The Reformed Churches Confess Luther’s Translation Of Romans 3:28: Allein

In his 1521 translation of the Greek New Testament into German, the so-called September Testament, which he completed in about 11 weeks (seminary students take note, that is two weeks shy of one semester) Luther’s most controversial decision may have been to use the word allein (alone) in his translation of Romans 3:28, which says, “For we reckon that a man is justified through faith apart from the works of the law” (λογιζόμεθα ⸁γὰρ δικαιοῦσθαι ⸂πίστει ἄνθρωπον⸃ χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου).1 In his translation, however, Luther added the word allein (alone), “a man is justified through faith alone, apart from the works of the law.” This decision signals the deep roots, in the Reformation, of the doctrine (and expression) sola fide. His decision to use alone in his translation sparked predictable outrage from his Romanist critics, just as it would were he to do today. There are plenty of so-called “evangelicals” who have come essentially agree with Rome that we are justified, finally, by grace and cooperation with grace. Some say it flatly and some hide it a bit by speaking of an initial justification, in this life, by grace alone, through faith alone, and a final justification (or sometimes a final salvation) through Spirit-wrought sanctity or through good works. Readers and hearers, unaware of the two-stage structure of justification among some erstwhile evangelicals, who hear or read only the first stage, mistakenly think that the Reformation doctrine is being taught when, in fact, it is being denied.

Luther’s Defense

In September, 1530, during the Diet of Augsburg, which would influence the course of the Reformation for the rest of the sixteenth century and beyond, Luther was at Coburg Castle (about 158 miles north).2 While in the castle, in safe keeping, he was translating portions of the Old Testament. He took some time to write a great defense of the necessity of translating God’s Word into the language of the people. In it he defended his decision to use allein (alone) in Romans 3:28. It is a long passage but great and should be read. There are a few expressions that want explanation, which I will add in brackets.

If your papist wants to make so much fuss about the word sola (alone) tell him this, “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and says that a papist and an ass are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic jubeo; sit pro ratione voluntas [This I will, this I command, let that will be the ground]. We are not going to be the pupils and disciples of the papists, but their masters and judges. For once, we too are going to be proud and brag with these blockheads; and as St. Paul boasts over against his mad raving saints [2 Cor. 11:21ff.], so I shall boast over against these asses of mine. Are they doctors? So am I. Are they learned? 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 dialecticians? So am I. Are they lecturers? So am I. Do they write books? So do I.

I will go further with my boasting. I can expound psalms and prophets; they cannot. I can translate; they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures; they cannot. I can pray; they cannot. And, to come down to their level, I can use their own dialectics and philosophy better than all of them put together; and besides I know for sure that none of them understands their Aristotle. If there is a single one among them all who correctly understands one proemium [preface] or chapter in Aristotle, I’ll eat my hat. I am not saying too much, for I have been trained and practiced from my youth up in all their science and am well aware how deep and broad it is. They are very well aware, too, that I can do everything they can. Yet these incurable fellows treat me as though I were a stranger to their field, who had just arrived this morning for the first time and had never before either seen or heard what they teach and know. So brilliantly do they parade about with their science, teaching me what I outgrew twenty years ago, that to all their blatting and shouting I have to sing, with the harlot, “I have known for seven years that horseshoe-nails are iron.”

Let this be the answer to your first question. And please give these asses no other and no further answer to their useless braying about the word sola than simply this, “Luther will have it so, and says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the whole papacy.” It shall stay at that! Henceforth I shall simply hold them in contempt, and have them held in contempt, so long as they are the kind of people—I should say, asses—that they are. There are shameless nincompoops among them who have never learned their own art of sophistry—like Dr. Schmidt and Doctor Snotty-Nose [prob. Johann Cochlaeus], and their likes—and who set themselves against me in this matter, which transcends not only sophistry, but (as St. Paul says [1 Cor. 1:19–25]), all the world’s wisdom and understanding as well. Truly an ass need not sing much; he is already well known anyway by his ears.

To you and to our people, however, I shall show why I chose to use the word sola—though in Romans 3[:28] it was not sola, but solum or tantum that I used, so sharply do the asses look at my text! Nevertheless I have used sola fide elsewhere, and I want both: solum and sola. I have constantly tried, in translating, to produce a pure and clear German, and it has often happened that for two or three or four weeks we have searched and inquired for a single word and sometimes not found it even then. In translating Job, Master Philip, Aurogallus, and I labored so, that sometimes we scarcely handled three lines in four days. Now that it is translated and finished, everybody can read and criticize it. One now runs his eyes over three or four pages and does not stumble once—without realizing what boulders and clods had once lain there where he now goes along as over a smoothly-planed board. We had to sweat and toil there before we got those boulders and clods out of the way, so that one could go along so nicely. The plowing goes well when the field is cleared. But rooting out the woods and stumps, and getting the field ready—this is a job nobody wants. There is no such thing as earning the world’s thanks. Even God himself can earn no thanks, with the sun, indeed with heaven and earth, or with his own Son’s death. It simply is and remains world, in the devil’s name, because it just will not be anything else.

