A related topic is whether or not Luther perpetuated the notion that Romanism previous to Luther was so hostile to the Bible that it desired to keep it out of the hands of the people. This pro-Romanist argument holds Luther simply lied when he said things like "They [the Papists] are still angry and refuse to listen when people say, that, with them, Scripture lay under the bench, and that their mad delusions alone prevailed." Contrarily, they say, Romanism did not place the Bible "under the bench." Romanism made the Scriptures and the content of the Scriptures available for all. Luther simply lied and polemicized. Luther deliberately lied when he said things like, "But up to this time, the idea that the laity should read the Scriptures has been treated with derision."
"Under The Bench"
There are a number of quotes and contexts from Luther's writings that address this topic. Most popular is his use of the phrase "under the bench." Luther used the phrase "under the bench" many times in describing something that has either been ignored, forgotten, or purposefully placed. Sometimes he uses it merely as a figure of speech describing the hangover and stupor of alcoholism (LW 16:219; 19:200).
Luther accused some of his detractors of purposefully leaving their regular books "under the bench" in order to cash in on the zeitgeist of the day (LW 34:12). He also said a schismatic spirit seduces the world because it "follows insane reason and leaves the Word of God lying under the bench" (LW 21:261; cf. Cole's Select Works, p. 544). He accused Carlstadt of shoving the Gospel under the bench because of his false teaching (LW 40:100). He points out though that even some of those people not hiding the Gospel under the bench "teach not at all who Christ is, or what should be known about him" (LW 40:109). Contrarily, proclaiming God's truth is to not hide it "under the bench" (LW 21:57). It therefore follows for the church that it is no longer "safe to leave the Word of God and hide it under the bench" (LW 28:253). Formerly, Luther says, the Gospel was "under the bench." But now it's been revealed, "For this is truly where all our salvation and consolation in every need is to be found, so that we may know that there is no other help in heaven or on earth against sin and every temptation than this knowledge or faith" (LW 69:37).
If someone wishes to rely on the writings of Fathers rather than the Bible, one might as well "shove [the Bible] under the bench and, in its stead, lay only the fathers and councils on the desk" (LW 41:49). Misinterpretations of Scripture that crept into the church go unchallenged because the Scriptures have been lying under the bench (LW 20:278-279). When the church concentrated on studying other books than the Bible, the Bible ends up "under the bench"(LW 34:283). By focusing on theologians and their books, medieval schools caused "the gospel [to lie] neglected in the schools and in the courts." The Gospel was "pushed aside under the bench and gathers dust so that the scandalous laws of the pope alone may have full sway"(LW 44:204; cf. An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility).
As to understanding the correct teaching of Paul on spirit and the letter of the law, the church was prone to confusion because it "threw the Scriptures and Saint Paul’s epistles under the bench" and had rather "like swine in husks, wallowed in man’s nonsense!" (Church Postil, Twelfth Sunday After Trinity). In his 1531 preface to the Psalter Luther complained, "In past years very many books have been peddled around, legends of the saints and passionals, books of examples and stories, and the world has been filled with them, so that the Psalter lay, meanwhile, under the bench and in such darkness that not one Psalm was rightly understood"(PE VI: 384; cf LW 35:253). In his 1518 Preface to the Complete Edition of a German Theology, Luther had to explain why his translation of a book by an unknown mystic was worthy of reading. Luther felt this unknown mystic wrote about the Gospel similarly to him. Therefore there were others before him saying the same things about the Gospel. But those in the "universities" did not discuss the Gospel, causing "the result that the holy Word of God has not only been laid under the bench but has almost been destroyed by dust and filth" [LW 31:75]. In his Large Catechism, Luther states,
43 Where he does not cause the Word to be preached and does not awaken understanding in the heart, all is lost. This was the case under the papacy, where faith was entirely shoved under the bench and no one recognized Christ as the Lord, or the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier. That is, no one believed that Christ is our Lord in the sense that he won for us this treasure without our works and merits and made us acceptable to the Father. 44 What was lacking here? There was no Holy Spirit present to reveal this truth and have it preached. Men and evil spirits there were, teaching us to obtain grace and be saved by our works. 45 Therefore there was no Christian church. For where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church, and outside it no one can come to the Lord Christ. 46 Let this suffice concerning the substance of this article. But since various points in it are not quite clear to the common people, we shall run through them also. [Book of Concord, p. 416].
