The Importance of Vernacular Bible Translations by Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and Erasmus in the Reformation
Luther called the coming of printing “God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.” (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 32)
The business of the gospel, in this case, was to reach with long and sensitive fingers into every fiber of Renaissance culture, to the rich, the poor, the kings and plowboys, and confront them with the pure and unadulterated truth of the Word. Now there could be no ignorance without excuse. The reality and logic of the printed Word held a force that could not be easily counteracted. The preparation of “languages and letters” for the Word of God, as Luther called it, made it so that, as both he and Erasmus had hoped:
“The farmer might sing snatches of his Scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveler might lighten with stories form Scripture the weariness of his journey.” (Erasmus, quoted in The Modern Age, p. 31)
Common Language Translations
The Protestant Reformation began when many dedicated Christian scholars studied the Bible and realized that the Roman Catholic Church was teaching false doctrine. These scholars were faced with a difficulty: no common person could understand the Latin Bibles which the church read and taught. Bibles were owned by the church, read to the people in Latin, and the priests taught what they wanted the people to believe, changing doctrines to support their practices and omitting points that were vital to the Gospel. John Foxe explains:
“Faith, consolation, the use of the law, the works of Christ, our human weakness, the Holy Ghost, the strength of sin, the works of grace, justification by faith, and Christian liberty were never mentioned in the church. Instead, the church was solely concerned with outward ceremony and human traditions. People spent their entire lives heaping up one ceremony after another in hopes of salvation, not knowing it was theirs for the asking. Simple, uneducated people who had no knowledge of scripture were content to know only what their pastors told them, and these pastors took care to only teach what came from Rome... most of which was for the profit of their own orders, not for the glory of Christ. Wycliffe, seeing Christ’s gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do what he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth.” (Foxe's Book of Martyrs pp. 47-48)
Wycliffe: the Layman's Man in England
Wycliffe strongly believed in the supremacy of the Scriptures as “the standard of truth and of all human perfection.” (Humanists and Reformers p. 58) He organized a committee of his students at Oxford to translate the Bible into the English vernacular, and the result was the first complete English Bible translation. Wycliffe’s followers were called “Lollards” or “Bible Men,” and they traveled throughout the country in humble garb, distributing their Bibles and asking for nothing.
Wycliffe spent many of his latter years in hiding. After he died a natural death, the Synod of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic, and his bones were dug up and burned (John Foxe, p. 50).
These words from one of Wycliffe’s own tracts will best demonstrate his ruling zeal for Reformation:
“Christian men should stand to the death for the maintenance of Christ’s gospel, and the true understanding thereof, obtained by holy life, and great study, and not set their faith nor trust in sinful prelates, and their accursed clerks, nor in their understanding of the Holy Writ, for with their worldly life and pride they are unable to see the truth thereof. (The Tracts and Treatises of Wycliffe, John Wycliffe p. 61.)
Protestant theologians in other countries also believed that the Bible should be given to all in their own tongue. These included Erasmus, Luther and Lefevre.
Erasmus the Translator of Mysteries
Erasmus worked with several ancient Greek manuscripts and the Latin Vulgate, along with Valla’s Notes on the New Testament, for a decade, until he produced a Greek translation that did not contain the errors of the Latin Vulgate. This was the first Greek New Testament to be printed by the press. Erasmus did not expect every person to be able read this Greek Bible, but he knew it would provide an accurate text for many other translators to use. Erasmus said:
“I utterly dissent from those who are unwilling that the sacred Scriptures should be read by the unlearned translated into their tongue, as though Christ’s teaching was so obscure that it could hardly be understood even by a handful of theologians, or as though the strength of the Christian religion consisted in men’s ignorance of it. The counsels of kings are much better kept hidden, but Christ wished His mysteries to be published as openly as possible.” — Erasmus, quoted in The Modern Age, p. 30
Luther of Germany
Luther was forced to spend a year in hiding at Wartburg Castle after refusing to yield to Romish authorities on the superiority of the Scriptures. It was providential that opposition was created to force him into hiding, for during that time he worked on translating a German New Testament from Erasmus’ Greek Text. Later, he translated the Old Testament as well. This German Bible could now be read by all German people, thus making the “priesthood of all believers” more of a reality. Now the German merchant could study the Scriptures, apply it to his life, and even measure the words of the priest against the words he read in his own Bible, finding truth.
Historian D’Aubigne writes of Luther’s translation:
“Erelong this Word will be seen descending from the Wartburg with him; circulating among the people of Germany, and putting them in possession of those spiritual treasures hitherto shut up within the hearts of a few pious men. ‘Would that this one book,’ exclaimed Luther, ‘Were in every language, in every hand, before the eyes, and in the ears and hearts of all men!’ Scripture without comment is the sun whence all teachers receive their light.” D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation, p. 320
Lefevre in France
In France, a doctor named Lefevre was also translating the Bible. He had been born to humble parents, did not receive a spectacular education, but by the sharpness of his mind and a pure desire to understand truth, he studied with fervor. Historians are vague on this point, but it seems almost no time before he because a respected scholar of scholars and doctor of divinity. In 1522 he published the first French translation of the four gospels, and less than a month later, published the entire New Testament. A few years later, and the Psalms were also published. D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation relates the outcome:
“...numbers received the sacred writings from the hands of Lefevre; they were read in their families and in private; conversations on the Bible became frequent; Christ appeared to those souls so long misled, as the centre and the sun of all revelation. No longer did they require demonstrations to prove that Scripture was from God; they know it, for by it they had been transported from darkness to light.” (History of the Reformation by D’Aubigne, p. 453)
The improvement of communication of the Word of God to common man was the most important factor of the Reformation’s success. The printing press made it possible for every man to know “the power of God unto salvation” through the Gospel, and it unleashed the Sword of the Spirit against the lies of the Roman Catholic Church. The many vernacular Bible translations at this time made it possible for the common people in England, Germany, France, and Switzerland to read or have the Bible read to them in their own language. No longer would the elitist class of priests be the only ones in possession of the truth of the Word of God. No longer were fathers kept from reading to their own children the words of the Scriptures. No longer would God's everlasting and piercing Word be twisted and maimed by church leaders using their influence for their own gain. "Christ appeared to those souls so long misled, as the centre and the sun of revelation."
“Unless Your law had been my delight,
I would then have perished in my affliction.
I will never forget Your precepts,
For by them You have given me life.
I am Yours, save me;
For I have sought You precepts.
The wicked wait for me to destroy me,
But I will consider Your testimonies.
Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
You, through Your commandments,
Make me wiser than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients,
Because I keep Your precepts.
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way.
© 2009 Jane Grey
Bainton, Roland H., The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1963)
D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle, D.D., History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, editions I-V, (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1882)
Eby, Frederick, PhD., Ll.D, Early Protestant Educators, (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc., 1931)
Edwards, Brian H., God’s Outlaw, (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2002)
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)
Foxe, John, Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, edited and abridged, (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing, 2005)
Gitt, Werner, In the Beginning Was Information,(Bielefeld, Germany: Christliche Literatur Verbreitung, 2001)
Hayes, Carlton J. H., Modern Europe to 1870, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959)
Man, John, Gutenberg, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002)
Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (London: Routledge, 1999)
Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (New York: Penguin Books, 1986)
Spitz, Lewis W., and Kenan, William R., editors, The Protestant Reformation: Major Documents,( Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1997)
Thompson, Bard, Humanists and Reformers, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996)
___________, The Modern Age, (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book Publications, 1981)
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