"The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me." So wrote Martin Luther, the great reformer who fought to give the Bible to the German people.
In translating the Bible for his fellow Germans, Luther opened floodgates of thought in Western Europe that could never again be shut. His Bible—the Luther Bible—set the standard for future translations of the Scriptures from Latin and Hebrew and Greek into languages ordinary people could understand—such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and English.
Luther's bold break from the Roman Catholic Church changed the face of Western Christendom forever. This, in turn, created a climate in which men, women, and children could finally own and read the Bible without fear of reprisal.
LUTHER'S EARLY LIFE
Luther was born in 1483 in the small town of Eisleben, Germany, on the fringes of the Thuringian Forest. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to the nearby town of Mansfeld, where his father, Johann Luther, worked in the copper mines. Although the family was poor, Luther's father worked hard to give him, as well as his seven brothers and sisters, a good upbringing. Johann was especially ambitious for young Martin and dreamed that someday his son would become a wealthy lawyer.
At a time when very few in the peasant class were educated, Johann gave his son excellent schooling. When the young Luther was seven, he began school in Mansfeld, where he learned Latin, the language of the Church, and the law.
After finishing his early education, Luther went on to the University of Erfurt, where he studied language, logic, and philosophy. It was at the university library that he first saw a complete Bible, undoubtedly in Latin. Fascinated, Luther spent endless hours reading it. He went on to complete his master of arts degree in early 1505 and, at his father's urging, entered law school at Erfurt.
In July of that year, however, an incident took place that changed the course of his life. As the story goes, Luther was walking back to Erfurt after a visit with his family, when a lightning bolt almost hit him. Terrified, he vowed to join a religious order if God would save him. Within two weeks, in spite of his father's protest, he left law school and joined the Augustinian order of monks in Erfurt. He was twenty-two years old.
LUTHER THE MONK
Luther embraced the stern, disciplined life of a monk enthusiastically. He shaved the crown of his head, and put on a friar's black cowl and hood. He lived in an unheated, six-by-nine-foot cell and ate his meals in silence. Within a year, he took his final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In February 1507 he was ordained a priest.
So diligent was Luther about his vocation, that soon the Vicar General of the Augustinians, Johann von Staupitz, singled him out for a teaching position at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, where Staupitz was professor of theology. There, Luther earned his doctorate in theology in 1512 and was selected to succeed Staupitz when the professor retired.
In 1516, the great Dutch scholar Erasmus published his highly accurate edition of the Greek New Testament. Luther quickly learned Greek so he could get to the literal meaning of the Gospels.
About this time, Luther became deeply disturbed. "Day by day," he wrote, "I become worse and more wretched." He was tormented by the belief that he was an unforgiven sinner who didn't know how to find God. Besides that, he became increasingly disillusioned with the Church, beginning to realize how far it had wandered from its early roots.
It was Luther's love of Scripture, however, that delivered him from his misery. Suddenly one day, he was struck by this statement of the Apostle Paul: "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). All at once, Luther understood that God justifies Christians on the basis of the purity of their faith.
From that time forward, Luther had an entirely new view of the Bible. Later he wrote, "The whole of the Scriptures took on a new meaning, and it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love, so that the passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven."
LUTHER CONDEMNS THE CHURCH
Once Luther understood that salvation depended upon the strength of one's own faith, he became convinced that the "works" and rituals required by the medieval Church were no longer essential to achieve unity with God. He became particularly concerned over the Church's recent practice of selling "indulgences," or forgiveness for sins.
Luther drew up a list of ninety-five theses, or reasons, why the selling of indulgences was wrong. According to tradition, he nailed the list on the door of the castle church, the Schlosskirche, at Wittenberg, in October 1517, openly challenging anyone to debate him on the issue. Within days, his "Ninety-five Theses"—printed quickly on the newly invented printing presses in Germany—had swept over the country. The German people rallied passionately to Luther's support.
In 1519, the theologian and professor Johann von Eck challenged Luther to a debate that lasted ten days. Von Eck cornered Luther into denouncing the authority of both the pope and the Church councils—and into asserting that the Bible was the only authority Christians should accept. This statement clearly branded Luther as a heretic in the eyes of the papacy, since John Huss had burned at the stake a hundred years earlier for refusing to recant the same beliefs.
Luther spent the next year writing books to refute the arguments of his adversaries. One of the ideas he advanced in these books was what he called "the priesthood of believers"—the concept that all Christians are on equal footing in the eyes of God. Therefore, he concluded, no special priesthood is required.
The more Luther wrote, the bolder and more plainspoken he became. In June of 1520, the pope condemned all of Luther's publications.
THE DIET OF WORMS
In January of 1521, the pope excommunicated Luther. That same month, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called a meeting of the German princes—since referred to as the Diet of Worms—to decide what to do with him. After a hot debate, the Diet decided to summon Luther to appear before them and to ask him to repudiate his views. He asked for one day to consider his response.
The next evening, when the authorities brought Luther into the packed hall, he said, "I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
Sympathetic members of the Diet tried to convince Luther to compromise, but he refused. Within a month, Emperor Charles pronounced the Edict of Worms, declaring Luther an outlaw and forbidding anyone to help him or read his books. But Luther's friend, the Elector of Saxony, came to his rescue, hiding him away safely in the castle at Wartburg.
TRANSLATING THE OLD TESTAMENT
Despite deep mental darkness, Luther translated Erasmus's Greek New Testament into German. He finished the translation in just eleven weeks.
