Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Grammar of the Gospel

"Among all the academic disciplines that have been developed by human beings, grammar is the most important and the most useful for the advancement of theology".
Martin Luther

Do you remember your elementary grammar? Subject, object, verb, predicate, etc.?
When I was in the upper grades of primary school in the early 1970s, much time was spent in class and in homework studying English grammar and parsing sentences. In my grandfather's day, English grammar was mastered before going on to Latin in high school (and he went to a public or state-funded school, not a private one, and thus in those days was probably not even destined to enter a profession where Latin would be useful, like medicine or the law - he became a bank clerk, and subsequently a bank manager - I still have the book he won as an academic prize in 1923). But if my experience with teachers these days is anything to go by, grammar is something that has not been taught for a generation. That may go a long way towards explaining declining literacy among young people, but for the present I want to focus on its implications for the life of the church.

It is perhaps not so well known today (outside of Germany, that is) that Luther and Melanchthon were not only devoted to reforming the church, but almost equally so to reforming the school. Indeed, Melanchthon is more often commemorated in his homeland today as the "Preceptor (or Teacher) of Germany" than as a reformer of the church. What is sometimes forgotten is that the Reformers' concern to educate youth was directly related to their program of religious reform. The translation of the Bible into the language of the people could only bear fruit if there were people educated enough to read and understand it. Reformers in other countries and language groups followed suit, to the benefit of the people of the time and many subsequent generations of Western peoples and the recipients of Wstern education in the mission fields. We know that, as a result of the Reformers' efforts and the efforts of those who followed their course, literacy has always been much higher in Protestant than Catholic countries (no triumphalism intended!).
However, this great achievement of the Reformation appears to be jeopardised in our time. I have concerns about this as a parent and a citizen, but for present purposes my concern is as a pastor, and it is about the effect this decrease in literacy will have - is already having - on Bible study and the impact of the Gospel in people's lives.
For example, is it the pastor's role, in a Bible study, to go over basic English grammar in order to enable people to properly interpret the text they are studying? I suppose, in an emergency situation, a pastor must step in where the education system, or the student, has failed, and become an "emergency teacher". I recall that at seminary, before beginning Biblical languages, we did a week's revision of English grammar, which was very wise and helpful (and not only for the victims of modern education, but also for those of us who had not had to think about grammar for twenty-five years!). Is it hopelessly idealistic though, to hope that at least our Lutheran education systems might work in tandem with and for the church,rather than mindlessly succumb to the latest unproven educational theories?

In conclusion, let me quote this sentence from Phillip Cary, which appears in passing (pun intended!) in his essay, Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant: "...when the Gospel is properly preached the pronoun that refers to me is the object rather than the subject of active verbs." In other words, the Gospel is What Christ has done for me, not What I have done for Christ. How many in the pews could apply that grammatical canon in the context of listening to a sermon? True, this axiom is more useful for preachers than for their hearers, but in a church where it is expected that hearers are able, on the basis of a knowledge and understanding of the Bible and the Gospel, to critically appraise the teaching they hear from the pulpit before applying it to their lives, a working knowledge of grammar is a basic tool we cannot afford to neglect.

(HT Lito for the Cary essay - click on the title to go to his post, which in light of this post is ironically titled In Christ, No Parsing Needed).

Pic:Luther translating the Bible in the Wartburg.

I'm not a 'Grammar Nazi', I hasten to add (despite what my wife might say ;0)), or just being pedantic (but I suppose that's a matter of opinion!), just a lay advocate for a second look at the benefits of a classical education, particularly in the Christian school setting.

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