act, the effects of Luther’s translation of the Bible were neither entirely positive nor entirely negative, yet they are undeniable. Now, over 900 English translations of the New Testament exist.18 A time where Bibles only belonged to the upper class and could not be accessed in one’s own language can feel far away, yet such is the reality for many on this planet, even now. Thus the sparks of the wildfire that Luther lit so long ago remain, waiting to blaze once more.

Bibliography

Bouma, Jeremy. “The Reformation’s Influence on How We Got Our Bible.” Zondervan Academic, zondervanacademic.com/blog/how-the-reformation-influenced-our-bible. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Cox, Patrick. “Martin Luther Didn’t Just Reform the Church, He Reformed the German Language.” Public Radio International, www.pri.org/stories/2015-04-02/martin-luther-didnt-just-reform-church-he-reformed-german-language. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Darsie, Heather R. “Martin Luther’s Influence on the German Language.” The Tudor Society, www.tudorsociety.com/martin-luthers-influence-on-the-german-language-by-heather-r-darsie/. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Hamblin, William, and Daniel Peterson. “Martin Luther’s History-Changing Translation of the Bible.” Deseret News, www.deseret.com/2017/8/18/20617898/martin-luther-s-history-changing-translation-of-the-bible. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Karkan, Betsy. “The Cradle of Christ in Every Home: Reformation Translations of the Bible.” Lutheran Reformation, lutheranreformation.org/history/cradle-christ-every-home-reformation-translations-bible/. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Lane, Jason. “Luther’s Translation of the Bible.” Lutheran Reformation, lutheranreformation.org/history/luthers-translation-of-the-bible/. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Proudman, Lucy. “How Martin Luther Gave Germans a Language Everyone Could Use.” Thelocal.de, www.thelocal.de/20191011/how-luther-gave-germans-a-language-everyone-could-use. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Vamvaka, Olga. “How Martin Luther Influenced German Language -.” Terminology Coordination Unit, termcoord.eu/2018/10/how-martin-luther-influenced-german-language/. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Zecher, Henry. “The Bible Translation That Rocked the World.” Christian History Institute, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/bible-translation-that-rocked-the-world. Accessed 8 April 2020.

Witherington III, Ben. “The Most Dangerous Thing Luther Did.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, www.christianitytoday.com/history/2017/october/most-dangerous-thing-luther-did.html. Accessed 8 April 2020.


NOTES

[1] Bouma, “The Reformation’s Influence on How We Got Our Bible”

[2] Proudman, “How Martin Luther Gave Germans a Language Everyone Could Use”

[3] Darsie, “Martin Luther’s Influence on the German Language”

[4] Proudman, “How Martin Luther Gave Germans a Language Everyone Could Use”

[5] Cox, “Martin Luther Didn’t Just Reform the Church, He Reformed the German Language”

[6] Karkan, “The Cradle of Christ in Every Home: Reformation Translations of the Bible”

[7] Proudman, “How Martin Luther Gave Germans a Language Everyone Could Use”

[8] Lane, “Luther’s Translation of the Bible”

[9] Karkan, “The Cradle of Christ in Every Home: Reformation Translations of the Bible”

[10] Proudman, “How Martin Luther Gave Germans a Language Everyone Could Use”

[11] Karkan, “The Cradle of Christ in Every Home: Reformation Translations of the Bible”

[12] Vamwaka, “How Martin Luther Influenced German Language”

[13] Zecher, “The Bible Translation that Rocked the World”

[14] Hamblin, “Martin Luther’s History-Changing Translation of the Bible”

[15] Zecher, “The Bible Translation that Rocked the World”

[16] Lane, “Luther’s Translation of the Bible”

[17] Zecher, “The Bible Translation that Rocked the World”

[18] Witherington, “The Most Dangerous Thing Luther Did”