One of the most explicit "under the bench" statement from Luther comes from his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings:
I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is precious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)[LW 34:283]
I cannot, however, prevent them from wanting to collect and publish my works through the press (small honor to me), although it is not my will. I have no choice but to let them risk the labor and the expense of this project. My consolation is that, in time, my books will lie forgotten in the dust anyhow, especially if I (by God’s grace) have written anything good. Non ere melior Patribus meis. He who comes second should indeed be the first one forgotten. Inasmuch as they have been capable of leaving the Bible itself lying under the bench, and have also forgotten the fathers and the councils—the better ones all the faster—accordingly there is a good hope, once the overzealousness of this time has abeted, that my books also will not last long. There is especially good hope of this, since it has begun to rain and snow books and teachers, many of which already lie there forgotten and moldering. Even their names are not remembered any more, despite their confident hope that they would eternally be on sale in the market and rule churches.[LW 34:284]
From this sampling of Luther's use of the phrase, "under the bench" some of the following conclusions can be drawn. When Luther uses the phrase "under the bench" he is often concerned with anything that obscures the Gospel. Even though church history previous to the 16th century was replete with theologians, that the Gospel wasn't given its proper place of prominence, was for Luther, nothing else but ignoring the Word of God and leaving (or placing it) "under the bench." Luther was likewise concerned with the actions of his contemporaries, that they to, even with the Bible in their hands, give the Gospel it's proper place of prominence. If it was not treated with the importance it deserved, it was akin to placing it "under the bench." That other authorities were relied on besides the Bible was an act of placing the Scriptures "under the bench." In fact, the prevailing scholasticism Luther encountered had placed the Bible "under the bench." The Roman church, by it's own authoritative canon laws and decrees set on par with Scripture and serving as a basis to interpret Scripture was an act of placing the Word of God "under the bench."
J.M. Reu: Luther's German Bible
But what of the charge that Luther said Romanists didn't want the laity to read the Scriptures? The most in-depth English treatment of Luther's German Bible was put together many years ago by J.M Reu in his Luther's German Bible: an historical presentation, together with a collection of sources (The Lutheran book concern, 1934). Reu asks, "What then is to be said concerning the other opinion that the Bible was almost wholly unknown among clergy and laity at the conclusion of the middle ages? It does seem to be established beyond doubt by the statements of no less a person than Luther himself" (p.3). Reu mentions exactly what I did previously- various unreliable Table Talk utterances.
He then goes on to provide a detailed account of the extant and availability of the Bible previous to Luther. Of the Latin Bible manuscripts he states, "It would not be surprising if there were 20,000 Bible manuscripts in circulation in the fifteenth century" (p. 7). Of actual Latin Bible printings "the number of Latin Bibles printed in Germany before 1520 amounted to 20,000-27,000 copies" (p. 11). Reu also notes the extensive amount of scripture available via Latin Plenaria and the Psalter. He likeswise documents the extensive availabilty of the German Bible's and other German material containing Scripture previous to Luther. He then states, "After the facts that have been presented is there any further need of proof to show that the use of the Bible and the knowledge of its contents were comparatively widespread in the middle ages?" (p. 54).
