Martin Luther: If we neglect the biblical languages, the gospel will perish 6

The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s treatise, To the councilmen of all the cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian schools, where he predicts what will happen to Christian doctrine when teachers think they can ignore the biblical languages.

Though written 490 years ago, so accurate are its predictions and so contemporary its application that it stands on its own without further commentary. (The excerpt is long, but it’s all good.)

Luther's Wittenberg

Luther’s Wittenberg

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone–the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others….

We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments….

For this reason even the apostles themselves considered it necessary to set down the New Testament and hold it fast in the Greek language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us there safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come, and now has come to pass; they knew that if it was left exclusively to men’s memory, wild and fearful disorder and confusion and a host of varied interpretations, fancies, and doctrines would arise in the Christian church, and that this could not be prevented and the simple folk protected unless the New Testament were set down with certainty in written language. Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish….

The Holy Spirit is no fool. He does not busy himself with inconsequential or useless matters. He regarded the languages as so useful and necessary to Christianity that he ofttimes brought them down with him from heaven. This alone should be a sufficient motive for us to pursue them with diligence and reverence and not to despise them, for he himself has now revived them again upon the earth.

Yes, you say, but many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without the languages. That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so often erred in the Scriptures?…

When our faith is thus held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages….

There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture, or, as St. Paul puts it, a prophet. A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages. Now there must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations. A saintly life and right doctrine are not enough. Hence languages are absolutely and altogether necessary in the Christian church, as are the prophets or interpreters; although it is not necessary that every Christian or every preacher be such a prophet, as St. Paul points out in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4….

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!

Here belongs also what St. Paul calls for in I Corinthians 14, namely, that in the Christian church all teachings must be judged. For this a knowledge of the language is needful above all else. The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done in any other way. Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations. Hence, Psalm 129 likens such scriptural studies to a hunt, saying to the deer God opens the dense forests; and Psalm 1 likens them to a tree with a plentiful supply of water, whose leaves are always green….

I can by no means commend the Waldensian Brethren for their neglect of the languages. For even though they may teach the truth, they inevitably often miss the true meaning of the text, and thus are neither equipped nor fit for defending the faith against error. Moreover, their teaching is so obscure and couched in such peculiar terms, differing from the language of Scripture, that I fear it is not or will not remain pure. For there is great danger in speaking of things of God in a different manner and in different terms than God himself employs.

Martin Luther. 1524.

6 thoughts on “Martin Luther: If we neglect the biblical languages, the gospel will perish

  1. Rebekah Jan 27, 2015 11:17 am

    Amen! I just finished reading a fantastic (5 star) Luther biography early this year, “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther” by Roland H. Bainton.

    • James Duncan Jan 27, 2015 12:58 pm

      I agree. I’m using that book in a class I’m teaching this semester on the connection between the Reformation and the printing press.

    • Chris Jan 28, 2015 1:42 pm

      Did you read it in Greek or Hebrew? does it count if you did not read it in Greek or Hebrew?

  2. Matthew Abate Jan 27, 2015 1:53 pm

    I loved this blast from the past. The more I dive into church history, the more I realize that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If I trust in God, then this means I should trust how he used his servants to buttress the apostolic teaching once and for all delivered to the saints.

  3. brian Jan 28, 2015 3:24 pm

    I have read (with appreciation) Luther’s quote about the original languages before. Clearly there is something important in what he says. It seems to me that a big part of Luther’s concern was what was lost to the church universal when: 1) the teaching of the day was based on the Latin Vulgate; and 2) when the language of the Vulgate was not readily accessible to most readers; and 3) the way the Vulgate rendered some words and was subsequently explained obscured the basic meaning of the Biblical text. Prior to Erasmus’ critical Greek text, for all intents and purposes the only text of Scripture available was the Vulgate. (Luther himself provided the first printed German translation and Tyndale the first printed English translation from the original languages.)

    What does this mean for us? Do we all have to be able to read the original languages so as to guard against the erosion of Biblical truth and the compromise in teaching? (I do read Greek well enough to follow along in church in my Greek New Testament and can, with some hard work, translate Hebrew.) But I wouldn’t take Luther’s injunction as a mandate that all believers must be able to read the original languages.

    What might be the appropriate implications for the “average” Christian who reads English well enough but who won’t probably ever learn to read Greek or Hebrew? Are they relegated to some sub-standard Christian life? I think not.

    I believe what we can take away from Luther’s counsel would include: 1) read a good translation; don’t prize “readability” and ease of understanding over a solid language-based approach to translation; 2) don’t be casual in your reading of Scripture; wrestle hard to pay attention to the words written, listen well to what the text says, and allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves; 3) appreciate those who help you understand the text through careful teaching and exposition; be cautious about those who tend to explain away passages or “soften” what the text seems to say or who privilege their own particular “spin” on Scripture; 4) read the Bible for yourself; don’t settle for occasional glimpses into it, don’t be content with others’ explaining texts to you, don’t read other things more than your read God’s Word.

  4. Rod Jan 28, 2015 3:38 pm

    Silly. You know Church History only goes back 15 years!

Comments are closed.