Professor Morna Hooker

15th October 2017

It’s all a matter of interpretation.  In the world of scholarship, one soon discovers that the all-important questions are what one makes of the evidence, and for any historian or literary critic, that means how one reads – that is interprets – the written word.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the written word was essentially the Bible – which, following the invention of printing, increasingly meant the printed Bible.  The 95 theses which Martin Luther is said to have nailed to a church door in Wittenberg – a tradition which I see no reason to doubt, whatever purveyors of ‘alternative truth’ may say – were based on his interpretation of the teaching of the Bible. 

But which text of the Bible?  For centuries, the Church had been using what was known as the Vulgate – a word meaning ‘common tongue’ – in other words, the translation into Latin made by Jerome in the second century, when Latin was the everyday language of the people.  From then on, the original Hebrew and Greek were rarely consulted, since they were known only by a few, and though in time Latin was no longer the ‘common tongue’, it remained the language used by scholars, who referred to the text of Jerome.  Had you come to a Cambridge College in the Middle Ages, you would have found that all the teaching and all the conversation were in Latin. 

Now there were two problems.  First of all, ordinary people no longer understood Latin.  And secondly, the Vulgate was a translation – how reliable was it?  By the time that Luther posted his theses in 1517, a new edition of the Greek New Testament had appeared, together with a new Latin translation, both of which had been prepared by the great Humanist scholar Erasmus – and there is evidence in Luther’s commentaries that he knew both.  The new text and translation were important firstly because Erasmus had collected better Greek manuscripts than those known to Jerome, and secondly because his translation was a more accurate one.

Erasmus is often referred to as ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’ – the city of his birth – but anyone who comes to Cambridge soon learns that Erasmus spent several years at the Queens’ College in this University.  According to tradition, which again I see no reason to doubt, he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor – or Reader, as the post was known in those days, reminding us that scholarship was largely a matter of how one read the text.  Erasmus does not appear to have greatly enjoyed his stay in Cambridge; he complained about the weather – and it was undoubtedly a very cold and damp place before the days of central heating; he complained about the English beer – he clearly would not have been a patron of CAMRA; and he complained about the pay; in that last respect, at least, modern academics would have agreed with him.  But his residence in Cambridge was significant.  It was on an earlier visit to Cambridge that he had realized the importance of knowing Greek in order to understand the New Testament, and that discovery had led him to learn the language.  Now he was teaching Greek and producing the first critical edition of the text of the New Testament, which he used as the basis for his new translation into Latin. 

It is often said that the English Reformation began in Cambridge, in the snug of the White Horse Inn, in the 1520’s, and although Erasmus had by then returned to the continent, it was his new Latin translation that was studied by the small group of scholars who used to meet there, and which fired their ideas.  As for his critical Greek text, that became the basis for scholarly work for the next 300 years and more, until it was replaced in the nineteenth century by a far better text, based on more reliable manuscripts.

And it was apparently Erasmus’ edition of the Greek text, published in 1516, together with his Latin translation, that were used by Luther in his lectures in Wittenberg.  A second edition of the Greek text a few years’ later became the basis both of Luther’s translation into German and William Tyndale’s translation into English – and so, in time, of the translation we know today as the ‘Authorized’ or ‘King James’ Version’. 

Erasmus himself made no attempt to translate the Bible into English, but he was clearly sympathetic to the idea, suggesting that even women should be able to read it.  In his Exhortations to the Diligent Study of Scripture he wrote: ‘I would have these words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irish, but Turks and Saracens too might read them . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveller to beguile with them the dullness of his journey’.  Had he lived today, Erasmus would undoubtedly have downloaded a Dutch translation of the Bible onto his i-phone, in order to beguile the dullness of his travels. 

In his introduction to this series last week, the chaplain speculated about who might have inaugurated the Reformation, had Martin Luther lived fifty years earlier or later.  As you see, things were changing already when Luther appeared on the scene.  It has been said that Martin Luther merely opened the door to the Reformation after Erasmus picked the lock.  Or if you prefer a more domestic image, that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.  But that does not mean that the two saw eye-to-eye – far from it.  They disagreed about many things – in particular, about the role of the Pope – and engaged in theological disputes.  But more importantly, Erasmus was a scholar, Luther a man of action.  And it was Erasmus’ scholarly work in producing a critical Greek text of the New Testament which was the stimulus for Luther’s exegetical work and so, in time, to his revolutionary ideas.   

