We have Bibles in our homes. Luther did not. He grew up in a home full of superstitious beliefs. His parents could afford to send him to school and religion was doubtless involved, but the teachings of the Bible were not a part of his education.
Why did few homes have a Bible during the Middle Ages? First, few people outside of the monasteries could read. Second, before the invention of the printing press Bibles were scarce and expensive because all copies had to be handwritten.
Third, while the local priests did read small portions of the Bible during church services, they read from a Latin version of the Bible; few people would have been able to understand the priest’s reading.
The most important reason is that the Church of Rome did not want the ordinary people to have access to a Bible, especially to one in their own language.
The church taught that the common people could not understand the Bible. Of course, the church leaders knew that a Bible-reading people would see through the errors, superstitions, and corruptions of the Roman Catholic church.
Giving the people the Bible would endanger the power, wealth and prestige of the priests, bishops, cardinals and popes.
So how did medieval people worship? Not by studying the Bible or listening to Bible-true sermons but by participating in many duties and rites invented by men.
In 1504, when Luther was twenty years old, he found a Latin translation of the Bible in the library of the University of Erfurt.
Yes, Luther saw religiosity everywhere: he saw church spires stretching toward the sky, heard church bells pealing at set times, and smelled the incense wafting upward from the censers. But he had never seen a whole Bible. And he was twenty-years old!
Luther often returned to that Bible on the dusty library shelves. He found so many pages, so many chapters, so many Bible books that he had not met during the first twenty years of his life. Did reading in the Latin Vulgate Bible work a change in Luther? We don’t know.
Perhaps he read it only with his head and not with his heart, just as we often do. The Bible is very, very important but Luther and all men need the Holy Spirit to teach us how to read God’s Word—and how to be read by that Word!