Martin Luther, Augustine and the Languages

“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]

Cassiodorus on Returning to Books

“For learning taken from the ancients in the midst of praising the Lord is not considered tasteless boasting. Furthermore, you make a serious teacher angry if you question him often; but however often you want to return to these books, you will not be rebuked with severity.” Cassiodorus, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 230

Cassiodorus (c.490-c.580) was a noble Roman born around the time of the fall of western Roman Empire.  He sought to preserve both sacred Christian and ancient Roman literature.  This work, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, sets forth a curriculum of study for a monastery and its school.  Books serve as teachers who never cease instructing their readers.

Unknowingly Righteous

“For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and seek righteousness from God in accord with His mercy, for this very reason they are always also regarded as righteous by God.  Thus in their own sight and in truth they are unrighteous, but before God they are righteous because He reckons them so because of their confession of sin.  They are actually sinners, but they are righteous by the imputation of a merciful God.  They are unknowingly righteous and knowingly unrighteous; they are sinners in fact but righteous in hope.  And this is what he is saying here: ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’ (Ps. 32:1)” Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, in Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 258. [Emphasis added]

This astounding quote reveals Dr. Luther’s true Reformation discovery.  Nailing academic theses to a church door is tangential to Luther’s (re)discovery of the proper understanding of the doctrine of justification.  Here Luther was lecturing on Romans 4:7 (which quotes Ps. 32:1) in the winter of 1515/1516.  While he did not apply this teaching to all ecclesiastical practices yet, the core of Luther’s insight appeared the in these lectures on Romans.

Later in the same section Luther declared: “…the mistake lies in thinking that this evil can be cured through works, since experience bears witness that whatever good work we perform, this concupiscence toward evil remains, and no one is ever cleansed of it, not even the one-day-old infant.  But the mercy of God is that this does remain and yet is not imputed as sin to those who call upon Him and cry out for His deliverance. For such people easily avoid also the error of works, because they so zealously seek to be justified.  Thus in ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God’s imputation.” Ibid., pp. 259-60.

Luther then compared the sinner to a sick man who trusted a doctor’s promise of healing in the future.  Christ, like the Good Samaritan, has brought the half-dead sinner into the inn for healing.  He does not impute sins, that is, wicked desires, against the sick man.  Luther asked rhetorically if this sick sinner was perfectly righteous.  Dr. Luther answered with this well known statement: “No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until He completely cured him.” Ibid., p. 260.

After Luther published the Ninety-Five Theses in late 1517, the Indulgence Controversy made Luther famous (or infamous) throughout Western Europe.  By April 7, 1521 Martin Luther was on his way to the diet of Worms to face Emperor Charles V’s justice.  On that day Luther preached at Erfurt before a large congregation.  In that sermon he proclaimed: “Our Lord Christ says: I am your justification.  I have destroyed the sins you have upon you.  Therefore only believe in me; believe that I am he who has done this; then you will be justified.  For it is written, Justicia est fides, righteousness is identical with faith and comes through faith.” Martin Luther, “Sermon Preached at Erfurt on the Journey to Worms,” Luther’s Works, vol. 51, p. 63.

The Drunken Effects of Reading

“Reading sharpens perception, adds new dimensions of understanding, kindles an ardent desire to learn, affords fluency, warms the lukewarm enthusiasm of the mind, casts out sluggishness, tears away the web of lust, excites groans of the heart, coaxes forth tears, brings us closer to God.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, trans. Gillian R. Evans (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981), p. 137.

In his “Exhortation to Learning” (Chap. 36) Alan of Lille lauds reading (lectio) and assigns great powers to it.  Alan combines the monastic tradition of sacred reading and the twelfth-century scholastic understanding of learning.  Both focused on reading to move the soul or mind toward God and away from worldly matters.

Alan continues, “If you read, idleness flees, the devil finds you occupied.  Go into the wine cellar, in which love is ordained: that is, read Scripture, inquire into its meanings. In this cellar, a man becomes drunk in such a way that he comes away more sober still.” Ibid., p. 137.

Here Alan uses a metaphorical interpretation of Song of Solomon 2:4 (Vulgate).  He instructs the readers of holy Scripture to ‘become drunk’ with its manifold meanings through careful examination of the texts.  How does one accomplish this?

