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Monday, September 29, 2008

Luther's ,,Faith Alone"

If you've ever seen the 1953 movie ,,Martin Luther" (and what Lutheran hasn't seen it?), you will remember the scene where Luther writes in the margins of Romans 3,28 ,,sola" as he says, ,,The just shall live by faith alone." (It's at the 32:55 minute mark in the movie). Check out this seven minute clip on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-wi0kcLLr0.

In doing so, was Luther adding to Scripture? Let's look at the text:

We maintain that a person is justified by faith without works of the law (English).

So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben (Luther's Bible).

I italicized Luther's addition (,,allein" or ,,alone"); it's not found in the Greek text. So why did Luther add the word when he translated the Bible from Greek into German?

Often, when you translate from one language into another you need to add or subtract words to make it understandable. For example, in German there are some words you don't need to translate into English because the context explains the omitted words. In the German of Romans 3,28, you don't usually translate the adverb ,,dafür" (which means ,,for it") but let the sentence's context run the translation. What is important is not merely a word for word literal translation (which is always wooden and lacks sound grammar when done), but a translation that is faithful to the sentence and its context is of utmost importance. I still remember Dr. Brighton telling us at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis that any translation is a just a commentary on the original text; the first commentary he encouraged us to read is the English Bible.

In the context of Romans 3,28 St. Paul could have simply written: ,,We maintain that a person is justified by faith" and the context would cry out that St. Paul is talking about faith ,,alone". When he adds the phrase ,,without works of the law", the apostle is emphasising that we are justified by faith alone. Luther, therefore, rightly understood the origninal Greek and St. Paul's wording (under the Holy Spirit's inspiration) to be describing faith ,,alone".

In addition, Luther was not being innovative when saying Romans 3,28 is talking about justification by faith ,,alone". Thirteen other theologians had said the same thing long before Luther's translation. Among those theologians were Thomas Aquinas (a heavyweight among Medieval theologians) and Augustine (one of the most acclaimed Western theologians of all times). Check out this post at the blog Beggars All:

Luther's insistence on faith alone is perhaps the most essential aspects of the Reformation and the Protestant denominations that were born from a renewed proclamation of the gospel in the early 16th century. The concept permeates many of Luther's writings and is the cornerstone of the Augsburg Confession. Justification by faith is truly the chief doctrine of the Church and it remains the balm for tortured consciences that lament over their many sins.


James Swan said...

I saw that you linked to my blog post on Luther and Romans 3:28. You may find this interesting as well- a few months back I took part in a short written debate on Luther and Romans 3:28 with a Roman Catholic:



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