“Latin Sucks!” says the Latinist

By Scott Keith


I was more than a little intrigued by last week’s article on returning Latin to Lutheran services.

I enrolled in my first introduction to Latin course, with now Dr., then professor Mark Brighton, while an undergrad at Concordia University Irvine when I was a sophomore. That class sparked a love in me for the Latin language particularly and for the concept of ad fontes (a return to the original sources) more generally. Since that time, I have taken an additional 5 undergraduate courses in Latin, as well as 12 graduate courses in Ecclesiastical Latin, Medieval Latin, Latin of the Reformation, and a few others I simply don’t remember the titles of. Additionally, I have read thoroughly in ancient Latin, especially in Quintillian, as I believe his methodology influenced Philip Melanchthon greatly. This has led me to have written hundreds of pages of translation from Latin to English, and mostly translations of various untranslated works of Melanchthon from the sixteenth century. Needless to say, I feel that I am at least a fair Latinist, though I would never say I am a good Latinist.

And yet as the title of this post suggest, I think Latin sucks. Well, at least at church on Sunday mornings.

What I am attempting to clarify with this somewhat braggadocious curriculum vitae of my studies in the Latin language, is to explain that I am one of very few people who attend Lutheran services regularly who could understand an entire service said in Latin. Yet, I wholeheartedly believe with every cantankerous bone in my body that it would be dangerous for the church to return to speaking the service in Latin. My reasons for believing this are both practical and theological.


Practically, it makes no sense to speak any service, or preach any sermon, in a language which cannot be understood by the hearers. Romans Chapter 10 speaks to the need for preachers to preach and of the promise that the power of God is present in the preaching of the Gospel. But commonly overlooked in Romans 10 is the very practical need for hearers to hear what is said so that they can understand and believe.

It is an expressly practical situation that Paul sets up: preachers preach the Gospel to the people and the people hear the understood message and believe.

This obviously leads to the theological concerns. Latin, was abandoned in the Lutheran church by the Reformers for two main reasons, one of which was never mentioned last Tuesday.

1. Lutherans from the beginning denied the ex opere operato efficacy of the “Mass” or any service, divine or otherwise. (As a sidebar, this theology leads to a very dangerous theological development of the indelible character of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic church which ought to be avoided at ALL COSTS. It is dangerous and pernicious and is making its way into the more high church movements of Lutheranism.) That is to say that it is not the doing of the services by the priest or pastor which are in themselves, simply by the doing, efficacious. It is a two part system, much as described in Romans 10, where one speaks or preaches and another hears and understands and thus receives the glorious benefits our Lord offers in Word and Sacrament. Thus, if the services are said, and the sermon preached, in any language not understood by the hearers the benefits, though not completely absent because of the inherent power of the Word, are at the very least lessened or diminished because the cycle is broken; hearers who don’t understand.


2. This then led to the second reason why the Reformers stopped, on the whole, the use of Latin in the church. If the services are not powerful simply because they are performed by a priest, but are powerful when understood by the hearers who then receive the benefits, then they ought to be said in a language the people can understand. Hence, in Germany services appear in German, in France in French, in England in English; you get the picture. It was and is a theologically imperative move.

So, in conclusion… We preach in English and say our services in English (and for that matter write blogs in English) so that our hearers and readers can understand and benefit from the messages and Word, or words, of God contained therein. We ought to avoid devolving into a gaggle of elitists that perform services by priests for priests only, lest we fall into the error that in an ex opere operato way we release grace into the world simply because we decided to get up on Sunday morning and say words that very few, if any, of the parishioners in the pew will understand or benefit from hearing.

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