25. Has anyone proposed the idea of having Lutherans work toward producing a Bible translation before the Wartburg Project?

In by ProjectWartburg

Yes, there have been many who proposed that idea. Of course, Martin Luther was the first one to propose having “Lutherans” work together to produce a Bible translation for German-speaking people. Martin Luther’s Bible translation served as the most used German translation for many years, even for many non-Lutherans. “His Bible has been read by countless generations of German-speaking peoples, and it has exerted its influence on the translations of the Bible into many other languages as well—to the inestimable benefit of the Lutheran Church in particular and of Christendom in general” (Armin Panning, “Luther as Bible Translator” in Luther Lives, NPH, 1983, p. 83).

Luther first translated the New Testament by himself. Then he sought the help of those with whom he was in church fellowship (Philip Melanchthon, for example). Luther did not translate the Old Testament alone. He formed a translation team that he called his “Sanhedrin.” These were all men who were in confessional agreement with him. According to Mathesius, this group consisted of his fellow professors at Wittenberg: Johann Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Caspar Creuziger, Philip Melanchthon, and Mattheus Aurogallus. Georg Roerer, the Korrektor, was also present. Frequently other friends, doctors, and learned men came to take part in this important work, such as Bernhard Ziegler and Johann Forster. (See E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, p. 649).

In essence, Luther’s entire team was comprised of what we would call “Lutherans” today.

Luther’s translation of the Bible was accepted by German speaking people for centuries as “the Bible” they went to first. There were other German translations before and after Luther’s. But, without controversy, Luther’s was the most used German Bible translation, and it was made entirely by Lutherans.

Luther also had significant influence on English Bible translators. William Tyndale was certainly influenced by Martin Luther. He even went to Wittenberg to learn and to translate. Tyndale’s influence on the King James Version leads some to say that Luther had significant influence on the KJV. Miles Coverdale was a Lutheran pastor from 1543-1547 and was an assistant to Tyndale. He also worked on several translations of the Bible into English.

Many Lutherans in the United States of America continued to read and hear the Bible in German until the time of World War I. In that time period, many American Lutherans were making the transition from German to English. There was some concern about the English Bible translation, which was the KJV.

• Professor August Pieper plainly preferred Luther’s translation to the KJV [See “Our Transition Into English,” translated by John Jeske in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly Vol. 100, #2, pp. 85-106. Pieper’s article was written in German and appeared in the year 1919 in Theologische Quartalschrift, Vol. 16.]. Many other Lutherans preferred Luther’s translation as well. There are many quotations of Luther’s Bible scattered over the years in the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly and the journals of the LCMS and ELS. Perhaps more research might reveal what some were saying at that time. Here is just one example of a remembrance from that time period. Professor David Kuske wrote:

I recall a discussion in a pastors’ conference in the early 1960’s of a paper that addressed the subject of the use of contemporary English translations in the churches of our conference other than the KJV. One participant, the 85-year-old Pastor Weyland, reminisced that when our synod was moving to an English translation in the 1920’s, a couple leaders in our Synod suggested doing a translation of Luther’s Bible into English. It seems that Prof. A. Pieper’s article “Unser Uebergang ins Englische” [“Our Transition Into English” mentioned above] had led numerous pastors to translate their sermon texts from Luther’s Bible into English instead of using an English translation such as the KJV. Pastor Weyland recalled that apparently some leaders in Synod felt it would be better to have a uniform translation of Luther’s Bible rather than each pastor doing his own translation weekly. This elderly pastor also ventured the opinion that the only thing that stopped this from happening was the turmoil caused first by the Protestant Controversy and then by the Depression.”

