Lose the Languages, Lose the Gospel

In my last article, I talk about how the “opinion of the Law” clings to us all. It’s the opinion that can keep the Law completely or partially on our own, even though we are so completely full of sin and death that we cannot look upright or fully understand or comprehend it. As the Psalmist says, “Who can discern his errors?” (Ps 19) Only one thing can rouse and wake us from languishing in our legalistic stupor and slumber: the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph 6:17). Only through wielding the Spirit-filled Word (Rev 1) does Jesus slay our old Adam that we might live anew in righteousness and purity forever before God our heavenly Father. When it comes to this Word, however, we must keep in mind how they were written, and they were written not in English but in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The study of these languages is very important. The study of these languages needs to be retained, defended, praised, and exalted with in God’s holy Christian Church. The true substance of Scripture is clear no matter the language: Jesus Christ, sent from the Father, died and rose again that we too will die to sin, live to righteousness, and rise again from death to live forever body and soul. There are times, however, when translations fall short. They can fall short for many reasons, but sometimes they fall short due to applying a different force to a word. This means, for example, that a word in English will carry a different force than what the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word carried. This means that the original intent of the author is missed, and therefore the Spirit’s meaning is slightly missed. Examples of this will come in subsequent articles.

When it comes to defending the languages, we can look to the first and chief teacher of the Lutheran Church. We look to Martin Luther. He has wise and sage advice for us as we seek to remain faithful in preaching and teaching the Gospel. This isn’t just for Lutherans but for all Christians, all saints in Christ’s one, holy, and universal Christian Church. In 1524 Martin Luther wrote To the Council Men of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools. He extols and praises Christian schools for training godly men and women. You can find the entire work in The American Edition of Luther’s Works: Christian in Society II, Volume 45 (pp. 339–378). The following are excerpts.

“All right,” you say again, “suppose we do have to have schools; what is the use of teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the other liberal arts? We could just as well use German for teaching the Bible and God’s Word, which is enough for salvation.” (357)

Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages, was spread abroad by that means, and must be preserved by the same means. For just when God wanted to spread the gospel throughout the world by means of the apostles he gave the tongues for that purpose [Acts 2:1-11]. Even before that, by means of the Roman Empire he had spread the Latin and Greek languages widely in every land in order that his gospel might the more speedily bear fruit far and wide. (358–59)

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. (359)

King David too boasts in Psalm 147 [:19-20], “He declares his word to Jacob, hist statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation or revealed to them his ordinances.” Hence, too, the Hebrew language is called sacred…Similarly, the Greek language to may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (359–60)

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 [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the [jewelry box] in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the [pantry] in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel points out [Matt. 14:20], they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. (360)

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. (360)

St. Augustine himself is obliged to confess, as he does in his Christian Instruction, that a Christian teacher who is to expound the Scriptures must know Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin. Otherwise, it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling, there are plenty of problems to work out even when one is well versed in the languages. (362–63)

There must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations. (363)

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