This article is about the view of the Reformers (Reformation) on the original languages of Scripture. It discusses the study of Biblical languages and how this had an effect on Bible translation in the Reformation. The author also talks about the relation of the study of Scripture and true doctrine, and the importance of the knowledge of Biblical languages for the minister.

Source: Clarion, 1997. 6 pages.

Bible Translations and Reformed Training for the Ministry


Recent months have witnessed continued discussion concerning the best translation of the Bible for use in public worship services. The gravity with which church members, councils, and ecclesiastical assemblies treat this matter attests to the place which Scripture occupies in the life of the believers and the church. Whereas some may find it tedious, the ongoing discussion bears happy witness to an important tenet of the Reformed faith: the infallibility and authority of Scripture. Thanks to God’s work in the Reformation especially, the church of Christ professes the Bible as the sole rule of faith. The Bible alone preserves the Gospel; it alone is the source for the doctrine of the Christian faith and the guide for right living. Since the infallible Word of God fulfils these functions, believers desire that the most accurate translation of the original texts be used in public worship services and family devotions.

Throughout the twentieth century, however, serious challenges have been mounted against the profession of the supremacy of Scripture. Modern interpretative models seek to place above or beside Scripture norms which diminish the authority of God’s revelation. There are those who falsely claim that the Bible does not answer all questions of modern life, or that the current age is better placed to interpret Scripture than the apostolic era. Others argue that in addition to God’s Word one must rely on knowledge gained in spheres of human activity. This attack upon God’s Word affects also the training for the ministry; especially in North America, the number of colleges that place little emphasis upon a thorough knowledge of the Bible is increasing. Whereas the study of human institutions and teachings is promoted, learning of the Hebrew and Greek testaments suffers. More and more preachers cannot, or will not, appreciate the value of knowing God’s Word as it was recorded by the inspired authors.

The recent discussions about the most suitable English Bible translation reveal a commitment to the profession of the supremacy of Scripture and a resistance to the pressures of diminishing the role of the Bible in family and church. Directing the church away from human institutions to the source of the Christian faith was one of the contributions of the Reformation. To turn believers toward the Bible, the reformers studied the Hebrew and Greek languages in the desire to appropriate the Word of God as it was first recorded. New, more accurate editions of the Old and New Testaments were published, commentaries on the Greek and Hebrew texts replaced obsolete and inaccurate glosses on the Latin translations, and grammars of the Hebrew and Greek languages appeared in print. To promote the return to the original Bible further, the reformers instituted schools and institutions of higher learning which would prepare the coming generation to read Scripture for itself. “Trilingual Colleges” which stressed knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin, were established, and throughout Germany Luther and especially his collaborator Philip Melanchthon erected such schools. The University of Wittenberg became famous for its emphasis upon knowing the Bible, and students flocked there to benefit from the lectures on Scripture. For an increased knowledge of the Old Testament, the humanist Johann Reuchlin strove to promote appreciation of Jewish culture and the Hebrew language. Manuscripts of the Bible were eagerly collected and collated so that the original texts might be restored as accurately as possible. In short, the reformers’ call to “return to the sources” meant above all a return to Scripture.

Despite their zeal in rediscovering the value of knowing the Biblical languages, however, the reformers did not exaggerate the importance of the Hebrew and Greek testaments. Luther and his contemporaries knew that those who had access to the Bible via translations were able to receive the message of salvation fully, and that the Holy Spirit employs such translations in convicting people of their sins and turning them to God. For this reason one of the foremost tasks of the reformers was to render Scripture in the common languages. They desired to make the Gospel available to all people. Nevertheless the reformers realized that the errors of doctrine and practice which had crept into the church were due in part to a misunderstanding or misapplication of the Bible in translation. Therefore they promoted a return to the original testaments, as these contained the inspired words of God. Bible translations, they learned, must be as accurate as possible, so that the faith of believers and the wellbeing of the church may be grounded rightly.

While it is useful to learn by what means the reformers promoted the knowledge of Scripture, it is arguably more relevant today to consider the grounds for such efforts. The purpose of this article is to examine the reasons given by the reformers for promoting the knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek testaments and to ask whether these reasons remain valid today. At a time when the churches consider how they may best preserve the Word of God in clear and modern English, it is useful also to examine the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek testaments and renditions of them in the vernacular. This article deals with the three basic grounds on which the reformers advanced knowledge of Scripture in the original languages:

  1. the Bible is God’s Word;

  2. the Bible was written by men inspired by God; and

  3. the Bible is the Gospel of salvation.

