Sunday, June 06, 2010

Luther on the Biblical Languages

Luther has some fine words to say about the learning and maintenance of the languages. In this post I simply offer for your consideration some of his more extended comments from "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools" (1524):

The value of the languages:

In proportion, then, as we prize the Gospel, let us guard the languages. For not in vain did God have His Scriptures set down in these two languages alone — the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, that God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word, we too ought to honor above all others

Preserving the languages in order to preserve the gospel:

And let us be sure of this: 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. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German. As proof and warning of this, let us take the deplorable and dreadful example of the universities and monasteries, in which men have not only unlearned the gospel, but have in addition so corrupted the Latin and German languages that the miserable folk have been fairly turned into beasts, unable to speak or write a correct German or Latin, and have well-nigh lost their natural reason to boot.

I fear this day has already come! Alas, we cannot even write correct Latin and so we "have been fairly turned into beasts".

The problem of the Fathers:

"But," you say,"many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without languages." That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so frequently erred in the Scriptures? How often does not St. Augustine err in the Psalter and in other expositions! Likewise St. Hilary, and indeed all of them who attempted to expound Scripture without the languages. And even though what they said now and then was true, they were not sure whether it really belonged in the passage into which they read it.

Better to study the languages than pour over commentaries:

Hence, it is also a stupid undertaking to attempt to gain an understanding of Scripture by laboring through the commentaries of the fathers and a multitude of books and glosses. Instead of this, men should have devoted themselves to the languages. Because they were ignorant of languages, the dear fathers at times expended many words in dealing with a text. Yet when they were all done they had scarcely taken its measure; they were half right and half wrong. Still, you continue to pore over them with immense labor even though, if you knew the languages, you could get further with the passage than they whom you are following. As sunshine is to shadow, so is the language itself compared to all the glosses of the fathers.

The ease of acquiring the languages in the current day:

Since, then, it becomes Christians to use the Holy Scriptures as their own and only book, and it is a sin and shame not to know our own book nor to understand our God’s speech and words, it is a still greater sin and loss if we do not study the languages, the more that God is now offering and giving us men and books and every aid and inducement to this study, and desires His Bible to be an open book. How glad would the dear fathers have been if they had had our opportunity of learning the languages and coming thus equipped to the Holy Scriptures! What toil and labor it cost them barely to gather up the crumbs, while we may have the whole loaf with but half their labor, indeed, with scarce any labor at all. Oh, how their diligence puts our indolence to shame; nay, how strictly God will judge our lack of diligence and gratitude!

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