The Language That Rose from the Dead

“A language must die to be immortal.”

When it comes to expressing the eternal and immutable truths of the Christian faith, the only good language is a dead language. Chesterton once made a disarming retort to the customary detraction of Latin as a dead language. He simply remarked that to say this is not a detraction at all, for quite in contrast to the detractor’s intentions, it throws into profile the clear ascendancy of Latin over all the “living” languages of today.

It is the question of a dead language and a dying language. Every living language is a dying language, even if it does not die. Parts of it are perpetually perishing or changing their sense; there is only one escape from that flux; and a language must die to be immortal.¹

Yes, indeed, pagan Latin eventually bit the dust, and the Western mind turned with relish to the new throng of spawning tongues which began to mottle the linguistic map of Europe. Among them, the intense lucidity of French, the irresistible bounce of Italian, the vehement velocity of Spanish, and the nasal sincerity of Portuguese entered upon their long evolutions, each of them drawing a thousand voices of secular discourse into their new constellations of emphases. But the golden tongue of Cicero was on its way out, and along with the Empire whose body was dismembered and put to seed for a new garden of nations, that ancient tongue was almost buried too.

But then came one of those bizarre turns in human history that makes us wonder just how human it really is. After Rome had lost its imperial dignity to Byzantium, and furthermore taken the moral nosedive of soaking its arenas in Christian blood, it would have surprised no one had the last dying syllables of the Empire’s language remained inaudible to history. But at the opening of the 5th Century, the idiom that once vibrated on the tongue of Cato was strongly and brilliantly ringing out again and in the very midst of the collapsing walls of the Empire. The Vandals had moved into northern Africa from Spain, and in twenty years time would sally northwards and sack the imperial capital itself. Meanwhile, within the African walls of Hippo, St. Augustine was penning the last chapters of The City of God and must have looked up from his desk every few minutes or so, wondering if Genseric’s hordes were going to bring his episcopal residence down on his head. With the grace of God, he finally brought his book to an end, but in the interim, the Vandals had also brought Hippo to an end.

Latin died to the world. This was in 430. Just years before, St. Jerome had completed his Latin translation of the Bible, destined to become the most influential Biblical text ever. St. Jerome did his work largely in Palestine, as St. Augustine had in Africa. But in Rome itself, where the Hellenized Jewish converts had arrived with the Good News from Palestine, many of them turned their energies to the translation of the Greek Gospel and liturgy into a Latin the waning Romans could understand. The language was dying, but the souls of those who still spoke it were nonetheless in need of salvation.

To everyone’s surprise, there rose upon the field of this purely instrumental effort something like a linguistic renaissance, as a host of prefaces, collects, orations, secrets, and post-communions grew into what is known to us today as the Leonine Sacramentary. Roman civilization went on and died; the last emperor unceremoniously left the scene in 476. But paradoxically, the heart of the Latin language was still beating strongly, and its conjugations and declensions were carried on the breath of a new host of talkers. But there was a difference: for what these men were talking about was something hitherto unheard of on the street corners of history, and statements were being made that no period of Cicero’s had even remotely embraced.

This is Chesterton’s point. The Latin language died, indeed, but the death it died it died to the world. In the small enclave of the Christian Church, the same language experienced nothing less than a miraculous resurrection; and the analogy can be pursued to the end. The bloodless carcass of the language, filled to the skin with the earthbound schemes of the ancients, could no longer respond to the soul of paganism; like every merely natural body, the life that had sustained it was merely mortal. So history slowly drug it off to the grave, that one more might be added to the thousand withered tongues of time.

But then came Latin’s Easter sunrise, for after the Gospel of Christ had been rejected by the Jews, the Prince of the Apostles sealed his witness to the Master by reddening a hill in Rome we now call the Vatican. And then, like a hurricane abruptly changing course, the full fury of Christ’s message turned itself suddenly and excitedly upon this prostrate language of the Romans, and, lifting a hand over its lifeless heap of words—all of them tongue-tied by centuries of unanswered questions—it cried out, “Ephphatha!“—and the tongue was loosed, and Christian Latin began to speak to the world.