Then we will consider the importance of Scripture for the advancement of true teaching and the rejection of heresy. Moreover, it will examine the connections the reformers made between the knowledge of Scripture and the increase of piety and true Christian living. All of these reasons affect especially the ministers of God’s Word who must shepherd the flock of Christ in preaching, teaching and counselling. We shall conclude, therefore, that the reformers’ reasons for advancing the knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek testaments do remain in force today, and that especially reformed training of the ministry should continue to place God’s Word in the centre.

The Bible is God’s Word🔗

The simple confession that the Bible is the Word of God is the first reason the Reformers give for knowing the Hebrew and Greek testaments. Scripture is the inspired revelation of God; all other writings are fallible. Strictly speaking, therefore, only the Hebrew and Greek testaments are the infallible Word of God. Translations are human, uninspired renderings of that perfect Word. As the reformers note, a fine but crucial distinction exists between the testaments in the original languages and the vernacular versions. Whereas the latter are sinful reworkings of the inspired sources, the former contain the words of God Himself. To quote the Belgic Confession, which refers to 2 Peter 1:21: “we confess that this Word of God did not come by the impulse of man, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” God has granted us His Word in writing.

In distinguishing between the original testaments and sinful editions, the reformers harked back to the church fathers. It was Augustine who had pointed out that whereas the Latin translations of the Bible are prone to error, the Hebrew and Greek originals are the very words of inspired Scripture (On Christian Doctrine 2.11.1634). After Augustine, it was especially the fifteenth-century philologist Lorenzo Valla who influenced the reformers in stressing the original testaments. Valla studied not the Latin Vulgate but the original texts, claiming that his explanations of Scripture were not following the interpretations of men but the word of God. When challenged for his criticism of the Latin rendition, Valla wrote: “I do not emend Holy Writ, but the translations; nor am I acting out of contempt but in a pious spirit; and I merely offer a version that is better than the previous translator’s”; after all, he writes, “only what the saints themselves wrote in Hebrew or Greek is Holy Writ.” 1 Like Augustine, Valla knew the limitations of studying the Bible in translation. The reformers often cited Valla when the Romanist church charged them with violating the meaning or text of the Latin Vulgate, the “official” translation.

The profession that only the Hebrew and Greek testaments are the inspired Word of God refuted the Romanist teaching that the translation of Jerome was holy. One of the more vocal defenders of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, Pierre Cousturier, claimed that consulting Greek or Hebrew manuscripts of Scripture in order to emend the Latin Bible was a sin; for, he claimed, “it is beyond doubt that Jerome himself undertook the emendation ... being guided in a mysterious way by the Holy Spirit (Rummel 105).” The reformers were united in their attack upon this false teaching. To them translations were “shadows” and not the true essence, “muddy pools” and not the “clear fountains.” The many theologians who knew little Greek and less Hebrew, who argued from the inferior translations, carried little weight. Luther, despite having expended much time and effort in providing a German translation of the Bible, stated most emphatically that translations were only sinful interpretations of Scripture.2 While he refers to his German translation as “my Bible,” Luther calls the Greek and Hebrew testaments “God’s Word.”

The Bible was Recorded by God🔗

God’s revelation was inscripturated, that is, recorded in writing. As the reformers note, in His mercy God saw fit to preserve His Word through the miracle of inspiration. Sinful, human authors were chosen by the Spirit to write God’s Word in the Bible. As Luther observes, the inspired authors knew that if the Gospel was not recorded but “left exclusively to man’s memory, wild and fearful disorder and confusion ... would arise in the Christian church. This could not be prevented ... unless the New Testament were set down with certainty in written language (C361).” It was part of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind that His Word be recorded by authors whom He inspired. Were it not for this miracle, the reformers argue, we would not have known of God’s saving love. The Belgic Confession expresses the conviction as follows: “in His special care for us and our salvation, God commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing... Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures (Art.3).” The original Scriptures were written by men “moved by God” and therefore are “sacred.”

