Special presentation at Union College’s Luther conference

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Union Theological College held an international conference from 12-13 September 2022 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Half a millennium of the quiet ongoing work of placing Scripture in the hands of ordinary people in their own heart language was also celebrated.

Entitled ‘Martin Luther: Bible Translator, Illustrator & Publisher’, the two-day event, which opened with a commemorative opening reception brought together a team of experts from Ireland, the UK the United States and Europe to explore aspects of Luther’s September Testament, its context and influence since its publication in 1522.

As an example of Luther’s enduring work 500 years on, and the continued importance of Bible translation, one of the newest publications was presented to the College at the reception by one of the conference participants – a translation of the New Testament and Psalms in contemporary Eastern Armenian.

Speaking on the opening night of the conference College Principal, Reverend Professor Gordon Campbell, said, “During our opening reception, it was important, and indeed appropriate, that we honoured the life and memory of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who passed away on Thursday afternoon. Tonight we took a moment to pay tribute not only to the late Queen herself, but recognise her vibrant Christian faith, her commitment to personal Bible reading as well as to the promotion of Bible reading more generally, as the Patron of the Bible Society. Perhaps this conference might in some small way honour her rich legacy.”

Talking about the conference, Professor Campbell said that Luther’s September Testament in German was pivotal for the Reformation and a watershed moment in German and European society and culture. “It is difficult to underestimate the powerful catalyst that Luther’s New Testament was for the rapid democratisation of Scripture and its interpretation, themes we are looking at during our conference.”

Professor Campbell continued, “Placing Scripture in the hands of ordinary people and making it more inclusive of German dialects generally, meant that for the first time as a result of Luther’s work, ordinary folk could read for themselves, or hear life-changing verses in their own heart language. Five centuries later providing translations in a people’s heart language is still one of the central principles of Bible translation to this day.”

Special presentation at Union College’s Luther conference
Presbyterian Moderator, Dr John Kirkpatrick (left) is picture with College Principal, Rev Professor Gordon Campbell, who presented the conference’s opening paper at the College’s Luther conference, with fellow participants (left to right) Dr Paulian Petric, Seed Company US / Wycliffe Bible Translators UK & Ireland, Professor Sabine Hiebsch, Theologische Universiteit Kampen|Utrecht, Rev Éric Kayayan, Foi et Vie Réformées, Dr Fearghus Ó Fearghail, Dublin City University, Dr Shawn Langley, Kirby Laing Centre, Cambridge, and Dr Christine Ganslmayer

The College is being partnered by the Bible Society in Northern Ireland, Biblica and Wycliffe Bible Translators, who are supporting the conference, giving attendees the opportunity to connect Luther’s legacy to Bible publication work today. That legacy was also demonstrated with the special presentation to the College’s Gamble Library of a book containing the New Testament and Psalms in contemporary Eastern Armenian.

Published in the Armenian capital Yerevan in April this year, it was presented by one of the conference speakers, Rev Éric Kayayan, director of Foi et Vie Réformées, which translates as ‘Reformed Faith and Life’, who is the chairperson of Christians for Armenia, which translated and published the New Testament. Monsieur Kayayan, who is of Armenian descent, wanted to continue the work of his father, who initially translated the New Testament into Western Armenian in 2005.

“The link between Luther’s September Testament in German and our project is quite conspicuous as it provides Armenian people with a faithful translation of Holy Scripture in a contemporary turn of phrase, while remaining faithful to the original languages,” Monsieur Kayayan said.

“Armenians have had a version of the Bible since 5th century AD. Until now, the various versions, or translations available, were just revisions of older ones and never a direct return to the Hebrew and Greek. Many people in Armenia complained that they did not understand the meaning of the sacred texts. My father had completed a translation of the New Testament in Western Armenian, which is mostly spoken by Armenians in the diaspora. We decided to publish one in Eastern Armenian along with the Psalms, for the sake of Armenians living in the current Republic of Armenia and the surrounding countries.”

Monsieur Kayayan, a specialist on the French Bible, concluded by saying, “Like Luther, however, we were met with opposition from the traditional clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which goes back to the 4th century, and from equally conservative evangelical circles, who opposed the emergence of a new, more accurate translation, branding it as ‘unnecessary’. But we persevered in this demanding work, printing 6,000 copies, which were distributed for free in Armenia to pastors, churches, and individual Christians in April.”

Thanking Monsieur Kayayan, Professor Campbell said, “As I said when we launched the Conference last month, ‘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.’

“It is a great honour to receive this copy of the New Testament, which has its theological roots in Luther’s great translation initiative. With around 1 in 5 people across the world still waiting for the Bible in their own language, it is a practical example of one aspect of Luther’s legacy, which our conference is exploring. It is our prayer that this New Testament and Psalms will be a blessing to all who read it. As Isaiah reminds us God said about His word, ‘…it shall not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’”

Special presentation at Union College’s Luther conference
Dr Kirkpatrick inaugurating the conference exhibition in the College’s Gamble Library.

As a part of the conference the Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, inaugurated a special exhibition in the Gamble Library where the College Librarian, Joy Conkey, drew attention to key books from the history of Bible translation from 1522 to the present day that were being showcased. Most were from the Gamble Library’s collection, with additional loan items from the Ulster-Scots Agency and from Maynooth University’s Russell Library. The exhibition, which is open to the public over the next few months, also features translations from the original languages into German, English, Gaelic, Scots and Ulster-Scots.

With the close of the conference, a number of the themes from it will be explored in a series of seminars at the College, entitled ‘The Bible for All’, which will start on Thursday, 29 September. Further details can be found at www.union.ac.uk/bible-for-all. An online exhibition to accompany the conference can also be visited at the College website.