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Preparing a New Lutheran Translation of the Bible: A Wise Word of Warning and Caution

July 11th, 2012
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This is a Bible-copying monk-arm, called “Kuka,” which appears to be a fairly standard industrial robot, reprogrammed to inscribe the entire Martin Luther bible onto a endless roll of paper in a calligraphic style.


My colleague here at Concordia Publishing House, Rev. Edward Engelbrecht, General Editor of The Lutheran Study Bible, The Reformation Heritage Bible Commentary; The Apocrypha: Lutheran Edition with Notes (forthcoming); The Lutheran Bible Handbook (forthcoming); Associate Editor of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions; Author of Friends of the Law, to name only a very few of his many projects, has posted a very helpful and instructive caveat, or, frankly, a warning to those who think that doing a “Lutheran” Bible translation will result in some sort of “gold standard” translation that will change little over time. I again encourage you to follow Rev. Engelbrecht’s blog. Ed is a very perceptive theologian and scholar, whose publishing track record is frankly without peer in the history of English speaking Lutheranism. Here is Ed’s caveat.

I recently spoke with someone about Bible translations and we discussed the idea of preparing a specifically Lutheran translation. Among the goals mentioned for such a translation was that it would not go through changes, which would be governed by the concern that Luther raised with the catechism that one should “adopt one version, stay with it, and from one year to the next keep using it unchanged” (Preface to the Small Catechism). In contrast to Luther’s approach, the example of Melanchthon’s revisions to the Augsburg Confession were noted. Melanchthon’s Variata have been roundly condemned for centuries and, since they indicated changes in his teaching, this condemnation was rightly deserved. But the idea that Melanchthon tended to revise texts but Luther did not is a historical fallacy.

I note from M. Reu’s book, Luther’s German Bible, that Luther and his team of Bible editors translated or revised the Psalms in 1524, 1525, 1528, 1531, 1534 and perhaps made minor revisions until they reached the settled text of the 1545 Luther Bible. Luther was driven to translate and retranslate the Psalms because he wanted them to read properly as German poetry. So, criticizing Melanchthon for wanting to change things while praising Luther for leaving things the same simply does not reflect the facts of history. [McCain note: The "Luther Bible" was never a static text until after Luther's death, but up until 1545, Luther and his colleagues were making constant changes and improvements to their translation].

Those who wish to create an unchanging Bible translation are setting themselves up for disappointment. I cannot think of a translation that did not go through revisions or editions. Even the venerable King James went through four revisions and exists in Oxford and Cambridge editions. Any attempt to create a new Lutheran translation will also go through changes—guaranteed. As people use a new translation, from scholars to children, they recommend changes. As translation committees change, they also respond differently to requests and criticisms and so introduce revisions and new editions. It has always been this way and I believe it will always be so, as long as a text remains in use (a text that is not being used, of course, becomes remarkably stable). I certainly understand and empathize with the concern about changes but I thought it important that we get the facts of history straight on this issue. I close with a few words from Luther that illustrate the challenges. In his Defense of the Translation of the Psalms, he wrote:

“Now because we extolled the principle of at times retaining the words quite literally, and at times rendering only the meaning, these critics will undoubtedly try out their skill also at this point. First and foremost they will criticize and contend that we have not applied this principle rightly, or at the right time—although they never knew anything about such a principle before. Yet they are the type who, the moment they hear about something, immediately know it better than anyone else. If they are so tremendously learned and want to display their skill, I wish they would take that single and very common word, chen, and give me a good translation of it. I will give fifty gulden to him who translates this word appropriately and accurately throughout the entire Scriptures. Let all the experts and know-it-alls pool their skill, in order at least to see that actually doing the translation is a wholly different art and task from that of simply criticizing and finding fault with someone else’s translation.” (LW 35:222-223)

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  1. July 11th, 2012 at 21:19 | #1

    The Weimar edition actually contains a 1546 Luther Bible, the production of which was overseen by Röhrer, based upon extensive notes and revisions in Luther’s own hand, which were intended for the next printing. Of course, Luther didn’t live to see this edition, but Röhrer oversaw its publication. However, due to the bad blood between Jena and Halle, it didn’t see much circulation.

  2. July 12th, 2012 at 01:31 | #2

    My question is this: Given that we hold the Bible to be the true, unerring Word of God, which version of Luther’s is the most accurate- the last one in 1545? Then all our current works are taken from this last one?

    In this new translation : Are these just minor changes in spelling, grammatical errors, etc. or are these in meanings? How do these ongoing changes affect our stance? Here we are telling people that the Bible is the ….unerring Word… And there are all these translations and changes?

    How do we lay people know which one to use? I witness to Mormons an, as you know, they say that the KJV is what they believe ” as translated correctly” .

    How do we know what version IS translated correctly of anyKJV or Luther’s Bible or ESV and so forth? Pls. Clarify this for me,thanks.

    • July 12th, 2012 at 05:34 | #3

      We do not base anything on any translation, but always work from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic languages in which the Scriptures were given. There is no perfect translation, but all are more than sufficient for hearing and learning what God teaches in His Word.

  3. July 12th, 2012 at 19:19 | #4

    Would I be correct in saying that the Bible is the true, unerring Word of God as given to us in the original Languages of Gr, Hw, and Ac…? I want to say the correct thing when a Mormon asks again as I was stuck for an answer with that.

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