Light for our path: Is Luther adding words?

It was brought to my attention that Martin Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. Is this a fact?

James F. Pope

Luther did include the word alone in his translation of Romans 3:28. It will be helpful to consider the simple content of that verse.

A look at the text

A literal translation of the verse in question could be: “For we consider that a person is justified by faith without the works of the law.” There is not a Greek word in the verse that corresponds to alone in English. Well-known Bible translations indicate that. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (English Standard Version). “For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Holman Christian Standard Bible). “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (King James Version).

So why did Luther put alone (or in German, allein) after “a person is justified by faith” in his translation? Let’s let Luther himself answer that question.

A reply from Luther

In his “On Translating: An Open Letter,” written in 1530, Luther explained his translation of Romans 3:28:

I knew very well that the word solum [Latin = alone, only] is not in the Greek or Latin text. . . . At the same time . . . it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had undertaken to speak in the translation. But it is the nature of our German language that in speaking of two things, one of which is affirmed and the other denied, we use the word solum (allein) along with the word nicht [not] or kein [no]. For example, we say, ‘The farmer brings allein [only] grain and kein [no] money.’

. . . This is the German usage, even though it is not the Latin or Greek usage. It is the nature of the German language to add the word allein in order that the word nicht or kein may be clearer or more complete. Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, pp. 188,189

Luther plainly acknowledged that the word alone is not in the Greek text, but there was good reason to include that word because of the nuances of the German language.

An answer from Scripture

Certainly, if we are not saved by our good works or by a combination of faith and good works, then we are saved through faith alone. That is the consistent message of Scripture. “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28). If we are saved by faith, and the works of the law have no place in our salvation, then we are saved by faith alone. “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). If we are justified by faith and not the works of the law, then we are saved by faith alone.

Sola fide (Latin for “by faith alone”) is a Christian doctrine that does not hinge on a single verse or even a single word in the Bible but is clearly a truth of Scripture.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

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