The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s treatise, To the councilmen of all the cities in Germany, where he predicts what will happen to Christian doctrine when teachers think they can ignore the biblical languages.
Though written 495 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.)
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.
*If Luther could say these words in 1524, how much more true are they today!
Hebrew and Greek are gifts of God that we can use for gain or ill. Many ministers without the languages treasure Christ and ably pass on this treasure (2 Cor 4:7), and others who know Hebrew and Greek are massively blinded from the glory of Christ (4:3-4). Nevertheless, the biblical languages aid in the “open statement of the truth” (4:2) by which gospel light goes forth (4:5-6), and knowing the languages provides an unmatched connection for individuals with the unchanging Word, which remains unscathed in this ever-changing world.
For the Christian minister who is charged to proclaim God’s truth with accuracy and to preserve the gospel’s purity with integrity, the biblical languages help in one’s study, practice, and teaching of the Word. Properly using the languages opens doors of biblical discovery that would otherwise remain locked and provides interpreters with accountability that they would not otherwise have. The minister who knows Hebrew and Greek will not only feed himself but will also be able to gain a level of biblical discernment that will allow him to respond in an informed way to new translations, new theological perspectives, and other changing trends in Church and culture. With the languages, the interpreter’s observations can be more accurate and thorough, understanding more clear, evaluation more fair, feelings more aligned with truth, application more wise and helpful, and expression more compelling.
†Scripture with the Reformation came to have a renewed influence on life and practice and the making of theology. The supportive role of Scripture in philosophy, law, literature, and sacred music was reinvigorated. Luther came to understand God as the God of grace as opposed to a God of unrelenting judgment thanks to reading the Psalms in Hebrew, and Luther counted the Hebrew language above all as worthy of praise. Some key quotes:
The Greeks express themselves with the best and most delightful words, but the Hebrew language shines with such simplicity and majesty
that it cannot be imitated.
Against all odds, Luther succeeded in giving Hebrew and Greek pride of place in the learned transmission of the Christian faith. Scripture came to be studied in the original languages as part of a larger “return to the sources,” a feature of both the Renaissance and the Reformation. A key quote.
The Hebrew language is held of little account because of a lack of dutifulness or perhaps out of despair at its difficulty …
Without this language there can be no understanding of Scripture, for the selfsame New Testament, though written in Greek, is full of Hebraisms.
Therefore it has been correctly said:
The Jews drink from springs,
the Greeks from rivulets,
the Romans, from puddles.
– from Luther’s “Table Talk,” Aug 9 1532, as recorded by C. Cordatus.
In my studies of getting closer to the Hebrew Language, Hebraisms & Hebrew Expressions – in pursuit of understanding God Almighty and His Word, I have come across many people with varying opinions. Some see it as of no use. Some see it as attempting to become Jewish. And some even see it as a start of a new doctrine/teaching, when in fact learning Hebrew helps you understand the Scriptures better (Even understanding the Greek New Testament, as one third of it is quoted from the Hebrew Old Testament ).
Today, I would like to leave a thought with you using Martin Luther’s words. If Hebrew is the Spring, Greek is the Stream and Latin a Pool, what is English?
Don’t get me wrong. The translators of the hundreds of English Translations available today, have done their own best. But we have to come to the same conclusion about all these translations. A translation is just that. A translation. It will never be as good as the Original. Anyone who has read books from a foreign author in their native language and then read the same book in English or any other language will understand what I am trying to say. Translations will always loose it’s purity down the way. The Spring to the puddle. If a person is happy with the water in the puddle, so be it. I, on the other hand, prefer the Spring. And am swimming towards it, in the pursuit of truth.