Here, in Romans 3[:28], I knew very well that the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists did not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s o l a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had undertaken to speak in the translation. But it is the nature of our German language that in speaking of two things, one of which is affirmed and the other denied, we use the word solum (allein) along with the word nicht [not] or kein [no]. For example, we say, “The farmer brings allein grain and kein money”; “No, really I have now nicht money, but allein grain”; “I have allein eaten and nicht yet drunk”; “Did you allein write it, and nicht read it over?” There are innumerable cases of this kind in daily use.3

Those who have not translated anything but who wish to sit in judgment over translators—think of the King-James-Only-ist who reads neither Greek nor Hebrew but proposes to judge translations based on the KJV—especially need to read and consider this entire letter very carefully. Luther’s bottom line: he used alone to translate Romans 3:28 in order to communicate its sense to the reader. I also think it would do us all well to re-calibrate our sensitivity to rhetoric by taking a dose of Luther. Yes, rhetoric evolves and but why it that Luther could call Cochlaeus “Dr Snotty Nose” in a public letter and it not cause the sort of furor that it would today? Could it be that, in the 16th century, people did not take themselves quite so seriously? Is the world fundamentally different now than it was in the 16th century? Given that the entire globe is, as I write, shut down by a pandemic virus, I think not. We are not as advanced from the Middle Ages as we like to think. Perhaps we need to “get over” ourselves a little bit?

The Belgic Quotes Luther

In class today, as we were working through Belgic Confession art. 22, line by line, I noticed for the first time (and I have been teaching this class this way for more than 20 years) that Guy de Bres (1522–67) quoted Luther’s translation. The Belgic says,

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul
that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”

The French text, as it appears in volume 3 of Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom says:

De dire done que Christ ne suffit point, mais qu’il y faut quelque autre chose avec, c’est un blasphème trop énorme contre Dieu; car il s’ensuivrait que Jésus-Christ ne serait que demi Sauveur. C’est pourquoi, à juste cause, nous disons avec saint Paul, que nous sommes justifiés par la seule foi, ou par la foi sans les œuvres.4

The Latin text, as adopted by the Synod of Dort says:

Asserere itaque, Jesum Christum minime sufficere, sed aliis quoque praeter illum opus esse; horrenda omnino in Deum blasphemia est. Nam inde sequeretur, Jesum Christum ex parte tantum servatorum esse. Merito igitur cum Paulo dicimus, Nos sola fide iustificari, seu fide absque operibus.5

The English, French, and Latin all say the same thing. To say, as Rome and others do, that Jesus merely makes salvation possible for those who do their part, is an utterly horrendous blasphemy against God. Jesus is not half a Savior. He did not die to accomplish our initial justification or merely to give us title to salvation only to have us take possession of salvation and/or justification “through good works” or “through Spirit-wrought sanctity” as some are fond of saying today. Rather, we say, with the apostle Paul that Christ accomplished our righteousness for us (pro nobis) and gives it freely to us, through faith alone. As scandalous as it may be, the Belgic Confession plainly says that we have both salvation and justification sola gratia, sola fide. The same article says just above the passage quoted, “For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation (salutem) is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely” (totam salutem). We do not merely have our justification by divine favor alone, through faith alone but our “whole salvation.” The Reformed churches could hardly be clearer.

When the confession says “we are justified by faith alone” it is italicized in Schaff, to signal that it is a quotation. The English translation adopted by the United Reformed Churches in North America has both phrases, “by faith alone” or “by faith apart from works” in quotation marks to indicate that this is a quotation of Romans 3:28. de Bres was a student of Theodore Beza (1519–1605) before the two went to Geneva. Thus, de Bres might have learned it from him but it seems that this language must have come from Luther since, e.g., Beza’s Latin translation of the New Testament did not yet exist (1565) and he did not follow Luther anyway. Pierre Olivétan (1535), whose translation might have influenced de Bres, did not follow Luther on Romans 3:28.6 The most likely source for the language of the Belgic Confession here in art. 22 is Luther. When the Reformed Churches say “without the works of the law” or “apart from the works of the law” in the Belgic, and as the URCs have done in Synodical pronouncements in 2004 and 2007, we are following God’s Word as we confess it. We mean sola fide and in this we are following Luther’s rendering of Romans 3:28. On this point, in our confession, we are Lutherans.

NOTES

1. Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Ro 3:28.

2. E. Theodore Bachmann, Introduction, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 177.

3. LW, 35.185–89.

4. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 408.

5. E. F. Karl Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der Reformierten Kirche (Leipzig, 1903), 241.

6. Bible d’ Olivétan (1535).

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7 comments

  1. Yes, we quite often take ourselves far too seriously, and the corollary is also true; all to often we do not take God and His Word seriously enough. I almost stopped at “it is a long passage” but saw “but is great and should be read” and was encouraged…..thankfully so. Few theologians inspire both devotion and a good chuckle at the same time.

  2. Oh that we would see the frank, gritty, and unwinsome speech of Luther in today’s General Assemblies! He wasn’t afraid to bruise feelings, shatter delicate egos, or even be accused of intemperate language; all in the name of calling out blasphemy. I do wonder how would we square up Luther’s coarseness with Eph 4:29? Maybe it all makes sense in the original German!

    • Randall,

      This is a fair question and one with which I’ve been wrestling for a long time. Part of the answer is that we read Scripture under the influence of Pietism, which has inculcated into many of us the ethos of “niceness,” which we have confused for the biblical ethos of kindness and love. These are two distinct things. Should we call people “snotty-nosed”? Probably not but we should not back away from the biblical examples of tough talk either. Today, I suspect that were a pastor to say, “I wish that they would go the whole way and cut themselves off” he would find himself under censure.

    • I wonder how things would look today, if Luther had been at Westminster Seminary during the Norman Shepherd trials and the emergence of the FV. I don’t think he would have tried to excuse it as just a little unclear and confused. He would have boldly identified it as the blatant heresy of initial and final justification that it is, and a denial of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. The justification controversy that plagues the Reformed churches today is the legacy of those that lack Luther’s courage.

  3. Forty years ago a friend from Berlin brought me a copy of Luther’s translation bible at my request. Ever since I have carried it with my English bible, it is an invaluable work. Praise be to the True and Living Lord for raising up such servants as Martin Luther!

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