The Languages and the Gospel

“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.  He has done the same thing now as well.  Formerly no one knew why God had the languages, but now for the first time we see that it was done for the sake of the gospel, which he intended to bring to light and use in exposing and destroying the kingdom of Antichrist.” Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, p. 359. [Emphasis added]

Martin Luther understood the significant connection between the study of the classical languages and the proper understanding of the Bible.  In this work (published in 1524) Dr. Luther exhorted civic leaders throughout Germany to establish schools to train future secular rulers and pastors.  Luther asserted that the return of study of classical Latin and Greek laid the foundation for the Reformation.  In 1523 he identified the rebirth of linguistic studies as a forerunner to the Reformation, that is, its John the Baptist Luther on Languages.

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The Freedom of the Christian

“To make the way smoother for the unlearned—for only them do I serve—I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:                 A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.                                                               A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.                                                 These two theses seem to contradict one each other.  If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully.  Both are Paul’s statement, who says in I Cor. 9 [:19], ‘For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,’ and in Rom. 13 [:8], “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.  So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, ‘in the form of God’ and ‘of a servant’ [Phil. 2:6-7]” Martin Luther, The Freedom of A Christian, in Luther’s Works vol. 31, p. 344

With these words Martin Luther laid the theological foundation for the true Reformation of late medieval theology and practice.  In 1520 Luther clearly expressed a definitive break with the Roman church and late medieval scholastic theology.  In The Freedom of A Christian, which he sent to Pope Leo X with a open letter, Dr. Luther explained how a sinner could obtain true freedom from sin through Christ’s righteousness and express this freedom in love for one’s neighbor.  How does one obtain this freedom?  Luther explained:

“One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom.  That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ, as Christ says, John 11 [:25], ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he lives’ [sic]; and Matt. 4 [:4], ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Ibid., 345.

However, one receives the Word by faith alone in Christ’s promise.  Dr. Luther concludes: “The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies.  To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching.  Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.” Ibid., 346.


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John of Salisbury on Virtue and Happiness

“That purpose towards which all rational creatures turn is true happiness.  For in fact there is no one who does not wish to be happy; but those who desire this do not all advance along a single path.  A single route is laid out for all but it branches into many paths like a king’s highway.  This highway is virtue; for no one advances towards happiness except by way of virtue.  Perhaps one who lacks the works of virtue and is no doubt without works at all is attracted to happiness, but one never advances towards it except along the track of the virtues.  Virtue is, therefore, deserved of happiness; happiness rewards virtue.  And these are the greatest goods (summa bona): the one of the journey, the other of the homecoming.  For nothing surpasses virtue so long as the exile is a foreigner to God; nothing is better than happiness so long as the citizen is ruled by and rejoices with the Lord.” John of Salisbury, Policraticus VII. 8., ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge 1990), p. 157.

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Exaltation of the Cross

“God, who deigned to redeem the human race through the precious blood of Thy only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, graciously grant that whoever approaches to adore the life-giving cross, may be freed from the bonds of their sins.” [My translation] The Sarum Missal, Ed. J. Wickham Legg, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1916), p. 320.

This is the collect recorded in one of the more famous medieval liturgies.  By the twelfth century the feast for the Exaltation of the Cross was a well-established date on the liturgical calendar.  Numerous medieval sermon collections contain homilies for this feast. Here is one example from the early twelfth century:

“This Holy Cross should be venerated by angels and adored by human beings.  Certainly, through the Cross the devil was taken captive, the world was freed, and hell plundered, [while] paradise rejoiced.  All Christian people throughout the world have been invited to the heavenly kingdom.  The celestial homeland exults over the triumph of the Cross, the Church rejoices, [while] the Jewish perfidy falls apart.  Death is laid low by the victory of the Holy Cross….the Holy Cross has become for us the key to heaven [and] the powerful destruction of hell.” [My translation] Honorius Augustodunensis, De exaltatione sanctae crucis [On the Exaltation of the Holy Cross], Patrologia Latina 172: 1001-02.


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Reading Needs Memory

“Reading needs the aid of memory, and even if memory is sluggish, it is sharpened by frequent meditation, and recovered by assiduous reading.  Often a prolix reading will overwhelm the memory with its length, but if it is short, and if one reconsiders its meaning in the mind, with the book put aside, then it may be read without effort, and the things which one has read, once recollected in memory, will not be lost.” Isidore of Seville, Sentences 3. 14. 7-8 (PL 83:689) translated in Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville, MN: 2011), p. 99.

Early Christian and medieval monastic writers understood the relationship between memory and reading.  Their technique, usually referred to as lectio divina (sacred reading), was a form of prayerful, meditative reading.  They did so to store God’s Word and other spiritual texts in their hearts.  Thereby, true meditation could take place.  Memory played an a significant role in their spirituality because of relative scarcity of texts.  However, they also sought to transform their souls through intentional memorization of religious texts.

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Swine for the Slaughter

“God gives the ungodly mighty kingdoms, riches, lands and houses, making them to enjoy greatness and abundance.  But when swine are fed and fat, the question of bacon and sausage introduces a struggle.  A slaughterer–a sausage-maker–appears, perchance, to slaughter the swine in their sty; one comes desolating the country, overthrowing the kingdom, destroying people and all: for desiring to be but swine, the people must be destroyed like swine.  Even though the world have [sic] personal knowledge of such, it continues its course so long as possible–until the slaughterer comes.  Swine remains swine; they are capable of standing ever unmoved by their trough, one perfectly indifferent if another be struck dead before its eyes.” Martin Luther, “Sermon for Tenth Sunday After Trinity,” in Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. 8 (Minneapolis: The Luther Press, 1909), p. 217.

