Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great Reformer, changed the course of history and renewed the life of the church by insisting on the importance of translating the Latin of the Mass into the language of the people, by turning once again to the Hebrew and the Greek of the Old and New Testaments, after more than a thousand years of neglect, and by putting the Bible in German into the hands of every man and woman. Thanks to Martin Luther and his comrades, learning Hebrew and Greek became staples in the education of the clergy, and a German standardized for the purpose of instruction became a language to teach to the masses.
And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without languages. Languages1 are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. They are the vessel in which we hold this wine. They are the larder in which this food is stored. And, as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments.
Und laßt uns das gesagt sein, daß wir das Evangelion nicht wohl werden erhalten ohn die Sprachen. Die Sprachen sind die Scheiden, darin dies Messer des Geists stickt. Sie sind der Schrein, darinnen man dies Kleinod trägt. Sie sind das Gefäß, darinnen man diesen Trank fasset. Sie sind die Kemnot, darinnen diese Speise liegt. Und wie das Evangelion selbs zeigt: Sie sind die Körbe, darinnen man diese Brot und Fische und Brocken behält'.
For we cannot deny that, though the Gospel has come and comes every day through the Holy Spirit alone, it is through the instrument of languages2 that it has come and has increased, and must also be preserved by them.
Denn das konnen wir nicht leugen, daß, wiewohl das Evangelion allein durch den Heiligen Geist ist kommen und täglich kommt, so ist's doch durch Mittel der Sprachen kommen und hat auch dadurch zugenommen, muß auch dadurch behalten werden.
- from Luther's "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, 1524.
Luther's decision to return to the Hebrew and Greek of the Old and New Testament redirected the church to its primary source of knowledge and wisdom, to Sacred Scripture in the Hebrew of David and the prophets and the Greek of the apostles. Scripture had always been understood by the doctors of the church to be "norma normata," the norm which norms all other norms. Luther, who came to understand the God of grace as opposed to a God of judgment thanks to reading the Psalms in Hebrew, couunted the Hebrew language above all as worthy of all praise.
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.
Graeci optimis et suavissimis verbis locuti sunt,
Hebrea autem lingua tali simplicitate et maiestate floret,
ut imitari non possit.
- from Luther's "Table Talk," 1532, as recorded by C. Cordatus.
Against all odds, Luther succeeded in giving Hebrew and Greek pride of place in the learned transmission of the Christian faith.
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.
Ebrea lingua per impietatem tota contemnitur
aut forte desperatione artis …
Sine hac lingua nulla potest esse cognitio Scripturae, nam et novum testamentum, quantumvis sit Graece scriptum, tamen plenum est hebraismis.
ideo recte dixerunt,
Ebreos ex fontibus bibere, Graecos ex rivulis, Latinos autem ex lacunis.
- from Luther's "Table Talk," Aug 9 1532, as recorded by C. Cordatus.
1 Not just Hebrew and Greek, but Latin and German and all other languages, each of which, according to Luther, is sanctified by its use in proclaiming God’s Word
2 Hebrew and Greek, but also, Latin and German and all other languages by which the Gospel is proclaimed.