The biblical languages in life and ministry

Thanks to the NT Resources blog I ran across an interesting post on Original Languages and the Priesthood of All Believers. Since most of us have spent a fair amount of time with the original languages in our academic development, I thought his would be worth reflecting on.

The article begins with the following statement:

The original languages of scripture can be a blessing and they can be a curse. They can help or they can harm the priesthood of believers. I have seen both happen.

He goes on to express high appreciation for the value of studying the original languages, but also a significant concern that we be careful how we use our understanding of the languages – especially from the pulpit.

The problem for the priesthood of believers comes when someone uses the Hebrew and Greek to set himself up as “the one with knowledge.” This may happen inadvertently, but it harms the church nonetheless. For example, when a pastor (who does almost all the preaching in the modern Western church) repeatedly says, “Well, in the Greek this means…” he is telling the folks of that church that he has special knowledge that they don’t have. While he may not mean it this way, this is the message that they receive. He is the expert and they are not.
What does this do to the priesthood? It can devastate it. It causes a passive church when it comes to reading and interpreting the bible. If the people think that the pastor is the one “who brings the word of God,” they won’t be motivated to study and think for themselves. Instead, they will wait for the expert to bring them “the message” on Sundays.
I have to say that I completely agree. This actually happens to be one of the soapboxes that I enjoy jumping up and down on in my Greek classes. We need to careful that we don’t set ourselves up as the new “magisterium” and reverse the important emphasis of the Reformers that the Word of God is for all of his people – not just the elite few.
But, having said, I wanted to reflect as well on the value of studying the original languages. Or, rather, I’d like to hear some of your thoughts. Most of you who read this blog have done quite a bit of work in both Hebrew and Greek. What did you get out of it? Was it just a hurdle that you had to jump through to get your degree? Has it been a primarily academic exercise that opened up new and interesting avenues for research and writing? Or, have you found that understanding the original languages has truly deepened your spiritual life and made you more effective in ministry? Of course, you might have some other response as well. Regardless, let’s hear it.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 6, 2010, in Languages, Preaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. In part the biblical languages prevent the translation committees from becoming a new “magisterium”. I am sure these people and translators are trustworthy, honest men and women. People like William Mounce and Gordon Fee seem so anyways. Nevertheless, if we do not have any training in the languages, even a novice introduction, we are pretty much stuck with their exposition of the text. Every translation is, in some sense, a commentary.

    While I rarely “preach” I try to avoid quoting Greek or Hebrew words. Rather, I tried to include the nuance I discovered in my exposition. If someone wonders why I said something I said about the text they can approach afterward and we can speak more indepth.

    As far as spiritual life is concerned it is again a nuance thing. I think the Word of God speaks into the lives of people through translation, but anyone who seeks to go further will find the reward and the languages are one way to do that.

    • What is the “further” of which you speak? In what sense does understanding the languages take us “further” in our spiritual development than if we didn’t know the languages? And, doesn’t the very idea of “further” suggest a two-tiered spirituality (those who can and those who can’t)? Or, more likely at least a three-tiered one: those who can, those who can’t, and those-who-think-they-can-but-really-can’t.

      • I wouldn’t say that “further” suggested two-tiered spirituality–only growth. For others growth may occur through fasting retreats to the hills (I? not so much). So further wouldn’t be in relation to others; further would be in relation to one’s own walk with God.

  2. danielandtonya

    We have found the best use of our time is to train those in the congregation who want to know how to read the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament for themselves. Rather than just the standard for seminary, we think biblical languages should be regularly offered in local churches to those believers who want to read their own Scripture.

    • That’s a great approach, but it still leaves unanswered the question of why. What’s the upside to spending all this time learning the languages? And how do we articulate this upside without establishing an implicit spiritual caste system in the church?

  3. This is a great question Marc. On a practical level, when I preach I try not to reference the Greek or the Hebrew but rather point the congregation toward another translation that brings out the point I’m trying to make. Usually you can find some translation that makes the exegetical moves that you think are the best. Then it becomes a matter of encouraging the congregation to compare multiple translations in their study of Scripture, rather than showing them how they can’t come to the right interpretation without your ‘special knowledge.’

