Did the Medieval Church Prohibit Translating the Bible in the Vernacular?

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.)

Reformation Thought

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to Did the Medieval Church Prohibit Translating the Bible in the Vernacular?

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Who has the final authority? Who has the final say? Who has the control? Is it The individual? The Church? Group of Elites? Scripture? That, I say, are the many reasons that persecution occurred against the Anabaptist who believed that Scripture is the “final authority in all that it teaches not just faith and practice.” It also had its equivalents in England with the non-conformists. Of course, this caused a group of believers to move to Holland, the back to England, and, finally, to the New World; we call them the Pilgrims.

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  2. bitznbitez says:

    In his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, one of the three main works Luther writes between being excommunicated and the Diet of Worms you find him complaining that the laity can read the scriptures but not everyone can study theology [ the sentences ]. Luther proposes reversing that so that anyone can study theology, theology is taught first, but the scripture itself should be reserved for later study.

    “I should think that the Sentences ought to be the first study of young students in theology and the Bible ought to be the study for the doctors. But now it is turned around; the Bible come first, and is put aside when the bachelor’s degree is reached, and the Sentences come last. They are attached forever to the doctorate, and that with such a solemn obligation that a man who is not a priest may indeed read may indeed the Bible, but the Sentences a priest must read. A married man, I observe, could be a Doctor of the Bible, but under no circumstances a Doctor of the Sentences. ”

    This is in the same section where Luther also complains college education is to available and the number of kids going to college should be reduced and limited.

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  3. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    The following would count for the Middle Ages or Medieval Period:

    “… in 1408 a synod of clergy at Oxford, summoned by Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, forbade anyone to translate, or even to read, a vernacular version of the Bible in whole or in part without the approval of his diocesan bishop or of a provincial council. This prohibition was one of thirteen provisions passed by the synod against Lollardy; they are generally known as the ‘Constitutions of Oxford’, and they remained in force until the establishment of the Reformed religion in England.” F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, third edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 21.

    The above quote shows that proclamations against translating, reading, etc., of the vernacular were alive in England, at least.

    Furthermore, there is the continual anti-Semitism in the theology of the Church especially with regards to the nation of Israel and Replacement Theology.

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  4. bitznbitez says:

    From time to time in certain regions there were explosions of poor translations, and translations with a lot of anti Church commentary in the study notes. In certain regions these were indeed condemned. But at the same time the Church had a long and ongoing history of providing scripture in the vernacular. One of the earliest vulgar translations being, ironically, latin and hence the name Vulgate 🙂

    Start with the Translators Preface to the KJV [ http://www.ccel.org/bible/kjv/preface/pref6.htm ]. The translators of the KJV expressley insist they had the scripture in their own language before Wycliff and document an extensive list of vernacular translations provided over time by the Church. [ FWIW The printed Slavonic was invented by Cyril and Methodius so they could provide the Bible in that language ]. I personally think the KJV translators were competent scholars. I also find it ironic this preface is often left out of KJV printings in modern time.

    Consider this from “Where we Got The Bible” by Henry G. Graham, among other places. These are the facts left out of the narratives that you and I both learned.

    Luther’s first Bible … came out in 1520. Now, will you believe it, there were exactly 104 editions of the Bible in Latin before that date; there were 9 before the birth of Luther in the German language, and there were 27 in German before ever his own saw the light of day. Many of these were to be seen at the Caxton Exhibition in London, 1877: and seeing is believing. In Italy there were more than 40 editions of the Bible before the first Protestant version appeared, beginning at Venice in 1471; and 25 of these were in the Italian language before 1500, with the express permission of Rome. In France there were 18 editions before 1547, the first appearing in 1478. Spain began to publish editions in the same year, and issued Bibles with the full approval of the Spanish Inquisition …. In Hungary by the year 1456, in Bohemia by the year 1478, in Flanders before 1500, and in other lands groaning under the yoke of Rome, we know that editions of the Sacred Scriptures had been given to the people. ‘In all (to quote from “M.C.L’s” useful pamphlet on the subject) 626 editions of the Bible, in which 198 were in the language of the laity, had issued from the press, with the sanction and at the instance of the Church, in the countries where she reigned supreme, before the first Protestant version of the Scriptures was sent forth into the world.

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