Why the Biblical Languages Matter—Even if You Forget Them

Greek

In another month or so, a new crop of seminary students will begin the grueling month-long experience of Summer Greek.   And, like all seminary students before them, they will begin to ask the question of why studying these ancient languages even matters.   After all, a few years after graduation all will be forgotten.   In the midst of a busy pastoral life, who could possibly maintain proficiency in the languages?

As a result of these questions, some students decide (very early on) that the biblical languages are just something to be endured.  They are like a hazing ritual at a college fraternity.  No one likes it, but you have to go through it to be in the club.  And then it will be over.   

Behind this “take your medicine” approach to the biblical languages are a couple of assumptions that need to be challenged.  First, the characterization of pastoral ministry as somehow incompatible with the languages (due to busyness, or other causes), is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what a pastorate is all about.  No doubt, pastors should be busy shepherding their flock, meeting with ministry leaders, and running the church.   But, the core of the calling is to be a “minister of the word.” 

And if the pastoral call is to be a minister of the Word, then there is a significant component of pastoral life that should be devoted to serious study of the biblical text—beyond just the preparation for that week’s sermon.   Put differently, pastors should continue to be students.   They need to be readers, thinkers, and theologians.  

Unfortunately many modern pastors do not view themselves this way.  This is evidenced by the language used to describe the place a pastor works at the church.  In prior generations, it used to be called the pastor’s “study” (because that is what he did in there!).  Now, it is called the pastor’s “office” (because pastors view themselves more as a CEO). 

One of my biggest disappointments is when I go into a pastor’s office and see that there are no (or very few) books.   It is like going into a carpenter’s shop and seeing no tools.  I remind such pastors of the words of Cicero: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

If pastors recover their calling as ministers of the Word, then keeping up with the biblical languages should be a more natural part of their weekly activity.  If they work in a “study” instead of an “office” than studying might just come more easily. 

But, there is a second assumption behind the “take your medicine” approach to the biblical languages. Many students assume that the study of the languages is useless if the specifics are forgotten at a later point.   Indeed, this may be the biggest assumption in the mind of today’s seminary students.

This assumption, however, is profoundly mistaken.  Even if a student forgets every single vocabulary word and every verb paradigm, the intensive study of the languages during seminary still plays an enormously significant role.  Put simply, it helps students think textually. 

Prior to learning the languages, most of us simply do not know how to think on a textual level when it comes to studying the Scripture.   But after learning Greek or Hebrew (even if we forget it), we now understand grammar, syntax, logical flow, and sentence structure.  Moreover, we understand the way words work, how their meaning is determined (or not determined), the importance of context, and the avoidance of certain exegetical fallacies. 

These factors alone are incredibly important for proper interpretation of the text and preparation of a sermon.   And they are drilled into our heads when we take the biblical languages—even if we forget them later.

So, students and pastors should be encouraged.  There are good reasons to think you can retain your knowledge of the languages, if your role as “minister of the Word” is properly understood.   But, even if you don’t, many of the benefits still remain.   

Comments

Why the Biblical Languages Matter—Even if You Forget Them — 11 Comments

  1. Drawing out meaning & having it explained to you can be a great thing. In particular the four loves has helped me mature as a Christian. As culture & words change all the more & meaning fragments, having the original & understanding it is a good position to be in. Not everybody has that privilege or circumstance.

  2. Couple of thoughts:
    1. I think that learning Koine Greek at University/Seminary is quite a different proposition to actually how most pastors need to learn. University level will expect you to be able to translate Greek on the fly with no helps, which is a useful skill certainly, but I suspect that even pastors who do continue their use of it will actually use dictionaries and inter-linear Bibles to aid their translation, which is a different skill entirely.

    2. I’ve heard of some pastors who have both an office and a study – an office in the church building where they do their pastoral and administrative work, and a study at home where they do their sermon prep.

  3. While in Bible College I remember asking an upper-classman who had already taken Hebrew and Greek. I asked him–”Is it worth it.” His reply still sticks in my mind as he replied–”The difference between reading the Bible in its original languages vs and English translation is like the difference between watching a black-and-white TV vs watching in Technicolor. I’m so glad I took the plunge. My Bible study is SO much more enriched. Go for it, seminarians! You won’t regret it!

  4. I teach Hebrew at Geneva College. Thanks for posting this. What you say is true and valuable.

  5. I began to feel concern back in the 80′s when I saw more books on leadership principles and business organization than books on theology and Biblical studies in the offices of pastors and denominational leaders. We all are aware of where that trend has led. Sad.

  6. I completely agree with this comment. The business model of church has led to the American church’ demise and subsequently other countries followed suit. We no longer have a diverse community which learns to live in community and think critically – each at their own pace. We now have executive “pastors” and their congregant/employees seeking to find ways to climb the corporate ladder. When our minds cannot go as far as others we should still encourage people to study the original languages. We ALL benefit. Christianity is a communal religion. I really don’t have the words to express how much I have benefited from my husband studying Greek and Hebrew in seminary. He worked hard and he had some incredible professors. Anyone who has a mind for it, and I won’t lie it’s quite difficult, I always say please consider it. Churches are dying because of so much misinterpretation.

