Luther resumed the uneven tenor of his ways as priest to his congregation and professor in the university. The Elector paid him 200 guilders ($5,000?) a year, to which each student added a slight honorarium for attending his lectures. Luther and another monk, now both in layman’s garb, lived in the Augustinian monastery with a student servant. “My bed was not made up for a whole year, and became foul with sweat. But I worked all day, and was so tired at night that I fell into bed without knowing that anything was amiss.”99 Hard work made his appetite forgivable. “I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German, thank God, Amen.”100 He preached often, but with humane brevity, and in simple, vigorous language that held his rough auditors in hand. His only recreations were chess and the flute; but he seems to have enjoyed more the hours that he spent in attacking “papists’.” He was the most powerful and uninhibited controversialist in history. Nearly all his writings were warfare, salted with humor and peppered with vituperation. He let his opponents elaborate superior Latin to be read by a few scholars; he too wrote Latin when he wished to address all Christendom; but most of his diatribes were composed in German, or: were at once translated into German, for his was a nationalist revolution. No other German author has equaled him in clarity or force of style, in directness and pungency of phrase, in happy—sometimes hilarious—similes, in a vocabulary rooted in the speech of the people, and congenial to the national mind.
Printing fell in with his purposes as a seemingly providential innovation, which he used with inexhaustible skill; he was the first to make it an engine of propaganda and war. There were no newspapers yet, nor magazines; battles were fought with books, pamphlets, and private letters intended for publication. Under the stimulus of Luther’s revolt the number of books printed in Germany rose from 150 in 1518 to 990 in 1524. Four fifths of these favored the Reformation. Books defending orthodoxy were hard to sell, while Luther’s were the most widely purchased of the age. They were sold not only in bookstores but by peddlers and traveling students; 1,400 copies were bought at one Frankfurt fair; even in Paris, in 1520, they outsold everything else. As early as 1519 they were exported to France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, England. “Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language,” wrote Erasmus in 1521; “no one would believe how widely he has moved men.”101 The literary fertility of the Reformers transferred the preponderance of publications from southern to northern Europe, where it has remained ever since. Printing was the Reformation; Gutenberg made Luther possible.,
Luther’s supreme achievement as a writer was his translation of the Bible into German. Eighteen such translations had already been made, but they were based on Jerome’s Vulgate, were crowded with errors, and were awkwardly phrased. The difficulties of translating from the original were appalling; there were as yet no dictionaries from Hebrew or Greek into German; every page of text evoked a hundred problems of interpretation; and the German language itself was still crude and but half formed. For the New Testament Luther used the Greek text that Erasmus had edited with a Latin version in 1516. This part of the task was completed in 1521, and published in 1522. After twelve more years of labor, amid constant theological strife, but aided by Melanchthon and several Jewish scholars, Luther published the Old Testament in German. Despite their imperfect scholarship, these translations were epochal events. They inaugurated German literature, and established Neuhochdeutsch—the New High German of Upper Saxony—as the literary language of Germany. Yet the translations were deliberately unliterary, couched in the speech of the populace. In his usual vivid way Luther explained his method: “We must not, as asses do, ask the Latin letters how we should speak German, but we must ask the mothers in their houses, the children in the streets, the common people in the market place... we must be guided by them in translating; then they will understand us, and will know that we are speaking German to them.”102 Hence his translation had the same effect and prestige in Germany as the King James version in England a century later: it had endless and beneficent influence on the national speech, and is still the greatest prose work in the national literature. In Wittenberg, and during Luther’s lifetime, 100,000 copies of his New Testament were printed; a dozen unauthorized editions appeared elsewhere; and despite edicts forbidding its circulation in Brandenburg, Bavaria, and Austria, it became and remained the best-selling book in Germany. The translations of the Bible shared, as both effect and contributory cause, in that displacement of Latin by vernacular languages and literatures which accompanied the nationalist movement, and which corresponded to the defeat of the universal Church in lands that had not received and transformed the Latin tongue.
