Translations Done Under Great Duress
So the Word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily (Acts 19:20, RSV).
There are a number of reasons why the millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire is generally considered “the dark ages.”
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With very few exceptions, schools were substandard or non-existent, creativity was severely stifled, and “the Church” (Romanism) dominated spiritual matters.
Things were so bad in Christendom that virtually all services were held in Latin, a language long before forgotten by everybody except the priesthood. Bibles were all in Latin as well, causing great spiritual ignorance among the laity.
Make no mistake about it, great heresies and unbiblical attitudes abounded for hundreds of years because of these conditions. Much of this was actually “Church-sponsored,” as we shall see in this chapter.
In spite of these deplorable conditions, however, God was always at work in His Church, just as He always was and is with Israel. There was a great need for people of all backgrounds to read and understand the Word of God. Knowing this full well, God raised up translators who, in spite of fierce opposition from “the Church,” produced excellent translations which have had incalculable influence for good.
This chapter will concentrate on the work of three of these translators: John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Martin Luther. God clearly used their work and His Word to radically change the landscape of the western world for His glory!
John Wycliffe (1328-1384), often called “the morning star of the Reformation,” is the first translator to produce a rendering that had significant impact in English.
He was forced to stand against the Church for his Biblically held convictions. Among the conflicts was a strong disagreement concerning the authority of the Church. Officials of his day insisted that the Church had preeminence in all spiritual matters and thus made the laity totally submissive to its whims, Biblical or not. Wycliffe would have none of this, insisting that the Scriptures are God’s Word to man and have the sole authority to instruct man in all areas of life.
Many in “the Church,” often his bitter opponents, called him and his associates “Bible men.” Many of his followers formed a group which became known as the Lollards, and after his death his influence extended into what became known as the “Hussite movement.” Wycliffe’s stands for truth and his excellent translation work produced great results for many years.
Other conflicts with the hierarchy included disputes over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and the importance of having the Bible translated into something that would be accessible and readable for all who wanted to learn its wonderful truth. Wycliffe also had an argument with the Church concerning predestination, believing in the church invisible, whereas Romanism insisted on the papacy and the church visible.
Serious students of church history understand that Wycliffe (along with the others considered in this chapter) was a highly educated man. At Oxford he studied natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. He earned a Doctor of Divinity degree sometime between 1372 and 1384.
It was this rare combination of strong convictions, unyielding Christian character, and education that allowed Wycliffe to translate the Latin Vulgate into English in 1382. He did the translation of the New Testament himself and had his associates do the translation of the Old Testament.
The Bible had formerly been translated into French, and there had been some translations in English even before Wycliffe, but none of these had the impact that his work did.
What “thank you” did he receive for all his Biblical stands and hard work in translating the Bible so men in the English-speaking world could read the Word in their native tongue?
After facing the wrath and questioning of various ecclesiastical bodies, Wycliffe finally died of apoplexy, but the story does not end there. The Council of Constance (1415) declared him a “stiff necked heretic,” and he was banned from the Church. Later, in 1428, the hierarchy had his body exhumed and burned, casting whatever remains there were into the river Swift.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was a contemporary of Erasmus (the famous editor of the Greek text) and Luther (the great German reformer and translator).
Oxford educated, he was conversant with Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and English. Later he gained further education at Cambridge.
During his work as a chaplain he dared to defy the Pope of his day, insisting that the Bible was for the common people.
When he finished his work in 1526, his translation was the first in English to make use of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament. His work was so excellent that the 54 men who translated the King James Version (1611) virtually copied his renderings 83.7% in the New Testament and 75.7% in the Old Testament. Other versions in English which Tyndale greatly influenced were the Great Bible (1539) and the Geneva Bible (1560), the preferred Bible translation of the pilgrims who came to America in 1620.
Tyndale once said,
I perceived that is was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the
Scriptures were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.
Another said that Tyndale
…sought to interpret the sense of the Scripture and the meaning of the Spirit.
After considerable conflict with Church officials, Tyndale was jailed in 1535, spending a year in the Castle of Vilvourde. His life ended when he was strangled to death and cremated in 1536.
A memorial to Tyndale can be found in Vilvourde, a testimony to the fact that the work of this great servant of God has had significant impact for nearly 500 years.
Martin Luther (1481-1546) was God’s choice to begin the Reformation.
Having been a Roman Catholic priest and the best attorney in all of Germany, Luther declared
I lost all touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made Him the jailor and hang man of my poor soul.
During this miserable time in Luther’s life, God saved him one day, impressing on his mind and heart the great truth of justification by faith. He soon began to question many things, especially the idea that the Church alone could save a soul.
In 1517, after much travail that resulted from his many encounters with the ecclesiastical order of his day, Luther posted 95 theses on the doors of the church at Wittenburg. This action caused a great stir among the people, and the Reformation was underway in full force. The Church officials, as one might imagine, were not happy with these developments and imprisoned Luther at the Wartburg Castle (1521-1523). No doubt the feeling among the Church’s hierarchy was that Luther’s influence would soon be coming to an end, but they were clearly mistaken. Why? It was during this time that Luther began his translation work.
The New Testament was translated from the Greek text of Erasmus into German. Among the controversies of the translation was Luther’s inclusion of the word “alone” (allein in the German) in his rendering of Romans 3:28. Luther insisted that justification was, according to all the teaching of the Scripture on the subject, a product of faith alone, despite the fact that “alone” is not actually in the Greek of that verse.
In 1534 Luther’s translation was made available in six sections. Many students of German say that his work was not only influential spiritually, but it also changed the entire German language. Apparently there were many dialects in Germany in those days; and all the priests, of course, were using Latin in their services. Luther used an understandable brand of German which was adopted by many throughout that entire region of Europe.
One thing that made Luther’s translation so wildly popular was the fact that he often conversed with children and workers to understand more clearly how they expressed themselves, and he was sensitive to their way of speaking and reading. He felt it was vitally important that everybody who read the Word of God be able to understand it.
Thus this version became the people’s book in church, school, and house!
Many presses throughout Germany produced Luther’s work. One particular press, that of Hans Luft of Wittenburg, produced more than 100,000 copies and was read by millions of people from 1534-1574.
Luther’s New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted the new Lutheran Gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with great avidity as the fountain of all truth. In a few months such people deemed themselves to learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the Gospel not only with their Catholic laymen, but even with priests, and monks, and doctors of divinity.
There is no doubt that the posting of the ninety-five theses on the doors at Wittenburg started the Reformation, but it was the translation of the Bible into something understandable that radically changed the spiritual landscape of the entire western world!