Alan explains, “When you read a great deal, set one thing in particular before you, chew over one very pithy thought, that the more firmly it takes root in your spirit, that more it may please that palate of your mind.  If you set out upon any reading, do not pass over it in a moment, but dwell upon it, not passing on to something else as though you found it distasteful.” Ibid., p. 137.

Reading for understanding involves a thoughtful process of cogitation and meditation upon the texts.  Readers should ruminate the text, that is, metaphorically and mentally ‘chew’ it over and over again.  The metaphor of eating the text demonstrated the power of reading and memorization.  The text transforms the reader.  One does not guzzle fine wine for the effect of inebriation, but rather savors it.  Scripture should be mentally ingested in a similar manner.  This manner of reading does inebriate the reader, but not in a worldly sense.  It enlightens the soul toward the true awareness of God and the self.


An Exhortation to Learning

“So learn as though you were to live forever. So live as though you were about to die tomorrow…..Seneca says, ‘Life without letters is death and the tomb of the living man’…and elsewhere: ‘I would rather learn from others with diffidence, than rashly pour forth my own opinions.’ ”  Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, trans. Gillian R. Evans (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981), p. 137.  I altered Evans’ translation by adding the “tomorrow” which is found in the Latin text in Patrologia Latina, vol. 210, col. 179D. [Emphasis added]

Alan of Lille was a significant theologian, teacher, and poet in medieval France during the twelfth century.  He earned the title, “Doctor universalis” from his contemporaries because of his knowledge of the liberal arts and theology.  In Chapter 36, “Exhortation to Learning,” of his treatise on preaching, Alan wrote a model sermon to admonish Christians to study the arts and theology.  Interestingly, I have seen the first sentence from the quote above attributed to Mahatma Gandhi in many places, but I have found no earlier reference to this statement than Alan of Lille’s reference in the late twelfth century.  The second statement derives from Seneca’s Epistle 82, sec. 3.  The source for the last quote is unknown, but expresses the attitude of a humble student.



Luther on Spiritual Healing

“People who have gone through spiritual trials know how necessary it is to support their heart with a sure and strong comfort that will finally bring them back to the hope of grace and help them to forget wrath.  Often a single day or a single month is insufficient for this purpose; but just as the alleviation of sickness requires a long time, so these wounds of the heart are not cured at once or by a single word.  Since God is aware of this, He tries in various ways to bring back the frightened heart to a sure hope of grace. He even finds fault with Himself by speaking to His heart, just as in Jer. 18:8, where He promises that He will repent of the evil He has in mind, provided that they, too, repent.” Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis. in Luther’s Works, vol. 2, p. 118.

Bernard’s Memoria

“Preserve without fail the memory of all those bitter things he endured for you, persevere in meditating on him and you in turn will be able to say: ‘My beloved is to me a little bunch of myrrh that lies between my breasts.’ ” Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermon 43,” trans. Kilian Walsh, On the Song of Songs II (Kalamazoo 1983), p. 221. [Emphasis added]

Bernard of Clairvaux (d. August 20, 1153) led the Cistercian monastic movement in the first half of the 12th century.  He influenced popes, kings, church councils, and many other monks.  His preaching and writing (and those attributed to him) shaped the piety and faith of the later Middle Ages and the early modern period.  This quote derives from Bernard’s sermon on Song of Songs 1:12 (Vulgate), but 1:13 in ESV, KJV.

In this sermon Bernard exhorts his fellow monks (and later readers) to remember Christ’s sufferings on their behalf through meditation.  He states that he has done this since his conversion to the monastic life.  Then, Bernard describes the incarnate life of Christ from his birth to burial.  He concludes, “As long as I live I shall proclaim the memory of the abounding goodness contained in these events; through eternity I shall not forget these mercies, for in them I have found life.” Ibid., 222. [Emphasis added]

Bernard seeks wisdom through remembering and meditating on Christ’s suffering specifically.  The knowledge of these events supports him in tribulation and guides him through happy times.  Christ not only forgives sins, but gives an example to follow.  Therefore, Bernard proclaims, “Hence as you well know, these sentiments are often on my lips, and God knows they are always in my heart.  They are a familiar theme in my writings, as is evident.  This is my philosophy, one more refined and interior, to know Jesus and him crucified.” Ibid., 223.