In the history of revelation, then, the Hebrew and Greek languages occupy a special place. Following the argument of Romans 3, Luther states that while the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God in the first dispensation, the Greek language was entrusted with the Gospel in the second (C359). To practise the profession that the Holy Spirit moved men to record God’s Word, we must appreciate to the full our possession of the testaments in Hebrew and Greek. Luther expresses it concisely: we have “the Gospel as pure and undefiled as the apostles had it (C361).” If God saw fit to preserve His Word in Hebrew and Greek, writes Luther, then surely we too must honour those languages above all others and seek to know God by reading His inspired Word in them (C359). We should not treat lightly the fact that we have God’s Word in the very form in which it was inspired. It is for our own salvation that God wrote His Word.

The Bible is the Gospel🔗

Closely related to the profession that the Hebrew and Greek testaments are the inspired Word of God is the conviction that the Bible comprises the Gospel. While the text is the form of God’s Word, the substance is the message of salvation. In other words, the two testaments are the vehicle for the Gospel message. Philip Melanchthon makes this link between the form and substance of the Gospel when he states, “the Greek language ... is absolutely necessary to help us read and correctly understand ... the message of Christ (Rummel 145). Since the Gospel is conveyed through human languages, we must learn those languages well if we desire to receive the Gospel most directly. Luther expresses the same sentiment with the following metaphor: “the languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17) is contained (C360). In order to grasp the contents of Scripture, one must know also its form. This form is the original text of Scripture.

Luther observes that one of the many blessings in the Reformation was the return to the Gospel. And according to him, the contemporary recovery of Hebrew, Greek and Latin was related to this return. Pursuing a redemptive-historical line of reasoning, Luther notes that God used the ancient languages to disseminate His Word (C359) at the time of the patriarchs and the apostles. The fact that the decline in the knowledge of the Biblical languages during the Middle Ages was accompanied by the loss of the Gospel is proof for Luther that study of these languages must be promoted. Indeed, Luther states, during the Reformation God saw fit to cause a rebirth in the knowledge of Hebrew and Greek for the sake of the Gospel, which He intended to bring to light and use in exposing and destroying the kingdom” of the Romish pope (C359). What is more, Luther argues, believers who have been granted to know the Bible in the form in which God gave it, have the obligation to preserve it in that form. For “we will not long preserve the Gospel without the languages... It is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the Gospel must finally perish (C360).” Luther concludes that just as the recovery of the original languages is linked to the recovery of the Gospel, so too the future loss of them will be coupled with the loss of the Gospel itself. If this reasoning is correct, one hesitates to imagine what may be in store should the true church be deprived of her knowledge of the languages of Scripture.

The Bible Preserves True Doctrine🔗

The teaching of the church is found in Scripture alone; doctrine is based not upon modern translations but on the inspired text. In order to test the teaching of the church, therefore, believers must employ the highest authority, Scripture. For this reason Luther wished that all believers could read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek! Indeed, argued Luther, it is in order to execute the responsibility of the priesthood of all believers in testing doctrine in light of God’s Word that all should have a thorough knowledge of the Biblical languages. Thinking of the corruptions in the church of his own day, Luther warns believers that “the preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong (C365).”

The Reformers stress that ministers of the Word should be able to instruct the congregations entrusted to them according to a competent knowledge of the Biblical languages. In his inaugural lecture as professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg in 1518, Melanchthon stresses the fact that the Hebrew and Greek Bible contains the teaching of God which the servant of the Word must convey. Translations do not employ inspired words; they are time-bound, human renderings of Christian doctrine. Since the original Scriptures contain God’s teaching, Melanchthon states, church leaders should “cultivate (Scriptures) as purely as possible and not change it by our own wily devices.” 3 Melanchthon knew that if ministers do not preach and teach the inspired testaments, they run the risk of advancing their own fallible beliefs.

Matthaeus Adrianus, who taught Hebrew at the Trilingual College in Louvain, also commends knowledge of the languages in order to preserve true doctrine. His argument is: “what will a theologian do ... if he is ignorant of languages? He must either trust in guesses or allow himself to be led by another’s intelligence (Rummel 116).” The teacher of the Bible must read the Hebrew and Greek testaments in order to appropriate and promote true doctrine. And all Reformers agree that good teaching employs the languages, terms and definitions of Scripture and not those devised by men.

