Translation, Reformation and Mission

by Juan Sarmiento

The dynamism of the historical movement within Western Christianity known as the Reformation has had much to do with its emphasis on translation and communication efforts. Thoughtfully appreciating different cultures and diligently working to convey God’s message in ways that relate to a broader audience has been at the core of our Reformed identity since its early days.  

Known as the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Martin Luther used Latin for the publication of his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in October 1517. Like other documents intended to provoke the exchange of opinions among university students, it was reasonable to use the language of the church to address the academic and administrative elite. With help from the new advances of the printing press, the polemical document was soon printed and distributed in many surrounding towns. It was three months later when, translated into German, it “became viral” throughout Germany. On March 1518, he published another piece entitled “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace.” Having noticed how translation had been such a determining factor in the dissemination of the theses, he decided to write the sermon in German instead of Latin. He also stayed away from regional vocabulary in order that may be intelligible by the largest number of people. An immediate hit, the pamphlet provided even greater momentum to the movement as it went on to gain unexpected popularity in France, Italy and England within only two years. 

In 1521, four years after first making public his theses, Martin Luther started translating the Bible into German using his outstanding knowledge of Greek and in collaboration with a group of other scholars in the Hebrew language. It is said that he took time to carefully listen to the different dialects spoken in the area. Luther’s inclusion of introductions and notes as tools to help the reader grasp the meaning of the Scriptures in detail would be later followed by the Geneva Bible, the English translation that John Calvin went on to sponsor.

Prior to Luther’s Bible, The Holy Scriptures had been translated to other languages beyond its Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts. Some examples of such works go as far back as the fourth century (Armenian and Gothic) and fifth century (Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic and Georgian). Although there were officially authorized versions of the Bible in Castilian, Old French, Czech, Gothic (East German), Old English, West Saxon and other languages spoken in the Holy Roman Empire, a very limited number of families had either the means to purchase a copy or the literary training to read it. Access to other versions like the Provençal (used by the Waldensians), Hungarian (used by the Hussites), Catalan and Middle English (translated by John Wycliffe) was even more difficult as they were declared illegal. It was not until the Reformation spread throughout Europe that translation and distribution projects multiplied, along with schools to train pastors and teach children to read with the intent of helping as many people as possible interact with the Bible. It should come as no surprise that mottos such as “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) and “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi dei” (the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God) have become so closely associated with Protestantism. 

Arguing that translating the Bible was “the most dangerous thing that Luther did,” scholar Ben Witherington III claims that our celebration of the five centuries of the Reformation is a good time to say that “without Protestantism we might not have Bibles in the hands of so many Christians, and in so many languages.”

Today, the Bible is the best-selling book in the world and it is read in more languages than any other. The global church, including its Protestant expression, is more linguistically diverse and larger that it has ever been. However, almost twenty percent of the world's population do not have a complete Bible in their mother tongue. In addition, eighty percent of humans are oral learners, which includes people that:

  • have little or no familiarity with written language
  • rely primarily on TV, movies, videos, radio, music or hearing stories as means for learning
  • are visually impaired

The Outreach Foundation partners with many Christian churches and entities proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in more than thirty-seven countries around the world. To that end, we are involved in a broad variety of projects that seek to produce and distribute Bibles as well as other materials that are meaningful to the diverse populations they serve. Our partners also emphasize the formation of servant-leaders that will effectively teach the Bible to others. For example: 

  • Iranian Christians are developing theological formation courses that are delivered over the internet in Farsi. 
  • Presbyterians in northern Ghana see as one of their main roles translating literature in at least nine languages within their region. 
  • Presbyterians in Guatemala and Mexico are actively engaged in providing theological education in Mayan languages such as Q'eqchi' and Ch’ol. 
  • Chinese Christians produce and circulate discipleship and leadership resources in Mandarin to equip more lay leaders for the rapidly growing churches in the country.
  • Churches in many African countries incorporate Bible stories in their efforts to provide basic reading skills to children that otherwise would not have opportunities to develop them. 
  • Christians in Pakistan record and distribute appealing discipleship stories and lessons in Urdu, Punjabi and Saraiki.

The Outreach Foundation seeks to bring Presbyterian churches in the United States and global partners around the world closer together in our common call to learn, interpret and teach the Scriptures in light of our times and the beautiful multiplicity of human cultural expressions. For, as Lamin Sanneh (Gambian Roman Catholic historian at Yale University) states, “no culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal and remote that it can be excluded.” Speaking about the Bible, Sanneh adds “its message affirms all languages to be worthy, though not exclusive, of divine communication” (from Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, 2008, page 25).

We are pleased to have you join us in the ever expanding and transforming work of listening and telling, reading and interpreting, embracing and confessing the Good News that is meant to be both lavishly and appropriately shared among all the peoples of the earth. 

Juan Sarmiento
Associate Director for Mission


The Outreach Foundation