God’s Word Endures Forever: Martin Luther & the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Five hundred years ago, in 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk and university professor, posted 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses, written in Latin, were an invitation to a scholarly debate on indulgences, the certificates by which the Roman Church offered early release from suffering in Purgatory. Beginning “Out of love for the truth and the desire to elucidate it…”, the theses were soon translated into German and spread throughout Germany. Luther’s call for debate led to the Reformation, a major transformation in world history which transformed the face of Europe and deeply influenced settlements in America. Luther and other Reformers reasserted the authority of the Scripture alone, as opposed to tradition and church hierarchy. They maintained that salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. These phrases or theological principles are often called the “Five Solas of the Reformation” (sola being the Latin word for “lone” or “only”): Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria.
The Papacy early opposed Luther’s theses against indulgences as well as other writings by this Augustinian monk and University professor. In 1521, a Diet or formal assembly of the Empire, presided over by Emperor Charles V, was called in the city of Worms to consider Luther’s works. Luther refused to recant his writings, saying,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. (Roland H. Bainton. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978, 182.)
The earliest printed sources say Luther concluded, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” The council condemned Luther as a heretic, an outlaw to be arrested and punished (probably by being burned at the stake). Two years earlier, in a Disputation in Leipzig, he had asserted that “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or cardinal without it.” ( Here I Stand, 107.) Luther rested his Christian understanding on the Scriptures, and he led a movement to return to the Bible, not the church hierarchy or tradition, as a source of truth.
Martin Luther was the son of a rising businessman in Eisleben, Saxony. His father had hoped Martin would become a lawyer and sent Luther to the best schools; he was very displeased when Luther quit the study of law and became an Augustinian monk. Luther’s life became devoted to long hours of prayer and fasting, and he was often troubled in conscience with his unworthiness to stand before a righteous God.
Johann Staupitz, Luther’s Superior in the Augustinian order, assigned Luther to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. In 1512, Luther received his Doctorate in Theology and was appointed a lecturer in Bible at the University of Wittenberg. From 1513-1515 he lectured on the Psalms, 1515-Romans, and 1516-1517 on Galatians. In his lectures on Psalms and Romans, he had a copy of a Latin translation printed with wide margins and extra interlinear space for the students’ notes. He wrote that “In the course of this teaching the papacy slipped away from me.” The Scriptures were assuming the prominent place in Luther’s mind and conscience.
After the Diet of Worms, the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, protected Luther – secretly kidnapping him and taking him to the Wartburg Castle, where Luther remained in hiding for a year, disguised as Knight George. While there Luther translated the Psalms and in eleven weeks translated the New Testament from Greek into German. Luther’s Bible translation was his greatest gift to the German people.
Desiderius Erasmus’ printing of the Greek New Testament, with his Latin translation, encouraged many to study the New Testament in its original Greek. Three thousand copies were printed of Erasmus’ first two editions, 1516 and 1519. Luther used Erasmus’ second edition in making his translation of the New Testament into German while at the Wartburg Castle.
Knowing he had been declared an outlaw and was under judgment of being executed as a heretic, Luther worked ceaselessly to complete a translation of the New Testament from the Greek into the German dialect of Saxony. When he returned to Wittenberg, he rushed the printing so the book would be ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair in the fall. 3000 copies of the “September Testament” were printed, and soon there were demands for more. A second, corrected printing was made in December. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was the first translation from the Greek and Hebrew in over a millennium, since Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation in the fourth century. While printers and publishers profited from the sale of Luther’s Bible translation, Luther himself never received any payment for the work, or indeed for any of his publications.
While in the Wartburg, Luther also translated the Psalms, which were published in 1522. The pages of Psalm 119 displayed here are from the first edition. Luther’s notes are in the margins. Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms, and every verse of the psalm speaks of the Word of God in some way. In his Preface to the Commentary on Psalm 119, Luther wrote:
The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it…But its words are not, as some think, mere literature; they are words of life, intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action…May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts. Amen. (Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, eds. Luther’s Works. (American edition) Minneapolis: Fortress , 1960, Vol. 14, 46.)
Through the printed word, Luther’s ideas quickly spread throughout Europe, and Luther became the best-selling author on the continent. In the first half of the 16th century, 1/3 of all books printed were by Luther! He often wrote in the vernacular for the people rather than in scholarly Latin, expanding the audience for his works. Many of his works were pamphlets which were inexpensive to purchase and easy to read.
