Books on Luther so often spend most of their time on his theology, and then mention the topic of language only incidentally. And then, when language comes up, it refers to his German Bible, and other writings, which codified modern German. This is no small feat. It deserves more attention than it gets, but there is more to the story.
Last week I had the privilege of attending the Association of Teaching Theologians. Among the participants and presenters was Vítor Westhelle, of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. His presence and comments inspired me to get his book Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Primise of Luther’s Theology. Like many of the most recent interpreters of Luther, Westhelle seeks to move beyond the debate of whether Luther is thoroughly medieval or a beacon of modernity. He seems to consider the question irrelevant in light of the many non-European, non-Renaissance cultures that are reading Luther in the midst of the expansion of the Lutheran movement in the Global South. What does Luther mean for them, today, in this context?
In light of this question, language arises as an important matter. In the first of our parts of his book, Westhelle explores language as a tool of domination. When one group dominates another, they often do so by silencing the dominated and imposing a new language paradigm. Westhelle also points out that demonic possession in the New Testament often rendered the victim deaf and mute, silencing the victim or supplant by the victim’s voice with a demonic voice.
If the church is a creature of the Word, as Luther suggested, this had implications for the use of language then, and perhaps now. At the dawn of the Middle Ages a battle raged between the vernacular of popular national languages and the official language of Medieval Latin. Ironically the revival of classical languages by Renaissance humanism unveiled the inadequacy of Medieval Latin, which had ceased to give voice to the people. Simplistic, deformed, watered down Latin was hardly the language of Cicero. A movement was afoot to allow for heteroglossy, which some saw as liberating and other saw as destructive of European unity. One is reminded of the Soviet insistence on Russian in the former Soviet states as a means to express power, empire and domination.
It is well known that Luther wrote in Latin for academic audiences. Even the 95 theses were written in Latin for the small academic community. As the heat increased on Luther, the miner’s son, wrote more and more in German, the language of the people. Thus he won the literary battle, and the hearts of the people.
If the church was a creature of the Word, then that Word must be proclaimed, heard and understood. It could not be controlled by an elite class of academics, educated in what Latin had become.
Of course, some will argue, along with heteroglossy came heterodoxy, and nationalism, sometimes with devastating results. These critics are not entirely incorrect. Heteroglossy allowed for alternative ideas to find voice. It allowed debate to take place at all levels of society. And while it led to nationalism, some would also say it led ultimately to democracy, the voice of the people. The voice of the people took on a life of its own, in shape in the peasants’ revolt, a yearning for hunting and fishing rights on ancestral lands, and even Luther was surprised and terrified.
Luther’s Flugschriften (short, vernacular pamphlets) and sermons broke down the hegemony of the aristocracy. Andrew Pettifree’s book Brand Luther, chronicles the explosion of literature that made Luther the bestselling author for a century, long after his death.
Luther did not want the demise of Latin. He wanted people to learn many languages. He advocated for education of the masses at every level of society, including women and girls. Language has power. Therefore, education has power.
Hence, Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular, was simply the next logical step in a larger trajectory. He also understood that words were fungible and language always adapting. He felt it was every pastor’s job to be constantly translating. Evidence how differently one says something today, conpared to how one would say the same thing old English, in order to be understood. I doubt that Luther knew he was shaping the German language. He was simply trying to make the fullness of the gospel heard in his context. He was freeeing the Word from its Babylonian Captivity to the aristocracy.
Luther did not point us to a new world. He knew about America, and seemed uninterested. European interest in the New World was about colonialism, domination, controlling natural resources and commerce.
He did not even point to a new empire or church. He simply embodied the contradictions of his time: the collision of the cultures, high and low, old and new: “A world divided between the official pomp of the instituted language of the church and the grotesque humor of the lower strata of society…” (Westhelle, location 768 of 8598) Whether one intends it or not, langauage is insurrection.
So, what does this mean?
Among other things, we transform Luther “by identifying with the marginalized and oppressed” and “deconstructing hegemonic ideologies” as Rafael Malpica said to the Association of Teaching Theologians last week. Luther denounced indulgences because he recognized the indulgence system as the rich using superstition to bilk the poor. Samuel Torvend, in Luther and the Hungry Poor, enlightens us with the economic forces at work in the Reformation. For many today, to be Lutheran is to denounce oppressive and exploitative economic practices, whether instituted by churches or governments.
To be true to the Lutheran movement is to insist on contextualizarion and indigenization. It is the opposite of importing nationalistic or linguistic customs into other cultures. It is post-colonial. It is the proclamation of the gospel in the vernacular and watching to see how the gospel takes expression in each local context, each life. It is the gospel in the language of the people.
One might even say to be true to the Lutheran movement, one can’t even indoctrinate others into Lutheranism per se, for to do so is to colonize. We are inviting people to follow Christ, not Luther, who famously asked people not to name their churches after him. We encourage people to follow Christ, wherever that leads, not to become part of this or that religious club. For to be Lutheran, is to invite people into the liberating power of the gospel, which transcends all human institutions.