Note: I post the article below every year as seminary students arrive. I hope it will prove helpful for a new crop of readers (or maybe even prior ones!)
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.
As a pastor who fights this battle every week, trying to utilize the Greek and Hebrew I learned, let me second that learning these languages is crucial. And learning more in school than you’ll lose actually buys you some space to forget a few finer points, but at least you know where to look for them.
So I don’t always read if it’s a Dative of Means or a Dative of Instrument…but I’m also not lost when I see some of those terms in another work. And I do know that it’s a Dative, and that there are certain truths about what’s said…or, probably more importantly, what present or aorist or imperfect do mean, and what they do not *always* mean.
Tell your students to learn as much as they can, be as familiar as possible, and then hold on to it. The better you learn it now, the easier it is to use enough to retain.
James Chandler says
As a seminary student myself, I have chosen, much to my chagrin, a path to my Master’s degree that does not include the study of Biblical Languages. I see the necessity of this.
Also these days, it may be possible to go into a Pastor’s study and not see shelves full of books. I, myself, have a large quantity of books in electronic format. I love this for the sheer portability of it all. I can carry my laptop or my tablet or even my phone and have access to nearly my entire library.
I am not even a seminary/Bible college student, and I’m making efforts to learn New Testament Greek because it is vital to the best knowledge of the Gospel. I hope to eventually use it as my main text for reading and even ministry. Its not hard, it just requires a bit of effort and perseverence.
Martin Luther and John Owen (and other scholars too, I’m sure) were, and still are, completely convinced of the importance of knowing how to access the Bible in the original languages:
“And let us be sure of this, we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.” – Martin Luther
“Not only is this the only well from which we can draw the original force and meaning of the words and phrases of divine utterance, but also those languages (Hebrew & Greek) possess a weight of their own – a vividness which brings home to the understanding fine shades of meaning with power which cannot survive the passage into another tongue.” – John Owen
Some are abandoning the study of the original languages because of some misguided and mistaken notion of no longer needing them. They have the tools to look up a word here and there, and they think that this is enough. I have already discovered, however, the great value in reading the original language. It can’t just be replaced with a set of study tools.
In our time, we are faced with challenges to the meaning of the Gospel as much as the church ever has been. Knowing with certainty what we believe and speak is worth the time and effort.
I took Elementary Greek I and II last year and am starting Intermediate Greek this semester. Now I’m not a typical seminary student. I have a full-time job and growing family. So I’m only taking about 7 or 8 hours a semester.
Learning Greek has been difficult. There are times I’ve wanted to pull my hair out, and I suspect I’m not done with that. But the fruits have been worth the struggle. It’s been exciting to see the Bible more directly and be able to set aside the filter of a translation. That is, I can understand better why something was translated a certain way and see what the trade-offs are in meaning as the translators have vied to come up with the best translations. I’d love someday to be able to sit down and just read the Greek as it is.
That said, I could appreciate the preaching of a man who is called by God who doesn’t know the original languages. But if I can learn it, I would hope they would be willing to struggle through it in an attempt to improve the working out of their calling. Men of God throughout all of church history have demonstrated a functional knowledge of the language of the original texts and it’s provided a foundation for us today to understand how they have been interpreted. It shouldn’t be like an initiation hazing, but should be a highly sought skill for anyone who would make his business to proclaim the Word of God.
I have a laugh when someone using a dictionary, a concordance and basic seminay Greek has a revelation about the meaning of a New Testament word that sends them off in a tangent.
What is lacking in the teaching of Greek is that it does not take into account the existing contempory literature of the first century. Students should be exposed to some Oxychynchus Papyri, some Philo, some Plutarch, Arrian and Epictetus. The English NT has constructed an entire religious vocabulary that isn’t there. For example, there is no Greek word for ‘Scripture’. Graphe just means writing. All Greek authors use it. Ecclesia is a common political term. Baptismo means to sink or dip. Oikos means a fairly extensive family. And so on.
