500: Why the Protestant reformation is just as important today as it was 500 years ago

(Experpt) - Why is the reformation still relevant today, 500 years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517? Boiled down to its essence, the reformation was about getting the Word of God into the hands of the common people, in their heart language; it was about viewing the actions of the church through the only authoritative lens, the Bible. The reformers called this sola scriptura. Today millions of Christians still do not have God’s Word, even though it has been translated into their language. Their situation is the same as the situation of Europe during the first 15 centuries of the church; they can’t get God’s Word.  We still need modern day Martin Luthers and William Tyndales to make bold moves to get these believers the Word of God.


 Martin Luther and the 95 theses by Ferdinand Pauwels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther and the 95 theses by Ferdinand Pauwels [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Full Article) - On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg nailed a printed bulletin on the entrance door to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The bulletin contained 95 statements (or theses) speaking out against the accepted practice of selling indulgences to the common men and women. This sanctioned theology of the time said that while baptism would erase original sin, when a believer died they would go to purgatory. Purgatory was a holding netherworld between heaven and hell where the believer would work off the remaining sins on their record, especially those sins that were forgotten on unknown[1].  By paying an indulgence, a believer could have time removed from their mandatory stay in purgatory.

As Luther prepared for his lectures to his theology students, he began to dig into the Word of God for himself, investigating this practice of selling indulgences and other accepted religious practices of the time. In doing so, Luther hit a proverbial wall in the burden he saw that was being chained to lay men and women’s necks, especially when it came to the message of salvation and forgiveness of sins.  Luther’s posting of the 95 statements was a step in the direction for calling this practice what it was: wrong and Biblically unsubstantiated. Soon the theses were translated to German, published all over Germany, eventually translated into a dozen languages, and disseminated all over Europe.  The flammable tinder of religious abuses from the Catholic church had been gathering for centuries, and Luther’s action was the spark that set all western civilization ablaze, changing the course of the history of Christendom forever.

While libraries have been written on what followed and what Luther and the reformation movement sought to address, the grievances could be summarized in two common themes:

 Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. The Word of God was not accessible in the language of the people. The people could not understand and examine the scriptures on their own. The Bible was only available in Latin, and only the “learned” clergy could read Latin or were permitted to study it.  In most places of worship, the Word of God was literally chained to the pulpit and laws strictly prohibited the Bibles from being translated to any other language outside of Latin. 

2. Every religious practice needed to be examined under the light of the Word of God as the only authority. But doing so meant that many, if not most, of the acceptable religious practices of the day could not be substantiated. What the church feared the most was the loss of control over the people and the loss of money they brought in.

Martin Luther’s great vision was to translate the Bible into the language of the people.  He felt that if he could get the Bible into their hands with a knowledge of how to understand and apply it, the people would become Theodidacti, a people taught by God. “One thing and only one thing is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom,“ Luther wrote, “That is the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ.”[2] One of the great ideas to come out of the reformation was the emphasis on the perspicuity of the Bible – that is the central points of the Bible are able to be understood by all.

Efforts had been made in the previous century to translate the Bible into German from the Latin Vulgate, but the results remained stiff and inaccessible to the people, both in vocabulary and as a physical object.  It was a translation of a bad translation (the Vulgate). Luther, on the other hand, was the first to translate the Bible from the original Greek of the New Testament (1522) and Hebrew texts of the Old Testament (1534) into an understandable vernacular of the German people.  His efforts to translate the Bible into German, and spread the ideas of the reformation of the church made him a fugitive for the rest of his life. It also very nearly cost him his life.  Had he not had the protection of the powerful princes of the day, many assassination threats would surely have been successful. But the people were so hungry for the Word of God, risking everything was worth it.

 John Wycliffe delivers his Bible. Painting by William Frederick Yeames [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

John Wycliffe delivers his Bible. Painting by William Frederick Yeames [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

John Wycliffe

To the Northwest in England a similar ground swell had been gathering for over a century.  John Wycliffe (1320 – 1385) is often referred to as the Morning Star of the Reformation because of his early identification of the vast problems in the religious system of his day, proclaiming the need for a Bible in English to the common people, and an appeal to view all religious practices through the lens of Scripture. Wycliffe and his followers used the Latin Vulgate to translate the Bible into Middle English.  His Bible was not widely distributed because the invention of the printing press had not yet occurred. Still, phrases and text portions from this Bible seem to have begun to get into the hands of the common men and women. For his courageous actions of translating the Bible into English from Latin and his attempts to highlight the fallacies of the religious system through the only authoritative lens of Scripture (sola scriptura), 30 years after his death Wycliffe was branded a heretic, his writings outlawed, and his body exhumed from the ground, burned and scattered into the River Swift[3]. Because of Wycliff’s translation of the Bible from Latin into English, the Constitutions of Oxford of 1408 were passed, sentencing to death anyone who attempted to translate the Bible in whole or in part into English in the future.[4]

William Tyndale

William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) was a prominent Oxford educated scholar. Inspired by Wycliffe and his contemporary Martin Luther, Tyndale began to read the Word of God during his studies in theology. He became convinced that the chief cause of the problems of the church was because the Word of God was hidden from the people; If the Word of God could be read and understood without censorship and misinterpretation from the church, religion in England would look vastly different[5],[6]  To a friend in the clergy, Tyndale said, “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”[7]