    As for the caste system, I think you’re right that that’s a danger. However, it is important to recognize that some people are more spiritually equipped to interpret scripture, but this is part of a spiritual journey not necessarily an educational one. I think of Luther, who said that Augustine, who knew one language, was a much better interpreter of Scripture than Erasmus, who knew many. I’ve got other thoughts but that’s enough for this comment. Cheers.

    • I’m intrigued by your statement that “some people are more spiritually equipped to interpret scripture.” Would you care to unpack that a bit more?

      And/or, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how learning the languages is a spiritual journey rather than just an educational one.

      • Yeah, this is something that we’ve been talking about here in Durham recently. On your second point: The first premise is that the study of Scriptures is a spiritual journey not just an educational one. So, part of that is the ability to study those scriptures as carefully as possible, that means having some ability with the original languages. Personally, I think it is easier to interpret Scripture in the OG languages. There is so much potentially meaningful wordplay and artistry that is hard to pick up in translation. Also, I think it puts you in a slightly different place to hear the scriptures when you interact with them in the language they were written it. Now, I have a very high view of translations as the Word of God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t really appreciate my opportunity to learn the languages.

        As to my statement about people being more spiritually equipped to interpret scripture, I think that comes from a basic understanding of spiritual maturity. One thing I have learned as I have become more technically equipped to interpret Scripture is that technical interpretive skills do not necessarily make a great Scriptural interpreter. Technical skills are an important part of being a capable Scriptural interpreter but they are only part. Spiritual wisdom, maturity and discernment are equally important in the interpretation of Scripture. As a PhD student in Biblical studies I’m reasonably technically equipped to interpret Scripture. However, as a 27 year old, I give great respect and often deference to those that I consider more spiritually mature than myself. The important thing for me is to view technical academic skills in interpretation as part of the process of becoming a spiritually mature exegete not the whole process. We are all on a journey of spiritual development, and all of us are on a slightly different journey. I think it is important for us to recognize where we are at and give respect to those who are further along in their journey.

  4. Brian, it sounds like you’re arguing something similar to what Gary Thomas does in “Sacred Pathways” – i.e. God has wired each of us differently, and so we grow spiritually in different ways. But, wouldn’t that seem to suggest that learning the languages is only important for some? Others can grow spiritually (and, presumably, lead others in spiritual development) without having to develop this particular skillset. There may be pragmatic reasons for learning the languages (e.g. keeping the translators honest), but it’s optional for spiritual formation. Is that where you’re going?

    • Although I wish everyone could spend time learning the languages I have to say that yes, there are different paths of S/spiritual growth.

      I should add that there are some of us in the church that may be called to approach God and serve the church this way. For us it isn’t as much of an option; we ought to do it.

  5. Several good points above. I have been pastoring/preaching for almost eleven years now and am grateful to have some facility in Koine and Hebrew. Two main benefits come to mind.

    The primary benefit pastorally has been: I can credibly reassure folks that the translations they have in their hands are good translations. On a rare occasion I will bring up a Greek or Hebrew word, but usually if it is a word that is already known (agape) or theologically important to draw out (e.g. hesed). That being said, I have done it less than 10 times in several hundred sermons in a decade.

    The primary benefit personally: I slow down to actually read the text when translating or working through some issue. For example, it would be easy to blow through Psalm 32 in English because I know it fairly well (“I already know what it means!”) and miss the opportunity to reflect more meaningfully and pastorally. Having to take my foot off the gas, and look up a word or construction helps me to simmer in the passage more. This doesn’t always happen mind you, but often it does.

    • As one who has been listening to sermons for many years, thank you. I can’t tell you how often I find myself cringing during a sermon because the pastor has (for some unknown reason) found it necessary to refer to the original language. My favorite example was from just a few weeks ago when the pastor referred to the Hebrew word “tov” in Genesis 1 to tell me that it meant “good” – which, of course, is precisely the English word that was there in the first place!

      And, I like your second point as well. I have to believe there’s more to studying the original languages than just making us go more slowly, but I do appreciate that it at least does that. Anything that will get us to read the text more meditatively is a good thing (speaking as someone who tends to skim far more often than he should).

  6. Ben, great thoughts. Rather than replying here, I think I might post on this subject again and see if we can continue the conversation. Stay tuned.

  7. If you were following this discussion, you might be interested to know that Bill Mounce has re-posted this on koinoniablog.net and there’s some good discussion there as well.

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