Martin Luther: A Life and Translation

 “If I see any further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton said this to the effect to those who came before him and did the necessary work that contributed to the conception of his own work. Martin Luther was a man who became the foundation for all of posterity. He showed no signs in his early life to have any historic significance to this world. The reformation was known as an accident. It started small and ignited a fire across Germany and Europe when he nailed 95 theses on the Castle Church of Wittenberg. Consequently, it forced his hand to publish some of the most crucial works in history. His finest work includes the translation of the Greek New Testament into the vernacular. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible was revolutionary during his day. Its effects are still reverberating across history to the present day as a serious benefit to the Church.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eileen to a family of peasants. He was quick to state, “I am a peasant’s son. My father, my grandfather, and my great grandfather were all true peasants.”[1] He knew early on the value of being brought up in a poor family because for him it would mean hard work and discipline. These of which are strong characteristics that can promise a good future in any profession or academic field.  Martin Luther was like all young children in his day, mischievous and immature. He recalls one time when his mother beat him “until the blood came” for stealing a nut.[2] He was also beaten in school and other times when he made his father angry. Late in his life he wrote of gratefulness for such acts that taught him humility and respect.  His father Hans Luther and his mother Margaretta are pictured as strong, committed, and hardworking Germans. His father was once a farmer before he began work in the mines. Afterwards he became the owner of a number of “foundries.”[3] A foundries was a factory for casting metal. Margaretta stayed home and took care of the housing responsibilities as well as being a full time mother of eight children.

Luther’s parents sent him to school in the city of Magdeburg at the age of thirteen.[4] It was common that the son would align himself to do as is father did and eventually replace him. However, his parents insisted that he go to school and from this one can deduce at-least two reasons for them doing so. One his parents had high expectations for Martin to do well in school so he could support his parents in old age latter in life. The other reason reveals something about his character. His parents saw that Luther was intelligent and could perform strongly in school. While at school he learned to speak Latin, the language of the Church. Following this Luther enrolled in the school of Erfurt at Eisenarch when he turned 18 in May of 1501. He was there for three years. He then went on to take his bachelor and Masters of Arts completing that in less then five years.

When Martin graduated his father was excited because Martin showed an interest in law so his father bought him a copy of the Corpus Juris.[5] His fathers intentions were clear he hoped that Martin would become a lawyer which promised a lucrative future and stability. By way of keeping his father content Martin accepted and began to study law. Martin’s future looked hopeful as one who would do well in the profession but it would not last long. Immediately he was overcome by the conviction from God that he was to become a monk. The occasion that confirmed this conviction was a bolt of lighting that nearly stuck him in a thunderstorm while traveling from Stotternheim to Erfurt.[6] The lighting bolt caused him to fall on the ground and he cried out, “Save me, Saint Ann, and I will become a monk!” At that every moment before even consulting his father, Martin left his school and chose out of the twenty-two cloisters in Erfurt to attend the Augustinian monastery to “save his soul.”[7] His friends tried to persuade him but Martin Luther had a calling on his life and he refused to do anything else.

Martin’s father was disappointed but Luther answered him, “I could do you more good by prayers than if I had stayed in the world.”[8] The Augustinian monastery was a difficult life. It was a call to adverse living by subjecting fleshly desires. The life of a Monk was rigid; their diet was minimal, they held frequent prayer vigils, and said continual repetition of denying self.[9] At the monastery Martin sought every opportunity to insure heavens favor. The Church taught that the way to heaven was through sacraments, such as the purchase of indulgences. On many occasions Martin Luther nearly killed himself to insure the sanctity of his soul when he began to realize that this was not the way unto salvation according to the Gospels.

Martin Luther learned quickly that no amount of sacrament could save a person. For Martin it was faith that man had in God that justified man and his not works. While he was developing his theology Pope Leo X continued to indorse the selling of indulgences to fund church projects like St. Peters basilica. As a way to increase revenue the Church offered indulgences for people of all socioeconomic positions. This way no one was poor enough to afford an indulgence. One experienced vender named John Tetzel, a Dominican preached that one could also purchase indulgences for those who have already died, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”[10]

The people did not know better and they freely gave their money to the Church in fear of losing their souls in eternal damnation. Martin Luther could no longer put these matters aside. He accused the Pope for stealing the people’s money and keeping them from a true understanding of Salvation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. In the theses he directly attacks the Pope accusing him of deceiving the people.[11] In addition, Martin expressed a fuller view of his thoughts on indulgences by denying that they were treasures from heaven.[12]

Martin Luther had not expected any serious consequences to come about these 95 theses. Nevertheless Rome took it as a direct threat of the highest offense resulting in Luther’s excommunication and trial at the diet of Worms. On trial at the diet, that is a legislative assembly that met to determine the fate of Luther they resolved on letting him free until further questioning. It was certain that his death was inevitable and out of fear of his life Frederick the Wise kidnapped Martin and kept him hidden in the Wartburg.