An example of the popular tracts he published is his tract to the people and clergy of Erfurt, printed in 1522. In this tract, Luther affirms that life and faith must be guided by the Scriptures, not simply church authority and tradition. Though Luther wrote scholarly tomes in Latin, he also penned numerous brief theological works in German, which spread the teachings of the Reformation among the German people. It was publications such as this which soon made Luther the most read and published writer in Europe.
Though his translation of the Greek New Testament was originally a solo effort, completed in a few weeks, in translating the Old Testament, Luther was aided by Philip Melanchthon and others at the University of Wittenberg, and the translation took twelve years to complete. The Old Testament was first published in sections – the Pentateuch, historical books, poetical books, and Psalter.
The popularity of Luther’s translation of the Bible was important in creating a standard form of German among the many German dialects. Luther assembled a committee with Representatives of the various German dialects, and he aimed for a translation which could be understood by all. He sought to translate Scripture into the kind of German spoken by “the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 35, 189). In guiding the translation according to the way people spoke, Luther thought people would then understand the Bible, Luther aimed for a readable German text that was also faithful to the original. Readers would not realize how Luther and his colleagues had often struggled over a Biblical passage. As Luther remarked, “One now runs his eyes over three or four pages and does not stumble once – without realizing what boulders and clods had once lain there where he now goes along as over a smooth-planed board. We had to sweat and toil before we got those boulders and clods out of the way so that one could go along so nicely.” ( Luther’s Works, vol. 35, 188.) Luther often used rhyme and alliteration to make a passage memorable and pleasing to the ear.
Luther’s goal of producing a Bible translation that was both faithful to the original Greek or Hebrew and clearly understandable to the common people of his day encouraged vernacular translations in other countries. The Englishman William Tyndale was in Germany about the time Luther’s “September Testament” was issued. Like Luther, Tyndale chose words which did not favor the Roman ecclesiastical system – “repent” instead of “do penance”, “congregation” rather than “church”, “elder” in place of “priest” and “love” in place of “charity.”
Luther’s translation remains the standard German translation today. One of Luther’s antagonists, Johann Cochlaeus, noted that in his day, “Even shoemakers and women and every kind of unlearned person, whoever of them…had somehow learned German letters, read it most eagerly as the font of all truth. And by reading and rereading it they committed it to memory and so carried the book around with them in their bosoms.”( Quoted in R.C. Sproul, Stephen J. Nichols, eds. The Legacy of Luther. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2016, 201.)
The title page of the 1534 Bible included the maxim, “God’s Word remains forever,” from Isaiah 40:8. The Bible was actually a study Bible and included a preface to each book as well as marginal notes. In his Preface to the Old Testament, Luther encouraged the readers to “think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride.” (Helmut T. Lehman, ed. Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986, 236.) Believing the Old Testament announced the coming of Jesus the Christ, in his preface to the Pentateuch, Luther wrote, “Here you will find the swaddling cloths and crib in which Christ lies and where the angels guide the shepherds…dear is the treasure of Christ that lies within.” (Stephan Füssel. The Luther Bible of 1534. Köln: Taschen, 2003, 40.)
Woodcuts in the first, 1534, edition of Luther’s Bible were done in the workshop of Lucas Cranach and were hand-painted.
Some of Luther’s treatment of Scripture was carried over into later English versions. Luther collected the apocryphal books and placed them at the end of the Old Testament, rather than have them interspersed among the other books. These were books not in the Hebrew Bible, but found in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Luther and other Reformers held these were books useful to read but were not the inspired Word of God. Luther also re-arranged the order of New Testament books, an order which Tyndale and alter English translators followed. Luther also translated the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name for God, with all capital letters, distinguishing it from Adonai, another Hebrew word for “lord”. So, in later English translations, such as the King James Version, the tetragrammaton is printed as “LORD”, while Adonai is printed “Lord.”
Some of the Bible illustrations were based upon Albrecht Dürer’s work on the Apocalypse. Dürer, the Renaissance artist born in Nuremberg, became a follower of Luther, especially valuing his focus on the Scriptures. After Nuremberg became a Protestant city, Dürer painted two large panels of John, Peter, Paul, and Mark for the Nuremberg City Council. Underneath the panels were quotations from the Scriptures in Luther’s translation. Dürer wrote to the council, “All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should give good heed that they receive not human misguidance for the Word of God, for God will have nothing added to His Word nor taken away from it. Hear therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark and their warning.” (William Martin Conway. Literary Remains of Albrecht Durer. Cambridge: University Press, 1889, 134.) The volumes of the Scriptures are most central in the painting. The Scripture quotations written underneath the painting warned against false teachers and prophets (II Peter 2:1-3; I John 4:1-3), rampant immorality (II Timothy 3:1-7) and religious hypocrites (Mark 12:38-40). The painting is Dürer’s personal testimony to his biblically grounded Christianity as well as an encouragement for the Nuremberg City Council to keep faithful to the Scriptures and not stray into errors of belief or practice.
