Luther’s Bible translation is considered one of his most important contributions not only to the Lutheran Reformation, but to language, literature, and culture. The translation was begun at the Wartburg after Christmas in 1521, and the first draft was completed in an astonishing eleven weeks. Back in Wittenberg in March, Luther had the help of Melanchthon and others to edit the translation, which was printed in September 1522. The Old Testament was translated with the help of other Wittenberg faculty and was published with the New Testament in 1534.
The Secret Trip
While a German Bible translation had been on his mind for some time, he didn’t make a firm commitment to it until December 1521. It is likely that what he learned on his trip to Wittenberg propelled him toward undertaking a translation of the Bible.
Why the trip to Wittenberg? Having lived through 2021, we can readily empathize with Luther, who just had to get out of his isolation. Despite the view from the castle and the charming company of the birds, he needed to see his friends and get recharged. There was still a price on Luther’s head, so travel would be risky. But Luther was Luther—without informing Elector Frederick and his officials, he decided on his own to take what would be a risky 125-mile trip. Leaving the Wartburg on December 2, Luther traveled on horseback, disguised as Junker Jörg (Knight George). He arrived in Wittenberg on December 4 and was back at the Wartburg by December 12. To avoid being recognized, Luther stayed at the home of Nikolaus Amsdorf, where he met with Melanchthon and with a few other close associates.
The Wittenberg Troubles
Among the reformers, the leaders in Luther’s absence were Melanchthon and the older fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt. Luther had confidence in Melanchthon, Nikolaus Amsdorf, Georg Spalatin, and Justus Jonas. From the reports from Wittenberg Luther had received, in general it appeared that the Reformation of the church in Saxony was progressing under the leadership of Luther’s university colleagues. However, there were some problems: for one thing, Karlstadt was making changes too quickly without preparing the people for it; it also appeared that there was some unrest generally in Wittenberg. Schwiebert comments that Karlstadt “was not a very profound theologian nor too well balanced as an individual” (524).
The problem of monastic vows and the mass, including the administration of the Lord’s Supper, were the issues generating heat in Wittenberg. Karlstadt issued an opinion that the monastic vows were now null and void, so priests and nuns could marry. Luther did not jump quickly into such decisions. He had to be convinced from Scripture; examine the implications for various doctrines as well as matters of adiaphora; and be satisfied that accepting a new practice or rejecting an old one would not lead people to sin. Luther also sought consensus from his coworkers in the reforms he wanted to institute.
In the months following Luther’s excommunication, a Lutheran Church in Saxony did not suddenly spring up. Even if those who accepted Luther’s “new theology” were derisively being called “Lutheran,” as declared in the excommunication, there was no new denomination; neither did Luther suddenly overnight reject the traditions and practices of the Roman church in which he had been ordained. As he would make abundantly clear, one did not reject a biblical interpretation or tradition simply because it was held by the church of Rome. The only judge was Scripture itself. Luther had high regard for the traditions which supported the gospel and promoted true faith and confession, and reform could not be instantaneous.
On the matter of the mass, Luther had rejected the “sacrifice of the mass,” which embedded the words of institution in a prayer that turned the Sacrament of the Altar into a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and turned the mass into a good work. No longer would the private mass, the sacrament with only a priest present and no people, take place. Other corrections, such as the communicants receiving both body and blood, would come as the people were ready. Patient teaching was necessary so that consciences would not be bound.
The day before Luther arrived, some townspeople and students entered St. Mary’s, the city church, and assaulted the priests. Further disturbance arose when Karlstadt later administered the sacrament in street clothing, inviting communicants to come to the altar and take bread and wine for themselves. Karlstadt now went his own way and rejected much of Luther’s teaching, including the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar.
Some who found their way into Wittenberg from elsewhere also believed that all vestiges of the Roman Catholic Church—statues, altar paintings, and other art and worship forms—had to be destroyed. Representatives from other movements, including a radical priest from Zwickau named Thomas Münzer, tried to exert an influence—Luther called them Schwaermerei (“a buzzing swarm,” enthusiasts, or fanatics). Anabaptists (rebaptizers) also entered the fray.
When Luther returned to the Wartburg, he sent a manuscript to Wittenberg to be published as a pamphlet A Sincere Admonition to All Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion. In this pamphlet, Luther showed why insurrection and rioting were wrong. Instead of flying into rages, rabblerousing, and physically abusing all opponents, Luther counseled patience and urged the people to speak and live the gospel. Many of those they were opposing had not yet heard the gospel: “These you should not bully or beat up but instruct in a kindly and gentle manner.” Finally he appealed to them, “God grant us all that we may practice what we preach” (LW 45,72,74).
In the conflict with the radical reformation movements Luther met in 1521 and following years, Luther formulated another principle: “In the first place I hear and see that such rebaptism is undertaken by some in order to spite the pope and to be free of any taint of the Antichrist ….We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy;…— the true, holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar [etc]” (LW 40, 231 f.). It simply would not do to reject teachings, traditions, or practices simply because they existed in the Roman church. God’s Word alone determines what is right and true. Luther put that into practice when in 1523 and 1526, he published two orders for mass or the divine service (Gottesdienst), which retained the outward forms of the Roman liturgy purged of all sacrificial and works-righteous elements; those orders are still followed in our orders of worship, including some of the language.
The principle that Luther enunciated after the experience of the radicals in Wittenberg was the same that he spoke at Worms:
Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures…[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God….I cannot and will not recant, (Kittelson, 161).
Note: In addition to sources used in previous articles in this series, Martin Brecht, Ernst Schwiebert, Heiko Oberman, and Scott Hendrix, James M Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer has been consulted and Luther’s Works (LW), Vol. 40, 231 f. “Rebaptism” and Vol. 45 “A Sincere Admonition…”.
Prof. Emeritus Erling T. Teigen