While Martin was here he commonly called it his “Patmos” and his “wilderness” in his letters.[13] He remained disguised by growing out his beard and carrying a sword as a knight would under the identity of Junker George.[14] It was not easy for Martin to step aside for the time while his reformation was continuing around Germany. He was alone and according to some letters it would indicate that he was depressed. Living the life as a knight didn’t agree with his stomach either. The contrast between a monk’s diet and a knight caused him serious constipation and ingestion problems. He was also suffering with insomnia that was a result of his devoted prayer vigils in the past but perhaps worst for Martin is that he had nothing to do. Martin also said said that the devil frequently visited him with taunts such as, “are you alone wise? Has the church erred for so many centuries? What if you are in error and are taking so many others with you to eternal damnation?”[15]

Martin did find a cure temporarily that was sufficient enough for him to keep him from going insane. His antidote was work. As a result he had produced the finest and one of his momentous works. Martin translated the entire Greek New Testament into the vernacular. His translation was not the first of his day but what made his significant to the people was that it was a truly German book.[16] His New Testament was the first ever to be a direct translation from the Greek. Where the other translations failed was that they depended upon the Latin translations as their primary source. The other vernaculars were second source translations from the Latin Vulgate, which was, “unattractive and unintelligible.”[17] For reasons such as the “curious Latinized German” wording which made it difficult to read. As an additional benefit to Martin’s translation his his also avoided the influence of the Latin into the text as well.[18] Martin’s grammatical skills were unparalleled and his understanding of the german language was profound. Being a prolific writer himself he knew the german grammer well and what the people needed. He found the German of the people, not the church, or the politician but the diction that demanded the attention of the audience for the poor farmer, and store owner. He finished this incredible work in three months. He developed a new and freshly inspired edition of the Bible that was cherished by all the people. Even more astonishing is that this was hundreds of years before Germany became a state and his geniuses was being able to combine the German language of all the individual street languages in the lands into a unified language.

His work was of even more significance because he alone did all of the translating. From both the Hebrew and the Greek into German. In comparison to William Tyndale’s edition of the english Bible his work was put together by other authors that contributed to the overall work. 10 months later from the time Martin started his work in the Wartburg Martin published his first complete Bible in September of the following year of 1522. Luther knew that this needed to be done because now the people no longer had to depend on the Church’s interpretation. This was primarily due to the illiteracy of the Latin tongue among the common people. The German translation of the Bible allowed the people to make their own conclusions about the practice of selling indulgences. Martin’s translation of the Bible is similar to today’s ESV Bible. In the matter that it offers less of a literal word for word translation and more of a dynamic equivalent and for at-least most people it offers a clear interpretation of the word. John Clajus a preacher in 1578 famously penned, “As the Holy Ghost spoke pure Hebrew through Moses, and Greek through the Apostles, so He spoke pure German through His chosen instrument, Martin Luther.”[19]

Even to his death bed Martin continued his work and translation of the Bible adding more clarity and conciseness to his texts. The reformation would not have nearly had the effects it had if the German people did not get this universal Bible to interpret the Word of God for themselves. The translation of the Bible was Martin’s central belief and that was salvation is found in the disclosure of the person of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God, and not what Church authority’s say.

Bibliography

Bainton, Roland Herbert. Here I Stand : A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.

Lipsky, Abram. Martin Luther, Germany’s Angry Man : By Abram Lipsky ; with Four Reproductions in Black and White from Prints, and an Index. New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1933.

Loewenich, Walther von. Martin Luther : The Man and His Work. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1986.

McGiffert, Arthur Cushman. Martin Luther, the Man and His Work. New York,: The Century Co., 1911.

William R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation  : By William R. Estep (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 144.


[1]Walther von Loewenich, Martin Luther : The Man and His Work (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1986), 232.

[2]Roland Herbert Bainton, Here I Stand : A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 23.

[3]Ibid., 26.

[4]Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Martin Luther, the Man and His Work (New York,: The Century Co., 1911), 10.

[5]Bainton, Here I Stand : A Life of Martin Luther, 24.

[6]William R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation  : By William R. Estep (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 144.

[7]Abram Lipsky, Martin Luther, Germany’s Angry Man : By Abram Lipsky ; with Four Reproductions in Black and White from Prints, and an Index (New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1933), 2.

[8]Bainton, Here I Stand : A Life of Martin Luther, 43-44.

[9]Ibid., 35.

[10]William R. Estep, Renaissance and Reformation  : By William R. Estep (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 119

[11]Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church (82 Theses)?

[12]The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God (62 Theses)

[13]Loewenich, Martin Luther : The Man and His Work, 201.

[14]McGiffert, Martin Luther, the Man and His Work, 213.

[15]Walther von Loewenich, Martin Luther : The Man and His Work (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1986), 201.

[16]Ibid., 222.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Abram Lipsky, Martin Luther, Germany’s Angry Man : By Abram Lipsky ; with Four Reproductions in Black and White from Prints, and an Index (New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1933), 173.

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  1. Pingback: Martin Luther: A Life and Translation | ChristianBookBarn.com

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