One can only imagine the spare look of Luther’s cell as he settled into his monumental task of translating the New Testament. With only his Greek and Hebrew texts as physical references, and no library to consult or clutter, delay or confuse his labor, his concentration was total. It would be easy to romanticize the process. But a more realistic vision involves sweat and frustration, long hours, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. He approached the assignment with awe. Later, he would call it “a great and worthy undertaking” and say that, given the unsatisfactory Bibles then available to the common person, “the people require it.” But the language of the Bible dazzled him.
He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God.
“One should tremble before each letter of the Bible, more than before the whole world!” he would say later. “God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain.”
Indeed, the great accomplishment of Luther is not simply the German New Testament but the premise which began his work -- God is in every syllable. I wonder if that is not part of the problem today. Both translators and readers are more inclined to say that God's Word is in the Bible but not nearly as willing to say with Luther that God Himself is in every syllable.
There is a dynamism in Luther's translation that some attribute to his mastery of rendering the sense of the original into the sense of the German of his day. That is surely so but it is not the real source of the power of his words. In fact, Luther can be down right crude and spare in his translation compared with those that render the words poetic with complex sentences. No, Luther's dynamism springs from his absolute conviction that the Word of God (the Bible) is God's living and active Word, a performative Word that does what it says and an efficacious Word that delivers what it promises. God IS in every syllable.
In contrast to the ways that Scripture is used as a springboard for sermons and teachings that are mostly about the preacher or the hearer, Lutherans are heirs to this dynamic understanding of God's Word and speak of God's Word as sacramental and a means of grace. In contrast to those who use Scripture as a book of rules or laws which must still be followed, if not to earn salvation then to make God do what you want, Luther is captive to the text, captive to the Word itself. In contrast to those who use Scripture as a road map to earthly happiness or success, Luther meets in the Word the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation and now delivers that salvation to the hearer by the Spirit's power.
We can win all the battles over inerrancy we want but unless and until we recapture this dynamic sense of God in every syllable, Lutherans will remain distant heirs from the Reformer and Translator whose name we claim. We need a renewal in the pulpit and pew to recover the truth of it, the joy of it, and the power of seeing God in every syllable. Perhaps then the preacher will gain renewed enthusiasm for the preaching task and the hearer will stop fidgeting and clock watching during the sermon. When both preacher and hearer hang upon the Word expecting to meet Christ, hear Christ, and receive Christ's blessings, then a renewal of preaching will happen among us.