Knowledge of the languages serves not only to receive and promote true doctrine, but also to rise above the teachings of those who rely on human sources. Melanchthon promotes the languages among the Reformers in Wittenberg, “lest we go into our encounters with the theologians blindfolded. It is language studies that brings out the splendour of words and the meaning of idioms, and ... as we turn our mind to the sources, we begin to savour Christ (Rummel 115).” Luther concurs, stating that when “men attempt to defend the faith with such uncertain arguments and mistaken prooftexts, are not Christians put to shame and made a laughingstock in the eyes of adversaries who do know the language (C362)?” How can Reformed theologians who do not know Hebrew and Greek refute those who err but do know these languages (C363)? As all truth is from God, the onus is upon believers to defend their convictions by an appeal to the Bible.

It is not surprising to learn that the use of the original testaments distinguished Reformers from Romanists. The Romanist church charged the Reformers with heterodoxy when the latter provided new, improved texts and translations, or when the latter pointed out that certain teachings had no basis in Scripture. As innovators who were throwing into question long-held practices of the church, the Reformers were seen as deviating from tradition. In fact, however, the Reformers were in accord with the apostolic church in using the Hebrew and Greek Bible. Rightly annoyed by the so-called scholars of the Romanist church who pretended to know the original Scriptures, the Reformers described the higher clergy as hypocrites. Unable to defend their teaching from Scripture, the Romanists were deceiving countless, trusting lay people who depended upon the knowledge of the clergy. The Reformers, by contrast, could take comfort in the fact that their teachings were based upon God’s infallible Word.

Matthaeus Adrianus rightly concludes that because all sound doctrine resides in Scripture alone, it will always be necessary to read the Bible in the original: “Who will listen to those who stupidly argue that a knowledge of the languages was once necessary, but no more (Rummel 116)?” The responsibility of especially ministers of God’s Word to know Hebrew and Greek remains today; it is Reformed to teach from the original testaments.

The Bible Refutes Heresies🔗

The corollary to the belief that Scripture contains true doctrine is the confession that the Bible is the authority whereby heresy is rejected. It was in fact one of the hallmarks of the Reformers to argue that the teachings, customs and ceremonies of the church should be tried against the touchstone of Scripture. The most notorious false custom of the Romanist church was penance, and the Reformers refuted the false teaching which supported this practice by pointing to Scripture. More than a century before the Reformation, Valla had dared to point out that the interpretation of Jerome’s translation of the Greek word “metanoia” (repentance) in 2 Corinthians 7:10 with the Latin “poenitentia” led the Romanist church to the wrong conclusion that penance is a Biblically instituted practice. Erasmus observed the same problem with the Latin translation of Matthew 3:1: “to do penance” (poenitentiam agite) may mislead the believer into thinking that the common 16th century practice is based in Scripture. The original text means simply “repent” (resipiscite), referring to the conversion of the heart. By going back to the original Greek text of the Bible, Erasmus dealt a blow against the basis of the teaching of penance, showing that there were no prooftexts for the custom. He argued that these two texts do not support the external practice of penance, but deal with inner conversion. It is clear even from this one example how important Scripture is in forming proper teaching.

The practice of penance was but one of several customs and teachings refuted by the emphasis upon the original Scriptures: the Romanist teachings on the papacy, the sacraments, celibacy, and a host of other doctrines could not withstand the light of the Hebrew and Greek Bible. Thanks to the work of God in the Reformation, the church returned to the teaching revealed in Scripture. Indeed, at all times only the Bible can fully refute the doctrines of men.

Knowledge of Scripture Promotes Christian Living🔗

Doctrine and life are inextricably linked; knowledge of Scripture is crucial to Christian living. It may surprise the modern reader that practical application of Scripture was an important aspect of the Reformation. But the Reformers rightly connect the decline in the spiritual life of believers and church leaders to the demise of the preaching and teaching according to the Hebrew and Greek Bible. To prove their point that knowledge of the Bible in the original is crucial to the spiritual wellbeing of believers, the Reformers evoke the evidence of history. Tracing the history of the church from the apostolic age to his own, Luther argues that “as soon as the languages declined to the vanishing point ... the Gospel and faith and Christianity itself declined more and more until under the pope they disappeared entirely (C360).” In fact “a great many dreadful abominations arose because of ignorance of the languages (C361).”

