Union Theological College to commemorate ‘publishing sensation’ – Martin Luther’s New Testament translation

One of the world’s greatest publishing sensations will be the focus of an international conference to be held in Belfast this month, when Union Theological College (UTC) will examine the legacy of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament, which celebrates its 500th anniversary this September 2022.

Entitled ‘Martin Luther: Bible Translator, Illustrator & Publisher’, the free to attend two-day event on 12th & 13th September 2022 will bring together a team of experts from Ireland, the UK and Europe. Their research papers will explore aspects of Luther’s September Testament, its context, influence and enduring impact since 1522. The conference will be followed by an autumn series of public seminars at the College entitled, ‘The Bible for All.’

Explaining the significance of the publication, UTC Principal, Reverend Professor Gordon Campbell said, “Five hundred years on, it may seem difficult for us to comprehend the impact of the September Testament, but if you take something like the arrival of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s and the subsequent revolutionary impact that it had, and continues to have on society and everyday life today, you can begin to get the picture.”

Professor Campbell continued, “Luther’s September Testament in German was a pivotal moment for the Reformation, European history and Bible translation that we believe merits exploring and celebrating. In each conference session our contributors will open up some of its many impacts through time, bringing a collective assessment of the relevance and importance of Luther’s Bible publishing project that offers something for both academics and the general public to get their teeth into.”

With the support of scholars from France, Germany, The Netherlands, England, and Ireland, north and south, each conference session will centre on a key aspect or dynamic of Luther’s influential publication. “Through presentations, conversation and Q&As we will look at how Luther’s work influenced the development of the Bible in English and other languages. For example, to how it helped shape the theory and practice of Bible translation, and what it did for theology and public theology,” Professor Campbell explained.

“At the time the September Testament appeared, only some scholars, monks and nobles had access to a Bible, usually in Latin. Relatively few people could read, or read well. Crucial, for Luther, was not only the accuracy of his German translation but how it sounded, especially when read aloud in the new reformed churches. Luther wanted the words of Jesus, the Evangelists and Apostles to be heard at the pace and rhythm of everyday speech on the streets, so that it would appeal to listeners’ ears, lodge in their memory and warm their heart for Christ.

“Placing Scripture in the hands of ordinary people and making it more inclusive of German dialects generally, meant that for the first time ordinary folk could read for themselves, or hear life-changing verses in their own heart language, such as John 3:16, which says, ‘For God so loved the word that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. Half a millennium on, providing translations in a people’s heart language is still one of the central principles of Bible translation to this day,” he said.

Union Theological College to commemorate ‘publishing sensation’ - Martin Luther's New Testament translation
Union Theological College’s Principal, Reverend Professor Gordon Campbell, (centre) launches the conference in the College’s Gamble Library holding a 1579 edition of the ‘Geneva Bible’ printed in Edinburgh, the oldest Bible in the Library’s collection. He is joined by two of the conference partners Catherine Little, General Secretary of Bible Society in Northern Ireland, who is holding an edition from the collection printed in London in 1611, and Trevor Wilson, UK Partnerships Manager for Biblica, the international Bible society, who is pictured with 1590 edition.

Bearing this in mind, Professor Campbell expressed his delight that the Bible Society in Northern Ireland, Biblica and Wycliffe Bible Translators are partnering with the College in offering conference attendees the chance to connect Luther’s legacy to Bible publication work today.

Looking forward to next month’s event, Catherine Little, General Secretary of Bible Society in Northern Ireland said that today, Bible access is often taken for granted. “We have had the full Bible in our own language for generations because of the risks, hard work and sacrifices made by Luther and his contemporaries.

“All over the world today individuals and communities are still taking risks, working hard and making sacrifices to bring the Bible to people groups who are still waiting to hear God’s Word in their own heart language. We want to present our current work against this historical backdrop since the work of Martin Luther 500 years ago brought change that we still feel the ripples of today.”

Ricky Ferguson, Ireland Team Leader for Wycliffe Bible Translators said that Wycliffe estimates that 1 in 5 people around the world are still waiting for the Bible in their own language. “We are delighted to be a partner for the Luther Conference, as it celebrates something which is at the heart of the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators worldwide today. Martin Luther understood that in order for people to come to know Jesus, and then to grow in their faith, they needed to have God’s word in the language that they knew best – their own,” he said.

Named after John Wycliffe, a reformer with a passion for people and the Bible, he was one of the first to translate the Old and New Testaments into English two centuries before Luther. “Today, we carry on the vision of Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther to see a world where everyone can have the opportunity to know Jesus through the Bible.”

Trevor Wilson, UK Partnerships Manager for Biblica, the international Bible society, said that Luther’s September Testament was instrumental in making the Bible available for all. “Being involved in this event is important for us as Luther’s New Testament paved the way for taking the Bible into the hands of all people and helping to further the Gospel across Europe and beyond, and that continues to be our passion and focus today.

“Reading and understanding the Bible in our own language reminds us that the Bible is timeless and relevant for all generations, cultures and languages. Our role is to continue to see that become a reality today, as there are millions across our world who still do not have the Bible in their heart language,” Mr Wilson explained.

In conclusion, Professor Campbell said, “As part of our service to Northern Ireland’s academic and educational community, we are looking forward to investigating Luther’s achievements and heritage with the help of our contributors. Following the conference, and once their research is complete, we will be working with an academic publisher to make the Conference Papers available. There will also be, our Thursday evening series of public seminars, ‘The Bible for All’ series where we can explore a number of the themes that come out of the conference,” he said.

The conference will also be accompanied by both physical and digital exhibitions, the latter can be viewed now in advance of the conference at www.union.ac.uk where more information is available on registering for the conference.