Luther’s German Bible is read wherever German readers are found. The First Bible in a European language printed in America was Luther’s German translation, printed by Christoph Sauer in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1743. 1200 copies were printed. Christoph’s son, also named Christoph, issued a second edition of 2000 copies in 1763. This was the first Bible printed on American-made paper. In 1776, Sauer had just completed printing a third edition of 3000 copies, the first Bible printed from American-made type. The printed sheets were ready for the binder when the American Revolution interrupted his work. The Bible became known as the “Gun Wad” Bible because British soldiers used the pages to bed their horses and make cartridges for their guns.
One of the revolutionary acts of Luther, a former monk, was marrying Katie von Bora, a former nun. While the Roman Church had taught celibacy and a single life was the highest spiritual life, Luther and his wife set the example of a Christian family honoring and serving God. Their marriage was a testimony to God’s institution of marriage and an example for many.
Luther and his wife Katie often had numerous guests at their home, including theological students and visiting dignitaries. The students and guests frequently wrote down Luther’s comments and spiritual insights on a wide range of subjects. These dinner table notes were collected, arranged into topics, and published as Table Talk. In one conversation, Luther stated, “The Holy Scriptures require a humble reader who shows reverence and fear toward the Word of God, and constantly says, ‘Teach me. Teach me, teach me…The Spirit resists the proud.” ( Luther’s Works, vol. 54, 379, Table Talk, 5017.) Luther read the Bible through at least twice every year. He said, “If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”( Luther’s Works, vol. 54, 165.)
Education in the Scriptures was very important to Luther, and he early urged the German nobles to encourage schools for both boys and girls. Luther believed all children, including girls, should be taught to read the Scriptures, a truly revolutionary idea at the time, “I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s word becomes corrupt…I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young students, are wide gates of hell.” ( Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility,” Luther’s Works, vol. 44, 206.)
Luther was actively involved in the establishment of schools to the end of his life. In 1529, Luther published a small catechism for children and a large catechism to aid pastors in instructing the congregation. The wood-cut illustrations in the large catechism helped the pastor teach the catechism to the children. In his large catechism, Luther wrote, “Nothing is more effectual against the devil, the world, the flesh and all evil thoughts than to occupy oneself with the Word of God, talk about it and meditate on it…as St. Paul says in Romans 1:16, God’s Word is “the power of God,” indeed the power of God which burns the devil and gives us immeasurable strength, comfort and help.”
Luther’s Commentary on Galatians was first printed in German in 1524 and was translated into English by 1575. In this commentary, Luther explained the important Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. As the work’s subtitle stated (they had long subtitles back then!):
Wherein is set forth most excellently, the glorious riches of God’s grace, and the power of the gospel, with the difference between the law and the gospel, and the strength of faith declared; to the joyful comfort and confirmation of all true Christian believers, especially such as are inwardly afflicted and grieved in conscience, and do hunger and thirst for justification in Christ Jesus: For whose case most chiefly this book is translated, printed, and dedicated to the same.
Woodcuts of satirical cartoons helped popularize the ideas of the Reformation. “The Scale” (shown below) by Martinus Beusecom, engraved in the Netherlands, was one such cartoon. Two groups face each other in a room dominated by a huge scale. A group of soberly-dressed men stand on the side of the scale with the Bible on it. Calvin is shown with his hand outstretched talking to Luther. John Hus, a forerunner of the Reformation, is shown with his hands crossed to the left of the reformers, chronologically isolated from them. On the opposite side is Pope Pius VI, crowned with the papal tiara, and surrounded by a bishop, cardinal, and famous Catholics, including Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. They watch in dismay as two monks unsuccessfully pull the side of the scale filled with papal symbols – the papal crown, keys of St. Peter, and a heavy book, possibly Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Logically their side should be heavier, but the Word of God is weightier. The scale tips towards the Reformers, with the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) on their side.