Melanchthon echoes Luther’s assessment, adding that when the church lost its working knowledge of the original letters, it could no longer justify its practices by pointing to Scripture, and so false practices crept in which could not be checked against the original text. When the church was deprived of its languages, writes Melanchthon, “ignorance of sacred matters ensued (Rummel 142).” If the languages are not recovered by the Reformers, Melanchthon urges, “the true and proper piety is everywhere changed into human traditions (Keen 55).” It is therefore by God’s grace that the languages were revived during the Reformation, and the regained knowledge of them was part of God’s providential plan for church reform. Now that the languages are revived, they “are bringing with them so bright a light (C361),” says Luther, that believers are able to direct their lives once again according to God’s Word.


Each of the Reformers’ reasons for knowing the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures remains relevant today. Especially for the ministry of the Gospel knowledge of the Biblical languages must continue to be the basis. It will be worthwhile to conclude, therefore, by noting that Reformed churches rightly emphasize the role of the Old and New Testaments in the minister’s task of preaching the Word, instructing in the faith, and counselling the flock.

Ministers are servants of Christ who bring the message of the Gospel. As such they herald the Word of God, the living Word which He recorded and revealed in the Hebrew and Greek testaments. Of the Reformers especially Luther argues that to preach from the original texts is to preach the very Word of God. Ministers must not rely upon translations or commentaries. They must rely upon the revealed Word. Luther notes that when the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigour in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations (C365).” A minister must be above the translation, and reveal to the congregation the fullness and richness of the Word.

Another reason why the minister must have a working knowledge of the original languages of Scripture is to understand and apply the teaching of the Word and so preserve Christ’s flock from heresy. As was noted above, dogmatics rests upon proper interpretation and application of original Scripture. Not only during the Reformation, but also today the church must be taught according to the Word of God. Thus, to give but two examples, when he reads in the Form for Infant Baptism that Colossians 2:11-12 is a prooftext for the teaching that baptism has replaced circumcision, the minister must correct the possible misunderstanding in the NIV rendition, “the circumcision by Christ.” Or again, when instructing the congregation in the doctrine of justification by faith, the minister must explain what is meant when the RSV states in Romans 3:30 that the circumcised will be justified “on the ground of  their faith.” Translations do not always fully and accurately convey the teaching of the original texts, and the minister must be so conversant with the Biblical languages as to explain correctly the teaching of the Bible.

Pastoral counselling, too, is not based upon the teachings of man, but upon the Word of God. Only the fact that his guidance and advice are based solely upon God’s Word gives the minister grounds for his discipline and encouragement. Indeed, counselling, preaching and teaching are joined together as the application of the Word of God in the life of the congregation. In treating the relevance of the Biblical languages for all the tasks of the ministry, Matthaeus Adrianus compares the aspects of the calling to the parts of the body which together promote the wellbeing of the whole. All are dependent upon God’s Word and seek to serve it (Rummel 94-5). The minister who has plumbed the depths of the original texts and employs the words of Scripture in comforting or reproving his flock, most effectively applies the rule of faith. Human translations, teachings and writings are fallible, Scripture is not. Therefore, also in the pastoral duties of the minister, use of the Hebrew and Greek testaments is most effective. Indeed, warns Luther, there is great danger in speaking of things of God in a different manner and in different terms than God Himself employs (C366).” Thus in all of the duties of the minister of God’s Word it is Scripture which stands supreme. And so in conclusion, the relationship between the role of the Bible in translation and the role of the original testaments may be summed up in this way, again by Luther: “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 (C358).”


  1. ^ Quoted from E. Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 103. Further references to this book appear in the text. 
  2. ^ M. Luther, To the Councilmen of All the Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools, tr. A. Steinhaeuser, in H. Lehman, ed., Luther’s Works. Vol. 45 (Philadelphia, 1962), 364. Further quotations from this Letter will be noted in the text with “C.”
  3. ^ On Improving the Studies of the Youth, as quoted in R. Keen, A Melanchthon Reader (New York, 1988), 55.

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