I do not read Latin. I’ve never studied it or had a course in it. But I do know that this language has shaped and formed Christianity down the ages. Believe it or not, this dead language still plays a significant role in our living faith. And it is helpful, for all of us, to be familiar with bits and pieces of it.
Say what you will about the Catholic church, but for over a thousand years the language of the church was the language of Latin. This happened, in large part, because in the late AD 300s, a priest named Jerome was hired to translate the Bible into Latin. The Vulgate (“vulgar” meaning the “common” tongue) became the preferred translation of the day. As such, church services were conducted in Latin, doctrine was codified in Latin, papal decrees were printed in Latin, and even the Reformers (who rejected what the RCC taught) responded to them in…you guess it, Latin! Just as English is the common language of business today, Latin was the language of Christianity then.
You may not need it every day, but there are still quite a few Latin words and phrases that pop up in Christian books, get used in sermons, and even appear in a few songs that we sing. It can be helpful to know what they are and what they mean.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Let’s start with an easy one. Each Christmas we sing the song, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It is even in the Baptist hymnal. The chorus of that beloved carol is this old Latin phrase which means “glory to God in the highest.” (By the way, the verses of that song are in English, the chorus is in Latin, and the tune was written in France. Go figure.) These words were first spoken by the angels at the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke 2:14, though I seriously doubt they said it in Latin.
Anytime you talk about a theology of man, this important phrase comes up. In Genesis 1:27, Scripture says that “in the image of God (imago Dei) He created him.” Animals and humans were created on day six. But what sets us apart from dogs and dolphins is this mysterious, Divine set of fingerprints embedded in all men and women. The imago Dei is why we, like God (and unlike animals), are social, relational, emotional, creative, appreciate beauty, reason, love and so much more. Our own Baptist Faith & Message reminds us that the imago Dei is why we believe that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”
We all know that the date distinction “B.C.” means “before Christ.” While it’s hard to believe, there are still people who think that “A.D” means “after death.” It does not. A.D. (Anno Domini) means “in the year of our Lord.” So, every time a person writes the date (AD 2019), they are affirming Jesus’ birth and life. Pretty cool if you ask me.
This word was a special one in the 1500s. The Roman Catholic church was teaching a lot of what you might call “gospel plus” theology. They believed that salvation came by faith plus good works. They taught that our beliefs came from the Bible plus tradition. The resounding response of men like Martin Luther was this two syllable Latin word: sola. It means “alone” or “only.”
The oft-repeated motto of the Reformers became known as the five solaes. They are: sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola Christus (Christ alone), sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and sola Deo Gloria (for the glory of God alone.) We may not be able to pronounce them but even a Baptist can get behind those Latin ideas.
No, it’s not just a town in the Midwest. In Latin, Corpus Christi means the body of Christ. Remember that the next time you drive through Texas.
These two terms still show up anytime you’re talking about baptism. We, as Baptists, affirm what’s called credobaptism, that is believer’s baptism (credo is connected to our word creed or belief). Our Presbyterian, Methodist, and other such brethren, affirm what’s called paedobaptism, that is children’s baptism. (I’m such a Baptist, I had a hard time typing that phrase. I prefer to call it what it is, infant sprinkling, not baptism.) Even still, those two Latin prefixes help frame our discussion.
In the year 1519, a Swiss Reformer named Ulrich Zwingli went into the pulpit and did something hardly ever done up to that point in history. He preached the book of Matthew lectio continua, which literally means “consecutive reading” or as we would say: “verse-by-verse.” John MacArthur may have popularized it, but Zwingli invented it.
The Roman philosopher Lucretius once said: ex nihilo nihil fit meaning “nothing comes from nothing.” It was used as a reminder that hard work is always required in order to achieve something. But in the Christian vocabulary, ex nihilo is used in reference to God’s work in creation. He made all things ex nihilo, out of nothing.
simul justus et peccator
This may be one phrase you’ve never heard. And yet, it’s one of the most helpful and comforting. Popularized by Martin Luther, this Latin phrase explains the ongoing struggle of the Christian life. At any given moment, every Christian is simul justus (pronounced yoo-stus) et peccator, that is: we are simultaneously saints (just) and sinners.
This does not mean we are saints Sunday through Wednesday and sinners the rest of the week. No! It means we are 100% both at the same time. This is what Paul called “the old man.” Remember the frustration and struggle he talks about in Romans 7? (“That which I don’t want to do, I do. And that which I want to do, I don’t do.”) Our old man was drowned in the waters of baptism but even dead bodies float to the surface. How do we understand the spiritual tug-of-war we feel deep inside? We are simul justus et peccator.