It’s that time of year again.
On Monday, a wonderful new crop of seminary students here at RTS-Charlotte 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 ministry 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 or sorority. 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 ministry as somehow incompatible with the languages (due to busyness, or other causes), is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what ministry is all about.
To be sure, there are all kinds of different ministries that involve a variety of different responsibilities. Some will shepherd the flock, others will organize ministry events, others will do one-on-one counseling. But, in the midst of that variety, the core of all ministries is the word of God.
Thus, a significant component of ministry life should be devoted to serious study of the biblical text. This is especially true for those who are called to be an ordained pastor.
Put differently, all those in ministry should continue to be students. They need to be readers, thinkers, and theologians.
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 we keep our focus on God’s word as our foundation, then keeping up with the biblical languages should be a more natural part of our weekly activity. If we 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, needs to challenged. 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.
[Note: I post a version of this article every year as seminary students arrive. I hope it will prove helpful for a new group of readers (or maybe even prior ones!)]
No dispute. I had two languages in school (Hebrew / Greek). Since that time, I have the standard tools (Vine, Mounce, NIDNT, etc), but I am mostly a student to the English Bible, pulling down critical sources as necessary.
James Edwards says
Thank you for this post, and no, it is not a waste of time for seminary students to study the Biblical languages. As an elder emeritus in a relatively small PCA church, I have heard, over the years, some wonderful presentations (sermons), and some not so wonderful ones.
Currently, I am finding that many pastors, mostly younger, are losing much of their effectiveness because of the insertion of meaningless words or phrases such as “right, like, you know,” and so on. While they justify it on a number of grounds, the overuse certainly detracts from their intended purpose.
Each and every student should be required to study, and master, not only the Biblical languages, but also acceptable conversational language.
While I am not specifically detailing Biblical language per se, the skill of effectively communicating God’s Word, should be enhanced.
Richard Roth, Jr. says
1 Timothy 4:13 always strikes a resonating chord when talking on the subject. May the Lord give the new generation of student-pastors the desire of knowing the languages of the Word.
Deon Hull says
I am a 58 year old Seminarian. I have found it important to study the languages because in moving the text to English many times the translators must make choices. Knowing that fact calls for careful reading in the original language to attempt to figure out what choices were made and how it changes the meaning. Punctuation (which is not part of the original text) can make a world of difference.
Many of my younger colleagues, to their credit, have the text books and tools for ministry on their computers so they don’t have shelves full of books. This makes it easier to search for the I formation you seek and is easier to transport. They have a library at their fingertips. I am learning to let adapt.
Glenn McIntyre says
I’m a teacher at a Christian school. I found this article to be a source of encouragement for our English teachers to teach our language well to establish a base to use a second language well. At 65 I am embarrassed to remember how little credence I gave to the importance of language in my early years of school. I am looking forward to attending my first seminary class and being amongst those who are studying to preach and teach the Word of God. And even more to adding to my ability to know and understand what God has spoken.
Richard G Buckley says
Never a waste of time to learn Hebrew or Greek in order to use and master them through a lifetime of study for preaching. If our forebears were offered only blood, sweat, toil and tears for the freedom of others then the minister ought to give these and more to present the word of life to others to know Christ and eternal life. Build up a congregation on the riches of the Word not the froth of entertaining oratory
Stephane Simonnin says
I fully agree that learning Biblical languages is invaluable for pastors and preachers. Another question though is whether an 8-week intensive course is the best way to do it. I think it is better to teach languages gradually over the course of the degree. Language learning, like physical fitness, works best through limited but regular exposure over a prolonged period of time.
Scott Schaller says
Thank you for your post. I had Greek and Hebrew before Sem in college and continued it through Sem. I went on to take more classes at a little Sem near my first church. I continued and now I read weekly with a Greek and Hebrew reading partner. 30 verses a week. I found reading Greek gets me closer to hearing Jesus regularly. I use Greek in a devotional way not clinical or academic way. This makes reading a pleasure without grades. Keep working at it each day an you will find the mountain top to see deep into God’s word.