Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Debate Summary: Luther Mistranslated Romans 3:28?
07/31/2008 - James SwanRecently I took part in a short written debate on whether or not Martin Luther mistranslated Romans 3:28 as, "So halten wir es nu / Das der Mensch gerecht werde / on des Gesetzes werck / alleine durch den Glauben" ("That a man is justified apart from the works of law, through faith only"). The entirety of this exchange can be found here.
It wasn't that long of an exchange because I made sure to have word count parameters to abide by. My opponent, a Roman Catholic, made the usual argument that Luther added the word "alone" to Scripture, and that the concept of sola fide was "a new concept of salvation" unknown in church history previously.
I argued Luther honestly sought to translate the verse into German according to the implications of the context. I also argued Catholic criticisms on this issue typically employ double standards. When evaluated using Roman Catholic authority paradigms and historical standards, modern Catholic charges brought against Luther do not indict him, but rather allow him the freedom to translate the verse in the manner he did. What was the infallible interpretation of Romans 3:28 during Luther's lifetime? What was Rome's infallible teaching on justification during Luther's lifetime? There weren't any "official" Roman Catholic standards on these issues by which to judge Luther.
If Luther was attempting to introduce a radical mistranslation into church history he failed. Luther mentions others before him translated Romans 3:28 as he did (for example, Ambrose and Augustine). The Roman Catholic writer Joseph Fitzmyer verified Luther's claim, and also presented quite an extensive list of those previous to Luther doing likewise. That list can be found here. Even some Catholic versions of the New Testament also translated Romans 3:28 as did Luther. The Nuremberg Bible (1483), "allein durch den glauben" and the Italian Bibles of Geneva (1476) and of Venice (1538) say "per sola fede." Others previous to Luther may have differed in theological interpretation, yet saw the thrust of the words implied "alone."
My opponent stated at one point, "Luther used his new concept of salvation to determine how Scripture was to be understood." This statement is the result of the presuppositions that history and tradition determine Biblical meaning, along with an infallible magisterium determining which results to cull from both. These are faith claims, not proven facts. I deny the phrase, "new concept of salvation." It's only "new" if the presuppositions and methodology are granted as that which determines Biblical truth. While history and tradition can be insightful, I deny they determine Biblical meaning.
I deny as well that it is Biblical methodology. Consider the tradition of Jewish Biblical interpretation during the ministry of Jesus. The Jews had multi-generation old interpretations of the Law and concepts of the Messiah based on the Biblical text. Jesus frequently overturned their understanding of both. Do we then argue that Jesus presented a "new concept of salvation" because he presented interpretations not contained previously in tradition? Of course not! We realize that Scripture has a particular meaning, even if tradition gets it quite wrong.
The same can be said with Luther's proclamation of sola fide. Justification by faith alone is not right or wrong because others before him either wrote about it or not- this doctrine stands or falls by whether or not the Bible teaches it. There was no "change of the definition of faith" as my opponent suggested in Romans 3:28. Rather, it was inevitable that someone would look past the layers of tradition and read exactly what the text stated.
Further, if one were to apply a similar Roman Catholic historical standard to something like the dogma of Mary's Assumption, Catholics would be hard pressed to trace the alleged historicity of it back to the New Testament.
The debate goes into these issues in greater detail. In many ways, the debate wasn't about Luther at all. The debate was about sola fide and sola scriptura. The ultimate standard by which to judge truth is the Bible, not history, tradition, or dogmatic decree. Romans 3:21-28 clearly states Paul's antithesis between faith and works. Romans 4:16 assures us that justification is by faith that it may be in accordance with grace. If salvation is by grace, it cannot possibly be of works (Romans 11:6), any works!