Laboring so long on the Bible, and inheriting the medieval view of its divine authorship, Luther fondly made it the all-sufficient source and norm of his religious faith. Though he accepted some traditions not based on Scripture—like infant baptism and the Sunday Sabbath—he rejected the right of the Church to add to Christianity elements resting not on the Bible but on her own customs and authority, like purgatory, indulgences, and the worship of Mary and the saints. Valla’s revelation of the “Donation of Constantine” (the supposed bequest of Western Europe to the popes) as a hoary hoax of history had shaken the faith of thousands of Christians in the reliability of Church traditions and the compulsive validity of Church decrees; and in 1537 Luther himself translated Valla’s treatise into German. Tradition was human and fallible, but the Bible was accepted by nearly all Europe as the infallible word of God.
Reason, too, seemed a weak instrument when compared with faith in a divine revelation. “We poor, wretched people... presumptuously seek to understand the incomprehensible majesty of the incomprehensible light of God’s wonders.... We look with blind eyes, like a mole, on the glory of God.”103 You cannot, said Luther, accept both the Bible and reason; one or the other must go.
All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd, and false. What (thinks that cunning little fool) can be more absurd and impossible than that Christ should give us in the Last Supper His body and blood to eat and drink?... or that the dead should rise again at the last day?—or that Christ the Son of God should be conceived, borne in the womb of the Virgin Mary, become man, suffer, and die a shameful death on the cross?104 .. . Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.105 .... She is the Devil’s greatest whore... a whore eaten by scab and leprosy, who ought to be trodden underfoot and destroyed, she and her wisdom.... Throw dung in her face... drown her in baptism.106
Luther condemned the Scholastic philosophers for making so many concessions to reason, for trying to prove Christian dogmas rationally, for trying to harmonize Christianity with the philosophy of that “cursed, conceited, wily heathen” Aristotle.107
Nevertheless Luther took two steps in the direction of reason: he made the sermon, not ceremony, the center of religious ritual; and in the early days of his rebellion he proclaimed the right of every individual to interpret the Scriptures for himself. He drew up his own canon of authenticity for the books of the Bible: how far did they agree with the teaching of Christ? “Whatever does not preach Christ is not Apostolic, even though it be written by St. Peter or St. Paul.... . Whatever does preach Christ would be Apostolic even if it proceeded from Judas, Pilate, or Herod.”108 He rejected the Epistle of James, and called it an “epistle of straw,” because he could not reconcile it with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith; he questioned the Epistle to the Hebrews because it seemed to deny the validity of repentance after baptism (thereby upholding the Anabaptists); and at first he rated the Apocalypse as an unintelligible farrago of promises and threats “neither Apostolic nor Prophetic.”109 “The Third Book of Esdras I throw into the Elbe.”110Though based on whorish reason, most of his judgments on the canon of Scripture were accepted by later Biblical critics as intelligent and sound. “The discourses of the Prophets,” he said, “were none of them regularly committed to writing at the time; their disciples and hearers collected them subsequently.... . Solomon’s Proverbs were not the work of Solomon.” But Catholic opponents contended that his tests of authenticity and inspiration were subjective and arbitrary, and they predicted that after his example other critics would reject, according to their own tastes and views, other Scriptural books, until nothing would be left of the Bible as a basis for religious faith.
With the exceptions indicated, Luther defended the Bible as absolutely and literally true. He admitted that if the story of Jonah and the whale were not in Scripture he would laugh at it as a fable; so too with the tales of Eden and the serpent, of Joshua and the sun; but, he argued, once we accept the divine authorship of the Bible we must take these stories along with the rest as in every sense factual. He rejected as a form of atheism the attempts of Erasmus and others to harmonize Scripture and reason by allegorical interpretations.111 Having himself won mental peace not through philosophy but through faith in Christ as presented in the Gospels, he clung to the Bible as the last refuge of the soul. As against the humanists and their worship of the pagan classics, he offered the Bible as no mere product of man’s intellect but as a divine gift and consolation. “It teaches us to see, feel, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can; and when evil oppresses us it teaches how these virtues throw light upon the darkness, and how, after this poor, miserable existence of ours on earth, there is another and eternal life.”112 Asked on what basis he rested the divine inspiration of the Bible, he answered, simply, on its own teaching: none but God-inspired men could have formed so profound and solacing a faith.