Martin Luther never intended to break away from the Catholic Church which in those days was the only official church in Europe, apart from the minority Greek Church. Luther simply desired reform and righteousness to return to the Church which had become a corrupt and evil entity which oppressed the poor and ignorant people rather than being a light of the love of Jesus Christ.
In the trial of Martin Luther in Worms, Germany in April of 1521 he challenged that his errors be judged only by scriptures, not by tradition, nor by the Pope in Rome. In his defense he said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” 1 As a result of the inquisition held at Worms, Germany Luther was excommunicated and went into hiding before he could be arrested. While in hiding the church sought to rid the German people of the teaching of Martin Luther and burned his books, teachings and the ninety-five thesis wherever they could be found. Anyone who opposed the Catholic Church and their traditions was killed. It was estimated that some 100,000 people were killed while Martin Luther was in hiding.2
Luther knew that the most important thing he needed to do was to translate the Bible from Latin, Greek and Hebrew into German so that the German people could stand on its own. The devil also knew the power of the scripture. Luther later told how Satan himself appeared to him to torment him as he was translating the Bible. At one point, he threw his ink bottle at the devil. The ink splatter can be seen on the wall to this day. When he emerged from hiding the following year in 1522, he had completed a translation of the German New Testament from Greek which would add strength and spiritual guidance to the reformers and the German people. Amazingly, he completed the entire New Testament in approximately one year. Because the printing press was widely available in Germany, where it was invented, within days of completing the New Testament, along with other teachings, they could be printed and distributed among the people. Initially over one hundred thousand German Luther Bibles were printed and this Bible remains one of the most read and popular German Bibles today with little revision, nearly 500 years later.
Luther’s Bible is credited to not only enhancing the German language, but through the Bible transforming all parts of the German nation including socially, economically, politically and spiritually. In speaking about the translation and word choice of the Bible Luther stated, “We do not have to ask about the literal Latin or how we are to speak German – as [these papists] do – Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner in their speech and do our translating accordingly”3 Luther’s desire was to translate the Bible so that every person, whether common or educated, could understand the Bible.
Even today, information on Luther’s German Bible including the text are available throughout Germany. On the German Embassy website in the United States it says of the impact of Martin Luther on German society:
Luther’s belief in the power of the German word to inspire religious faith was revolutionary in itself. In 1486, Archbishop Berthold of Mainz had banned all unauthorized printing of sacred and learned books, including the German Bible. Berthold had argued not only that the German language was incapable of properly conveying the true sense of the Greek and Latin originals, but that lay men and women could not understand the Bible in any case.
As it happened, Luther’s translation became a bestseller for the times. The Wittenberg Bible sold about 100,000 copies between 1534 and 1574 and was likely read by millions. It helped shape the way people spoke and wrote German for generations to follow. And just as it attracted readers then, Luther’s translation remains the most widely used version of the Bible in the German-speaking world today.4
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact on Europe which was made by the publication of the Bible in the language of the common people. It purged a corrupt and defiled church; it transformed the moral attitudes of society. It also brought people to seek the will of God rather than their own self-interest. From the time the Bible was made available to the people in their own languages, the church was no longer dependent on a corrupt system and unholy leaders for interpretation of God’s commands.
It is interesting to note as well that Martin Luther never sold his Bible, nor took any money from its publication. He continued to refine it the rest of his life. Publishers have, since the day it was first released, made millions of dollars on selling Luther’s Bible.
1 (Dillenberger, John ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. Doubleday, Garden City, New York. 1961. p. 22).
2 (“Peasants’ War.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2006. Answers.com 30 Aug. 2006. http://www.answers.com/topic/peasants-war).
3 (Dillenberger, p. 204).
4 (German Embassy, United States of America. May 2003. “Martin Luther”. http://www.germany.info/relaunch/info/publications/infocus/ luther/bible.html. accessed online.)
5 Picture of Luther Bible from Dallas Theological Seminary Library. (http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/sc_bibles.shtml accessed October 30, 2010)