In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.
He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”
I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.
This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.
Today (May 3) is World Press Freedom Day. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. According to World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, modern journalism has roots in the man whose started the Reformation – Martin Luther. In 1517 he posted a list of 95 thoughts (called 95 theses) on various church practices of his day on the door of the church at Wittenburg, starting the Reformation.
Within months, Luther’s document had been picked up by the newly invented printing industry and spread throughout Europe. I turned out that Luther wrote vivid prose and he turned out many short articles on the key religious and political issues of his day. He also translated the Bible into German.
Translating the Bible into German and writing articles in German for wide distribution are both underpinned by two ideas that most of us take for granted:
- The way to promote social, spiritual, religious and political change is through spreading ideas. It is not by producing a law or edict at the top and forcing it on everyone. But the latter was the model in the minds of most leaders in Luther’s time. Luther decides to appeal to the masses aided by the printing press. It was a radical idea
- The second idea is that ordinary people using their everyday language can understand and make their own decisions about the issues that affect them. This was also radical as many in Luther’s day expected people to just do what political and religious authorities told them.
In our days in the Western world, these two ideas are so basic that we don’t often think about them. But in some places they are still radical. I have met Protestant pastors and even the occasional missionary who didn’t like the translation in the heart language (the people’s mother tongue) because they felt it undermined their authority. The thing is, they are right; it does indeed undermine their authority.
When people read and study God’s Word, they start questioning what they have been taught. Yale history professor Lamin Sanneh has documented cases of Christians in Africa reading the Bible in their languages and then adopting different understandings than those held by their missionaries.
By submitting his ideas to everyone, Luther gave everyone the opportunity to judge them, thereby taking away some of his authority as a minister of the Gospel. That didn’t bother him. Why? Because he believed:
- That changes in peoples’ heart and thinking was critically important.
- Heart change cannot not be accomplished by applying authority.
- That God will act powerfully through his Word in the people’s language.
The spectacular growth of Christianity in Ghana where the Bible has been translated into the languages of the people is one of the testaments to freeing the Word Luther-style. We are working to freeing it for the peoples in Ghana who have not yet been accorded the opportunity to it judge for themselves.
Some people celebrate an alternative to Halloween based on something that happened on this day (October 31) in 1517.
en 95 Theses in Latin
Monk and scholar Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the church door at the Wittenberg Castle, Germany. This event sparked a giant controversy which resulted in profound religious and political changes that are with us to this day. On the paper, Luther had written 95 statements reflecting his opinions about practices in the church during his day. They are often called the “95 theses”.
Many societal reforms we take for granted would probably have been impossible without Luther’s opinions. Some people celebrate the event as Reformation Day, complete with very cute costumes (see below). In the spirit of a day celebrating documents that changed the world, one family made a Declaration of Independence costume.
It is a natural outcome of Luther’s theses that he went on to translate the Bible into German. He held the opinion that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. That could not happen until people had a Bible in a language they knew. Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world continues that thinking. So, Bible translation and the day on which Halloween falls are linked in a round-about way.
If you liked this, you might also like, The Day Tribal Ended, Nida, or John Agama.