Carmen J. Bryant, M. Th.
Sola scriptura! The conviction of the Magisterial Reformers was that the doctrines of the Church were to be based on the Bible alone. Furthermore, they were persuaded that these truths needed to be understood by every Christian. To bring these convictions into reality they had to overcome linguistic attitudes and practices that had developed within the Church itself.
The rule of Rome raised Latin to the level of a lingua franca throughout the empire. Even though the language dynamics changed drastically after the fall of the empire, Latin remained the official language of Christianity in the west. It took on the characteristics of a holy language. By the time of the Middle Ages, the common man unschooled in Latin had little chance of perceiving the truths of the Scriptures. Christianity had become steeped in superstition and false teaching.
The Reformers were catalysts of change with their doctrine of sola scriptura and their emphasis upon preaching the Gospel in the vernacular. They were convinced that God’s message was intended to be understood by all and not hidden behind unintelligible language and mysterious rituals.
Over four hundred years have elapsed since Luther, Zwingli and Calvin insisted on sola scriptura, sola fide, and the priesthood of the believer. This same message has been taken around the world, bringing light to those still in darkness.
The church is in danger, however, of falling victim to the same predicament which faced the Reformers of the sixteenth century. The lingua franca has become in some countries the language of Christianity, to the detriment of segments of the population that have not learned that language. The growth of English in particular as an international language is affecting the way Christianity is perceived by those who do not speak English as their mother tongue. In some places, the King James Version has taken the role the Vulgate used to have.
Missionaries themselves complicate the issues by unrealistic attitudes which prevent them from devoting themselves to the mastery of the native languages where they serve, reinforcing the trend to make English or some other lingua franca the Protestant Latin.
In this paper we will first review the convictions of the Reformers which led to the use of the vernacular for communicating the truth of Christianity. We will then look at the situation in two countries of Asia: Indonesia, where the lingua franca is Indonesian, a Malay-based language;1 and the Philippines, where English is a major language.2
The Rise of Latin
Latin as lingua franca
The Roman conquerors were successful in establishing Latin as the lingua franca throughout the empire. It became the means of communication between peoples of diverse native languages. A lingua franca, however, does not always replace the native languages of the people it unites. Some local languages were replaced by Latin, particularly in southern Europe. Others gradually were influenced by Latin, but were not eliminated.
Not much is known about the indigenous languages of southern Europe prior to the region’s colonization by Rome. Latin was adopted in some form as the daily language. Whatever dialectical differences may have existed due to the influence of native languages, it is certain that these were “overlaid by a standard written language that preserved a good degree of uniformity until well after the administrative collapse of the empire. . . .”3
Written vulgar (or common) Latin was spread widely by the Church, and became the official language of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. St. Jerome translated the Bible into vulgar Latin (thus Vulgate) between 385 and 404 AD.
Carmen J. Bryant, M. Th.
WorldLink Graduate Center