I’m in the middle of teaching an intensive introduction to New Testament Greek for the ministry students at our seminary this month. It’s a pretty heavy month (though moreso for the students!): 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 4 weeks, followed by 2 hours every week for the rest of the academic year, to give them the basics of a language that no-one speaks any more. Why? Is it just tradition? Or a sadistic desire to inflict the same pain that previous generations of ministers had to go through?
Our passion for teaching ministers the original languages of Scripture is rooted in the Reformed Church’s unswerving commitment to the Word of God as it came from pens of the inspired authors. And it came from their pens in Hebrew and Greek. The Westminster Confession of Faith (I.8) puts it like this: ‘The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.’
Father of the rediscovery of the Word of God in Scripture that was the Reformation, Martin Luther described the biblical languages as ‘the sheath containing the sword of the Spirit.’ Even more picturesquely he likened reading Scripture in translation to ‘kissing your bride through her wedding veil’! It’s alright, in other words, but not all that it could be!
Maybe you’re a suffering student struggling with the conjugation of deponent verbs and third declension nouns and wondering what’s the point of it all. Or maybe you’re in your fifteenth year of ministry and your Hebrew and Greek have rusted to the point where you can’t tell a hithpael from an aorist (and if you don’t think there’s anything strange about that, then your languages may be even rustier than you thought!) and you need to be reminded of why we need to bother getting and keeping up Hebrew and Greek. Here are the three top arguments I’ve heard over the years from students as to why they shouldn’t have to learn the biblical languages.
Argument 1: ‘I’m not a linguist.’
You may not be a great linguist – Scripture is clear that we all have different gifts and different degrees of gift, but if you’re going to be a minister of the Word of God which was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, you are going to need to be able to work in those languages to some extent. It’s not so different from a potential ministry candidate saying, ‘I’m not a counsellor’, or ‘I’m not a people person’, or ‘I’m not very outgoing’. Maybe you’re not, but if you are going to be a competent pastor you’re going to have to work at these things. The same goes for Greek and Hebrew. I’m not saying you have to be proficient – but you do need to have a level of ability that is adequate for being a faithful exegete of Holy Scripture.
Argument 2: ‘It’s too time consuming – it’s not practical enough and other things are more valuable.’
Obviously if someone is spending 90 hours a week trying to learn the present tense of luo, then that is not a good use of time. But as Reformed believers we are convinced that nothing is more practical than a right understanding of God’s Word. All our pastoral ministry – counselling, outreach, preaching – is rooted in what Scripture says. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Time spent trying to rightly understand God’s word is never wasted – and a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew will enable you to understand that word better.
Argument 3: ‘I’ll never be an expert.’
What students usually mean by this is ‘I’ll never be able to translate the Bible fluently or master these languages enough to be able to spot anything new that hasn’t already been noticed by commentators – and if I do, it will most likely be wrong! And anyway, BibleWorks and technical commentaries on the Greek and Hebrew do all the work for us now.’
But how do you know you don’t have the potential to be an expert in Hebrew or Greek? Have you really tried yet? I sometimes wonder if I could have been a world-champion skier or violinist, but since I’ve never tried to ski or learn the violin, I'll never know. (I think it’s highly unlikely, by the way, given all the circumstantial evidence to the contrary, but until I try I can’t be sure and I can keep indulging this little fantasy!). Every great Greek scholar had to start with no knowledge of the language, just like our first years learning their alpha, beta, gamma and luo, lueis, luei. Perhaps you’ll discover that you have a real aptitude and flair for the languages that will motivate you to work extra hard and develop a great skill. After all, the typical ministry student has another 40 or 50 years ahead of him to fan this gift into flame.
What about the wealth of information students can access through computer software and technical commentaries? Well, here’s a fairly typical passage from a commentary on the Greek text of 1 Peter 4.2:
‘The preposition eis with the articular infinitive expresses purpose (not result as NIV, or causal as NJB). Here the purpose is related to either:
- the command to arm oneself with the same resolve as Jesus, with ho pathon sarki pepautai hamartias, as a parenthetical statement… or
- the immediately preceding pepautai hamartias, with the sense that one ceases with sin so as to live in accordance with God’s will.
The adverb meketi modifies the infinitive and looks forward to alla to complete the contrast. The implied subject (accusative of respect) of the infinitive is humas…
The accusative ton epiloipon… chronon expresses length of time, with the dative en sarki having the same function as sarki in v1 (dative of respect or locative of sphere).’
I didn’t hunt through all my commentaries to find an unusually obscure passage to use as an example, by the way – I opened a commentary at random and copied out what I found. (In fact I’ve made it easier to read by expanding some of the technical abbreviations!).
Yes, there are loads of books and resources to help you with exegesis, but to be able to understand these terms and profit from this kind of commentary, you need to do a fairly serious course in the elements of New Testament Greek, so that you understand the basic terms and concepts being discussed. What is an articular infinitive? What does it mean for an adverb to modify an infinitive? What’s an ‘accusative of respect’ when it’s at home?
If you can’t use these tools, your study of God’s word as minister is going to be impoverished greatly. If you have to skim over a commentary every time there is a moderately complex reference made to Greek or Hebrew grammar, you are going to hobble along as an exegete of Scripture. Perhaps you’ve noticed how commentators don’t always agree on the interpretation of a text! How will you decide between them? You need to know Greek and Hebrew to be able to make an informed decision and then preach it with some confidence and a clear conscience to your people.
Those who are called by God to be pastors and teachers of his Word need to saturate themselves deeply in the study of Scripture, and you can’t do that as well as you might if you have a grasp of the basics of the biblical languages.
Let me finish up by mentioning one of the great benefits of reading the Bible in its original language: it slows you down. You can’t skim over the words the way you might be tempted to do in your English translation. You have to think about every syllable, every letter. You have to painstakingly work out the logic of every clause. You have to think through which words go with which. You need to stop and reflect on which words are being emphasised and why. You need to dwell on the tenses of the verbs and their significance. In other words you need to meditate on every single word that comes from the mouth of God, understanding each verse clearly before going on to the next one. Does that not sound like a very good discipline? If you’re worried that you’re falling into the trap of letting the words of sacred Scripture pass through your eyes without touching your mind or heart, why not try reading a verse a day in the original language? It’s just not possible to read it without thinking about it!