Book Reviews


Reviews of the Sendbrief von Dolmetschen

Book Review from: Renaissance Quarterly Volume 72, Issue 1, Spring 2019 , pp. 333-335

Luther wrote his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Open letter on translating) in 1530 while staying at Coburg Fortress, while Protestant theologians proclaimed the Confessio Augustana at the Diet of Augsburg. The topic of Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen is the approach to translation that Luther adopted while translating the Bible into German. In it, Luther argues against a simple word-for-word translation of the Greek and Latin texts into German. Instead, he argues that the text of the Bible should be reproduced in good German and should be comprehensible to the ordinary man. Luther demonstrates his approach to translation by discussing biblical passages, including Romans 3:28. In his Bible translation, he translated the Latin sentence “Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus” as “Wir halten / das der mensch gerecht werde on des gesetzs werck allein durch den glauben” (4) (“We consider that man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone” [5]). Luther added the word allein (alone) because, in his opinion, without it the meaning of the sentence is not clear to a German reader. This example demonstrates that Luther’s approach to translation had not only linguistic, but also theological motivations. The insertion of the word allein means that the biblical verse Romans 3:28 could now be cited in support of the Reformation concept of sola fide , Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, according to which faith alone and not the books of the law make the justification of man in the eyes of God possible. Thus, in Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen Luther combines thoughts about the translation process with his most significant theological realization, his doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he wanted to communicate to the German people by means of a suitable translation.

This new edition of Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen is the first of a series of Reformation tracts being published by the Taylor Institution Library. The book offers a facsimile copy of the original, as well as a transcription of the German text and a modern English translation. In the transcription and the translation, explanatory information is provided in the footnotes. These details are complemented by a glossary of important figures. In the introduction, Henrike Lähnemann makes some general remarks on the facsimile and the transcription. Howard Jones gives an introduction to the context in which the tract emerged and its content. The book is intended for use at English-speaking universities. Its handy size, the succinct introductions, and the helpful suggestions for use also help in this regard.

As a retired cleric who read theology under Dr Kelly at the Hall from 1959, and who spent a year at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Berlin in 1963/4, I have particularly valued reading Luther’s defence of his inclusion of allein in his translation of Romans 3.28. I have a copy of Die Bibel in Luther’s version on the shelf next to me as I write this. It was given to me in Dresden in 1966. I also have a cased and leather-bound Biblia Sacra with a preface by Hieronymus Burckhardt dated 1736. At the back it has hand-written family birth details in French dating from 1789 to 1818. I think it belonged to my father (who was at the Hall in the early 1930s).

Translation is indeed a complex and controversial thing. I found it highly amusing to read of Luther calling his detractors ‘donkeys of popedom’ and worse! Not even today’s politicians are quite so rude about each other over Brexit as that.

What would I say about the relationship between faith and works? It seems to me that the best way of understanding it is to say that faith underlies works. Ideally, we should do what we do on the basis of what we believe to be right and good (though in practice, emotion, prejudice and external pressures frequently lie behind our actions). These days we want to respect other people’s beliefs when they differ from our own and support their right to hold those beliefs. It is what sort of behaviour that flows from those beliefs that really counts. I don’t think that we are justified by faith if appropriate works do not flow from it. And no beliefs or actions are ever unambiguously right or wrong. In the end it is a commitment to just, righteous, behaviour and a just society that matters.

But may be that condemns me to life in a field full of donkeys! Anyway, thanks for stimulating my thinking in this way.

Paul Brett

My name is Al Metcalfe and I am an ordained minister in the Church of England, studying towards a postgraduate qualification with Chester University as part of my continuing professional development. Part of this is an engagement with how Luther’s understanding of the gospel of God's grace informed his translation of the Bible, evinced both in his mode of expression and his zeal to remove obstacles to comprehension, so the good news of Jesus Christ could be clearly heard. I'd like to express a debt of thanks to Professor Lähnemann and the team behind the Oxford Reformation resources for making available the lively new edition of the 'Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen’ pamphlet from which I have been able to draw extensively in my study, together with the related Sendbrief bibliography on the Bodleian website.

Revd Al Metcalfe
Curate, St Andrew’s Church, Bebington
0151 644 1023 | 07725 233 269

Having read the book I can only sum up my response by saying how much I would have benefited from such a comprehensive treatment of the work both at the time I studied it as an undergraduate in Cambridge in 1961-62 and subsequently when teaching it from time to time throughout my academic career. Given the recent decline in linguistic proficiency among entrants to German courses in most UK universities I would go so far as to say that this book has probably saved the Sendbrief for a few more undergraduate generations (to the extent that anyone is reading anything pre-1900…). All the introductory material seems to me admirably clear and comprehensive. I think Howard Jones’s English translation is absolutely brilliant in conveying, for contemporary English-speaking readers, a sense of Luther’s personality through his idiom. I mentioned I was planning to include something on the Sendbrief in my session at Norwich Cathedral Library in the autumn as I was convinced that for those with no knowledge of German Luther’s linguistic arguments could still be made accessible in English, and this translation confirms that is the case. Indeed, it has saved me a lot of work. I propose to read, with appropriate acknowledgement, appropriate passages from the translation.

