This year we celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the start of the Reformation, popularly dated from that momentous day in October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. (There is some debate about the event and its timing, but within a week of 31 October, Luther’s theses went viral).
I had the pleasure of visiting Wittenberg in June. The little town, beautifully prepared for this year’s celebrations, is a centre of attention once again. Indeed, it seems everyone is trying to attach themselves to the anniversary in one way or another. As I wandered through the streets, I wondered what Luther would have made of Luther pasta, or the Luther burger, or Martin and Katharina beer coasters, or the Luther fridge magnet that is the latest addition to my collection. More wryly still, I wondered what the Augustinian firebrand would have made of the ecumenical banners celebrating “dream clouds of the world religions” as part of the quincentenary. That might have inspired a choice entry or two in Luther’s Table Talk.
I was in Wittenberg for a meeting of the Lausanne Movement, an evangelical network that connects influencers and ideas for global mission. As part of our time together, it was deeply moving to participate in a service at the Castle Church, where Luther nailed his theses, and where he and his close colleague Philip Melanchthon are buried. As we sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and listened to a powerful sermon on Romans 1:16–17 by a German pastor, I thought about what brought us together there as brothers and sisters from around the globe, about the great biblical truths that Luther and our other Reformation forebears reaffirmed, championed and celebrated.
The cluster of historical movements that we know collectively as the Reformation involved more than ideas, but ideas were central, and the Reformation reminds us that ideas matter. The teaching of the Reformers is often summarised in five solas: sola scriptura (Scripture alone as our supreme authority in matters of faith and conduct); solus Christus (Christ alone as our saviour); sola fide (that we are justified by faith alone); sola gratia (that we are saved by grace alone); and soli Deo gloria (because we contribute nothing to our own salvation, we should give glory to God alone).
Among those five great truths, theologians sometimes emphasise two: sola scriptura as the formal principle of the Reformation, identifying the Bible as the supremely authoritative source of theology; and sola fide as the material principle of the Reformation, identifying justification by faith alone as the central teaching of the Reformation. Luther’s contribution was pivotal to both.
Luther is perhaps best known for championing justification by faith alone. As a young monk, Luther was powerfully aware of sin, especially his own. He could weary his personal confessors with hours of detailed confession. Indeed, he wrote his 95 theses because he believed that indulgences (by which people could, for a donation to the church, receive a gift of bonus merit from the lives of godly saints, and so reduce or bypass their time or that of a loved one in purgatory) cheapened the whole-life repentance that Jesus taught. Luther was tormented by his raging conscience, and would later write that, in that troubled time, he hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. In his quest for peace, Luther dug deeply into the Scriptures. The turning point came when, studying Romans 1:17, he reflected on the righteousness of God in a new way:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it a righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
Luther famously introduced the German word allein (alone) into his translation of Romans 3:38, which he said was necessary to capture the force of the apostle’s thought, that we are justified by faith alone apart from works. Yet perhaps an even more significant legacy than Luther’s reaffirmation of justification by faith alone was his work of Bible translation.
In the spring of 1517, about six months before posting the 95 theses, Luther offered his first book for publication, a German translation and exposition of the penitential Psalms. In 1519 he translated his first New Testament passage, Matthew 16:13–19. By the early 1520s, he began to set himself towards the task of translating the whole Bible into German.
In 1522, during his confinement at Wartburg, at the urging of his friends in Wittenberg, Luther translated the entire New Testament in an astonishing eleven weeks, and in the autumn published his Septembertestament.
Luther released his Old Testament translation in pieces from 1522–1534, and the first complete edition of the Lutherbibel was published in in 1534, followed by many later editions in a lifelong commitment to Bible translation.
Luther’s work in Germany had an impact on vernacular translation elsewhere. Perhaps most famously, William Tyndale, the first person to print the New Testament in English, often referred to as the architect of the English language as Luther is of German, translated the New Testament in Germany in 1525, having turned up on Luther’s doorstep when rumors of his translation plans forced him to flee the country.
We need to remember that reading and studying the Scriptures was the prerogative of the clergy in the Middle Ages, and there was opposition to vernacular translation of the Bible. If not proscribed by the church, it was certainly discouraged. For example, Johann Geiler advocated the renovation of the church, but warned against vernacular Bible translation:
It is a bad thing to print the Bible in German. It must be understood far differently from the way in which the text sounds. It is dangerous to put a knife into the hands of children and let them slice their own bread. They can only wound themselves with it. So also, the Holy Scriptures, which comprise the bread of God, must be read and interpreted by people who have requisite knowledge and experience and who are able to determine the true sense.
Luther had come to his liberating understanding of the gospel through studying the Scriptures, and he was convinced that God’s people, the whole priesthood of believers, must have access to God’s word in their own language. To be clear, Luther was not the first to translate Scripture into German. What makes his translation distinctive is that he translated into German from the original languages and did so with a distinctive approach. He sought to produce a pure and clear German, and rejected literal translations. He wrote:
We do not need to inquire of the literal Latin, how we are to speak German, as these asses do. Rather we must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. That way they will understand it and recognise that we are speaking German to them.
The Lutherbibel has been hailed from the time of its writing as a work of ground-breaking scholarship and literary genius. We might add that Luther did no more significant pastoral work than putting the word of God into the hands and homes and hearts of ordinary people.
As we look back and marvel at God’s work through this rough-hewn monk, we can give thanks for the privilege of having God’s word in a language we can understand, and for the liberating gospel message of God’s grace to us in Christ.