I have heard from several sources that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of the Bible (see Rom 3:28).In answering this question, Father Ray Ryland begins, saying, “You can read all about it in Luther’s “Open Letter on Translating” (1530). Curious, I decided to do just that.
Is this true? If so, how does one verify that, or I should say, where does that information come from? What is the course I can refer to (p. 6)?
I have read a fair amount of Luther in the past and I have never liked his writing, nor have I liked the man his writing reveals. You shall see what I mean as we proceed. The style and tone of the letter is classic Luther.
Writing this open letter to “the Honorable and Worthy N., my favorite lord and friend” (how many favorites does he have?), he explains that he writes because “you also tell me that the papists are causing a great fuss because Paul’s text does not contain the word sola (alone), and that my addition to the words of God is not to be tolerated.”
Luther freely admits the truth of this charge, after no small amount of arrogant raving:
I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text – the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there.In the course of the lengthy diatribe, Luther offers two reasons for his addition of the word “alone” to the words of Saint Paul, one for the “papists” and another for “our people.”
In reality, he offers several supposed explanations to the papists, none of them flattering.
“First of all,” he says, “if I, Doctor Luther, had expected that all the papists together were capable of translating even one chapter of Scripture correctly and well into German, I would have gathered up enough humility to ask for their aid and assistance in translating the New Testament into German.”
So certain is he of his own learning and judgments over and against the judgments of all others, that he firmly declares, “I will not allow the papists to be my judges. For their ears are still too long and their hee-haws too weak for them to criticize my translating.”
Luther is even bold enough to compare himself to Saint Jerome, who first translated the Scriptures into Latin: “It was also like for this for St. Jerome when he translated the Bible. Everybody was his master. He alone was totally incompetent, and people who were not worthy to clean his boots judged the good man’s work.” Now it seems Luther has reversed the situation; he alone is worthy of translating the Scriptures.
Secondly, he gives a rather flimsy explanation, saying simple, “I have not compelled anyone to read it… It is my Testament and my translation, and it shall remain mine.”
Finally, at long last, he gets to the heart of the question. He says, “If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” Ah, the voice of humility and charity.
Just two paragraphs later he writes to the recipients of this open letter, saying:
Please do not give these donkeys [papists] any other answer to their useless braying about the word sola than simply this: “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.” Let it rest here. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are.And just to prove how much more worthy he is of translating than the papists, Luther compares himself with the Apostle Paul, imitating one of his famous passages:
Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I. I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands his Aristotle. If any one of them can correctly understand one preface or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat! No, I am not overdoing it, for I have been schooled in and have practiced their science from my youth.Luther then goes into a lengthy explanation of the need of translations that sounds very much like dynamic equivalence, which I will not go into here.
In the midst of this, though, he asks a good question:
Yet why should I be concerned about their ranting and raving? I will not stop them from translating, as they want. But I too shall translate, not as they please but as I please. And whoever does not like it can just ignore it and keep his criticism to himself, for I will neither look at nor listen to it.Just a bit further on he returns to this same question with a similar answer:
If anyone does not like my translations, he can ignore it; and may the devil repay him for it if he dislikes or criticizes my translations without my knowledge or permission. If it needs to be criticized, I will do it myself. If I do not do it, then let them leave my translations in peace.So many of the modern problems in philosophy and academia have their roots in this manner of thinking. Luther alone is correct – simply because he says so – and no one has the right to suggest otherwise, without his express permission. Luther alone is judge.
At long last, Luther finally gives his explanation to those who think as he does, and it isn’t a very convincing argument:
I was not depending upon or following the nature of the languages alone when I inserted the word solum in Romans 3. The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it.If such was, or is, indeed the case, I daresay the Apostle would have included the word himself.
As it is, Luther makes a complete break with all that has gone before him and makes himself the sole arbiter of reason, of faith, indeed, of everything.