Biblical languages as a spiritual discipline

Yesterday’s post, “The biblical languages in life and ministry,” sparked quite a bit of discussion. So, I thought it might be worth following up on that with a few more thoughts on the subject. Why bother with learning Greek and Hebrew? By the time you are done, you will have spent countless hours and probably a fair amount of money learning these languages. Was it worth it?

Martin Luther wrote a wonderful little tract titled “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” In it, he addresses the issue of why he thinks it is important to spend time learning the biblical languages (see relevant excerpts here). I thought we could use his ideas as a starting point for our own discussion.

First, Luther is very clear that there is a pragmatic need for learning the languages; it makes us more effective students, teachers, and preachers.

A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.

And, he continues with a fabulous statement about the importance of the languages for powerful preaching:

Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of 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.

For Luther, then, we need to know the original languages because they add power to our messages, confidence to our ministries, depth to our arguments. And, those are no small matters. We should be able to handle the Word with confidence and proclaim with power. The time we have spent on the languages is a gift to our ministries and students.

But, as several of our commenters pointed out yesterday, there must be more. If understanding the languages is a purely pragmatic issue, then my best bet would be to find Greek and Hebrew scholars that I really trust and simply rely on their conclusions. It’s unlikely that I will ever spend more time on Greek and Hebrew than Bill Mounce or Miles van Pelt (since they actually wrote books on learning Greek and Hebrew). And, if I can’t really do better than they can, wouldn’t it be more efficient to use my time doing something else? Why not trust a good commentary and spend my time working on powerful illustrations and applications? This is precisely what a pragmatic approach to the languages would suggest.

So, I find it interesting that Luther’s main argument is not a pragmatic one. His starting point is the Gospel.

we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments.

Luther’s fundamental concern is that if we do not pay particular and close attention to the text, we will lose the Gospel itself. Left to ourselves, we will inevitably fashion the Gospel in our own image, after our own preferences, according to our own desires. Although Luther regularly ascribes value to studying translations of the Bible, he argues that this is not ultimately sufficient. Unless we dig deeply into the text, we will eventually lose our moorings and drift into the stream of contemporary (ir)relevance.

Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.

So, we have now two reasons for studying the original languages: effective ministry and protection of the Gospel. To these, I think we must add a third: spiritual formation. I would agree with a comment that Ben made yesterday: “this is part of a spiritual journey not necessarily an educational one.” We must constantly remind ourselves that we are not studying the original languages; we are studying the Word of God. The languages are simply a means to that end. As Luther said, they are the “sheath.” So, I think we would do better to think of learning the languages as a spiritual discipline. It is an intentional practice designed to draw one toward a more intimate knowledge of God so that he/she can be continually re-shaped in his image. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this is what we are doing, can we resist the alluring pull of pragmatism and the inevitable conclusion that we should just let someone else do it for us.

To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools

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 7, 2010, in Languages and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. To a certain degree we are at a disadvantage because “academic” biblical study has been partitioned off from the church. In history, it seems to me, that some of the greatest theologians were churchmen through and through. I think academia has a role to play, but from a Christian perspective it should be to serve the church.

    I heard David Clines remark in a panel discussion that seminarians should not have to learn languages, that task should be left to the academics. I think that is an unfortunate perspective. Wouldn’t it be great if Christian academics had a passion for the church, and Christian pastors (and regular church goes) had a passion for a rigorous study of Scripture.

  2. It sounds like Clines’ remark is a perfect example of the pragmatic approach to the languages that I was talking about. If studying the languages is only an academic exercise, then lets leave it to the experts. (Actually, I wonder if the same isn’t happening today with preaching. Now that we can broadcast the “experts” to many different sites, lets just let them do all the preaching.) But, seminarians learn the languages out of a deeper conviction, the conviction that learning the languages is an important part of seminarian’s formation as a ministry of the Gospel, then things change. So, I think it’s important to emphasize that we learn the languages not just because of what it helps us “do”, but because of what it helps us “be.”

  3. “I heard David Clines remark in a panel discussion that seminarians should not have to learn languages, that task should be left to the academics. I think that is an unfortunate perspective. ”

    I wonder if that isn’t a uniquely American perspective, and an unfortunate result of the typical American worldview that discounts the benefits of learning languages in general.

    A Catholic priest from Europe would never say such a thing. To them, learning languages is a part of life, and when you already know German, French and Italian, adding Greek is not such a hardship.

    • I think you’re probably right. Although I only studied in Scotland for a couple of years, it was hard to miss the much stronger emphasis on languages in general. Like most things, I’m sure there are any number of reasons for this. At the very least, I think it results from the inherent pragmatism of the American church, a tendency to divorce theory and practice, a strong emphasis on the future over against the past, and financial pressures forcing schools to shorten degree programs. Nonetheless, I agree that it’s tragic and I worry about what this lessening emphasis on solid biblical preparation for ministry will do to the church in a few decades.

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