As we continue to follow the events of the Reformation, 500 years later, we would be remiss if we failed to recall that half of a millennium has now passed since the dawn of the modern era of Bible translation. It began officially this month in 1522 with the release of the September Testament—the New Testament translated by Dr. Martin Luther into a language that he helped to form in Germany.
A placard at the Lutherhaus in Eisenach, Germany, captures the spirit of this endeavor: “Luther wanted the Bible to be understood. Everyone was supposed to be able to read God’s word on their own.”1
The publication launched on Sept. 21, 1522,2 allowing Luther almost seven months to settle back into his responsibilities as pastor and professor in Wittenberg, following his return from exile in the Wartburg Castle. I described the background, process and impact of this translation work in the castle in previous articles.3 However, I feel compelled to observe the anniversary of its publication, especially as we approach another Reformation Day, and our hearts are drawn once again to the significance of Sola Scriptura.
In the outside world, Luther’s life hung in the balance. But hidden safely within his mighty fortress high above Eisenach, he undertook a task so enormous that the results continue to reverberate down to our time.
Read the series.
Those who love holding a Bible in their hands—which they can read in their own language—should be aware of and grateful for the monumental importance of Dr. Martin Luther’s 10-month stay at the Wartburg Castle in 1521 and 1522.
It was during this time that Luther first translated the New Testament into German—in just 11 weeks! In so doing, he literally began the modern era of Bible translation.
In the providence of God, Luther was used to launch the Reformation in the wake of two events of inestimable significance. The first was Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, with movable type, in 1450, in Mainz, Germany. The second was the work of a courageous Dutch priest, Desiderius Erasmus, who first published the Novum Instrumentum in 1516, in Basel, Switzerland.
Erasmus compiled the Greek text of the New Testament, using the limited resources available to him, and also provided an original translation of the New Testament into Latin.
We know that Luther probed Erasmus’ text enthusiastically, and had access to it inside the Wartburg.
Erwin Lutzer states of Luther’s time there:
Read the series.
Why should we praise God—or, for that matter, even care—that Dr. Martin Luther has triumphantly “driven the devil away with ink”?1
For the benefit of those who do not follow this column regularly, let me back up and open with a brief word of explanation. Since beginning to write in this format in 2020, I have been producing an ongoing series, in which I follow the events of the Reformation throughout its 500th anniversary. The big event, of course, occurred on Oct. 31, 1517. Its anniversary took place before I began this column, but was just a month after my wife and I were privileged to be on a life-changing Reformation tour of Germany, including a stop at the Castle Church, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door. There will, of course, continue to be anniversaries of significant Reformation events, 500 years later, for the rest of my life.
I have been away from this topic for just about one year, and that was not by accident. This past year marked 500 years from Luther’s unplanned stay at the Wartburg Castle. He was there from May 4, 1521, to Feb. 29, 1522.2 Although we are late in commemorating his departure, the next six months were quiet for Luther, so I will attempt to catch up and summarize this entire period according to some vitally important themes.
"One doctrine, justification by faith alone, is rightly called the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. It was this doctrine that Martin Luther was, ultimately, being asked to recant but could not.... five hundred years later, it is still a worthy hill and mountain to stand upon" - Ref21
If you had asked me, as a young boy, what holiday we celebrate on October 31, I likely would have responded, “Reformation Day.”
Sure, I was intrigued by ghosts, ghouls and goblins as much as the next kid—but not for their own sake. I, instead, preferred to think of them as the backdrop, set in place by hundreds of years of darkness, against which the light of Reformation shone crystal clear from the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
You see, being raised confessional Lutheran, the significance of Luther’s bold act of Reformation on Oct. 31, 1517, was drilled into me from my earliest days. Granted, it was a bit of a cartoonish view of those events that was taught to us as back then as small children. But it stuck in my mind for a lifetime.
By the time I finished Lutheran high school, however, I thought I’d had enough of the Reformation. What I did not realize initially, though, was that my own life was following the very trajectory—in terms of the progressive development of doctrine—that I would later find fascinating in relation to church history.
As I began studying what I would come to understand as dispensational theology, and attending a Bible church, my focus was much more on the future—my own, but also the prophetic future—than the past. I actually minored in social studies in Bible college and had several outstanding history classes, but church history, specifically, was not emphasized overall.
Read the series.
We visited Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle on the Sunday of our 500th anniversary Reformation trip.
The day was gloriously dark and dreary. Fortunately, we felt only a few raindrops. But it was an absolutely perfect day for a ride through the Thuringian Forest.
A young Martin Luther spent several of his most formative years less than three miles from the Wartburg Castle—in Eisenach, where the Cotta family hosted him as a schoolboy preparing to go to the University of Erfurt. We also traced the history of Johann Sebastian Bach that day, and our enthusiastic tour guide—a California transplant—told us excitedly how Eisenach became the source of Western civilization. He seemed to be familiar with every crack in the sidewalk of that city.
The Wartburg Castle is majestically awkward. Consider this fact: It had already been there for nearly 500 years by Luther’s time! The sprawling castle bears evidence of continuous construction, and one can only wonder how many sacrificed their lives in the process of building and maintaining it. The sights from the grounds around the castle, as well as within it, are too magnificent to describe. One can see the majesty of creation looking down from the castle grounds, and the depth of history that this site generates is almost palpable.
"Luther’s ideas were revolutionary because they were much more than a minor argument against indulgences. Rather, Luther’s opponents sensed what he was doing....Luther was instead claiming the Christian faith first of all hearkens to God’s promise of salvation through Christ, as revealed in his Word." - TGC