The completed New Testament was published in September of 1522. It was a handsome volume, with woodcuts by Lucas Cranach and reproductions from Albrecht Durer's paintings on the Apocalypse. The German public bought approximately five thousand copies of the Testament in the first two months.
The arrangement of books in Luther's Testament was new—and entirely his own. He ordered the books according to their emphasis on Christ Jesus. Nearly every Bible translated since Luther's time kept his New Testament order.
Luther's New Testament shunned many of the corrupted Vulgate translations of words—words emphasizing the Roman Catholic liturgy. Instead of the word priest, for example, Luther used Saviour or elder. Instead of church, he used congregation. And instead of do penance, he used repent.
THE PEASANTS' REVOLT
Meanwhile, momentum was building among Luther's more radical followers toward open violence against the abuses of the Church and the wealthy aristocrats. The longer Luther remained in hiding, the greater the danger that radicals would take over his movement. Hotheads like Andreas Karstadt encouraged Luther's followers to raid church services—smashing images and roughing up the priests. All this alarmed Luther and his closest friend, the ever-gentle scholar Philipp Melanchthon, Protestant reformer and fellow professor at the University in Wittenberg.
Yet Luther felt pressured by the liberals to make a public statement that monks and nuns should be out in the world preaching the gospel rather than leading cloistered lives. He even ended up approving marriage for former monks and nuns, although he said, "They will never thrust a wife on me!"
By spring of 1522, when zealots from Zwickau began urging the people of Wittenberg to abandon the Bible, Luther couldn't stand it any longer. Forgetting about his personal safety, he rode back to Wittenberg and took firm hold of his followers. In cogently worded sermons, he called on the people to renounce violence and maintain the unity of their movement.
Gradually, Luther reformed the order of church service in Wittenberg—introducing one that featured Bible reading and preaching in the German language. And he added another distinctive element: beautiful German hymns, a number of which he composed himself.
But for some, especially the peasants oppressed by the landowner class, these reforms weren't enough. They called Luther names like "Dr. Liar" because he discouraged violence. And by 1525, a full revolution was in motion.
At first, Luther sympathized with the rebels, but when he saw landowners being killed and castles being burned, he did his best to call a halt. He traveled around the countryside, preaching against bloodshed and telling the peasants not to politicize his message. His demand was for spiritual, not political, freedom. "If the peasant is in open rebellion," he said, "then he is outside the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire which attacks and lays waste a whole land."
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Four years after Luther declared he'd never marry, Catherine von Bora—a nun who'd been inspired by Luther's writings to renounce her vows—proposed to him. She'd been sent to a convent against her will by her father and had never adapted to monastic life. She was only too happy to escape, along with eleven other nuns, with one of Luther's followers, who hid the women between barrels of herring in his delivery wagon and brought them to Wittenberg.
Some of the women returned to their families; others married. Only Catherine remained to be placed, and she suggested that she marry Luther, feeling he needed a wife to care for him. At first he thought she was joking, but he soon came to believe the marriage was part of God's plan.
The two became deeply devoted to one another and had six children. They wanted above all to set a standard in their home for good Christian living. A year after the marriage, Luther wrote, "My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus." Their home was a haven for victims of the upheavals of the Reformation—people fleeing persecution, as well as former monks and nuns who needed temporary shelter.
Because Luther refused the profits from his books and spent so much money helping the poor and needy, the Luthers had to live simply. But when they were low on funds, Luther would say, "Kate, God is rich. He will give us some more."
TRANSLATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
After his marriage, Luther completed his translation of the Old Testament, working with a committee of scholarly luminaries and close friends—including Melanchthon. He nicknamed the group his "Sanhedrin," the name for the ancient governing body of the Jews.
Luther took the lead in the work and developed the theory of translation the group used. Primarily, he believed that the Old Testament words should sound right in German. So the group had to strike a balance between what sounded good to the ear and what was correct in a literal sense. This meant the "Sanhedrin" couldn't rush their work. Sometimes they labored for days over just a few lines of Scripture.
Luther didn't want his Bible or the characters in it to sound Hebraic or foreign; he wanted them to sound thoroughly German. "We are now sweating over a German translation of the Prophets," he wrote. "O God, what a hard and difficult task it is to force these writers, quite against their wills, to speak German."
And he wanted the German to be good, clear, "marketplace" language. To accomplish this, Luther and his translators used courtly language as their base but mixed it in with the German dialects. The effect was wording that was easy to read and beautiful to listen to.
When Luther and his committee finally completed their monumental translation in 1534, they made it available at a price nearly everyone could afford. Therefore, the Bible's majestic poetry and healing message reached Germans almost universally. No other book in the German language has ever matched its popularity. Its sonorous lines entered the hearts and minds of all the people, never to disappear, and set the standard for the German language.
The personal difficulties Luther endured were staggering. Nearly all his life, he struggled with ill health. But he never stopped working. He counted on his faith and prayers to carry him through. And, of course, there was the relentless opposition to his work. When his death in 1546 was announced at the Council of Trent—the Roman Catholic Council called to respond to the Protestant challenge—the council members sent up a cheer.
Yet Luther's accomplishments were far more significant than the opposition he encountered. Primarily, he gave the Bible to the German people. But he had a great deal to do with giving the Scriptures to all of us. Nearly every later Bible translator, of whatever nationality, used Luther's text as a key model. The war he waged against Bible illiteracy, church and state authorities who wanted to suppress Scripture reading, and those who sought to politicize his ministry, reestablished the Bible as the core of the Christian way of life.
Associate Editor Mary Trammell is a Reformation Bible scholar, and Feature Editor William Dawley has a background in journalism.
Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest? And in that day shall the deaf bear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.... They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.
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