The Reformation and the Philosophy of Vernacular Translations of the Bible

Mr. Theodore Letis is a post-graduate student in ecclesiastical history. He is author of The Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text and the Claims of the Anabaptists. He has edited the book, The Majority Text: Essays and Reviews in the Continuing Debate, a defuse of the Textus Receptus and the King James version of Scripture. Mr. Letis is a member of the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod.

Many will be surprised to learn that it was not Luther, nor Calvin, nor Tyndale in the sixteenth century who first advocated that the Bible should be made available to all in their own language. It was a Roman Catholic and Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536).1 In his Paraclesis (Greek for "exhortation"), a foreword published in his Greek Novum Instrumentum (1516) a year before Luther had even posted his Ninety-Five Theses, Erasmus had said:

I absolutely dissent from those people who don't want the holy scriptures to be read in translation by the unlearned - as if, forsooth, Christ taught such complex doctrine that hardly anyone outside a handful of theologians could understand it, or as if the chief strength of the Christian religion lay in people's ignorance of it. Perhaps the state secrets of kings have to be concealed, but Christ wanted his mysteries to be disseminated as widely as possible. I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul, and I wish these writings were translated into all the languages of the human race, so that they could be read and studied, not just by the Irish and the Scots, but by the Turks as well, and the Saracens.... I would hope that the farmer might chant a holy text at his plow, the spinner sing it as she sits at her wheel, the traveller ease the tedium of his journey with tales from the scripture.... Let each individual grasp what he can, and give expression to what he feels.

If the last remark sounds like the formula for a charismatic prayer meeting, it is not far from Erasmus' goal. While all the Reformers were profoundly indebted to Erasmus' inspiration and nearly all of them put his recommendations into practice; none of them would have been happy with the reductionistic, non-dogmatic, lay Christianity Erasmus envisioned and hoped that popular translations of the Bible might produce. But in twentieth century America, certainly it is Erasmus who has triumphed over the Reformers. 

In the sixteenth century, however, it was only the many Anabaptist communities who most radically caught Erasmus' vision to dis-empower the structures of catholic Christianity -both Protestant as well as Roman - by means of vernacular translations of the Bible. Against hierarchy and creed, these free church traditions were keen to replace received dogmatic and ecclesiastical consensus with a religion by democratic consensus. In seventeenth and eighteenth century England this simple, Erasmian Christianity resulted in the emergence of various non-conformist, anti-trinitarian groups -Socinians, Sabellians, and Unitarians -and eventually Deism. All of these developments were, in one way or another, the result of putting the Bible into the hands of the common man without reference to how the church had interpreted her sacred text. 

The magisterial Reformers advocated a different strategy. While they agreed with Erasmus that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular, they never assumed it would be studied outside of the ecclesiastical context, that is, outside of the catholic dogmatic consensus which all Protestants retained while rejecting the unbiblical accretions of Romanism developed during the Middle Ages. Hence, Luther produced the Small Catechism and the Larger Catechism; and the Lutheran Church as a whole produced the confessional standard, The Book of Concord. Calvin in Switzerland produced the Geneva Catechism (1541); and in Germany, Hungary, Belgium, and the Netherlands the Reformed produced the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). In England the Presbyterians produced the Westminster Standards. Finally, the Reformed Anglicans had their matchless Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles, the twentieth of which recognized the church as "the witness and keeper of Holy Writ." 

Each Protestant community had its own confessional standards, all of which assumed the validity of the orthodox standards of the ancient Catholic Church.2 As James Moffatt put it,

Calvinists and Lutherans amid all their differences have been agreed, from the outset, that the Church is not a mere conventicle, a self-started body of "pious variers from the Church," gathered round some "heated pulpiteer" or of provincial religionists who belong to one class in the main. The spirit of the authentic creeds, confessions, and testimonies of the Presbyterian Churches may be summed up in the words of the apostle, "I speak of Christ and the Church."3

Therefore, the study of the Bible was always prefigured in confessional Protestant traditions by the received orthodoxy contained in the catechisms, creeds, and confessions. 

