The importance of bibles being translated into the language of the common people (or the vernacular) cannot be better expressed than through the words of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther, the Reformer. The Latin Vulgate (translated by Jerome in 405 CE) was the Bible used in the Western Church. For 1,000 years after the Vulgate, bible translation was not an important activity in the Church. Luther felt that Latin kept the people distant from the truth, so the language of the bible should be simplified for all people to understand. He said:
“One may not ask the Latin language how to speak German…one must ask mothers in the home, children on the street, the common man at the market, and watch carefully how they speak. After that one may translate. Then those who read will understand you and know that you are speaking German with them” (WA30, II, 637).
Do we have this today in our English translations? I think so. We have our functional equivalent translations, even children’s bibles. I think Luther would be pleased with the T/NIV, NLT, God’s Word, New Century Version, and Good News Translation. Luther felt that the common people should be able to read the scriptures for themselves in the most contemporary language of the day.
“Your reader must be able to read God’s Word “as though it were written yesterday” (WA12, 444).
Though sometimes, I wonder about the Message bible. Okay, so we know that the King James Version is outdated. But how do we tell this to the King James-only crowd? I think we can just quote Luther. Luther wanted to communicate God’s word clearly. Therefore, it was necessary for Luther to translated Hebrew, Greek, and Latin language into the German language, the language of the people. But today, the KJV-only readers have to translate Elizabethan English into modern day English. I don’t think Luther would have approved of the KJV for today’s contemporary readers.
“In translation you cannot speak German with a Greek or Hebrew tongue” (Open Letter Concerning Translation).
He wanted the scriptures in easy to understand German and in terms of an accurate rendering of the original meaning.
“I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew” (Open Letter Concerning Translation).
Would some of our formal equivalent translations qualify? I wonder if the RSV or NASB (1977) would meet Luther’s standard? Our functional equivalent translations certainly do.
Cochlaeus, one of Luther’s bitterest opponents, said:
“Even shoemakers and women become so absorbed in the study of Luther’s German New Testament that they are able to carry on discussions with doctors of theology” (Four Hundred Years, Dau, p. 115).
Moreover, he felt that the Confessions and scripture should be the source and norm of all religious thought and doctrine. The bible was the natural vehicle for inculcating piety into the hearts and lives of the people. Moreover, bible translation should not be taken lightly but should be done in all godly reverence.
“Translation is not an art that everyone can practice. It requires a right, pious, faithful, diligent, God fearing, experienced practical heart” (WA30, II, 640).
Luther had a high view of Scripture and sola scriptura was the sole rule and norm of faith. Justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus influenced how Luther translated the German bible. Jesus Christ took our place under the law, and became all things for us so that God might fully redeem us. Luther felt that scripture needed to reveal “all things for us” just as Christ became fully incarnated in order to serve and to save humankind.