Essay / Culture

Christian Ideas, Pagan Language

Holbeins ErasmusIn the sixteenth century, Desiderius Erasmus found himself under intellectual attack from all sides. He probably deserved most of those attacks: he constantly criticized the medieval church, but when a real Reformation broke out, he decided he didn’t really mean it, or at least that he didn’t mean for anything to happen as a result of his criticisms. So nobody was really happy with him in a century marked by sharp disagreements. But one attack he almost certainly didn’t deserve was this one: some now-forgotten opponents accused him of writing bad Latin.

His opponents (somebody named Castiglione chief among them) were Latin purists, and seemed to think that the only good Latin was Ciceronian Latin. Erasmus, on the other hand, was comfortable writing in an updated Latin that had been shaped by the centuries of Christian thought and had been stretched to fit all the nations of Europe. Castiglione and his ilk wanted their Latin to sound like it was 1500 years old and written in the Rome of the Caesars: in other words, a respectably dead language. Erasmus practiced Latin as a living language, a European lingua franca.

With so many big issues to fight about in the sixteenth century, this is one topic that got Erasmus mad. What seemed to be at stake to him was whether we can talk about Christian things without using Christian language.

To make the point that we have to speak about Christian things in Christian language, Erasmus imagined what the gospel would sound like if you tried to express it in absolutely Ciceronian language. He took a simple statement of the basic tenets of Christian belief:

Jesus Christ, Word and Son of the eternal Father, came into the world according to the prophets and was made man. Of his own will he gave himself to death to redeem his Church and to avert from us the ire of the offended Father, that we might be reconciled with him, justified by his grace and faith, liberated from the tyrant, grafted into the Church and that persevering in her communion we might after this life attain to the kingdom of heaven.

and re-cast it in a Latin that used only the vocabulary available to pre-Christian thought:

The Interpreter and Son of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, saviour and king according to the response of the augurs, came down from Olympus to earth, assumed human shape and voluntarily consigned himself to the shades for the welfare of the republic. He averted the thunderbolt of Jupiter Optimus Maximus pointed at our heads and returned us to his favour that restored to innocence by the munificence of persuasion and manumitted from the power of the sycophant we might be incorporated into the society of the republic and continuing therein might enjoy after this life the fellowship of the immortal gods.

Even in this English translation of Erasmus’ Ciceronian Latin (taken from Roland Bainton’s Erasmus of Christendom, pp 249-250) The point, of course, is that when Christian ideas and Christian claims came into contact with the Latin of the Graeco-Roman world, the existing language was changed by the contact.

This may seem an abstruse point, demanding close attention to eminent intellects like Erasmus and Cicero. For my part, I’m unable to make judgments about the use of Latin in theology, Ciceronian or otherwise. But in today’s ongoing missionary encounters, the same decisions are being made constantly: does the translator take up and use available thought forms and terms, or force them to respond to the content of the Christian message? As Bainton summarizes, “When Christianity takes over a new culture shall it invest indigenous words with Christian connotations or introduce foreign words into the native tongues? The foreign terms may be unintelligible, the indigenous may retain their former connotations.” For Erasmus, the discussion was all a bit academic: there was no thriving Greco-Roman paganism available in the sixteenth century. But the lessons of his encounter are worth weighing for the living encounters with cultures that have not yet encountered the gospel deeply enough to change their thought-forms and vocabulary.

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