Let the Books Tell the Story: J. S. Bach’s Bible and Reformation Treasures Displayed at Concordia

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary, Parents/Family/Community, Uncategorized
By Jeffrey Leininger

Editor’s Note: Throughout October 2017, Concordia hosted on campus a historic display of Reformation-era rare books. Over 2,500 visitors viewed in person 40 original items which told the Reformation story beginning with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1454) and culminating in J. S. Bach’s personal, annotated “Calov” Bible (1681). The exhibit was a remarkable collaboration of Midwest theological libraries, whose combined efforts far exceeded what any institution could have done individually.1

The fall 2017 Ferguson Art Gallery show worked in tandem with the rare books exhibit by displaying significant photos of the items themselves. Gathered around the themes of theology, scripture, education, and the fine-arts the show connected Concordia’s own history as a Lutheran university with the dramatic changes unleashed through the advent of printing.

We have reprinted three images from the Ferguson Gallery show in this edition of LEJ. A full exhibit booklet describing each of the books is available on Concordia’s website.

The Western world underwent a technological upheaval 500 years ago, comparable to the present-day information revolution. Around 1454, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the use of movable type, the culmination of a series of innovations we commonly refer to as the printing press. This is rightly understood as one of the most important inventions in history, as every subsequent development in knowledge, technology or culture would be disseminated through Gutenberg’s press. By 1500 A.D. printing presses had appeared in 250 cities, with 20 million individual books being spread and read throughout Europe.


Long regarded as the Queen of the Sciences, the academic discipline of theology became a major battlefield in the Reformation controversies. These debates might sound overly caustic or even petty to the modern ear, but the Lutheran reformers in particular came to regard the right understanding, organization and articulation of the truths of God as a matter of eternal consequence. How you talked about God changed how you thought about God, which in turn struck at the very heart of faith in God. Central to all Lutheran theology of the period was a confession of the gracious activity of God given solely through faith in Jesus Christ—His light to a dark world in the Incarnation, His blood on the cross shed for free forgiveness and reconciliation, and His resurrection from the dead for new life and eternal life.

The images in the gallery, and the original books from which they have been collected, tell a story of deep concern for and intense controversy over theological truth. Handwritten notes, marginalia and underscores are commonly discovered in these Reformation-era books—a reflection both of the wide availability of printed material and the importance ascribed to religious debates.


Luther’s principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone) fueled an urgency to bring the word of God into the vernacular—that everyone might have access to the light of the gospel in their own language. But it also resulted in the development and standardization of language throughout Europe and even in the New World. Luther’s highly influential 1534 Deutsche Bible—his fresh and vivid German translation of the Bible—brought about consistency in spelling, vocabulary and pronunciation while also standing as a significant landmark in German literature in its own right.

The  Spanish Lutheran reformer,
Casiodoro de Reina, translated and had published the first complete Spanish Bible. Known as the Biblia Del Oso (Bible of the Bear), this edition influenced the ever popular Reina-Valeria Bible, one of the most widely read and beloved translations in the world. The Geneva Bible is regarded as the first self-study Bible, and was intensely read, studied and memorized throughout the English-speaking world. Its 1599 edition helped shape the language of William Shakespeare, illustrating how these fresh biblical tools had immense cultural impact.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Image of Luther the Monk. Concordia Seminary Library Special Collections, St. Louis

Fine Arts

The story of the Reformation’s relationship to the arts is complex. Radical Protestants, such as Huldrich Zwingli, were deeply suspicious of any use of music in the church, and the iconoclastic outbursts that destroyed a millennia of sacred spaces left scars that have not fully healed. The Lutheran tradition, however, largely embraced the arts as a tool for teaching the faith and to glorify God.

The Reformation message was certainly conveyed through the arts—music, drama, poetry, woodcuts, stained glass and painting were all employed with great rigor and skill in order to effect religious change. But the Reformation also transformed the arts, giving birth to new forms of expression and renewed artistic energy and creativity.

J. S. Bach’s Signature. Concordia Seminary Library Special Collections, St. Louis

Religious drama in particular was an effective and powerful medium in the hands of Protestant patrons, players and playwrights. Reformation-themed plays were performed in market places, guildhalls, noblemen’s banquet halls, grammar schools and universities throughout Europe.

The most important musical contribution of the Reformation was its emphasis on congregational singing. While some early vernacular hymns were sung in pre-Reformation times, the Reformers greatly expanded the repertory and purpose of hymnody to inspire and instruct the faithful. Hymns were printed on broadsheets and then quickly gathered into hymnals, the first being the Etlich Cristlich lider of 1524, the so-called Achtliederbuch (Book of Eight Songs).

J.S. Bach’s music, although arriving two centuries later, is unquestionably one of the greatest exemplars of the Reformation artistic legacy. His hand-written notes in his personal Bible (on display as part of the rare books exhibit) illustrate the sincerity of his personal faith and the depths of his Lutheran theological insights.


The Reformation movement embraced the humanist renewal of the study of the classics for educational purposes, but also added particular emphasis on religious instruction, lay literacy and the use of vernacular texts in instruction. Many excellent Latin texts, teaching aids and curricula already existed from the work of scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet and Jacques Lefèvre. However, the Lutheran reformers’ widespread use of catechisms for religious instruction and to increase literacy was unparalleled. The first books ever printed in Lithuanian and Estonian were Lutheran catechisms. The father of the Finnish language, Mikael Agricola, began first with a catechism/alphabet book called the ABC-Kiria. By 1531 Luther’s German catechism contained 23 woodcuts to be employed as visual aids for the student.

Title Page of the Luther Bible, 1534, courtesy of Concordia University Chicago

The early Reformation Church Orders and School Orders, such as Johannes Bugenhagen’s Christian Order of Braunschweig (1528) contained detailed prescriptions for many aspects of congregational and civic life, including instructions for the training of schoolmasters and the regulation of universities.

It is also noteworthy that the modern concept of public education has a significant source in Protestant Germany. Under the insistence of Luther and other reformers, civic governments began to supervise, standardize, finance and make quality education accessible for all—including rich and poor, boys and girls alike.

Luther’s recovery of the Gospel and the changes unleashed in the fields of biblical interpretation, theology, education and the fine arts are best understood through the books themselves—the very volumes held in the hands of scholars, clergy and laypeople. By studying these historic items—their content, how they were used, what they looked like and where they traveled—we were able to observe the Reformation’s impact on the Western world.

The Protestant reformers lived at the dawn of the age of the printed book, while we stand at its dusk. The images shown at the gallery, as well as the corresponding rare books exhibit, told the story of the Reformation in new and meaningful ways during this historic anniversary year.


  1. Concordia gratefully acknowledges the following institutions: Special Collections, Buswell Library at Wheaton College, IL; Concordia Seminary Library Special Collections,
    St. Louis; Concordia Theological Seminary Library, Fort Wayne, IN; Feehan Memorial Library, University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL; Gruber Rare Books Collection, Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago; James White Library, Andrews University, MI; Klink Memorial Library, Concordia University Chicago; Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana; The Newberry Library, Chicago