After 65 pages of extensive research showing the availability of Scripture in its various forms he asks, "In the face of such facts, how can Luther say that the Bible was unknown under the papacy?" (p. 65). He give the following answer, which I cite at length (pp. 65-74):
In the face of such facts, how can Luther say that the Bible was unknown under the papacy? Pietsch (Ewangely vnd Epistel Teutsch, p. 275 seq.) has entered into a thorough consideration of this question and has recapitulated the opinion of Luther, as it was expressed in the previously given [Table Talk] quotations, in the following propositions: 1. The Bible, either in manuscript or in printed form, was not available in a sufficient number of copies during the middle ages and particularly during the last century of that period. 2. Partly as a result of this scarcity the clergy often possessed only a very deficient knowledge of the contents of the Bible or lacked it altogether. 3. Very erroneous ideas prevailed concerning the contents of certain books of the Bible, as, for example, concerning Romans; the names of the prophets were unknown to many and the psalter as a book that was comprehensible only to the most distinguished theologians. 4. The Bible was not properly valued for the consciousness of its significance and its superiority to all other theological literature had been lost. It was not recognized and valued as the primary source of Christianity and the sole foundation of the Church but was smothered in the mass of surrounding theological writing, and its understanding was conditioned by the interpretation of the Church.
Undoubtedly this last point was correctly grasped by Luther and it can be supported by overwhelming proof. That Luther particularly wanted to emphasize this fact, above all else, we can see very clearly in another declaration of his that was not given above but that our Roman opponents today still quote wrathfully, that under the papacy "Scripture was despised" (hat unter der Bank gelegen). It is only necessary to read it in its entirety as it is found in Luther's expositionof the prophet Zechariah, of the year 1527 (W. Ed. 23, p. 606). There he remarks to 8:19: "But what do you think of our teachers, who apply the statement concerning the fasts of the four months, occurring here, to the four ember weeks, or the 'Quatember'? Does it not agree wonderfully? God says that these four fasts shall be ended and shall be cheerful feasts, so they twist these words to mean, there shall be four sad fasts in the year just as they do in other places; where God says, no, they say, yes; where God teaches grace and faith, they substitute works and merit. They rage and will not listen when they are told that Scripture was despised by them (unter der Bank gelegen ist), and their mad dreams alone have taken the place of authority." According to our evangelical ideas this is still a correct judgment concerning the attitude of the Church towards the Bible in the middle ages. It does not question the existence of Bibles, in fact affirms it, but bewails the fact that the Bible has lost its rightful authority over the doctrine of the Church. How truthfully this can be said about the Epistle to the Romans may easily be seen by anyone who reads the medieval preface to this Epistle, that we have given in part II, according to which this mighty Epistle has hardly any significance for this present age. Luther's other utterances cannot, indeed, be applied in this general way, but it does not follow for that reason that they are false. In them Luther is speaking out of his own experiences. As far as these experiences went his statements were true, even if expressed in rather emphatic language, such as is still used, on occasion, in the conversation of small circles of friends. We must not forget that these statements are taken from the Tischreden and it is generally recognized that because of the manner of their transmission they are not always dependable. However, from the evidence that has passed before us it is obvious that the Bible was widely disseminated in many places and extensively used, but that this was not by any means the case everywhere, least of all among the priests and religious of all localities. It can be shown that just in Saxon-Thueringia, at the beginning of the sixteenth century the cultural and the religious life alike had sunk much lower than that of southern, western or northwestern Germany. Whoever attempts to generalize these utterances of Luther, as still too often happens in popular presentations, contradicts the historic facts and does a great injustice to the middle ages and their closing years.