There are no less than 55 volumes of Luther’s Works translated into English, many of which consist of Lectures or Commentaries on biblical texts.  This is hardly surprising, since it was by reading the text of the Bible – in particular the text of the New Testament – that Luther’s understanding of God was developed and transformed.  What he read there led him to challenge many of the assumptions that he had hitherto accepted as part of the Church’s teaching.

Last week we heard from the chaplain about the problem of sin which dominated the mediaeval world.  It was a problem that tormented Luther when he was a young man.  The church’s solution was to sell indulgences and pardons; you could apparently buy yourself out of purgatory – or at least, reduce the time spent there.  Now, reading the Letters of Paul, Luther realized that this solution was unnecessary – worse still, that it contradicted and undermined the Gospel, which was about the grace of God.  In Romans, in the passage we heard earlier, he read how God freely offered forgiveness as a gift, not something to be bought or earned.  And because it was a gift, it needed only to be received by those who trusted in the love and mercy of God.    

It is frequently said that Luther’s theology – and indeed, the theology of the Reformation, can be summed up in the slogan ‘Justification by faith’.  Christians, it is said, have been ‘justified by faith’.  But is that right?  And what exactly does it mean?  The main problem is that word ‘justification’.  What does it mean to be justified?   If you want to impress your director of studies with your essay, you may well ‘justify’ your margins, which will make the essay look tidier, even though it won’t improve the content.  What you have done is to make all the rough ends of lines conform to an invisible straight line, as a sergeant major might do with his troops.  And if you want to justify your actions, then you will endeavour to demonstrate that they conform with what is accepted by others as just, or good, behaviour.  But ‘justify’ and ‘justification’ are not words that are much used in everyday speech, except by those – usually politicians – who seek justification for their – often dubious – actions.  In modern English, then, the idea that men and women are justified seems a somewhat obscure and negative way of saying that God makes them what they ought to be. 

And how about the words ‘by faith’?  Is this a requirement to believe six impossible things before breakfast, as Alice was instructed to do in Through the Looking Glass?  And how did Paul imagine that our faith – or ‘trust’, as the Greek word should perhaps be translated – could bring about our ‘justification’?  In fact, of course, it doesn’t, and Paul’s point – and Luther’s, too – is that it is God who ‘justifies’, or puts us right.  Believers do nothing – they simply receive what God gives them – the gift of righteousness.  God did not have to be pacified or satisfied with gifts or penances.  On the contrary, he had sent his Son to reconcile men and women to himself.  So a much better summary of Luther’s teaching is the alternative slogan ‘salvation by grace’.

In our reading from Exodus tonight we heard how God had revealed himself to Moses as a God of grace.  And then we heard Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, explaining that the grace of God was far greater than any human sin. 

Anything you can do, I can do better, sings Annie in the musical, and anything men and women do, is nothing in comparison with what God can do – not simply because they are sinful and he is righteous, but because the power of grace is far greater than the power of evil.  All that is necessary is to receive it.  

But that’s not quite the end of the story.  Luther, the man who spent his time bewailing his own sins, was concerned only to save his own soul.  But the remedy – grace – was not, like a prescription bought from the chemist, something that mustn’t be shared with others, but something which, on the contrary, demanded to be shared.  The grace of God is a gift which cannot be kept to oneself.  Neither Paul nor Luther were talking simply about how individuals can be put right with God, but rather about how they might become conduits of his love and reconciling power to others, offering aid to those in need and bringing peace where there is conflict.  ‘You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘how he was rich but became poor for you, in order to make you rich.  Well, then, be like him – full of grace: put your hands in your pockets and find some money to contribute to the collection I’m making for the poor’.  In our modern world, we may perhaps think that theological language about sin and redemption are irrelevant – but of the need for those who have experienced the grace of God to share God’s love with others there can be no doubt. 

So if I were to sum up what Luther found in scripture in one phrase, it would be ‘The rediscovery of God’s grace’.  Sadly, what that meant was often lost sight of in the years that followed, when men and women went to war and persecuted one another for their beliefs.  All too often, the Reformation involved revolution.  And what of Erasmus?  Although he may have picked the lock on the door, he stayed firmly on the outside when Luther went through that door and left the Roman church.  And one of the things which divided Erasmus and Luther was their understanding of the role of grace.  If they disagreed, then this is because, as I said at the beginning, it’s all a matter of interpretation – of how one reads the text.  Nevertheless, it was Erasmus’ work of editing and translating the text of the New Testament that enabled them to argue about its meaning.  The egg laid by Erasmus had hatched, even if he did not entirely approve of the bird that emerged from the shell.