dr. james willingham says
When I first saw the title of this item, I thought” “How absurd. Of course one should learn Greek and Hebrew.” I have about the equivalent of a minor in Greek plus the required six hours of Hebrew, and I would have graduated with an M. Div. with languages and possibly honors but for the fact that a four hours course in which I wrote a 50 page Greek Research Paper on I Cors.12:31a-14:1a, the agape periscope in which I had invested two years of research and 2000 5×8 notecards under the Dean of the Seminary. I think I was in the wrong camp, the Conservative, and the Moderates did not particularly appreciate the folks in that group, not even if they were determined to do so with commitment marked by respect toward the professors. Anyway, the Greek and even the Hebrew have served me for all of my life in the ministry. Knowing the languages does not make a minister better than any other minister; it is an aid, a help in the performance of our ministry. God can and does bless the folks who do not have the languages. I wrote a Master’s Thesis in American Social and Intellectual History at Morehead State University on the subject, “The Baptists and Ministerial Qualifications: 1750-1850.” It dealt with the original two sided doctrine of ministerial qualifications, namely, with education and illumination (a direct gift for ministry. It was the discovery of the nature and effect of two sided doctrines that got me excited. Ever wonder how God’s people become balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic, in short, God’s best subliminal advertisements for the Gospel: mature believers?
dr. james willingham says
The four hour course was an honors course, and no one told me they would not consider it as a part of Greek studies even though my paper was on the Greek of that passage and Dean Brown told me that if I could polish it up, it would be publishable. My doctor of ministry was attended with even more difficulties, but that is a story for another comment.
>go into a pastor’s office, and see that there are no (or very few) books.
A 250 shelf-foot looks impressive, but 10,000 resources in Logos, Accordance, e-Sword or any other Biblical software is going to be more functional/useful in studying the Bible. As such, digital resources are the way to go.
With Calibre, and good search/indexing software, a 250,000 volume personal reference digital library is much more portable, manageble, functional, and easier to utilize than an equivalent sized dead tree library.
As far studying Biblical languages goes, the point of failure is when the person says: “The Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic/Latin/etc says ‘thus and thus’ “, and they don’t even know that the critical texts in those languages are periodically revised, let alone that there are textual differences between manuscripts in those languages. Unfortunately, that phenomena is far more common today, than it was twenty years ago.
Perhaps the question is worded in a wrong way. I think any biblical study is helpful to pastoral ministry , but how much biblical language do we need? I would say just enough to be able to use the tools that will provide us with a better view of what scripture says. But certainly not two or three years worth of study.
dr. james willingham says
In the Information Age one needs all of the languages one can get or afford, and one needs also all the education in as many fields as possible. I have three fields of study and professional degrees in all three, History, Theology, and Counseling, along with a library of some 17,000 volumes (2000 of which are on a hard drive) plus some others that I have down loaded from a variety of sources. Take one area of training in which ministers are usually woefully lacking, namely, intellectualism. I have a Master’s in American Social and Intellectual History, and it led me to consider this question: “If the Bible is inspired by Omniscience as we believe, then does it follow that book reflects the intelligence commensurate with such a source?” The answer is, of course, “Yes,” but, if we lack the training in intellectualism and a variety of other fields, it follows that the positive answer is meaningless. We simply do not know enough about the nature of ideas and how they work in this world to be able to see the way in which the ideas of the Bible truly reflect that depth of intelligence which must be a part and parcel of its very nature, a nature that follows from such a source of inspiration.
In 1963, due to the encouragement of a noted Black Historian at Lincoln University in Missouri, I began a research project (he had said, “choose any subject in which you are interested and begin doing research. Take notes on every source that you get.” For six years I did research on Baptist History, seeking to prove Landmarkism true. I covered all 2000 years of church history with reference to groups like the Montanists, Novationists, Donatists, Paulicians, Waldensians, etc. While I would eventually prove the particular position on the church false (there is a two fold doctrine of the ekklesia taught in scripture, not merely a local body), I stumbled across the nature of doctrines and how they affect human behavior which I have in a previous comment.