One of the tenets one learned during catechesis within these confessional traditions was a belief that the Bible was alone the inspired Word of God. And because every word of it was inspired and sacred, it could only be authoritative in a final sense in the original languages in which it had been given by inspiration. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The Old Testament in Hebrew . . . and the New Testament in Greek...being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical.... so as in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal to them (WCF 1:8).

So for confessional Protestants, while vernacular translations certainly had their place, ultimately the Greek and Hebrew texts were decisive on matters of belief. This had a definite effect on how these texts were translated. Calvin, for example, "favoured a literal translation, even to the extent of preserving the word order where no difference between Greek and Latin syntax forbade."4 Therefore it is not surprising that when Reformers, such as Tyndale, decided to take Erasmus' advice seriously by Englishing the inspired Hebrew and Greek texts, they tended to keep very close to a literal translation, as close as possible to one English word for each inspired word from the Hebrew and Greek texts. 

Even then, however, because the Protestant Reformers were a learned men they knew it was impossible to convey all of the meaning found in the Greek and Hebrew texts in another language by way of translation. Hence, Francis Turretin, the orthodox Protestant scholastic and heir to Calvin's Geneva Academy, argued —as did all Protestant divines-that although translations

are of great value for the instruction of believers, no other version can or should be regarded as on par with the original [language texts], much less as superior. Because no other version his any weight which the Hebrew or Greek source does not possess more fully, since in the sources not only the content . . . but also the very words, were directly spoken . . . by the Holy Spirit, which cannot be said of any version.... The translations are all streams; the original [language] text the source whence they take their lasting quality. One is the rule, the other the ruled which has merely human authority (emphasis mine).5

Therefore, all the qualities that accompany divine inspiration only fully apply to those original language texts in which Scripture was given by inspiration: "a given translation made by human beings subject to error is not to be regarded as divine and infallible verbally," although "it can be properly so regarded in substance if it faithfully renders the divine truth of the [original] sources,.." (emphasis mine).6 

That no translation, no matter how carefully or literally rendered, can fully communicate word forword all the meaning of the original languages can be most clearly seen in the historic and official Bible of the Reformed Church of England, the Authorized Version. Though the translators sought to retain Tyndale's masterful, literal, word for word rendering from the Greek and Hebrew, when this was not possible and more words were needed in English than were used in the original sources the additional words were placed in italics. This did not mean that these words were unnecessary, unimportant, or superfluous (I once was handed a Bible by someone who believed he had arrived nearer the truth by crossing out all the italicized words in the book of Genesis). Rather, these italicized words signaled what Turretin was at pains to make clear: no translation can fully convey all the meaning from the original languages, which is why the Greek and Hebrew alone must be final. 

Where translations failed, preaching was to offer additional clarity. Within historic Reformation churches, liturgy and preaching, in Beardslee's words, "continues the work of Bible translation; hence the importance of an educated ministry."7 

What happens when the ministry is no longer fully educated: as were the Reformation pastors of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and even the nineteenth centuries; and what happens when creeds and confessions are jettisoned in favour of "the Bible alone"? The answer is found in two impulses cultivated most fully in the American religious context: 1) restorationism and 2) demytholization. 

Restorationism argues that historic orthodoxy as found in the creeds and confessions of Reformation Christianity reflects a degenerative and defective form of the faith, and what is necessary is a return to a more primitive form of Christianity.8 This conviction is held by two groups of moderns: 1) those who are interested in reconstructing earlier recensions of the New Testament than that which was preserved and used within historic orthodoxy since the fourth century (sometimes called the Byzantine text, but here I will refer to this as the Ecclesiastical text since it became normative outside as well as inside of the Eastern or Byzantine Church); 2) those Anabaptist communities who reject creeds and confessions, believing their churches alone have retained the primal Christian tradition. Oddly enough, many fundamentalists in this group have clung to the old Anglican Bible because of a defective historiography which claims this Bible represents a now lost MS tradition reaching back to the earliest, first century, Anabaptist communities.9 Both groups are menacing because the former are never able to arrive at a consensus, thus they continue to offer approximation after approximation while the data remains in flux; while the latter have in a misinformed and confused way instilled in the English of the Anglican Bible all the qualities which Reformation scholars attributed exclusively to the original language texts. 

