A homily of a famous sixth-century bishop reflects on how Jesus in his wisdom chose fisherman and others without formal education to be the first leaders of his Church: if Jesus had chosen polished orators, powerful politicians, or learned teachers their great success would have been ascribed to human skill and ingenuity. Choice of uneducated men was a powerful witness to God's grace. The bishop who gave that homily was Gregory I of Rome, and he, like most ecclesiastical leaders after the Apostles, were men and women with excellent secular, classical educations. His near contemporary, the historian Gregory of Tours spoke of his proficiency in the liberal arts as first-rate. While early Christian leaders criticized ancient polytheism and many aspects of ancient philosophy, they applied their knowledge of language and culture which they learned in the secular schools to their vocations as bishops, abbots and church leaders.
Language skills in particular were cited for their importance not only for reading and interpreting the Scriptures but for preaching and writing in defense of the faith far and wide. The fourth century North-African writer Lactantius openly defended eloquence in religion, as in the preface to his Divine Institutes, an explanation of Christianity to the still largely pagan population of the Roman Empire:
"Although the truth may be defended without eloquence, as it has often been defended by many, yet it needs to be illumined, and in a certain measure championed, with clarity and brilliance of speech, so that it may flow more powerfully into the mind, fortified with its own power and adorned with the light of oratory.
Lactantius makes this point more succinctly when he wrote "It so happens that even wisdom and truth need suitable heralds."
The tradition of solid education in biblical languages and the rhetorical traditions continues for Church leaders today. The classics offers an unsurpassed major for students considering a vocation to the ministry. While some familiarity in Greek and Hebrew is often a part of professional seminary education, learning the biblical languages takes longer than that, and so the short-track approach can actually be counterproductive and even lead to erroneous readings. Joined with the study of philosophy and religion a solid undergraduate education in the classics, especially Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, provides a firm pre-theological education.
Some testimony from church leaders:
"Here belongs also what St. Paul calls for in I Corinthians 14, namely, that in the Christian church all teachings must be judged. For this a knowledge of language is needful above all else. The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the biblical languages; it cannot be done in any other way. Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of the languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations.
(Martin Luther, "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools" (1524))
"The real New Testament is the Greek New Testament. The English is simply a translation of the New Testament, not the actual New Testament. It is good that the New Testament has been translated into so many languages. The fact that it was written in koine Greek, the universal language of the time, rather than in one of the earlier Greek dialects, makes it easier to render into modem tongues. But there is much that cannot be translated.
We excuse other men for not having a technical knowledge of the Bible. We do not expect all men to know the details of medicine, law, banking, railroading. But the preacher cannot be excused from an accurate apprehension of the New Testament. This is the book that he undertakes to expound. It is his specialty, and this he must know whatever else he does or does not know. Excuses for neglecting the New Testament are only excuses after all.
(A.T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, (1923)).
"Quite rightly our Predecessors have urged the study of the great Latin language so that one may learn better the saving doctrine that is found in ecclesiastical and humanistic disciplines. In the same way we urge you to cultivate this activity so that as many as possible may have access to this treasure and appreciate its importance.
(Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI to the students of the Faculty of Christian and Classical Letters of the Pontifical Salesian University of Rome, at the end of the Wednesday General Audience of 22 February 2006 (And he pronounced it in Latin!))