The Feast of Martin Luther, Reformer, 1546
Isaiah 55:6-11 (NRSV or in Luther’s Translation, 1545), Psalm 46 (BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662 or Luther, 1545), John 15:1-11 (KJV or Luther, 1545), Doctrine and Covenants 93:39, 2 Ne. 25.23-25, Alma 29:8
The Collect: O God, our refuge and our strength: You raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
One of the most perverse of the wicked traditions that had gained ascendancy in the Church by the first half of the sixteenth century was the official prohibition of vernacular translations of scripture. This fanatical religious proscription was also, of course, enacted and vigorously enforced through secular law, to the physical grief and spiritual anguish of many, and the great detriment of the faith (and society) as a whole.
Though vernacular translations had been relatively uncontroversial in the early centuries of Christ’s Church — scripture had been translated into Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Aramaic, Persian, Arabic, and even Old English in “songs” of Genesis and Exodus by the Anglo-Saxon poet-monk Cædmon (mid-600s) and Anglo-Saxon in the translation of the Gospels by The Venerable Bede (672-735 A.D.), not to mention the Old Saxon cultural translation of the story of Christ’s life and Passion known as the Heliand (circa 830 A.D.) — by the time Wycliffe made his English translation in the 1380s, translation of scripture had already become the strongest possible sign of heresy for a supra-national organization obsessed with rigidly policing the beliefs of all people within its reach (punishing heresy with death through the arm of the State). Church leaders opposed any attempt to translate the Bible from its Vulgate Latin and ruthlessly persecuted those Christians who fervently sought after the Word of God, believing as inspired by the Spirit that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word” (Alma 29:8).
Martin Luther became one of the most successful Reformers who wished to highlight the manifest evil of this frenzied oppression perpetrated by Church leaders who nevertheless viewed their own motives as pure and their actions as blessed — even mandated — by the mind of God. But whether by divine revelation or sheer intuition, Luther naturally understood, as would later be revealed to Joseph Smith, that the “wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:39). Only the “wicked one” would prohibit anyone from access to the scriptures in their own language.
Light and truth had indeed been severely eclipsed in the Church of Luther’s day by the ever accumulating and imposing artifice of decrees, dogmas, and traditions that infinitely multiplied the dead works required for a Christian to “earn” his or her salvation. The ban on vernacular translation of scripture was the prime example among many. Provoked by the constantly accelerating sale of indulgences, Luther listed his grievances against these practices — by which the Church abused its power and influence as the arbiter of people’s salvation to extract money from an impoverished and ignorant population — in his 95 theses posted to the Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Translating the Bible into his native German so that all people in the German-speaking world and beyond could have direct access to the Word of God was the most effective way to undermine these excesses and bring the light of the Gospel to the lives of each individual according to their own understanding.
Luther believed that the main message shining out of individuals’ direct reading of the scriptures would be the primacy of faith in Jesus Christ as the touchstone of the Atonement and the foundation of humanity’s prospects for salvation. Had Christ not pronounced his disciples “clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3, KJV)? This “word” would now be available to all people in their own languages. And through this “word” they would soon learn that “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5, KJV). Thus enlightened, Christians could rest assured that “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10, KJV).
This “word” of faith meant that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1, BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662). Many notable Reformers and lay people of all classes would learn to seek out this spiritual and psychological refuge as they burned at the stake for their “heresy” of reading, possessing, and teaching out of the scriptures in their own language. The same Psalm that would echo three hundred years later in the soothing words of the Lord to the Latter-day Saints as they were driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, many losing everything, take on new meaning when uttered by Christians chained by other ostensible Christians to flogging poles, locked in stocks, tortured in dungeons and broken on the rack, and finally, as they were burned alive for their efforts in seeking out God’s word directly: “Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:11, BCP Psalter, Coverdale, 1662; cf. D&C 101:16).
“Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), Oct. 31, 2008, Berlin, Germany
The Lord, it turns out, is not only the Word, but He is our Refuge, a Mighty Fortress for the soul, and a bulwark for righteousness. (This was the principle that offended the Churchmen of Luther’s day — that the Lord Himself is our fortress and not the Church.) In fact, the scriptures reveal that we ought to seek out His righteousness in our efforts to know Him. The effort teaches us a difficult lesson: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isa. 55:8, KJV).
The natural man is drawn to the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In this reasoning, everything functions in an exact quid pro quo according to the “law of the harvest.” This seems logically consistent and therefore appealing to a carnal sense of justice. But this philosophy was the foundation of the immense artifice of false traditions that had been built up over more than a millennium in the Church of Luther’s day. Our ways are not His ways, we learn, and people soon discovered, at the core of revealed scripture once translated into their own languages, a counterintuitive Truth — that because of Christ’s condescension and Atonement, “the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith” (2 Ne. 25:25, emphasis added). Thus, like Martin Luther, “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:22).
* * *
Unfortunately, having toppled so many false traditions through his translations and texts, Luther soon laid the foundation for other such rigid and dangerous orthodoxies in his sermons and tracts. Specifically, as he aged, Luther became increasingly anti-Semitic in his rhetoric. These teachings formed the basis of new false traditions that would have deadly consequences of Biblical proportions four hundred years later as the descendants of his nation, irredeemably ingrained with a cultural anti-Semitism buttressed in no small part by his ideas, sought a Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe. What false traditions of the fathers are we incorporating into our religious lives? Should we not learn from Luther’s experience and constantly examine the foundation upon which we are built to ensure that it reflects God’s Word as revealed in scripture so painstakingly made available to us in our own languages?