Why study biblical languages? (Nick Brennan)

I’m sure like me you have your own personal little mantras. Pearls of personal wisdom which, when asked, can drop from your lips like morning dew. If only someone would actually ask once in a while. They never do – not even my wife. But she gets them anyway.

In this vein I often find myself mystically murmurring to myself, my spouse, my bemused children, passers-by: not every argument which supports your position is a good argument, and not every argument against your position is a bad argument. It’s easy to slip into this fallacy: I have a view, I want to support it, and I’ll darn well coral whatever I can, arguments good and bad, to do the job. So what if some of them take mass casualties.

As someone pursuing a PhD in Hebrew and about to start teaching Greek for the first time Im certainly interested in arguments that encourage people to learn them. It amazes me more and more, as Bill Mounce notes, that frequently those who are most enamoured with the Word of God and champion its preaching are frequently less than enthusiastic about their own study of the Bible in its original languages or in encouraging others to pursue learning them too and that those most equipped in the biblical languages I meet are often the furthest from being believers.

This all to say: I want to argue that we ought to be prioritising learning the biblical languages amongst those who are hoping to be entrusted with preaching and teaching the Word of God (and to kindly give a kick up the pants to those who already are but don’t have a yiqtol, a peal or an aorist to cuddle up to at night).

There is, however, a very bad argument I frequently hear at the moment from those trying to promote the learning of biblical languages. To the many who are saying, "We don’t really need to learn Greek and Hebrew to be effective ministers of the gospel", those seeking to champion biblical languages are too often saying "but you can’t really understand the Bible without them".

I know what both sides mean, have some sympathies with each, and … a curse on both your houses. What they both betray is a mis-understanding of the nature of language and biblical interpretation (yes I know, I’m holding back). A mis-understanding which can be elucidated by asking a simple question: what do you mean "really understand"?

What both positions betray is a view of reading where there is a kind of "getting it right" and a "getting it wrong". Now before you pull the wacky alarm I’m not saying that Scripture is a wax nose and all readings are equally valid or anything like that. Nor do I mean that Scripture has more than one meaning. What I mean is that it is much better to see reading as an art which we grow in, like being a patient listener; something in which we asymptotically move away from a reading that is not what is being communicated towards one that is approaching the meaning of the author. We never fully exhaust a text, especially the Word of God. We never "get it right", even if we may still pronounce that certain readings are wrong.

Most of us work with this kind of outlook of reading the Bible a priori. We are willing to admit that some who teach the Word have a deeper understanding of Scripture and what it teaches, but we do not thereby doubt that a new Christian reading the Bible does really understand something of what it’s saying. If we did we’d basically be ditching the Protestant doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. This issue of clarity (connected with issues of Christ’s incarnation) certainly applies to the issue of language. The biblical languages are able to be translated into English. Not perfectly, but they are able to be done so with a high degree of fidelity. One reading a translation is reading the Bible and as one understands what is written in English one really is understanding the Bible. As at Pentecost, so now, each one is able to hear the thrust of the Bible "in their own language". I doubt at this stage (if you’re still reading) that many would disagree.

But here’s the rub. We ought to be increasing in skill at reading. And to do so means acquiring the skills necessary to read better. Anyone in ministry or hopeful to pursue ministry is one seeking to be approved by God in handling the Word well. This involves growing in skill. Skill that does not move one from "getting it wrong" to "geting it right" (most of the time) but surely moves us closer to what the text is saying and to a deeper and more precise understanding of the Bible and its author.

Again I doubt anyone disagrees. But applying this paradigm to learning biblical languages is often where I seem to lose people. Let me then apply it to biblical background. I imagine we all would admit that in order to progress in the art and skill of good Bible handling we ought to be trying to grow in understanding the contexts and cultures in which the Bible was written. And, again, that growing in this understanding is not something that necessarily moves us from a wrong reading to a right reading (though it might do) but one that refines our understanding asymptotically. Take for example the famous passage in the letters to the churches in Revelation where God threatens to spit out the church at Laodicea for being neither warm nor cold. Understanding of aquifers in that region helps us understand quite why this metaphor has been chosen and that God is essentially criticising them for being neither hot water (which is useful) nor cold water (which is useful) but warm and insipid like the water of Laodicea.

Misunderstanding this reference can lead to some false points being drawn (e.g. imaginging God is saying he prefers straight pagans over luke-warm Christians). Knowledge of the cultural background increases our reading proficiency and ability to handle the word of God well. As a preacher it’s gold dust – their attitude invokes a reaction in God which we all know from drinking warm tap water in heavily urbanised areas – a desire to spew. But ignorance of the cultural background does not render us unable to read the text. (Gladly so, for there are many practices and issues of background that remain opaque, at least at our present moment in history.) Even the newest Christian can read the letter to Laodicea and understand that God is displeased with his church and about to do something drastic because of their attitude. Background understanding corrects where we wrongly fill in our own cultural understanding (and it is worth noting here that so too in reading nature abhors a vacuum), but most of the knowledge of background clarifies, enriches, deepens and solidifies our understanding of the text at hand.