We are facing now the greatest challenges imaginable and even a multitude that are unimaginable and incomprehensible at this present time. Neither our understanding of the Bible and its relationship to practically all fields of study nor our education in any number of other fields seems sufficient to stretch our imaginations and our intellects to come to grips with the underlying issues and how to address them. Due to our inward growing toenails of seeming concern only for the Bible and what it has to say, we are missing what it is meant to say to the situations we are confronting and are yet to confront. Imagine what a shock it would be to find out that we have already been going to stars and planets in other Galaxies for nearly 50 years (or more), if the remarks made by the late Ben Rich (former head of the Skunk Works of Lockheed, the developer of the Stealth Fighters) to a group of Alumni of UCLA in 1993 or ’94 that if E.T. were to come to us and ask for help in getting home, we could take him there! The next year Dr. Alcubierre, Physicist at the University of Mexico, set for his theory for faster than light travel. Really? (you all can google and youtube this stuff already). However, even before Rich and Alcubierre spoke or wrote, there was a man named Nikola Tesla who set forth a theory and formula for faster than light travel. And there is more, but let me close by saying that we need a better understanding of eschatology, if we are called to cope with the spread of mankind to the ends of the starry Heaven from whence the angels will gather the elect (Mt.24:31).
Buddy Gundy says
I would recommend that every seminary student and pastor read A. T. Robertson’s book, A Minister and His Greek New Testament. “No man is a theologian who is not first a grammarian.” Professor Robertson tells the story of John Brown, who walked several miles to town in order to purchase a Greek NT. He then studied it, while he was tending sheep, without the aid of a grammar or lexicon, & inductively taught himself NT Greek grammar. That story, Robertson says, puts to shame any pastor who does not make the effort to learn NT Greek, though a Greek NT, grammar, & lexicon lie easily at our disposal! Spiritually, it is a matter of stewardship of keeping up with the opportunities God gives us to study the biblical languages. I am not pastoring a church anynore, but I do teach 2 classes at my church, & several years ago I made the commitment to God that I would read through Mounce’s Basics of Bblical Greek once a year. I have kept that commitment for the last 4-5 years. If I can do it, anybody can.
Lawrence Wilson says
You’re right in pointing out the changing expectation of congregations regarding the pastor’s role. Most churches seem to want some version of a corporate or political leader rather than a preacher, Bible teacher or shepherd. That is the reality of the Protestant (particularly Evangelical) church today. However, I studied Greek and Hebrew more than 30 years ago in seminary, and would do so again if I were a student today. I have greater confidence to study and interpret Scripture because of it, and it may be time for pastors to define themselves again as ministers of the Word rather than simply accepting the management role that so many churches seem to favor.
Dr. Andrew Taylor says
Earning my M. Div in 1992 I was required to learn (or should I say “take and pass”) both Greek and Hebrew. I am currently the lead pastor of a church of about a thousand and believe I would have benefited more from additional leadership courses than the study of the original languages. I seldom ever use my Greek or Hebrew but am required to make leadership decisions every day that affect God’s church. I benefited more from one course on leadership during my Doctor of Ministry studies than I did the countless classroom and study hours invested in Greek and Hebrew. With all the study tools available today I simply don’t see the need for anything more than a basic understanding of Greek and Hebrew, something that could probably be accomplished in one 3 credit course on each. So my answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes, it is a waste of time because it takes away from other courses that would be more helpful over the long haul.” Also, I agree with a previous comment that with all the digital resources available do pastors really need a gigantic “hard-copy” library? It looks impressive to older people but means nothing to millennials (not that anyone of any age really cares or that we should be concerned w/ such trivial matters).
BibleWorks and other software packages make the use of the languages in sermon preparation achievable for even a busy schedule. Of course, it would be best to establish the linguistic foundations via taking classes to make best use of such resources.
Joseph Habib says
I can’t believe some of these comments……..
If you’re a pastor, your job is to expound the gospel as taught in the Bible..
The Bible was originally in Greek and Hebrew….
And some are saying that these languages aren’t crucial?????
And I’m talking about really learning them…not using Bible software because someone in that company sat behind a keyboard and tagged the words.
You know what will help you council people??? The Bible
You know what will help you be a better leader?? The Bible
You know what will shape your mind to make good decisions??? The Bible
please, please, please, invest the time…even if your not good at language acquisition. If you are a Pastor, the Bible and communicating it is your gig, dude!!!