For as long as I can remember I’ve been taught that the medieval church suppressed or prohibited the translation of the Bible into the vernacular language of the day. The alleged motive behind this is that the church wanted to keep the laity ignorant of what the Bible actually said and to retain its power over the people. But Alister McGrath, in his book Reformation Thought, corrects this notion. He says, “During the Middle Ages a number of vernacular versions of Scripture were produced. Although it was once thought that the medieval church condemned this process of translation, it is now known that neither the production of such translations nor their use by clergy or laity was ever explicitly forbidden.” (137, Page reference is to the second edition.) I also discovered that there were 18 various editions of the Bible in German (four of them in Low German) long before Martin Luther did his.
But let’s not stop there. McGrath also reveals that the Reformers began to have serious doubts about letting everyone interpret the Bible on their own. He continues,
The magisterial Reformation initially seems to have allowed that every individual had the right to interpret Scripture; but subsequently it became anxious concerning the social and political consequences of this idea. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 appears to have convinced some, such as Luther, that individual believers (especially German peasants) were simply not capable of interpreting Scripture. It is one of the ironies of the Lutheran Reformation that a movement which laid such stress upon the importance of Scripture should subsequently deny its less educated members direct access to that same Scripture, for fear that they might misinterpret it (in other words, reach a different interpretation from that of the magisterial reformers). For example, the school regulations of the duchy of Württemberg laid down that only the most able schoolchildren were to be allowed to study the New Testament in their final years – and even then, only if they studied in Greek or Latin. The remainder – presumably the vast bulk – were required to read Luther’s Lesser Catechism instead. The direct interpretation of Scripture was thus effectively reserved for a small, privileged group of people. To put it crudely, it became a question of whether you looked to the pope, to Luther or to Calvin as an interpreter of Scripture. The principle of the ‘clarity of Scripture’ appears to have been quietly marginalized, in the light of the use made of the Bible by the more radical elements of the Reformation. Similarly, the idea that everyone had the right and the ability to interpret Scripture faithfully became the sole possession of the radicals. (155, Emphasis mine.)