This is exactly the case for biblical languages, which are in a sense simply the linguistic application of cultural background. Language and culture are not detachable items; the former encodes and transmits the latter, the latter guides and shapes the former. Language understanding sometimes entirely reverses understanding, but most of the time it does not. It is not a silver bullet. It only clarifies, enriches, deepens and solidifies our understanding of the text at hand.

So I will not tell you Mr. Preacher or Budding Preacher that you must study Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic if you want to understand the Bible. Or that if you don’t, you won’t understand the Scriptures. I will only ask two questions: is it a matter of your sanctification to seek every means possible by which to clarify, enrich, deepen and solidify your own reading, believing and preaching of Scripture or not; and if it is, are we really "right-handlers" without it?

7 comments

  1. Well said Nick. I’ve had a number of lay people recently comment on their frustration with the claim that only those who understand Greek can really understand the NT. I’ll pass on this article to them next time.

  2. Definitely saving a link to this article so that I can pass it along as Norm is doing. Nick, the article is very well written and says everything that I would want to say on the topic, only it says it much better.

  3. Hmm, you’re quite right, it is well written. What’s more I don’t disagree. However I have a sneaky feeling that maybe we’re leaving God out of it somewhat. I’d like to know for instance how many of the very great preachers .. Simeon, Wesley .. that ilk, knew their biblical languages? Did God raise them up with that in mind?

    I remember hearing J.I. Packer say about himself that basically he felt he was a plumber. Keeping the water flowing through the pipes, straightening those pipes if necessary, and all to enable the minister of the Word on the ground to keep his sermons flowing.

    Maybe what we need above all from you folk who are so handy with biblical languages, are talks, lectures, booklets, whatever to help us understand such anomalies as the translation of ‘head’ as ‘source.’ Or why ‘mature’ is translated ‘perfect’ .. when there can be no imperfection in perfect. Well that’s at my level, others will have other questions that we all badly need answering, but we don’t have anywhere to ask them.

  4. Hi Rosemary,

    Do you mind clarifying what you mean by ‘leaving God out of it’? I suspect Nick would agree there is much more to preaching than the ability to read carefully, if that’s the point you’re making.

    Perhaps we need to affirm that God, in sending out his Word into the world, uses the hard work of the preacher (language work, delivery of the sermon, etc). Yes, God could work through us, even if we read the Scriptures carelessly. But he prefers to work through our careful reading of the Scriptures.

    Incidentally, Google tells me that both Charles Simeon and John Wesley were proficient in the biblical languages (they studied for the ministry at Cambridge and Oxford respectively). Of course, that didn’t automatically make them good preachers of the Word… but surely it must have helped at least a bit!

    Regards,

    Scott

  5. Hi Scott, just goes to show how ignorant I am that I didn’t know that about those two preachers. No, I suppose my first consideration was my own husband. I know I’m biased, but I consider him to be a ‘preacher’ raised by God, but he always has to ask an expert about the biblical languages. He does ask of course, because he’s very keen to know. So I suppose I was asking why God would raise up someone who doesn’t know the biblical languages, to be a preacher in His church.

  6. I’ve been meaning to reply Rosemary to some of what you raised. I know of many men who I think are excellent preachers who either have never been trained in biblical languages or didn’t build them into their ongoing ministry for whatever reason. But I think many of these men, like Spurgeon, are notable for their extraordinary gifts. I suppose I am more interested in arguing for best practice for ordinary people like me. I don’t think we’re allowed to argue from what God has done providentially to necessarily what we ought to do in this regard.

    I think the thing that strikes me most is that you raise a common objection to do with specialists. I think we can fall into a wrong dichotomy over that issue; I think personally I’ve fallen on either side of that dichotomy at different points in my Christian life. One would be to treat the minister as if he has no real need of scholarship beyond his own abilities. I think this is a misapplication of the clarity of Scripture and also one which few if any good exegetes practice. We are all reliant on others; none of us come to the text of Scripture as blank tablets, for good and sometimes for ill. I am not the gifted linguist you probably assume I am (I know a few and they soundly thrash me on every score) but even if I were I would always be reliant on interaction with better scholars.

    The other end would be to excise whole domains of sermon preparation to scholars. So as you say we might seek to rely on a linguist to manage that part of things for us. I suppose I was trying (but possibly failing) to argue that reading is itself a skill. And though we can go to specialists for levels of help beyond our ability I don’t think we can export entirely to them. A person who doesn’t know a domain of exegesis at some level doesn’t know what questions really to ask or how to weigh what scholars are saying. And what is he to do when the scholars don’t agree? Practically language skill, though some points might be gleaned here and there, is more like the skill of a carpenter. He might be able to make something for me, but I can’t really inhabit the way he accesses the world through his skill with all the nuance it brings. I have to be carpenter, even poorly, myself.

    All of this is to say that I thank God for many men I know and have benefitted from whose ministry is founded on solid biblical exegesis and powerful preaching of it but who aren’t familiar with biblical languages. But I think as a matter of stewardship where a man is at a point in ministry where he can choose to set out on a lifetime of handling Scripture well, he ought to be encouraged to do the hard work of being equipped in every arena: logical, historical, hermeneutical, traditional, textual and linguistic.

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