The Demythologizers are those who are not interested in either preserving catholic consensus in Bible translation, or restoring a more primitive and alien, ancient, Near-Eastern religious tradition - they simply want to communicate in contemporary idiom.10 These are the pragmatists bred in business schools and in mass; media journalism and communication departments in many American universities. They have little scholarly interest but know how to make the Bible sell. Hence, everything that would be a barrier to communicating the bare essentials of the Bible so that, in Erasmus' words, "each individual [can] grasp what he can, and give expression to what he feels" is demythologized, that is, made contemporary. One demythologizes the Bible in translation, that is, casts its message in terms that are relevant to various special interest groups, to certain ideologically oriented communities (e.g., feminists), or to those seriously deficient culturally or intellectually, for purposes of cultivating diversified markets. Here we discover the very inversion of Turretin's principle: the ruled (translations) now become the rule (the true standard for what is the essence of Christianity) and the verbal content of the original languages is left behind. Gerald Hammond put it this way:

The basic distinction between the Renaissance [and Reformation] and modern translators is one of fidelity to their original. Partly the loss of faith in the Hebrew and Greek as the definitive word of God has led to the translator's loss of contact with it, but more responsibility lies in the belief that a modem Bible should aim not to tax its readers' linguistic or interpretive abilities one bit. If this aim is to be achieved then it seems clear that a new Bible will have to be produced for every generation - each one probably moving us further away from the original text, now that the initial break has been made.11

This is a major, neglected theme in American religious studies which could go a long way in explaining the state of much of modern American Christianity. 

The only antidote to this plight is for those small remnant Reformation communities who still retain confessional and catholic integrity to act as salt and light in this insipid and ever dimming age. With little promise of success they must walk by faith and not by sight and celebrate their distinctives with intelligence, dignity, and winsomeness12 in hopes of attracting with the full fragrance of the old classic translations those whose senses have been dulled by the pollutants of modernity (II Cor. 2:14-17).13


1. Of course, Wycliffe was earlier than Erasmus, but his effort predated the age of printing and so his influence was much more limited than that of Erasmus. 

2. On the place of creeds within the history of the Church a very accessible work is Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ (Downers Grove, 1984). Although, I find myself at odds regarding Dr. Bray's strange advice advocating that the creeds and confessions should be in modem language, which goes counter to the very idea of static phraseology which accompanies the finality of confessional literature.
 

3. James Moffatt, The Presbyterian Churches 2nd ed. (London, 1928), p. 4.
 

4. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1971), p. 102.
 

5. Francis Turretin, The Doctrine of Scripture trans. by J.W. Beardslee III (Grand Rapids, 1981), p. 152.
 

6. Ibid., p. 154.
 

7. Ibid., p. 154, no. 3.
 

8. A wonderful introduction to this phenomenon is Richard T. Hughes, ed. The American Quest for the Primitive Church (Urbana, 1988).
 

9. For a brief study of this see, Theodore P. Letis, The Revival of the Ecclesiastical Text and the Claims of the Anabaptists (Fort Wayne, 1993).
 

10. I cannot take credit for this analysis concerning Bultmann's project as it applies to modem Bible translations since I am indebted to Jakob VanBruggen's observation on this point in his important, The Future of the Bible (Nashville, 1978). This is soon to be reprinted by the Institute for Reformation Biblical Studies.
 

11. Gerald Hammond, The Making of the English Bible (New York, 1983), pp. 12, 13.
 

12. I should like to thank my friend, Wallace Bell, for teaching me the value of a "Winsome Christianity."
 

13. For those interested in an academic organization intended to assist in this project, please write for a free bibliography and information to: The Institute for Reformation Biblical Studies, P.O. Box 5114, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46895.