Luther's opinion may also have been partly influenced by the official attitude of the Church towards the Bible during the middle ages. What was that attitude? During the first half of the middle ages both Church and state provided translations of the Bible in the vernacular and therefore evidently desired them to be read. Charlemagne discarded the idea that only the three languages that Pilate had used on the Cross were holy. He must have had some connection with the preparation of that Bible of which a fragment has been preserved in the "Monseer Matthaeus." That his successors maintained a similar attitude is shown by the production and circulation of the Heliand and Otfried's Book of the Gospels. Pope Hadrian in 867 allowed the use of the vernacular to the Slavs, even for the liturgical services, with the justification that "He who made the three most excellent languages, namely, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin, also made all the other languages for His honor and praise." So the Gospel Harmony that originated in Fulda around 830 (p. 21) could hardly have come into existence without the approval of the local bishop. Another Gospel harmony, since completely lost, is said to have come from the Freisinger Bishop Valdo (884-906).145 Notker Labeo (p. 22) was the official director of the convent school and Williram (p. 21) was abbot of the monastery. But after Gregory VII in 1080 had again withdrawn from the Slavs the right to conduct the liturgy in the vernacular, and had based his action on the assertion that Scripture is obscure in many places, a change began to take place in the official attitude of the Church towards the use of the vernacular. At first this changed attitude related only to its liturgical use and meant little for Germany since there the Mass and its scriptural lessons had for centuries been recited in Latin. The prohibition of German Bibles would not have been a consequence of this arrangement but would have followed from the reasons on which it was based. The appearance of heretical movements, that demanded and practised Bible reading by the laity, helped to carry this tendency of the Church further till in 1199 Innocent III issued the only papal decree concerning Bible reading by the laity, and therefore the only decision applicable to the whole Church, that appeared before the Reformation. (Text of the papal decision in Part II). In the diocese of Metz laymen had procured translations of the Bible and read and explained them in secret assemblies, and this was connected with the Albigensian movement, that just at this time was becoming very conspicuous in France. The members of this lay gathering in the diocese of Metz, composed of men and women, not only read the Scriptures in the vernacular but at the same time they showed their contempt for the preaching of the clergy and openly asserted that their house services were more edifying and better than the services of the priests. The decision of the pope, which was afterwards included in the Corpus Juris Canonici and so was elevated to the place of an official decree for the entire Church, recognized the great value of Bible reading and commended it, but at the same time explained that the statement in Luke 8:10 (Vobis datum est nosse mysterium regni Dei), did not apply to all Christians but to the Church's teaching office, which God has established for that purpose. Accordingly, when the Bible was read in secret assemblies, when it was interpreted in a way opposed to the teachings of the Church and when the office of the clergy was despised, then Bible reading was to be prohibited. The decisions of the Spanish and Portugese synods (Text in Part II) went further than the papal decree, but they were evidently framed to combat heresy. Again, a hundred years later, the clerically minded emperor Charles IV issued a radical decree against books written in German that "dealt with Holy Scripture," so that the laity might not "be led into heresy and false doctrine through their false understanding of the same." He was seconded by pope Gregory XI who issued a bull from Avignon to the inquisition in Germany on April 27, 1376. It was directed against the heretical laymen "who read and hear what they do not understand." All German books were to be examined, all knowledge of the Bible was to be placed under ecclesiastical control and preaching was to be prohibited to the laity. The main thesis of this decree does not go beyond the enactment recognized up to this time, while the general decree prohibiting all German religious books was so revolutionary that it could hardly have been taken seriously, even by those who recognized Gregory XI. The prohibition of Bible translations in the vernacular by the council of Oxford in 1408 does not concern us particularly as it was directed against Wicliff's translation. In Germany the first official action on this question came in 1485 when the archbishop Berthold of Mainz issued an edict condemning all translations of the Bible from Greek, Latin or other languages; a decree that was renewed on Jan. 4, I486.151 The text of the edict is given in Part II. When this edict has been described as a Bible prohibition the assertion is without foundation. Such a prohibition was not issued before the Reformation, either by the pope or by a representative of the Church in Germany. Berthold did not want to interfere with the Bible itself. Indeed he alleges as the very reason for his edict his desire for the maintenance of the purity of the Bible: "It is of interest to us to preserve the spotless purity of the divine writings." He was concerned about the translation of the Bible into German. Those who attempt translations into German are for him "criminal, shameless, foolish and unlearned men, who are only moved by the desire for fame and money." He wanted to protect those committed to his charge from such a degrading of Scripture for he was convinced that the German language was not able correctly to reproduce the profound speculations of Greek and Latin authors. While he prohibited the printing of any German Bible, and threatened excommunication and a heavy fine for the disregard of his edict, at the same time he appointed a Master of Arts from each of the four faculties of Erfurt who together were to constitute a commission which first had to approve every translation before it appeared in print.
