Christianity emerged from a Roman world that absorbed cultures stretching from the British Isles to the Iberian Peninsula, and all the way to Near East. It comes to no surprise that Christianity in its rapid growth had speakers from a gamut of Indo-European and Semitic languages. The one language, however, it began to embrace over time was Latin.

To be fair, Greek was the principle language of communication in the Mediterranean (which is why the New Testament was written in Greek), but Latin was the language of choice for the Roman government—and eventually the Western Church.[1] Tertullian, Augustine in North Africa, eventually Patrick in Britannia, and later, Aquinas in the middle-ages were all writing in Latin.

The point being that if you’re aspiring to study Ancient History, Patristics, New Testament, Medieval, Reformation, or anything in between, you need to learn Latin. Learning a language can be challenging—learning a dead language can be daunting. So for motivation, here are five quick reasons you should learn Latin:

1) Latin is the gateway-language for law, science, medicine, theology, and history. It holds foundational terminology for law, and science, but clearly applicable in history and theology. Most of the hallmark works in history and theology were written in Latin. Those seeking higher education in these related fields will have an upper hand already knowing Latin, or even dabbling in its vocabulary.

2) Latin improves you as a communicator in both writing and speaking. It is a highly systematized language. The careful reading and thorough analysis of the text carries over when using your own language—in public speaking and formal writing. Latin attunes the awareness of linguistic methods and gives you command of your own language.

3) Latin develops scholastic rigor. It fosters habits you wouldn’t normally focus on in daily life. It requires repetition, methodology, and memorization. Learning a language like Latin will develop a pedagogy that will aid you in the study of others and help you to think how you learn individually. The study of Latin cultivates self-discipline.

4) Latin puts you in conversation with great thinkers. Dovetailing with the aforementioned reasons, learning Latin is non-negotiable for those who study in the fields of Ancient history, Early Christianity, Patristics, Medieval, or Reformation. Translations are helpful, but “the only way to understand the thinking of person in ancient times is inductively through their language.”[2] 

5) Latin is the language of the West. It’s the parent language for over one billion speakers in the world and has given loan words to several other languages.[3] To know Latin is to know your own linguistic heritage. It has cultural prestige matched by no other language in the West.[4] Its history runs deep and influence wide. English might be the lingua franca of the world, but its heartbeat is still Latin.

How to get going

Once you begin searching for resources, you’ll quickly realize there are stacks of reading grammars, lexicons, and the like. It can easily seem overwhelming. Here I’d like to offer a few recommendations to get started.

  1. John F. Collins. A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, (CUA, 1988). This grammar is well-suited for those who have little or no background in Latin. It’s condense, concise, and organized in a way that helps students grasp a firm hold of reading Latin texts.

  2. H. Allen and J. B. Greenough. Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar, (Focus, 2001). For an in depth reading of Latin, this grammar is it. Drawing upon primary texts, it walks students through the ins-and-outs helping them master the language.

  3. G. W. Glare (Editor). Oxford Latin Dictionary, (OUP, 1983). Nearly any dictionary or lexicon will jumpstart your vocabulary. This comprehensive dictionary, however, brings clarity to the rarest of words. Such an aid will guide you through the labyrinth of Latin vocabulary.

  4. Tore Janson. A Natural History of Latin, (OUP, 2007). Aside from syntax, it’s also vital to know the where, why, and how of Latin. This work offers a thorough history of Latin’s origins and influence to help students understand the context of what they’re reading.

  5. Renato Oniga. Latin: A Linguistics Introduction (OUP, 2014). With the advances of discourse analysis and other linguistic theory, this work assesses Latin from the perspective of contemporary linguistics.

Learning Latin isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time, discipline, and critical thinking. Hopefully you’ll find the study of Latin profitable. The reward of studying Latin is twofold; it allows you to reflect back on your own language as it improves, and it pushes you forward into different arenas of scholarship—which not only makes Latin profitable, but invaluable.

  1. Everett Ferguson. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 135.  ↩

  2. Ibid., 135.  ↩

  3. James Clackson. A Companion to the Latin Language. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 1.  ↩

  4. Ibid., 1.  ↩

About the Author:
John T. Lowe

John T. Lowe (M.Div., Southern Seminary) is a Th.M. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.