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A translation for the people

Luther made God’s Word speak to people in their own language.

The Lutheran Reformation is important! Through it the Lord of the church restored many eternal spiritual truths to us that were either buried under human teachings or were lost altogether. We confess the most important of those truths in what we call the three solas—in Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Here we focus briefly on the first of these solas, “in Scripture alone,” and review Luther’s role in making those Scriptures available to the ordinary Christian.

In Scripture alone

Martin Luther certainly appreciated the fact that God’s saving truth was revealed in Scripture alone and not in what the church of his day taught or what human logic devised. Because he was firmly grounded in the Scriptures, he was able to stand up confidently at the Diet of Worms and confess, “Show me from the Word of God that what I have written is wrong, and I will take it all back. Otherwise, here I stand” (paraphrased). It was because Luther placed his trust in the Holy Scriptures that he could confront the Swiss reformer Zwingli, who denied the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, and say, “Our Savior said, ‘This is my body . . . this is my blood.’ ‘Is’ means ‘is.’ ” Scripture alone reveals the truth in spiritual matters.

We praise God for Luther’s translation work by using our English Bibles the way Luther intended his German Bible to be used.

This certainty was not something Luther wanted to keep to himself. All God’s people should be able to dig into the Scriptures for their own edification, hence Luther’s great interest in Bible translation. Luther said that he wanted to make Jesus and his disciples speak German. At the time, that wasn’t the case. The Bibles used in services were in Latin. There were some German translations available, but they were simply translations of the Latin Vulgate. They were not written in the everyday German the people spoke, so they were not popular.

Luther’s opportunity to address the need for a new German translation of the Bible came shortly after his appearance at the Diet of Worms. Because of his refusal to recant what he had written and what he taught at the university in Wittenberg, Luther was condemned by the pope and the emperor. For his own safety he was taken by his friends to Wartburg Castle where he lived incognito. During that time when his normal responsibilities did not weigh down on him, he saw the chance to work on a Bible translation.

For the people

Since the Dutch scholar Erasmus had produced a new version of the Greek New Testament, Luther could use that for his work on the German New Testament instead of relying on the Latin Vulgate. In order to make sure that his translation spoke in the language the people used every day, Luther made visits to the surrounding villages and listened to the way people expressed themselves.

Before his return to Wittenberg early in 1522, Luther’s translation was complete, an amazing task done so well in such a short period of time. Six months later, in September 1522, his New Testament was published.

Luther’s work was an instant success. Due to Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press several decades earlier, printers now could make many copies of a book quickly. The new translation spread throughout Germany and beyond in a short time. Germans had a New Testament they could use in home, church, and school that spoke clearly to them. Many a church historian has called Luther’s work at the Wartburg the greatest and most useful work of his entire life.

The work continued in the years that followed. By 1534 the Old Testament was added to Luther’s earlier work. Although the Old Testament was a collaborative effort by Luther and many leaders in the Reformation like Phillip Melanchthon, Luther’s role was considerable. Like Luther’s earlier efforts, the German translation returned to the original languages of the Old Testament, Hebrew and Aramaic. Again, the effort was made to produce a translation that used the language as spoken by everyday people, noble and peasant alike. As groundbreaking as Luther’s translation was, he never was satisfied to rest on his laurels. To his dying day Luther continued to edit his Bible, based on his own insights and the input of others.

The German that Luther used in his translation not only was a reflection of the way people spoke in his day but also became a part of the foundation on which modern-day German was developed. So influential was Luther’s Bible that even today the German language reflects the German that Luther used.

Those guidelines, using original languages and trying to produce a translation in the language of the people, are probably the main reasons why Luther’s German translation was also influential in places like England. William Tyndale, an English theologian, wanted to produce an updated English Bible. Since translating the Bible into the vernacular was frowned upon in England, Tyndale went abroad where he possibly came into contact with Luther in Wittenberg. In 1526, four years after the appearance of Luther’s New Testament in Germany, Tyndale published his complete English Bible based on the original languages and using the English spoken by the common person. Luther’s influence, no matter how indirect, was present. Nearly a century later in 1611, the King James Version used much of Tyndale’s language, which has influenced English to our present day.

More than just reading

Luther, however, had greater hopes for his German Bible than just enabling people to read it for themselves. Reading whole chapters and books of the Bible was important, but reading for the sake of becoming familiar with different sections of the Scriptures was really just a first step in using the Scriptures. Luther also advocated that as people read, they stop to meditate on the meaning of a particular chapter or verse for their own faith, hope, or life. He wanted Christians to utter prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God’s love and mercy in Christ or supplications and petitions based on their needs and concerns.

Certainly, we praise God for Luther’s translation work by using our English Bibles the way Luther intended his German Bible to be used. Then Luther’s work is indeed useful, and God is honored and glorified for his gifts to us.

Author: James Westendorf
Volume 107, Number 10
Issue: October 2020

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