Why learn Greek and Hebrew 2

by | Jul 16, 2010

In my last column, I noted the tragic consequences for the Church when her ministers quit learning Greek and Hebrew. Although more could be said, I’ll wrap up by noting both bad and good reasons for learning the biblical languages.

First, bad reasons. You shouldn’t learn the biblical languages so you can:

  • throw around Greek and Hebrew words in your sermons to impress people. The better you know the original languages, the less likely you are to need to mention them.
  • think that you know more about the Bible than others do. The consistent, thoughtful reader of the English Bible will regularly know more Scripture than the irregular reader of Greek or Hebrew Scriptures.
  • trump others in arguments with “Well, the Greek/Hebrew says ….” The original languages are the final appeal in matters of interpreting Scripture, but a desire to be able to pull out an irrefutable “trump card” in a debate is a vain reason to study them.
  • solve all theological debates. Some theological questions do require knowledge of Greek or Hebrew to answer, but those who study the languages will find that no age-old debate, such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, ultimately hinges upon knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. In fact, knowing Greek and Hebrew will more often raise questions that you hadn’t ever considered.
  • uncover truths in the Bible that no one else has ever discovered. You will uncover truths by reading Scripture in the original that <i>you</i> may have missed. But you will not discover new truths. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Now for good reasons: Probably the most significant reason to study Greek and Hebrew is to learn how language works. If you learn the biblical languages, without learning how language works, you will inevitably misuse your knowledge. On the other hand, if you understand how language works but don’t know Greek or Hebrew, you will be responsible in your use of the English Bible study tools that are available. The two books that most helped me understand how language works were Translating the Word of God by Beekman and Callow and The Semantics of Biblical Language by James Barr.

Other good reasons ministers should learn and use the biblical languages, as their opportunities and gifts permit, include the following:

  • You must give an account to God for how you have handled His word (Heb. 13:17). For this reason, you should be diligent to know it as well as you can.
  • You are shepherding never dying souls. How well you know God’s word directly impacts how you deal with God’s people. Those who know it poorly may do great the flock great damage (Jer. 10:20-21).
  • An elder whose calling is to work in word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17) should not be limited merely to parroting what others say the Scriptures mean. You should be able to work with the languages God gave His word in. If you haven’t had the opportunity to learn the biblical languages, you should make every effort to learn how language works and then make responsible use of the available English Bible tools.
  • The nature of translation makes it virtually impossible to capture all the nuances, connotations, allusions, word plays, grammatical emphases, and even ambiguities that are present in the original. Reading the original vs. a translation is like viewing a picture in color vs. black-and-white. The picture doesn’t change, but the colors make it come alive.
  • Knowledge of the biblical languages helps the minister understand the interpretive choices translators have to make. By comparing a range of translations (e.g., KJV-NASB-NIV-NLT) you can identify places where the original may be understood in different ways. Failure to compare translations is irresponsible.

Martin Luther wrote, “[The original] languages are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of ancient thought; although the faith of the gospel may be proclaimed by a preacher without the knowledge of the languages, the preaching will be feeble. But where the languages are studied, the proclamation will be fresh and powerful.”

Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed!

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