Professor D.A. Wells
Emeritus Professor German,
Birkbeck College (London)

Simply the most important read in 2017 to open or deepen an understanding of the Reformation. Published 13 years after the 95 Theses and 8 after Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the Sendbrief goes to the core of the increasingly hostile religious divide by reflecting on its central issue: how does writing convey truth? Although of course to believers on both sides the end of the last sentence is how does Scripture reveal God’s will? The brilliant editorial decision to publish a facsimile of the original tract, an edition, and a new English translation, along with brief but insightful discussions of the main issues raised by this work catches the drama of the original and allows us to reflect on the significance of all the parts of this story. In his powerful language Luther wasted no time getting to “faith alone” nor did the printers in producing a pamphlet that could be sold for pennies and then passed among avid readers. This slender volume keeps that spirit alive. And, for me at least, it historicizes it: we can select the ideas we live by. More? Yes. There are more Treasures of the Taylorian forthcoming. But here one must say congratulations and thanks to all involved in this stunning achievement.

Frederick Biggs

Reviews of the Sermon von Ablass und Gnade

Book Review from :Luther, 90. Jg., 61-68. ISSN 0340-6210. 2019 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH & Co. KG, Göttingen.


Martin Luther: Sermon von Ablass und Gnade. Sermon on Indulgences & Grace. 95 Theses, hg. von Howard Jones, Martin Keßler, Henrike Lähnemann und Christina Ostermann, Oxford: Taylor Institution Library 2018, LXXVII, 50 und 17 S. Faksimiles - ISBN 978-0-9954564-2-6 (Treasures of the Taylorian. Series One: Reformation Pamphlets 2).

Die renommierte Oxforder Taylorian besitzt zwei Drucke von Luthers 1518 erschienener Flugschrift “Sermon von Ablass und Gnade" (WA 1, [239] 243-246; DDStA 1, 1-11), mit der Luther die Auseinandersetzung um Lehre und Praxis des Ablass popularisierte. Von diesen beiden Exemplaren geht die vorliegende zweisprachige Edition aus; sie ediert daher nicht den Wittenberger Erstdruck, sondern einen Leipziger Druck (WA-Sigel F; VD16 L 6270), und bietet Faksimiles beider Exemplare - der zweite ist in Basel gedruckt (WA-Sigel M; VD16 L 6268). Henrike Lähnemann und Christina Ostermann stellen die Druckgeschichte der beiden Exemplare und ihren Weg nach Oxford erhellend dar; zu Druck und Sprache bieten Lähnemann und Howard Jones hilfreiche Erläuterungen. Von Jones stammt auch die treffende Übersetzung des Sermons in modernes Englisch.

Auf den Text des Sermons folgen die 95 Thesen, lateinisch (nach WA 1, [229] 233-238) und englisch. Die gegenchronologische Anordnung folgt einer plausiblen didaktischen Absicht: Die modernen Leserinnen und Leser dieser Ausgabe folgen auf diese Weise der volkssprachlichen Rezeption am Beginn der Reformationszeit. Erst vom Sermon aus klärt sich die inhaltliche Dynamik und Relevanz von Luthers Thesen und lässt sich die existenzielle religiöse Bedeutung von Luthers Ablasskritik erfassen und einordnen. Für diesen Weg plädiert Martin Keßler in seiner theologischen Einleitung zum Sermon. Sie resümiert bündig die Geschichte von Ablasslehre und -praxis und führt die theologische Stringenz von Luthers Gedankenführung im Sermon eindrücklich vor Augen. Für ein deutsches Lesepublikum ist aus dieser mustergültigen kleinen Edition, vor allem diese Einleitung zu empfehlen, von der zu wünschen ist, dass sie auch in deutscher Sprache vorgelegt werden möge. Auf jeden Fall trägt diese Ausgabe aus England dazu bei, die Verschränkung von akademischer Theologie und ihrer volkssprachlichen Elementarisierung am Beginn der Wittenberger Reformation deutlich zu akzentuieren.

Hellmut Zschoch

Cutting edge scholarship in a form Luther himself would approve.

Cannot wait to get my copy! The previous volume in this series, Luther's An Open Letter on Translating, has been a constant companion for the last year, engaging as it does fundamental issues of theology, book history, and literary exchange. This one takes on indulgences! Cutting edge scholarship in a form Luther himself would approve.

Frederick Biggs

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