• In 1948, Dr. John Theodore Mueller (LCMS; Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) recommended that there be a translation produced by confessional Lutherans. In “Can We Trust Modern Versions?” in the April, 1948 Concordia Theological Monthly (page 300), he wrote:

Several years ago our Church was memorialized to consider bringing out a modern translation of the Bible by Lutheran scholars. So far the Lutheran Church has not had a translation made by its own members. It has patiently used the translations of the Reformed. Has not the time arrived that we follow in Luther’s footsteps and produce our own? … The objection that we Lutherans should not use a Bible translation different from that of others no longer holds, since the various churches are divided in the use of various translations. Would it, then, not make for unity, rather than disunity, to have a reliable Lutheran Bible translation? Meanwhile, considering the confusion caused by the various versions now on the market, the writer is convinced that it is a matter of wisdom for us in our public ministry to adhere to the King James Version until that new and better Lutheran translation has been produced.”

• In January, 1953, Prof. F. Blume discussed the questions about the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in the Quartalschrift (WLQ Vol. 50, #1). He did not regard the RSV to be the answer to the desire for a translation of the New Testament into modern American speech. He concluded with these words:

This writer has become increasingly convinced that no answer to our people’s inquiries will be completely satisfactory to them or to us until we have given them a version of the New Testament that will do for our generation what Luther’s New Testament of 1522 did for the Germany of his day.”

• The desire for such an English translation produced by Lutherans appears in the Wisconsin Synod Proceedings of that same year. Included in the report of the Committee on Bible Translation, adopted at the Watertown Convention, August 5–12, 1953, was the following suggestion:

Since the appearance of the Revised Standard Version has incited anew the study of Bible translations, also among us, and made us conscious anew of weaknesses in the Authorized Version, which has been in general use in our Synod; and since suggestions have again been made that we proceed with a revision of the Authorized Version: the Synodical Committee at its May meeting adopted the following resolution:

We suggest that the assignment of the Committee on the Revised Standard Version be extended to include a study of some book of the New Testament (e.g., Galatians), that the Committee be encouraged to solicit the cooperation and comment of the members of the Synod, and then to publish the book studied in the Quartalschrift, so that thereby the translation may be rather widely tested as to readability and theological correctness.

Your committee concurs in this recommendation, with the understanding that it be in the nature of a revision of the Authorized Version.” As implied in the above resolution the committee now contemplates undertaking a trial translation of Galatians in the manner indicated, “that it be in the nature of a revision of the Authorized Version,” and herewith invites the members of the Synod to contribute whatever might be of value and help to the committee in carrying out its assignment.

The reasons most frequently advanced for urging at least a trial translation of some book of the Bible are:

1. that existing translations contain archaic words or phrases;

2. that they reveal a Calvinistic influence or otherwise reflect the theological bias of the translators. As to language the Authorized Version, of which the contemplated translation is to be a revision, could undoubtedly be brought up to date with a minimum of change. It is especially in regard to changes involving doctrine that the committee invites comment, but asks that this be of a specific nature, both as to criticism of the translation to be changed as well as to a possible revision of the same. Contributions are kindly to be sent to the undersigned.

Gerald Hoenecke, secretary
Wisconsin Synod Committee on Bible Translation
Box 953, Thiensville, Wisconsin.¹

• In the years 1955-1957, a Galatians “Trial Translation” was produced and published in WLQ (volumes 52, 53, & 54) as an attempt at a revision of the King James Version. There was a general feeling that the Galatians “Trial Translation” had moved a little too far away from the KJV at a time when there were many people who had grown up using the KJV and preferred to stay closer to its way of expressing biblical truths.

• In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Dr. William F. Beck (LCMS) translated the Bible into simple “coffee and doughnuts” American English. His work, An American Translation (AAT), is still used by many Lutherans, but mainly as a devotional/reading Bible.

• Again, in the early 1970’s, WELS considered this very same question … There was a Bible Translation Seminar that met at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary January 2-4, 1974 [Cf. page 12 of “The New International Version Earns Admirers In The WELS,” by Tom Jeske in the WLS Essay file].

In that 1974 meeting, Professor Armin Schuetze listed four options available. The third option was “make our own translation” (page 13 in the paper by Tom Jeske cited above).

At that same 1974 meeting, Professor Wilbert Gawrisch listed a short-term and a long-term need. The long-term need: “we should begin to produce our own translation” (page 13 in the paper by Tom Jeske cited above).

