Martin Luther, Augustine and the Languages

Originally posted on my blog at



“And, further, if I could bring it to pass among you, I should like to ask that you do not neglect the languages but, since it would not be difficult for you, that you have your preachers and some of your gifted boys learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew well.  I know for a fact that one who has to preach and expound the Scriptures and has no help from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but must do it entirely on the basis of his mother tongue, will make many a pretty mistake.  For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the divine Scriptures. This also was the feeling and opinion of St. Augustine; he held that there should be some people in the church who use Greek and Hebrew before they deal with the Word, because it was in these two languages that the Holy Spirit wrote the Old and New Testaments.” Martin Luther, The Adoration of the Sacrament, in Luther’s Works, vol. 36, p. 304. [Emphasis added]

Dr. Luther wrote this exhortation to the Bohemian Brethren in 1523.  This quote appears at the end of a treatise on the proper adoration of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  In the paragraph before this quote Luther acknowledges the difficulty of understanding the meanings of words from different languages (Czech, German, and Latin.)  Then he exhorts them to teach Latin, Hebrew, and Greek to young men so that they may have proper preachers in the future.

Luther also cited Augustine of Hippo to support this notion.  As indicated in the footnote of the English translation (Ibid.), Luther, most likely, had the following passage in mind:

An important antidote to the ignorance of literal signs is the knowledge of languages.  Users of the Latin language–and it is these that I have now undertaken to instruct–need two others, Hebrew and Greek, for an understanding of the divine scriptures, so that recourse may be had to the original versions if any uncertainty arises from the infinite variety of Latin translators.” Augustine, On Christian Instruction II. XI., trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), p. 38. [Emphasis added]

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Martin Luther, Augustine and the Languages — 4 Comments

  1. And that is one reason why so many “alternate routes to ordination,” which often lack language classes, have met with so much opposition from Confessionals.

  2. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    Many thanks to Dr. Philips of CU Nebraska (at Seward) for this excellent post and reminder!

    Pastors deal with the Word of God every day–at least, that is their job. If they are not preaching, teaching, or otherwise delivering the Word that day, they are reading and studying it for the next occasion of the same. Just like electricians deal with wires and connections everyday, and plumbers deal with pipes and fittings everyday, so pastors and preachers deal with the Word every day.

    If pastors don’t know how to work with the Word, as Luther says above, they “will make many a pretty mistake.” Consequences for electrician’s mistakes are fires and burned down houses; for plumber’s mistakes are flooding, and ruined houses and property.

    Consequences for pastor’s mistakes in the Word are just as severe, and may even have eternal consequences. So much stupid stuff in the church–both in the congregation and at synod levels–are simply pastors trying to cover up their mistakes–which they would not have done if they knew their languages and studied the Word intently on those bases.

    Pastors in the office who have, for whatever reason, been denied training in the languages, can work at it in many ways. There is independent study, if you have the gifts and discipline for that. There is tutorial with a fellow pastor in your circuit. There is something that Dr. Voelz of Concordia Seminary has done for iTunes for Greek (see ), and maybe other online classes there too. And there is always the possibility of “going back to school,” which your congregation should pay for–it is in their own interest that you get the biblical languages if you don’t have them.

    As to why the LCMS should ever let a pastor enter the pulpit (or Bible class podium) without a decent command of the Greek language—-I don’t know. Apparently, LCMS leadership–that is those who pushed for these things, like SMP–hire bad electricians and bad plumbers for their houses too.

    For all Lutherans who are concerned about supporting the biblical and theologial languages, for the present and futureof the church, Fort Wayne sponsors a biennial conference called “Lutheranism and the Classics.” For information on the most recent conference, click here: The next conference will be in the Fall of 2016.

    Thanks again to Dr. Philips for this timely and cogent post!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  3. I would add my own paraphrase: “For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the Lutheran Confessions.” Even my limited knowledge of German has been helpful–and in some cases, rather eye-opening–for understanding not only the Book of Concord, but also later works like Walther’s Theses on Law and Gospel.

  4. @Martin R. Noland #2
    Apparently, LCMS leadership–that is those who pushed for these things, like SMP–hire bad electricians and bad plumbers for their houses too.

    This I doubt! I’m sure their own property is cared for better than the souls in their charge.

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