We will never appreciate the enormous importance of the Latin language for our Church and our faith until we grasp the supernatural character of what I have just described. In Christ, history itself was conditioned by God, and nothing, including language, has looked the same since.

The Church did not adopt Latin just because it was a ready-made tool which historical conditions furnished and which she then appreciatively picked up. It would be as big a lie as saying that Bach took up the fugue because everyone else was taking it up, when, in fact, everyone else was dropping it. The fact that fugues loom so large in the history of music is in no small way because Bach did pick it up when everyone else was tired of it; ignoring the “winds of change,” he breathed his own storm of genius into the old form, while the others, red in the face and with throbbing temples, turned at last to the tamer challenges of novelty. In the same way, the Church picked up the discarded morphemes of Latin.

We labor under a particular handicap when we try to grasp this point today. The churchmen of the Renaissance, and to a greater extent, the Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation, were both anxious not to play second fiddle to the humanists; so they began dragging the paradigms of classical Latin into the ecclesiastical academies and reluctantly nodded when the Christian language of St. Augustine and St. Bernard was demoted beneath the flaunted standards of the ancients.

Not a little of the disaffection of modern clergy with Latin has to do with their being terrorized by the tortuous language of many Church documents, including the modern encyclicals, and being made to study Cicero and Virgil when all they wanted to do was offer Mass. Rather than enjoying the more accessible prose of many of the Fathers and the simple Latin of St. Thomas’s Summa, the drilling of the mind in the complexities and subtleties of ancient Latin was taken as the unavoidable baptism of fire in the Church’s native tongue. And many got predictably burnt out.

Classical Latin is indisputably grand, undeniably majestic, and irrevocably dead; for the Renaissance did not resurrect it, but only drug the skeletons out of the tombs and taught us to marvel over the intensely interesting way the bones are joined together. The classical scholars may get more or less close to imagining the meat and feeling the pulse of the language in its true Sitz im Leben (“sociological setting”), and a few men like Erasmus can certainly make this sort of thing engaging. But the language is not living again, neither as it did in antiquity, nor through the infusion of a new life; for the humanist has no new life to give. When framed in this unnatural medium, the simple, sublime assertions and quasi-inspired neologisms of Christian theology seem to bang about clumsily amidst all the flourish and measured earnestness of Ciceronian constructions.

Moreover, all this is so time-wasting, for the Christian mysteries have already forged their own language, and there, as nowhere else, they unfold their truths not only accurately, but also naturally. This was St. Augustine’s great discovery about the Latin Bible; for after first turning to it after years of Cicero, he found the style cropped and barbaric, making him wonder what crude doctrines were lurking behind such ingenuousness. Indeed, the Scriptures “seemed to me unworthy of comparison with the grand style of Cicero.” But once he was touched by the mysteries behind the style, he discovered the reason for the plainness:

“… what I saw was something that is not discovered by the proud and is not laid open to children; the way in is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries … these Scriptures would grow up together with a little child; I, however, thought too highly of myself to become a little child; I, swollen with pride, I was, in my own eyes, grown-up.”²

The Christian Latin which we find in the Vulgate, in St. Augustine, in the Latin Fathers, and in the early Sacramentaries is not just a salvaged Latin, shaken, dusted off, and clumsily recycled in an age that had lost the inspiration of the days of Virgil and Horace. This was the Renaissance view of the matter. It is rather a language reborn through obstetrics irreducible to ordinary linguistic evolution; and what the literati mistake for barbaric unsophistication is rather the dignified simplicity demanded by the mysteries of a God who is Simplicity Itself. The anointment of the Spirit seems to force this Latin to move about more modestly, with a kind of self-forgetful gait, but for all this it moves far closer to the hushed world of God’s most intimate secrets.

This is the first claim I should like to make for Christian Latin, namely that it was the same language that had “known” the wisdom of Greco-Roman antiquity, but had died a natural death as that wisdom exhausted its resources. It then was resurrected from the dead by the supernatural Truth of Christ. After much malignment, academic opinion has come to acknowledge this quasi-miracle, especially after the 19th century researches of Ozanam, Roensch, Goelzer, and others.