In addition to being a theologian and reformer, Martin Luther was a musician and composer. Skillful on the lute, he encouraged singing be taught in the schools and churches. He composed about thirty chorales and, with other musicians, published a hymnbook. Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a paraphrase of Psalm 46.
The composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a devout Lutheran. The three volume Bible he owned was Luther’s translation. The commentary (in a smaller font) was comprised mainly of excerpts from the works of Luther (sermons, lectures, etc.) as compiled by Lutheran theologian Abraham Calov. A list of Bach’s library compiled after his death included some 50 titles (about 80 volumes), mostly theological works. The volumes are the only positively identified items from Bach’s library.
The “Bach Bible” arrived in the United States before 1846, and was purchased by a Lutheran family, the Reichles, from a bookseller in Philadelphia. The family eventually settled in Michigan. The family used to read the Bible without realizing who had formerly owned it! In the mid-1930s, a Lutheran pastor visiting the family in Frankenmuth noticed Bach’s signature on the title page, leading to the establishment of Bach’s ownership of the volumes. The Reichles later donated the volumes to Concordia Seminary Library in St. Louis. Bach’s signature, monogram, and the year 1733, are inscribed on the title pages of each of the three volumes. Scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting has identified 348 markings, underlinings, and marginal notes in the Bible by Bach’s own hand. These were all made for Bach’s private use, without thought that anyone else would be reading them. They offer a glimpse into Bach’s soul and spiritual life. Bach routinely put the initials “S.D.G.” at the bottom of all his church musical compositions, as well as many of his secular pieces – an abbreviation for Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone be the Glory.” Bach believed, “The aim and final reason, as of all music, should be none else but the Glory of God and recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music, but only a devilish hubbub.” ( Raymond Erickson, ed. The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach, New York: Amadeus Press, 2009, 34.) Bach used Luther’s Bible translation in many of his choral compositions, such as his St. Matthew’s Passion. The poetic flow of Luther’s translation was well matched with Bach’s music.
Luther’s emphasis on the Bible as the authority for Christian truth and his making the Scriptures available in the common vernacular of the German people not only deeply influenced the Christian life and culture of Germany, but also encouraged Bible reading among all the people throughout Europe and the world. As the truth of Scripture had transformed his own life, so Luther encouraged others to grow in the Word:
You should diligently learn the Word of God and by no means imagine that you know it. let him who is able to read take a psalm in the morning, or some other chapter of Scripture, and study it for a while. That is what I do. When I get up in the morning, I pray and recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer with the children, adding any one of the psalms. I do this only to keep myself well acquainted with these matters, and I do not want to let the mildew of the notion grow that I know them well enough. (Gene Edward Veith. A Place to Stand: The Word of God in the Life of Martin Luther, Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, 2005, 170.)
For Luther, the Bible was God speaking to His creatures. This conversation was initiated by God, not man. Through his understanding of the Scriptures, Luther re-defined what it meant to be a Christian. A Christian is not one striving by works to reach God, but one who receives the grace of God through Christ, the Word of God. As God’s Word created the world, so through His Word He creates a Christian, a new man in Christ. Man was created for communication with God; hearing the Word of God made one a Christian. Sin was abandoning the Word of God. This indeed was the fist sin in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent cast doubt on God’s Word. The devil continues to sow doubt and twist the Scriptures.
Liturgy and worship were transformed as preaching the Word became central to worship. The Word of God, not ritual and ceremonies produced holiness. Luther believed God was present and spoke through the Scriptures. Though his translation was for all the German people, he recognized that the translation would be especially useful for pastors in preaching.
In one of his last sermons, given six months before his death, Luther spoke on John 5:39-43. After reading Jesus’ words in John 5:39, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” Luther reaffirmed the importance of the Scripture in revealing Christ and the salvation found in Him:
He who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it then he finds life eternal without fail. On the other hand, if I do not so study and understand Moses and the prophets as to find that Christ came from heaven for the sake of my salvation, became man, suffered, died, was buried, rose, and ascended into heaven so that through Him I enjoy reconciliation with God, forgiveness of all my sins, grace, righteousness and life eternal, then my reading in Scripture is of no help whatsoever to my salvation. (Martin Luthers Werke. Weimar, 1893, vol.51, p. 4.)
Not only was Luther’s conscience captive to the Word of God, he wished for all to similarly find salvation in Christ through His Word. When asked how he could explain the spread of the Reformation, Luther replied:
We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure…I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenburg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. (Luther’s Works, vol. 51 Sermons I, 76-77.)