  7. Thank you for this article. I have been avoiding the languages like a plague; to busy on the front line of spiritual warfare, drenched in the critical needs of others. With three masters, and all but the thesis on a 4th, the languages have been a chronic stumbling block to my Ph.D. pursuit. As an adjunct instructor of Christian Worship at a graduate seminary, I have taught with a divine waiver of the languages for 11 years. I feel my grace running out.

  8. Seminary does not teach you things you can forget later, but offers a foundation and tools for continued scholarship throughout the rest of ones.

  9. As someone who comes from and works at one of these so-called ‘corporate’ churches I think a lot of the comments about about the demise of community in church due to leadership principles and business modelling is based on hearsay and really a lack of understanding. These extreme judgments on ‘business model’ churches are platitudes based on uncritical assumptions or impressions (ironic). The fact remains that the reason why the ‘pastor’s study’ has turned into the ‘pastor’s office’ is because in those in the pastor’s study have long ceased to communicate the richness of scripture in an applicable and palatable way. The leadership movement of the church is a reaction to the lack of pragmatism on the part of church leaders. Now, the solutions is not just a quick purist return to the way things were. In fact, leadership and business models have really revealed just how diverse congregations can be. There are people who are impacted by deep biblical study; there are those who are impacted by what we academics might call ‘shallow’ preaching – yet yield tremendous fruit (In this way I think of those types of sermons as concentrated doses of great Bible living). The irony of returning to a ‘pastor’s study’ system is that it is not moving back to diversity but moving back to a narrow and singular system, which does not bring diversity but a mould which congregation members must fit through or sit in the pews and be bored. The solution, I think, isn’t one or the other but both. Pastor offices have brought great organisation to many church communities, organisation and coordination that previously had not yet been seen. A teaching pastor has the skills to teach but doesn’t necessarily have the skill to lead or furthermore to even administrate. Obversely, lead pastors don’t have the skills necessarily to teach or to exegete. There is room for both and a need for both. Pastors who can lead and pastors who can teach. In that way the Leadership/business model of church can be aligned to right teaching and the Teaching model of church (rough classification but you get the idea) can have its ideas practically and efficiently injected into the community of believers in a way that a diverse crowd of people can access.

    • Isaac, you bring up a lot of good points and I agree with you. As I read through the comments I can’t help but think that, yes, a pastor is called to be a continuing student of the Word, but to be a “minister of the Word” you must study more than the Word. In my opinion the job description necessitates that the pastor be ministering the Word TO somebody and this works best when the pastor is also a continuing student of people. This means that the pastor should be students of culture, leadership, and their specific congregation. Unfortunately, the classic western approach to pastoral ministry has largely neglected the study of people and leadership. When it comes to this field of study, the corporate world has many very helpful resources (often from Christian authors). I find it unfortunate when pastors jump to extreme judgements regarding anything from a secular or “corporate” source. A book every leader should read is Patrick Lencioni’s Overcoming the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Another classic is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. A secular book but it’s a pretty strong case for Christ-like servant leadership. Studying these does not mean you do not interact with them critically or agree with them 100% but a good student should use diverse resources to challenge himself. I think the main problem is the pendulum always swings from one extreme to another. I think there needs to be balance. Certainly, pastors that think a church can be run like a business and neglect the Word go too far, but learning what successful leaders do is very beneficial. At my church, our staff and elders are always reading some leadership book AND we are constantly studying our Bibles and studying theology. In fact, I’m taking a Hebrew course this fall.

      I’m not sure I’m convinced that the distinction between calling my workspace an “office” or a “study” is that significant though.

  10. Isaac, I am not interested in going backwards but I am not interested in attending a corporate seminar every time I attend church either. I have been a member of one of these “business model” churches and it reminded me of a supermodel. Pretty on the outside but no depth. I am clueless regarding the diversity you are referring to. Is it one pastor is lacking something quite fundamental for faith formation and another leader comes in and picks up the slack? I am not an academic but the shallow preaching coming from the majority of the church’ platforms today offends me greatly. Why? Because the sermons are either worldly psycho-babble, Sunday school lessons meant for a five year old, or feeding into the hyper-individualism of the Western culture. Why is the church so anti-intellectual today? My eight year old tugged at my sleeve one morning during service and insisted she had to go to the bathroom. When we left the sanctuary she said, “I don’t have to go. I’ve heard that sermon before and I’m sick of it.” Those “concentrated doses of Biblical living” are just powdered milk. They are just distilled Biblical principles. No one but a spiritual infant can live on them hence a deep theological discussion with any member of this kind of church is nearly impossible. They cannot tolerate it because they have not been taught to think critically. We now have churches that resemble 12 step recovery groups with large herds of sheep following uneducated pastors. Some of us are just exhausted by the “stupification” of the church and others who expect us to swallow it whole like a child who is sick and expected to swallow castor oil. “Take the corporate model. Don’t study, don’t expect your pastor to know much except pop-psychology. Studying is for the teaching pastor not the leading pastor. Exegesis is too much to ask for.” This is not the Biblical model. Pastors who can teach are also pastors who can lead because they are pastors who have studied and the Bible teaches us how to lead. It seems that you have not left room for God to do HIS work. The more pastors who study the original languages and/or take time to really teach and preach, and the more we encourage this instead of focusing on the world’s definition of success, the more we become a light to a world that is dying.