To most modern minds and in many history books, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church doors was his most famous activity. That action is usually given credit for beginning the Reformation in Germany that soon spread across most of Europe. And no doubt that seminal document did help begin a revolution in thought and religious belief.
Yet, the greatest document Martin Luther produced during his lifetime was the translation into German, with the help of others, of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. He then oversaw its printing and wide distribution.
I have tried to pull together from a wide variety of sources as much information as possible concerning his Bible translation work. His was not the first printed German Bible. One or more earlier translations from the Latin Vulgate had circulated in manuscript form even before Gutenberg’s press was invented. Several of them were then printed numerous times and in use between about 1450 and 1520. Most scholars today seem to characterize these versions as both inferior as translations and wooden and awkward in their use of the German vocabulary and grammar. But their existence and circulation demonstrated a hunger among the people for direct access to Scripture in their own tongue.
Martin Luther was educated in the liberal arts, theology and Scripture. Born in 1483, by 1512 he had the equivalent of two bachelor’s, two master’s and a doctorate. He was a professor of theology and Bible at the University of Wittenberg. He was fluent in both German and Latin, and quite comfortable in both New Testament Greek and ancient Hebrew.
In 1517 he questioned the Biblical authority and propriety of the Church selling indulgences which allowed the payment of money to obtain forgiveness of sins. This led to his 95 Theses on the church door. Copies of this document were reprinted and spread across Germany and beyond within a few months, and he became something of a celebrity… for good and for bad. Already Luther had come to the conviction that the pope, the Church, and tradition were not of equal authority with Scripture. Over the next two or three years he would also come to the firm belief that salvation and right standing with God is on the basis of faith in God’s work through Christ, not in good works by which one earns the right to be saved.
In 1518 Luther was called to defend his theology in these two areas (authority and salvation by faith) at debates in Heidelberg and Augsburg. In 1519 he debated the prominent Catholic professor John Eck at Leipzig concerning the authority and infallibility of popes and church councils. And he was busy writing and publishing as well. Here, according to one list, are some of the publications produced by him from 1515 – 1520:
- Lectures on Romans, Hebrews and Galatians
- On the proceedings at Augsburg
- On the debate at Leipzig
- A sermon on “Two Kinds of Righteousness”
- On the Sacrament of Penance
- An explanation of the 95 Theses
- A treatise on Good Works
- Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation – challenged the pope’s authority as ultimate interpreter of Scripture, taught God as ruler over secular kingdoms rather than Rome, and presented the idea of the priesthood of all believers
- The Babylonian Captivity of the Church – accused Rome of holding the Church captive with its sacramental system and theology
- On the Freedom of a Christian – on justification by faith rather than by law keeping
These writings and others during this period show Luther’s developing theology, his adeptness with written language, and his use of the printing press to present his ideas.
In 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull threatening Luther with excommunication in 60 days unless he recanted parts of his writings. Luther publicly burned the papal document! He was excommunicated in January 1521. See the appropriate section of “Martin Luther” article on Wikipedia.
The Diet of Worms (pronounced like “Deat of Vurms”) met from January – May 1521. It consisted of Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and leaders of the various states which comprised the Empire. Rome looked to the Emperor to punish Luther. Luther appeared as summoned in April, was accused of heresy in his writings, and called on to recant and repent. Luther refused to recant unless shown from Scripture where he was in error.
According the the above referenced article in Wikipedia, “Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. The Emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on 25 May 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his literature, and requiring his arrest: ‘We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.’ It also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. It permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.” Luther was given three weeks before the Edict would go into force.
He left the Diet and began his trip back to Wittenberg. Along the way men dressed as highwaymen stopped his carriage and abducted him! Thus begins the most interesting year of Luther’s life!
Let me assure my readers that all the above is essential to what comes next. Our image is entitled “Luther at the Diet of Worms,” painted by Anton von Werner in 1877. It is available in the public domain through the Wikimedia Commons website.