In the movie, Luther, there is a memorable scene between Martin Luther and the vicar of the Augustinian order where Luther was a monk, Johann von Staupitz. Luther wrestled with spiritual uncertainty. He was always conscious of his sin. He knew that he could never be good enough. He doubted his salvation. Von Staupitz asks him, “Have you ever read the New Testament?” Luther answers, “No.” Von Staupitz informs him that he should study for his doctor’s degree which would ultimately mean he would replace von Staupitz as the Bible chair in the University of Wittenberg.
What is striking is that Luther had never read the New Testament! He had grown up in a religious home. He had studied to become a lawyer, and after a spiritual crisis, he became a monk. The New Testament had been available in Latin and Greek, but as Roland Bainton notes in his biography of Luther, “…the Bible was not the staple of theological education.” And the New Testament was certainly not available to the common man. Bainton reflects, “One is tempted to surmise that [von Staupitz] retired in order unobtrusively to drive this agonizing brother to wrestle with the source book of his religion.”1
Luther’s wrestling with the source book ignited the Reformation and brought him in conflict with church officials. At the Diet of Worms, he made his famous confession, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Those were dangerous words in 1521. Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, took Luther to the Wartburg Castle for safety. While there Luther translated the New Testament into German (1522). The entire German Bible was completed by 1534. With Luther’s influence, William Tyndale produced the first printed English New Testament in 1525. The Bible was given back to the common person.
The home I grew up in had several Bibles. I’ve had my own Bible since early elementary school. I read the New Testament as a teenager. Ninety-two percent of all Americans have at least three Bibles at home. I marvel at the technology that allows me to carry a Bible (actually multiple translations) around in my shirt pocket. We live with a surplus of Bibles, but history reminds us that it hasn’t always been that way.
With the surplus of Bibles, it is easy to take them for granted. In fact, we have so many physical blessings; it is difficult to count them all. But the lessons of history cause me to reflect. My greatest physical possession is my Bible. It is my greatest treasure, because it teaches me the words of life.
1Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 60