Martin Luther left the Diet of Worms in a wagon, guaranteed safe passage home to Wittenberg by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He needed a pledge of safe passage. The diet (the occasional session of the Parliament of the empire) declared him to be a heretic, and there was a price on his head. As the wagon passed through a forest near Eisenach, several knights appeared on horseback, surrounding the wagon, and challenged the terrified men to reveal which one was Luther. His companions, dumbstruck, pointed to Luther immediately, and he was snatched away on horseback. By nightfall, he was safely installed in the Wartburg, the castle of Frederick the Wise, his royal protector. Here Luther was able to lay low, growing a beard and becoming known as ‘Junker Jorg’ (Knight George), though he did not enjoy the rich food and copious wine of the Knights among whom he lived, or their more worldly attitudes. Yet it was in this mountaintop hideout that Luther was able to deliver his most subversive masterstroke.
As he had been taken from the wagon in the forest, Luther had managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Hidden away in his castle garret, he set to translating the Bible into German from the original languages. This was radical in several ways. First, any previous translation had been from the Latin Vulgate, not directly translated from the original languages. This had led to several mistranslations, especially in the understanding of justification. The Vulgate translated it as ‘make righteous’, rather than ‘declare righteous’, thereby confusing the forensic acquittal that is justification with the ongoing process of inner transformation that is sanctification. Second, Luther honoured the people’s language when he translating the Bible directly into German. His translation not only reflected the vernacular; it shaped and standardised it. This is normal in many Bible translation projects. Where literacy is low, giving people the Bible in their own language gives the literate the opportunity to read it to the illiterate, and the written language begins to shape the oral use of the language across the whole national conversation. Just as Tyndale was doing the same for the definition and standardisation of English, so Luther’s Bible shaped the language and conversation of Germany. It is only as secularism has moved people away from the Bible, a movement that coincided with the broadcasting revolution, that language has become anchored elsewhere, or, should I say, swept along in the currents of the mass media.
Luther’s Bible translation was radical for a third reason. In his early books, especially his Address to the German Nobility, he had taught the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Catholic Church focussed all power in the local priest, above him the bishops and Cardinals, with the Pope having ultimate authority. In the lives of everyday people, the priest held an unchallengeable position. He heard your confession, administered the sacraments, and read the Bible in Latin in Church, thereby keeping it from being understood by the common people. The priest stood between God and the people, those in monastic orders were near him in spiritual importance, while the laity was kept at a distance. But if every believer is a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6) then we are all equal, and what Luther called ‘little Christs’ to one another. This means that the Bible is not to be locked up in Latin so that only an educated priest could understand it. It belongs to everyone, and should not just be read in church but studied personally at home. The Church had been keeping the Bible from the people. Now it must be read and taught everywhere.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this masterstroke. Across the Protestant parts of Europe, societies and systems of government were massively changed by the truths contained in the Bible. On my summer holiday this year, I read Vishal Mangalwadi’s brilliant book, The Book that made your world, a fascinating study in the way western culture at its height was shaped by, and produced by, the truths of the Bible. While it contains one or two glaring historical inaccuracies, the central argument is brilliantly made, and carries more weight coming from someone who was converted from an Indian Buddhist background. It is worth reading in the year of the Luther anniversary. Our culture was shaped by the Bible, leading the West to value humanity, rationality, technology, language, literature, science, morality, compassion, and so much more. The very roots of modern democratic, parliamentary government owe their existence to the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that brings down tyrants, elites and special interests, and empowers the everyday people of society, holding to account those in power. As our society increasingly seeks to drive the Bible out of our everyday life, to plaster over any hint of its influences, and to take for granted the institutions and values it has given to us, so we head back into a world of class divides, elitism and oppression at the hands of the new priesthoods: the secular humanists, the academics in their exalted ivory towers, and the media moguls and famous celebrities who live in a world above us and hold such huge influence over our lives. Without the Bible, truth, rational thought, and the needs of the soul rather than just the body, are all endangered and steadily being eroded.
This leaves me wondering: why do so few churches go out of their way to give away Bibles? Some do well in giving out gospels of Mark, Luke or John, but most just wait for people to enter their building before they get near a Bible. UCCF has done some sterling work in getting the ‘Uncover’ gospels out into the hands of thousands of students. Great work is still done by the Gideons. But we are not keeping up. Britain is going backwards into biblical illiteracy, and fast. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the panic on a train in Wimbledon station recently when a Christian started reading the Bible aloud may have been partly caused by the fact that most people wouldn’t recognise the difference between the Bible and the Koran, or indeed any other religious Scripture, so ignorant are they of the Bible’s content. Christians need to rediscover confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written. We should have the passion and determination of Luther to see the Word of God in the hands of everyone, in their own vernacular language. If we do, it will transform the moral and spiritual malaise of the West.