Written by Rev. Jonathan McGuire
Benefits of Latin for “regular” pastors? Well, what’s an irregular pastor? While I’d argue Latin is beneficial to all pastors, whether those of mega, medium, or minor congregations, there are certain pastors who may never study Latin—the Irregulars. Their ministries are somewhat restricted, perhaps only to the pulpit, with staff and assistants handling many daily administrative tasks that plague the schedules of mule-pastors who carry many ministry stones on their shoulders: bulletins, frequent visitation and counseling, or unclogging toilets forgotten by the few deacons busy that week anyway. For the mules like me who learned our most important lessons after seminary, Latin is beneficial in several ways outside of the wonderful essay written by Blake Adams, which I recommend you read.
First, since Latin was the doctrinal language of the church for centuries, you’ll be better acquainted with precise and well-tested doctrinal terms used to differentiate harmful from beneficial doctrinal truth. Don’t you wish you knew more when your people ask you the difference between Mormons—or JW’s—and Christians, or the Reformed and Lutheran on communion (e.g. the communicatio idiomatum)? Don’t you wish you knew how to clarify, or put memorably, critical truths related to the inner workings of the Creator and his relationship with his creation (i.e., the ad intra and ad extra distinction in Trinitarian theology)? There are dozens of vitally important terms that Latin helps to clarify and summarize for those who will give more than a fast-food-window reading of theological texts—especially if you want to know what Christians thought before a few decades ago back when many American groups decided English was sufficient, authoritative, clear, and all that was necessary. Latin is more than a vocabulary list, but so much of our theological vocabulary is in Latin that ignorance, while perhaps not actively harming you, fails to benefit the people under your watchful care. Precision and clarity enhances spirituality and improves our thinking and adoration of our Triune God.
Second, because many pastors (over 90%) have congregations of fewer than 100 members, and since a majority of pastors in North America are from rural communities, these men likely see their people, on average, far more than mega or medium-church pastors. Every minor-church pastor who longs to faithfully shepherd will frequently see his flock. In short, if your church is small, your time with your members will be large. For a rural pastor, a stop at the feed or grocery store is never short. A trip for milk turns into 4 conversations stretching from the cart storage to the milk aisle to the check-out. You know first names, and you ask about so-and-so’s cousin’s cancer treatment. A trip out of the house becomes a likely pastoral visit. This means the pastor is involved in community lives on a level most urban or suburban pastors can’t understand.
For such pastors, the opportunity is high to engage in more than ecclesiastical and theological formation—to become more integrated with not only his congregation, but also with his town—through the educational opportunities created by knowledge of Latin. Some suburban pastors I know are involved in education with families of their communities, and occasionally, I’ve found an urban pastor doing the same. Perhaps increasingly, this will be the norm, and I thank God for this. Latin, as the principal language of Western heritage, provides one unique (and rare) bridge for a church preacher to become a town pastor. If the local school—especially of one of the many declining rural towns—needs an extra hand, the church preacher may find himself in a unique position of being highly educated and available to teach the humanities, or host a Latin club, in which Greek and Roman cultures are studied and Western heritage at its best and ugliest is explored through Latin. This isn’t so far-fetched as it sounds, and the templates for such clubs are free online. What you do not know will never be asked of you, and if your tools are sharp and varied, you’ll probably find a way to build something that lasts. I’ve seen variations of this happening more than I would’ve guessed when I was in Bible college and seminary. Conversations of heroes and epics, emperors and legions, easily lead to conversations about transcendence, beauty, meaning, and identity—all catalysts for cultural resurgence and personal sanctification in the highly charged political climate in which we minister. Competence in one dead language can lead to conversations of eternal significance.
Third, and since I know you have bulletins to edit, sermons to write, and visits to make: Latin will relativize you and the resulting humility will benefit your people. No, not every language learned brings humility, but some do. And, to be fair, not every pastor who knows or learns Latin will find humility under the rock of Ovid or Cicero. But they should. Building an amateur fluency will, over time with practice, build a deeper understanding of the culture to which Paul stood and said, “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious,” or which heard, “Surely, this was the Son of God” from a Roman who almost certainly was a member of Caesar’s famed Tenth Legion, and may very well have said this glorious confession in Latin. It would, wouldn’t it, be nice to not simply hear of Ovid, but read his poetry as poetry, rather than as shaky translation, or Augustine’s Confessions, or Tertullian? Isn’t it possible that a new tool immersing you in the culture of the New Testament world, the church’s language and mental gymnasium, and the Western world’s heritage generally speaking, would humble you and thereby bless your flock?
What wonders do we forfeit because we never try, and what jewels would enrich us through Latin if we would tolle lege, or “pick it up and read,” as Augustine confessed?
Jonathan is a PCA pastor in a rural farming community of the Mississippi Delta, where he lives with his family of six. In addition to his pastoral duties, he teaches humanities at a local high school.