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I recently listened to Dr. Scott Hahn's conversion testimony. One thing that really jumped out at me was that Dr. Hahn stated that Luther purposely inserted the German word "allein" (alone) into Romans 3:28 despite the fact that it is not in the Greek texts.

So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben.

Or in English literally:

Thus, we conclude that a man is justified without the deeds of the law through faith alone.

Was it possibly a mistake, or where there other motivated factors at play?

Are there any writings from Luther that allude to his own translation of this crucial verse?

Note: I asked this question on C.SE (later closed as a duplicate of this question), but thought it might be more appropriate here.

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A good starting place in finding an answer to at least one of your questions can be found at this website. –  rhetorician Aug 12 '13 at 1:28

2 Answers 2

We must remember that two people with the same education and knowledge of original Biblical languages, will, and commonly do, conclude opposite conclusions while maintaining proclaimed objectivity in their exegesis. This is exactly what Protestant and Catholic scholars do concerning this verse. The reality is that everyone makes their exegetical conclusion conform to their hermeneutic, whether they admit it, or not. So maybe, in the end this question is best answered ultimately at C.SE but at the same time some interesting aspects will be brought up here that you would probably not find there.

Anyway to try and help outline a bit of the exegetical aspect of the verse, without claiming any magical objectivity let me just state the obvious. A literal word for word translation of the Greek would not include the word ‘alone’. The Greek simply says:

λογιζομεθα (We reckon) ουν (therefore) πιστει (by faith) δικαιουσθαι (to be justified) ανθρωπον (a man) χωρις (apart from) εργων (works of) νομου (law) (Newberry, T., & Berry, G. R. (2004). The interlinear literal translation of the Greek New Testament, Ro 3:28)

I looked up the Peshitta and it has the same simple format as the Greek without a word for 'alone' added.

However most translations are not literal word-for-word renderings as much of the ideas are lost that way. Rather most translations express original ideas into different words of another language. From a linguistic perspective, where the idea is being translated, rather than each literal word, Luther's rendering is certainly a valid possibility. The idea contained in the phrase 'achievement by means of X and not by means of Y' is arguably the equivalent of 'achievement by means of X alone and not Y'. They are communicating the same concept, one just highlights the exclusivity of X which should be already understood from a rule of logic in the former rendering.

For example, Charles Hodge a former professor of Biblical Languages at Princeton says Luther’s translation is obviously very accurate from the standpoint of a simple 'idea translation' in fact other's before Luther made the translation in the same way:

From the nature of the case, if justification is by faith, it must be by faith alone. Luther’s version, therefore, allein durch den glauben, is fully justified by the context. The Romanists, indeed, made a great outcry against that version as a gross perversion of Scripture, although Catholic translators before the time of Luther had given the same translation. So in the Nuremberg Bible, 1483, “Nur durch den glauben.’ And the Italian Bibles of Geneva, 1476, and of Venice, 1538 per sola fede. The Fathers also often use the expression, “man is justified by faith alone;” so that Erasmus, De Ratione Concionandi, Lib. III., says, “Vox sola, tot clamoribus lapi data hoc sæculo in Luthero, reverenter in Patribus auditur.” See Koppe and Tholuck on this verse. (Hodge, C. (1882). A commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 156)

So what was Luther up to? Luther was probably choosing his words carefully to translate what he thought the true meaning of the verse was, knowing full well that opposing theories would be more offended and more manifest by the crucial distinction of the word 'alone'. If he was right, or wrong in doing so would take much more analysis then this one verse, or any one single verse. This really leads us back then to the subject of the reformation and back to a site like C.SE for more debate over the real doctrinal issues at stake.

As you can probably tell, I am approaching the question from a Protestant hermeneutical tendency.

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That verse is made well known when read in the chapter.

Rom 3: (NASB)

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Rom 4: (NASB)

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:


If you read this in context then the point of this is that it isn't our works that make us Righteous, it is by believing God.

This is supported directly by the bolded text above.

  • 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
  • 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
  • 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
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