The second claim I raise is the first of two consequences of the first claim, and it is this: though Christian Latin was not born with Christianity itself, it was nonetheless born with Christian theology, and thus, not only its characteristic simplicity (at least when compared with classical Latin), but also its new world of meanings grew apace with the new understanding of the faith. Here, certainly, Christian Latin was deeply beholden to Christian Greek, at least in the early centuries. Still, the unique powers of Western speculation, starting with Augustine and one day to climax in the overwhelming Latin edifice of Aquinas, were fruits borne in the language in which Christian thought first moved and matured. Within the grammar and vocabulary of Latin, pious reflections on Christ’s revelation had taken their inaugural steps, fashioned their first conceptual tools, and demanded of syntax and morphology that they yield to the sovereign exigencies of the WORD’s own Word. All this made Christian theology and Christian Latin into correlative realities—each, in turn, a mother to the other.

The third claim I raise is the most pertinent of all, at least for us who ride on the stampede of modern progress. Chesterton had observed that the only way for a language to be truly living is to die and to resurrect by the agency of a higher, life-giving force (such as the Church). The common, vernacular tongues of everyday life are immersed in the contingencies of time and subject to the vagaries of the world’s currents of change. Words are dying almost every day, with new ones rising to take their place. Through the king-of-the-mountain flurries of technological change, one on the heels of the other, many of our words seem to lose their targets on the very tip of our tongue.

So—I repeat in a funereal tone—the English language is dying and with it, all the other “living” languages of the world. And sometimes they are even splitting in the middle. What is happening to Brazilian Portuguese when compared with continental Portuguese (as I have experienced firsthand) is an even more dramatic case than American English compared with British. All the spoken languages of the world are undergoing slow deaths, and parts of them are being draped every day in black. But the only reason I bring all this up is the effect it has on our ability to think and talk about immutable doctrines.

If it is true that we are in possession of a supernatural revelation regarding truths that are not dying, that is, that are rooted in eternity and not subject to clocks and calendars, then it stands to reason that they will be imperfectly preserved if the only receptacles we have are the leaky old wineskins of contemporary idioms. If the truths of the faith are forever new (as they most definitely are), then we should keep them well nested within a language that has already been lifted above this linguistic mortuary we inhabit, invested with some share in the unchanging status of eternity, and thus made dead to this world and alive to another. For us in the Western Church, the forever new wineskin has always been Latin, and if this beverage is to refresh us all the way to eternity, we had better turn a skeptical eye to all the new, improved wineskins being offered us today.

Certainly we need to speak supernatural truths in the vernacular as well, but I am afraid we will have to drink the doctrine fast, for these old wineskins are hardly better than paper sacks, and the weakness of our fickle contemporary tongues is tearing leaks in the fabric of the language almost as fast as we utter our words. Sometimes it is impossible to find words whose bottoms do not fall right out of them when you try to put truth into them.

Try, for instance, to put the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation into modern, American English without feeling the need of a page of paraphrasing to bring something close to theological content to the words “person” and “nature” as we use them today. And when trying to speak of the substance of the Eucharist, the need will be even more acute. Without at least a considerable body of Latin in the background of our memory, all three of these fundamental notions (and with them, the burden of our faith) could easily be lost to the English words they originally generated. The words, tossed around by history, and, unable to signify anything beyond history, may well race out of the past and hasten into the future, leaving a rendezvous with the present as only a rare and puzzling accident.

Latin lives in eternity. The whole glory of Christian Latin is that it abides in the greatest present tense of all: the “now” of eternity. Never needing to be up-to-date, it stands free of the danger of ever getting out-of-date. And we who spend hours speaking interminably about things that pass, must be able to turn in theological reflection to God’s unchanging mysteries, and in a language still inspired by a Breath from the land of the living.

1 G.K. Chesteron, “Some of Our Errors,” The Thing (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1930), p. 193.
2 The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans., Rex Warner (New York: Mentor-Omega, 1963), p. 57.

This article first appeared in the July, 1990 edition of The Homiletic Pastoral Review.

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