Luther’s deliberate mistranslation


An old Italian proverb, traduttore, traditoremeaning that a translator is a traitor is as applicable to Bible translations as to any other text. Each language arises from a culture, with its individual traditions and images, which determine the precise meaning of even the simplest of terms. When a country lady from Bavaria says “haus” she sees a different mental image from that of a Parisian who says “maison” or a Yorkshire man who says “house” though a translator may treat these words as equivalents. It’s impossible to precisely translate a passage from one language to another and retain the same shades of meaning. Most translations also incorporate something of the culture and prejudices of the translator.

Martin Luther wrote many books, but his most influential publication was his translation of the New Testament into plain-speaking German. He wasn’t the first to translate the Bible into everyday language, but his predecessors worked from the Latin ‘Vulgate’ (the official Roman Catholic text). Luther translated from the original Greek of the New Testament. His version was a masterly achievement that had lasting affects on the German language, as well as religion. But, like most Bible translators, Luther brought his opinions to the writing table.

The most controversial example of the influence of personal opinion in Luther’s translation was his interpolation of the word alone” into Romans 3:28. In the English New International Version, this verse reads: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (note that there’s no “alone” in that verse). In German, the words “by faith” would read “durch den Glauben”, but Luther rendered it as “”allein durch den Glauben”. He justified his rendering by pleading that German idiom needed the extra word to make the meaning clear. It put St Paul’s text in opposition to St James’ epistle, which says: “…a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24 NIV). Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James.

Was Luther being dishonest? Some would so accuse him but, for him, it was an important issue of clarification to combat false teachings that repelled him. Agents of the Pope had been preaching a doctrine of ‘salvation’ that could not only be earned but bought. He wanted to make it clear that the only source of true salvation was God’s saving grace: a free gift that makes only one demand – the need to believe. It was a radical departure from the prevailing doctrine, which Luther deplored and condemned.

But there was a problem with this teaching of justification by faith alone”. Some of Luther’s hearers had a very narrow understanding of “faith”. Following the infamous show-trial known by the unpalatable-sounding name of the Diet of Worms”, Luther spent months in hiding, under the protection of one of the German noblemen. He used most of that time valuably, by working on his translation of the New Testament. Back in his home town of Wittenberg, many people spent that time badly, by abusing their new ‘freedom’. Freed from oversight by bishops and priests, they gave themselves to immoral excesses, trusting that faith alone would secure their protection. When Luther heard about it he quickly came out of hiding, despite the very real risk that he might be arrested, tried, and executed.

In his epistle, St. James challenged believers to show their faith by their deeds. Luther lived up to that in his personal life and, on his return to Wittenberg, he urged the people to return to disciplined ways of living. Luther demonstrated his faith by his life of practical goodness. He never allowed his assurance of personal salvation to divert him from the path of righteousness. True faith changes lives.

Belief can be a mere mental assent to a doctrine. But saving faith is more than that. Salvation is not justby faith”, but by grace through faith”. In other words, it’s a miracle. God’s grace is the power that provokes our faith and, when his grace meets our surrender, we are reborn. Note my word “surrender”. James points out that even the devils believe that there is one God – but it makes no difference to their behaviour. We need the kind of belief that makes us act rightly – faith that leads us to commit ourselves wholly to the Lord.

Paul, from whose teachings Luther derived his doctrine, was aware of the possible misunderstanding of “justification by faith” and answered the problem in the same letter (Romans) that Luther was quoting:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)

Luther’s doctrine released millions of people from a religious formality that bound them, rather than saving them. His mistranslation swung the pendulum away from a dangerous error. Equally dangerous, however, is the opposite extreme that relies on a narrow “head-faith” that produces no change in the life of the so-called believer.

Let’s trust the Lord absolutely, so that grace through faith makes a real difference to the way we live. Let’s do good, not to earn our salvation, but out of sheer gratitude that he’s given it to us because of The Cross.

One thought on “Luther’s deliberate mistranslation

  1. Luther was of course the first living great Protestant Theolog, i.e. one that survived Rome, and Roman punishment and harsh or injurious treatment toward Reformers! But later even Calvin had some Protestant and Reformed friends that were killed by the Roman sword, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s