The closing resolution had five points that emphasized requesting that the Seminary faculty study the NIV. But one often overlooked point that was also approved and passed at that Bible Translation Seminar (Jan. 2-4, 1974) was resolution #3:

We embark on our own translation and publication of portions of the Bible as a pilot project.

• Professor Julian Anderson (ELS) translated the New Testament into simplified American English in the 1970’s. His translation is still used in many prison ministries. (Professor Carlton Toppe regularly referred to it in his 1 Corinthians class at Northwestern College.)

• Dr. Siegbert Becker and Professor David Kuske worked for years on a revision of Beck’s translation with other confessional Lutherans. In 1988 this was called, God’s Word to the Nations (GWN). In 1992 it was revised and renamed the New Evangelical Translation (NET). Copies of this Bible were given to professors and students at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

• There was an attempt to produce a translation by an NPH Editor, WELS professors, and some WELS pastors around the year 2003. Galatians and 1 Peter were first produced as test translations. Apparently there was still some desire for a translation produced by confessional Lutherans. At the time, concern was expressed that the NIV could be changing.

• In 2011 and 2013, the WELS spent considerable time considering the question. A committee considered if it was feasible to produce a translation. The WELS Translation Feasibility Committee (TFC) reported in 2013:

In the end, there is disagreement on whether it is feasible to produce a confessional Lutheran translation of the Bible… It would require a large amount of money at a time when funds for mission work and ministerial education are in short supply… In light of all this, perhaps the question should not be, “Can we do it?” but, “Must we do it?” (WELS Book of Reports & Memorials, p. 81).

• President Mark Schroeder wrote a letter, “Thoughts on the Translation Issue” in May, 2013. Here are some quotations from his letter [bold is original].

I believe strongly that we should undertake a project to produce a new or revised translation as a long term solution.

If Option B is chosen, I believe we should also commit ourselves to the production of a Bible translation by confessional Lutherans.

Every translation is produced by someone. The NIV is produced primarily by Evangelicals. The HCSB was produced primarily by Baptists. The ESV was produced by mainline Protestants. None of those translations is considered sectarian. Why would a translation by Lutherans be seen as any more sectarian than those? Luther’s own translation is not viewed as sectarian.

A translation would be open to the accusation of being sectarian if its translation choices were consciously made to support or promote doctrines or terminology peculiar to the group that produces it. Our intent would not be to do that. Our intent would be to produce a translation that accurately and faithfully conveys the meaning of the original inspired languages. If a translation does that, it cannot by definition be sectarian.

We have an opportunity to give a gift to the church. Just as Luther’s translation opened the Scriptures to the masses, and just as the King James Version communicated the Word to English speakers for hundreds of years, so we have an opportunity not so much to solve an immediate problem, but to give a lasting gift to the church that will serve God’s people for a generation or more.

We can do this, with God’s help. I believe for the sake of the church and the message of Scriptures, we should and must do this.

• It was mentioned in the 2013 convention that significant interest was expressed and support offered by Concordia Publishing House as well.

• The 2013 WELS Convention defeated a motion to have the synod praesidium appoint a committee to study the matter further.

After the convention, the WELS Convention Update for August 1, 2013 reported:

“Some delegates noted that those who are interested in pursuing this project could continue it as a parasynodical project—one not supported by the synod budget.”

• In September of 2013, the Wartburg Project began as a “parasynodical project.”

Has anyone proposed the idea of having Lutherans work toward producing a Bible translation before the Wartburg Project? Yes, of course. Over the years, there have been many who proposed such an idea. And some Lutherans have produced translations, the best known being Martin Luther and his team of Lutheran translators.

For balance in answering this question, please also see:
FAQ #8 Is the Wartburg Project sectarian? Will the Bible it produces be sectarian?
http://wartburgproject.org/faqs/

We thank God for the gift of his saving Word. We seek to offer it to all people for their eternal benefit. We pray for God’s blessings on our efforts to share his saving Word with as many people as possible all over the world.