 William Tyndale, being strangled before being burnt at the stake in Vilvoorde, Belgium [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

William Tyndale, being strangled before being burnt at the stake in Vilvoorde, Belgium [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

Tyndale encountered massive opposition from the church in his efforts to translate the Bible, and it became apparent that he would not be able to do his work in England. He left England, never to return, and completed his English New Testament translation between 1525 and 1526 in Wittenberg, Germany. Printing began in Germany and Antwerp, Belgium. But getting his New Testaments into England proved challenging. Several print shops were raided by police, smuggling operations were disrupted, and over a hundred recorded individuals were either harassed, imprisoned, or burned at the stake for possession or distribution of English theological literature.[8] While working on the translation of Old Testament books, Tyndale was betrayed by a supposed friend in Antwerp, 1535, imprisoned and condemned as a heretic. His sentence: death. On October 6, 1536 in Vilvorde, Belgium, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled to death, then burned in a fire of straw, brushwood, and gunpowder.  Before he died, his final words were, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”[9] God heard his prayer; in 1611, the king of England, James I, assembled a group of scholars to prepare an authorized version of the English Bible. It is estimate that 90% of the New Testament in the 1611 Authorized version is Tyndale’s work[10] and close to 75% of the Old Testament is his or his associates work.[11]   

 Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

Desiderious Erasmus

Desiderious Erasmus (1466 – 1536) was a Dutch theologian, linguist, and priest who played an important part in many of above protestant reformer’s lives.  In 1516, he completed the long overdue task of re-translating the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to Latin. Erasmus’ effort broke the 1000-year chain of unchangeability of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate text[12]. Many of the (mis)translations in the Latin Vulgate by Jerome were used to substantiate the religious practices of the church at the time.  This is why re-translations were forbidden; many of the practices, particularly the lucrative practice of selling indulgences, would no longer be supported by a re-translation.  When Erasmus published his new Latin translation, which he called the Novum Instrumentum, he also published his compilation of Greek source texts in parallel to his Latin work so anyone could recheck his work.  The result was that for the first time in church history, due in part to the advent of the printing press, an accessible, mass printed, Greek New Testament was available to the public.  This was the source text Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and half a dozen other translators used to in their new translations to their mother tongue. His Greek compilation was republished in 1633. In the preface to this 1633 edition, the publishers included the Latin inscription, “Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum.”[13] From this came the shortened name Textus Receptus, the underlying text to Tyndale’s translation and the 1611 King James Version. This Greek source text remained virtually unchallenged until the late 19th century.     

500 years later

In 2017, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s courageous act on October 31, 1517. The true significance, however, extends beyond just Martin Luther to the many men and women who were the catalysts for returning to God’s Word. They first pointed the church back to the Word of God to examine how far it had gotten off course.  Secondly, they labored – and died – to get the Word of God into the hands and language of the common people.  We still live in a day and age when large segments of the church do not have the Word of God.  While there is a great ongoing need for the Bible to be translated into people’s heart language, there are many, many Christians who have the Word of God translated into their language, yet cannot physically get a Bible. Governments attempt to prevent the people from getting Bibles, Some cannot get Bibles unless they join an official, state controlled church.  Poverty prevents Christians from being able to purchase the Bibles, even if they were available (generally they aren’t).  More and more we are seeing that a limited number of organizations hold the copyright to certain Bible translations and prevent the people – and even the original translators - from being able to print the Bibles and give them away for free. “They can only be sold in small numbers and not given away” they say.

 Lahu believers receiver their first Bibles, November 2017

Lahu believers receiver their first Bibles, November 2017

We still live in an age where Christians need to continue to embody the spirit of the reformers and work to overcome the injustice of Christians not having access to the Word of God.  It still requires bold, risk-taking action. While some of us won’t be burned at the stake like Tyndale or the English Bibles smugglers and printers, we still face stiff opposition.  The author of this article recently participated in a distribution of New Testaments to the Akha people of SE Asia.  Not only could the Akha Christians not get Bibles/NT because of their economic situation, but there was resistance to giving the Akha an older translation that that wanted, one in the dialect that the people could actually read. Present at the distribution was the last living Bible translator from the Akha Bible translating committee (1960-1963). Tears were in his eyes as he received the New Testaments for his church; He had waited almost 60 years to bring Christians the fruits of his labor. This is our mission at Biblia Global; to get a Bible to every Christians regardless of the obstacles we may face. We work with many on-the-ground partners, missionaries, pastors, organizations, and printers to get Bibles to these Christians. Almost all ask not to be named so they don’t compromise their work, so we serve as a semi-public face in this cooperative to see God’s Word get to His people. Pray for us as we do our work that God will open doors to get Christians their first copy of God’s Word and that we would be blessed with an abundance of funding for our work. 


Notes:

[1] James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 101

[2] Ibid, 156.

[3] John Foxe, Rewritten and updated by Harold J. Chadwick, The New Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, (Gainesville, Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2001), 77.

[4] Daniell, 57.

[5] Foxe, 126.

[6] Daniell, 58.

[7] Daniell, 79.

[8] Daniell, 183-184

[9] Daniell, 383.

[10] Daniell, 1.

[11] Brian Moynahan, William Tyndale: If God Spare my Life, (London, Abacus, 2003), 1-2.

[12] Daniell, 59

[13] David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism: A Concise Guide, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1994), 29. Translated means, “You have therefore the text received by all”