The Archbishop of Mainz did not stand alone in this attitude towards the German Bible. Kropatscheck has shown (p. 118 seq.) that Geiler von Kaisersberg, Sebastian Brant and Wimpfeling, in spite of their sympathy with humanism, took the same position. Even the writer of the famous tract "De Libris Teutonicalibus," of which Gerhard Zerbolt von Zuetphen was for a long time supposed to have been the author, in spite of his energetic advocacy of the preparation and use of popular German religious books, believed that the people should not be given the whole Bible in their mother tongue. The "milk" (I Cor. 3:2), that is the historical books in particular might be given them but not the difficult books, like the Prophets, the Pauline epistles and Revelation, which were food only adapted to the strong and those further advanced.
So the official attitude of the Church became changed from the original encouragement of Bible translations to a mere toleration and, at last, in the great archdiocese of Mainz, to direct opposition and the imposition of a censorship. So we can readily understand why it was that after the thirteenth century no men of learning or of ecclesiastical prominence devoted themselves to the work of translating the Bible, and why, at the turning point of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the production of books had increased so greatly, there were so many Plenaria and similar books printed from 1491 to 1518, but that only two complete printed German Bibles appeared and that the printer of the first Low German Bible felt compelled to apologize for its publication. This change in the attitude of the Church dare not be forgotten when we rejoice at the great number of Bibles or portions of Bibles that came into existence during the period of toleration and were so extensively circulated and used by the clergy, in the convents and schools, and among a growing number of the laity.
But even in considering this abundance of Bibles and the extensive diffusion of biblical knowledge a number of other facts must be kept in mind. It was not so much the illiteracy of the people and the great cost of the manuscripts and later of the printed Bibles that prevented the German Bible from becoming a book of the people. Those considerations have frequently been stressed beyond reason. In fact the ability to read was more general than is commonly admitted. At the close of the middle ages most of the cities, even down to the smaller ones, had their schools. In many sections, as in the Rhineland and East Frisia there were even village schools. If the schools had not already been functioning how could we account for the flood of German literature that was printed, sold and read between 1460 and 1522? And whence could the ability of the people to read have come so suddenly in 1522, when Luther's translation of the New Testament appeared? And why was he not concerned about the schools before that year? Even the great cost should not be regarded as so important. The first complete printed Bible, a large folio, was bought unbound on June 27, 1466 for 12 gulden (p. 28). In 1499, 9 gulden was paid for a complete printed Bible. Five Plenaria, with that great number of Old and New Testament pericopes, together with the glosses of the edition of 1510, were sold at the
Leipzig Easter Fair for one gulden,155 while the Wittenberg publisher of Luther's New Testament, in 1522, charged from one-half to one and a half gulden for a copy (compare chapter three) ! If it is at all possible to compare prices, considering that the New Testament was hardly any larger than the Plenarium, the price charged for a Plenarium was very low.
No, there are other and much more weighty facts that we must keep in mind.
1. All the German translations of the middle ages were made from the Vulgate and not from the original languages, and at that they depended in large part on manuscripts that were faulty.
2. After the thirteenth century none of the translators were equally proficient in German and Latin, while many actually had a very poor knowledge of Latin. The Roman Catholic Jostes (Histor. Jahrbuch d. Gorresgesellschaft XV, 775) states that, "All the medieval translations, aside from a few old High German ones, were made by men who did not occupy the highest rank among those of the day who were familiar with the textual criticism of the Bible. The translators were not trained exegetes."
3. None of the translators of the thirteenth century give us the impression of having lived themselves into the spirit of the Bible, which is something every one must do who would be a good translator.