Augustine’s Conversion: A Severe Mercy

“Such was my sickness and my torture, as I accused myself even more bitterly than usual.  I was twisting and turning in my chain until it would break completely.  I was now only a little bit held by it, but I was still held.  You, Lord, put pressure on me in my hidden depths with a severe mercy wielding the double whip of fear and shame, lest I should again succumb, and lest that tiny and tenuous bond which still remained should not be broken, but once more regain strength and bind me even more firmly.” Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), 150. [Emphasis added]

Augustine recognized that only God’s mercy could free him from the chain of the habit of sin.  He had now come too far to turn back to his former way of life, but ingrained evil still thwarted a complete turn to goodness.  His old fleshly loves restrained him.  Augustine wrote, “Meanwhile, the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me: ‘Do you think you can live without them?’ ” Ibid., 151.

Lady Continence speaks to Augustine and exhorts him to submit to her guidance and rely on God’s healing power.  Finally, Augustine’s deep introspection brought forth a flood of tears as he called out to God.  Then he heard what sounded like children chanting: pick up and read, pick up and read!  He took this as divine instruction to pick up the book of St Paul’s writings and he read, “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” (Romans 13:13-14)  Having read this text, Augustine felt complete relief as he wrote, “All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” Ibid., 153.

Augustine’s Sin and the Struggle of Wills

“The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner.  The consequence of a distorted will is passion.  By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me  under restraint.  The new will, which was beginning to be within me a will to serve you freely and to enjoy you, God, the only sure source of pleasure, was not yet strong enough to conquer my older will, which had the strength of old habit.  So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with me another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration.”  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), p. 140.

Here Augustine describes the bondage by which sinful desires hold the human will.  He describes how this bondage of a distorted will becomes a sinful necessity.  He realized his bound condition only after the new will begins to stir.  As he references Romans 7:17-25, Augustine wrote, “The law of sin is the violence of habit by which even the unwilling mind is dragged down and held, as it deserves to be, since by its own choice it slipped into habit.” Ibid., 141.

At this point Augustine begins the narrative of his conversion experience.  He recounts his study of the Scriptures, the life of St Anthony, and numerous discussions with others concerning these matters.  Finally, the moment arrived.  Augustine writes, “Our lodging had a garden.  We had the use of it as well as of the entire house, for our host, the owner of the house, was not living there.  The tumult of my heart took me out into the garden where no one could interfere with the burning the struggle with myself in which I was engaged, until the matter could be settled.  You knew, but I did not, what the outcome would be.  But my madness with myself was part of the process of recovering health, and in the agony of death I was coming to life.” Ibid., 146.

Augustine then proceeds to describe the conflict of the two wills within his mind. He returns to the theme of habit mentioned above. “We are dealing with a morbid condition of the mind which, when it is lifted up by the truth, does not unreservedly rise to it but is weighed down by habit. So there are two wills. Neither of them is complete, and what is present in the one is lacking to the other.” Ibid., 148.

The next post will examine the resolution of this conflict in Augustine’s conversion.


Boethius on Good Fortune

“What I want to tell you is something wonderful, which makes it very difficult for me to put it into words.  For I think that ill fortune is better for men than good.  Fortune always cheats when she seems to smile, with the appearance of happiness, but is always truthful when she shows herself to inconsistent by changing.  The first kind of fortune deceives, the second instructs; the one binds the minds of those who enjoy goods that cheatingly only seem to be good, the other frees them with knowledge of the fragility of mortal happiness.  So you can see that the one is inconstant, always running hither and thither, uncertain of herself; and the other is steady, well prepared and–with the practice of adversity itself–wise.  Lastly fortune when apparently happy leads men astray by her blandishments, wandering from the true good; when she is adverse, she commonly draws them back, as it were with a hook, towards it.” Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II. viii. Loeb Classical Library No. 74, trans. S.J. Tester. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1918), p. 225.

In this famous work from late antiquity Boethius discusses the true nature of Fortune. Good fortune is temporal and vanishes quickly.  It deceives because it does not endure and human beings who experience it forget the true and highest good.  Adversity acts to draw us back to permanent things, that reside only in God and are under the control of Providence.  This work was not simply philosophical speculation for Boethius.  He wrote this work during his time in prison in the early 520s.  Boethius had lived as a philosopher and state official under the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric.  He accused Boethius of treason and imprisoned him.  Later, Boethius was executed.