You Don’t Think Learning the Biblical Languages is Worth It? Think Again

Greek

Note:  I posted this article a year ago, but in light of the new seminary semester beginning, it seemed appropriate to post again.

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” then 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

You Don’t Think Learning the Biblical Languages is Worth It? Think Again — 17 Comments

  1. Agree totally – thank you

    I try to keep my Greek fresh notwithstanding verb moods etc !

    What would you recommend for biblical hebrew? As a short hand or interim to learning from scratch, I’m looking for a book with the key 20 hebrew roots that give rise to the key OT words

  2. This is incredibly timely for me, Michael as I’m considering abandoning my utter fear or studying Greek.

  3. I needed this reminder as I face Greek Exegesis this semester. I would add that pastor or not, every Christian would benefit from studying the biblical languages if given the opportunity. I’ll never stand behind a pulpit, but this past year of Greek has been incredibly rewarding. It has, indeed, taught me to think textually; I have a greater love for God’s Word and a greater awe over the thought and intention behind every word, both on a human and divine level.

  4. Thanks Dr Kruger! I’m at student at RTS Orlando, I’m so thankful to be struggling through learning the biblical languages. It is a joy, and I’m actually starting to see progress! Very encouraging…

  5. I don’t know either biblical language but having the root & meaning of words elaborated on has been helpful where the modern English is unable to express or capture the depth of meaning. I think it also helps you to think on a historical, cultural & universal level, without it the chasm is greater, with it there is more to see & more to teach in practical ways, especially these days when the past can so easily be dismissed as irrelevant or only valued as entertainment.

  6. I studied Greek when I was nearly 50 years old. For one truly called by God to serve Him in ministry, I think knowledge in Biblical Greek is utterly important.

  7. “It is certain that unless the languages [of Greek and Hebrew] remain, the Gospel must finally perish”

    and

    “Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit, they are the [case] which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine;. . . .

    . . . No sooner than did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined . . . in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although, their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure.”

    Martin Luther

    “One who made it his life’s work to interpret French literature, but who could only read it in an English translation, would not be taken seriously; yet it is remarkable how many ministers of religion week by week expound a literature they are unable to read save in translation!”

    H.H. Rowley

    “Reading the Bible is like kissing your bride through a veil”

    Walter Kaiser

    I must say that I am very blessed to attend a seminary where exegesis of the original languages is one of the 3 main points of specialty, in addition to expository preaching and personal piety. And not only that, but the men who come here, come here because they want an emphasis on exegeting the original languages. Think what you will of John MacArthur’s theology, but one cannot but admire his unrelenting emphasis on expository preaching of the original languages.

  8. I made an error in the quote above that I attributed to Walter Kaiser. The actual quote is “Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil” and it was only cited by Walter Kaiser, who was quoting Hayim Nackman Bialik

  9. I teach Intro Greek and Hebrew at Lusaka Lutheran Seminary. I would be interested to know (if you have time) what textbooks you use for these courses. The question that you raise in this post is relevant of course here in Africa too: should we be spending so much time teaching the biblical languages to future pastors–do they really need it, with all the helps available nowadays (even here!)? I appreciated your thoughts on this matter.

  10. This is my 9th year of preparing on average 46-48 sermons a year. I start every one of them tearing apart the original text. The value is two-fold for me: it forces me to slow down and really examine the structure, nuance, and flow of the text. Some of my greatest insights have come during this time. Secondly, it helps uncover the real meaning of some of the ways our Engish translations metaphorically gloss over graphically shocking parts of Scripture. Thus, it brings to life the seriousness of what God intended to say to the original audience.

  11. I am retired and almost 70, studying koine Greek has been very rewarding along with it textual criticism, I have never known the word to have so much life to it. Most pastors I listen to now days mostly dish out war stories and give a couple feel good verses. Very entertaining but the “study to show yourself approved” level

  12. Thanks for this very useful post. I can see another wrong assumption behind the “take your medicine” approach: the idea that biblical languages can be adequately learned through a fast, intensive course over the Summer. Actually, the best way to learn any language (including a dead language) is to learn it slowly and regularly. Not only does it take a lot of pressure and fear away but linguistic knowledge acquired slowly stick in your brain forever. At the London Theological Seminary where I studied, and later taught Hebrew for a while, both languages are taught from day one: From Tuesday to Friday, the day starts with 45 mn (no more) of Greek or Hebrew. Students are often amazed how much they remember at the end of the two years. As I often told students, language learning is like going to the gym: what counts is regularity. Once you’ve got this in your mind you can continue working on your languages during your ministry. Personally, I found that the best thing is to integrate Biblical languages in my morning devotion (for instance, reading few verses (or just one!) of my daily reading in the original language and making sure I understand why it means what it means.