4. Each of the translators felt himself bound in his translation and explanation by the teaching of the Church, as the final determining authority. So the Dominican John Mensing in his book Gründliche vnterricht: Was eyn frommer Christen von der heyligen Kirchen, von den Vetern vnd der heyligen schrifft halten sol, wrote as late as 1528: "Scripture can deceive, the Church cannot deceive. Who does not perceive then that the Church is greater than Scripture and that we can entrust ourselves better to the Church than to Scripture."
5. The medieval Church regarded Scripture only as a law, so that Nova Lex became a favorite designation for the New Testament. Of the innumerable statements that certify this fact we will only refer to those of the previously quoted tract, De Libris Teutonicalibus, which so energetically advocated a limited free use of the Bible. Here we read: "Holy Scripture has been given man for the assistance and support of natural law, namely that what man is unable to see by means of the darkened or dimmer natural law within, being aided by Scripture from without, he may learn and see, so that he recognizes and embraces the good and avoids the evil." To understand these conditions it is only necessary to read the widely used postils that usually accompanied the Plenaria or the glosses to the equally widely read Speculum Humanae Salvationis, and for that reason we have included specimens in Part II. Occasionally they strike a note of deep evangelical feeling, but almost always they get no further than the externals, or immediately revert to legalism. The acceptance of the fourfold meaning of Scripture, which we find everywhere and from which even Lyra does not escape, does not allow them to penetrate into the heart of Scripture but only opens the way to an understanding that agrees with the teaching of the Church and with a legal interpretation.
6. For us the glad tidings of the crucified and risen Lord, who has established the righteousness that God, in His grace, imparts to the believer, is the very centre of Scripture. This the translators and exegetes of the middle ages did not understand, and when some of them had a certain intuitive feeling for this fact and stammered their expression of it, this knowledge was still not the center of their faith and life. It was this and not the lack of an extensive knowledge of Scripture, much need as there, undoubtedly was for improvement in that as well, that made the Bible a closed book in the Middle Ages. Here it was that a reformation was necessary.
Luther did not deliberately lie with his "under the bench" statements. For the most part he was reacting to the absence of the Gospel which dominated Romanism. True indeed, a Romanist will argue the Roman church taught the Gospel previous to Luther. Here though the question of the definition of the Gospel defines the debate. If the Gospel is as Luther claims, the Roman Church put it and the Scriptures "under the bench".
For Luther, the Bible was also "under the bench" because it had become entangled with the books of theologians and the decrees of councils. That is, it wasn't given the supreme place of authority it deserved. David Bagchi showed quite convincingly that Luther's earliest Romanist opponents failed in their efforts against him because while Luther argued primarily with Scripture, his detractors used a different approach:
...[T]hey relied excessively on the early fathers and lacked any doctrine of doctrinal development that would have helped them explain the accretions in practice and belief of the medieval church. They were too ready to contradict the reformers on the basis of established authorities rather than engaging the issues with any seriousness" (Luther's Earliest Opponents, p. 9-10).
During the indulgence controversy this was quite evident:
The Romanists argued that the "ecclesiastical" sources of doctrine (Scripture, the fathers, and canon law) were incomprehensible unless interpreted, and that interpretation provided by the schoolmen was not idle, pagan speculation but part of Christian revelation itself—a fact confirmed by the personal sanctity of many of the scholastic fathers. In the Romanists' opinion, the ecclesiastical sources and the scholastic commentaries, taken together, constituted a consensus of authority, which Tetzel called the rule of Catholic truth, Prierias the rule of faith, and Cajetan the mind of the church. Even Eck, who had promised that his comments on the theses would not be "scholastic," cited a spectrum of authorities ranging from Ecclesiastes to Lombard, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and the church's lex orandi. Modern Roman Catholic scholars have been almost as scandalized as Luther himself by this confusion of text with interpretation, of dogma with private opinion: Paulus remarked that Cajetan had broken with precedent in elevating the papal bull Unigenitus to the status of a binding decision, and Iserloh criticized Wimpina's theses for presuming to declare what was and what was not dogma before a definition had been reached (p.34).