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Grant What You Command

“My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy.  Grant what you command, and command what you will.  You require continence.  A certain writer has said (Wisd. 8. 21): ‘As I knew that no one can be continent except God grants it, and this very thing is part of wisdom, to know whose gift this is.’  By continence we are collected together and brought to the unity from which we disintegrated into multiplicity.  He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake.  O love, you ever burn and are never extinguished.  O charity, my God, set me on fire.  You command continence; grant what you command, and command what you will.” Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), p. 202. [Emphasis added]

These famous words demonstrate Augustine’s understanding of the gift of God’s mercy and grace.  He realized that self control and the love of God were gifts that no sinner could generate from their own souls.  Therefore, he asked God to grant the gift of obedience to His divine commands.  Augustine knew God’s gift was necessary in order to fulfill God’s command.  This gift is grace.



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Melanchthon Laments Rejection of Classical Literature

“I consider in my mind these admirable gifts of God, namely the study of literature and of the humanities—and apart from the Gospel of Christ this world holds nothing more splendid nor more divine and I also consider, on the other hand, by what blindness the minds of men are enveloped in unnatural and Cimmerian* darkness; they spurn these true and greatest gifts, and with great effort they pursue means for their wishes and desires that are not only inferior but also ruinous and destructive to themselves.  When I weigh these things in my heart, I am violently moved, for it comes to my mind by what dense darkness and, so to speak, black night the hearts of men are surrounded.  I am not further astonished, if men are blind in things that are divine and beyond human understanding, when I see them thus treading under foot these their own and personal goods for which they are intended by divine providence, and which they could have comprehended and cherished.” Philip Melanchthon, “Preface to Homer,” in in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, pp. 420-21.

*Cimmerian refers to a mythical place of darkness in Homer’s Odyssey.

Philip Melanchthon delivered this oration around 1538 as he began to teach Homer’s famous works (the Illiad and the Odyssey).   While he was a significant theologian, as a Renaissance humanist Melanchthon inspired the study of ancient Greek and the Latin classics through his curricular reforms at Wittenberg.  He also promoted similar reforms at other German universities in the sixteenth century.  In this work he explained the significance of the study of Homer and the classics.  In brilliant rhetorical style Melanchthon lamented those who rejected these significant texts:

“We disdain….the study of the classics, by which the part of us that alone deserves the name ‘man,’ that is made in the image of God and for the possession of true and everlasting happiness, was meant to be refined and roused.  Instead of these, we pursue with mad and blind effort I know not what illusions held out by Satan, and worthless shadows, and hitherto have not had the reverence to look at the sun.” Ibid., p. 421.

Melanchthon understood great literature as that which refines and rouses the image of God in human beings.  He exhorted his hearers to turn away from demonic illusions and shadows and look toward the sun of true knowledge and understanding.  However, most people seek to learn for economic advantage and even seek to suppress true learning.

“Each one rushes towards the mean and gainful arts, they are slaves to their detestable desires and to their stomachs, and they know no god besides these.  Only very few take care to refine and honour [sic] their minds, the better and more the divine part of them.  Just as in a noisy and drunken banquet men talk nonsense, laugh, bawl and make loud noise while some famous musician is playing, and they neither pay attention nor receive in their ears and hearts the sweetness of the music, nor enjoy it thoroughly, so at times, as if intoxicated and frantic with their desires, neither listen to the voices of the Muses nor pay attention to them.  Those who by their authority and efforts should have eminently fostered and honoured [sic] these studies, the majority being barbarians and without education, greatly desire rather to see them oppressed and annihilated.” Ibid.


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Alexis de Tocqueville on Government and War

“I think that extreme centralization of government ultimately enervates society and thus, after a length of time, weakens the government itself; but I do not deny that a centralized social power may be able to execute great undertakings with facility in a given time and on a particular point.  This is more especially true of war, in which success depends much more on the means of transferring all the resources of a nation to one single point than on the extent of those resources.  Hence it is chiefly in war that nations desire, and frequently need, to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war, which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of government.  Thus the democratic tendency that leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons is much more rapid and constant among those democratic nations that are exposed by their position to great and frequent wars than among all others.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, trans. Henry Reeve (New York, 1945), pp. 300-01. [Emphasis added]


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God Makes Rulers Mad

For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do–and order their subjects to do–whatever they please.  And the subjects made the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything.  It has gone so far that rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe.  They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained [sic] ideas.” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, pp. 83-84.  [Italics added]

In this work (1523) Martin Luther explained the limits of the authority of worldly rulers. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony (cousin and rival to Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise) had begun confiscating and destroying Luther’s books.  Dr. Luther explained his famous teaching on the two kingdoms (or governments) in this text also.  God has established a temporal government to rule the world and a spiritual government “by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians.” (Ibid., p. 91) While Luther certainly recognized that God had established temporal authority, he never hesitated from criticizing rulers publicly.  For example, here he rebukes rulers for their greed and lack of true ethics:

“…the temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly.  This they leave undone.  They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf.  Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them.  They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants.  For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish a temporal rule.  They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, until they come to ruin together with bishops, popes, monks, one scoundrel with the other.” Ibid., p. 109. [Italics added]

Notice how Luther describes God as working against sinful rulers.  In fact, he portrays the confusion of temporal and spiritual rule as God’s judgment on these rulers.  In this section of the work Luther also attacks bishops who act as worldly rulers and not shepherds of souls.  God’s judgment exposes the misuse of both governments.  In light of this judgment, did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly?  For Luther it was unlikely.  At best rulers could keep social order and punish criminals.  Consider the following statement:

“You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer.  They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls.  They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace.” Ibid., p. 113.






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