Why should Bible teachers go through the pain of learning and then using the original languages of Scripture? I gave you five reasons last week, but persuasion doesn’t occur solely because of reasons. Sometimes personal testimony is most effective. So here are five more, non-standard, non-reason reasons for learning the original languages.
6. Because you can’t justify the study of the original languages.
I’m with English professor and defender of the Western liberal arts tradition, Stanley Fish, who says,
The demand for justification is always a demand that something be justified in terms not its own. . .. To explain something would be immediately to subordinate it to whatever system of values was implicit in the vocabulary of explanation. Explanation is just justification writ a bit softer.
Instead, the humanities (including the study of Koine Greek and of biblical Hebrew) are their own justification:
The arts and humanities…operate according to their own terms, [and] these terms [are] the basis both of the value they have and of the pleasure we take in them. That pleasure is a learned pleasure. It does not come to us as the pleasure of watching the sun rise or seeing a flower bloom comes to us. One must study conventions and genres and traditions of philosophy and theology before one can have access to the full power of a poem like ‘The Forerunners.’
I’d be careful not to say that the “full power” of the Bible is available only to those who can read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. I’d rather speak only for myself: the more tools I’ve had to work carefully with Scripture—and original language tools are among the most important—the more I’ve gotten out of it. I feel I was cut off from some of the power of Romans, and of Genesis and Jonah and Jude, when my tools never quite got me to bedrock.
The full power of Scripture is found only when the church has access to it in the original languages—if only, again, because without them we can’t have vernacular translations. The vernacular is a moving target that can only be hit by fresh scholarly work.
7. No, really, you can’t explain; you can only know.
There is a je ne sais quoi going on here. It may initially sound like “damning by faint praise” when biblical linguist, professor, and expert Bible commentator Moisés Silva admits that “the most significant value of knowing the biblical languages is intangible in character.”
But think about the most important reading skills you have. Or not. They’re almost impossible to think about, because they are the very means by which you think. It’s difficult to look through and at your glasses at the same time. As I watch my own children learn to read, I’m fascinated by the mysteries involved: what happened inside my little son that turned his reading from halting syllable pronunciation to fluid meaning making? Je ne sais quoi.
It is Silva’s opinion that “a measure of proficiency in the biblical languages provides the framework that promotes responsibility in the handling of the biblical text.” But he can’t give a strict accounting of how: “We are simply not conscious of how deeply we have been molded by countless experiences that affect our perspective, our thinking, and our decisions.” (Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, 278)
I think this hits the right note: Greek and Hebrew shape your mind; they don’t just fill it. It’s precisely the assumption that Greek and Hebrew will stock your internal dataset with word meanings that gets interpreters in trouble. No, you just have to trust wise people who have told you that knowing the original languages will shape you, even if they can’t quite explain it. They know it. I know it. Do it! Learn Greek first (I say), then Hebrew, if by God’s grace you can.
8. Because seeing another country is the best way to see your own with clarity.
Al Mohler recently interviewed U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a Yale PhD in history and a committed evangelical Christian. Dr. Sasse said that pretty much all the well-rounded, effective people he knew had travelled well and knew at least one other language:
One of the most basic reasons to learn a second language—obviously people in the ministry need to know their Hebrew and Greek—but one of the most basic reasons to learn Latin or to learn Spanish is just so that you finally can see the grammar, the structure, and the vocabulary differences and opportunities and limitations of the language you come from. . . . As soon as you start to understand a second way of ordering life, you now can finally start to see and reflect upon the place from which you come.
(There you have it, folks. A U.S. Senator agrees with me.)
I never saw America’s wealth until I saw poverty in Peru. I never saw any deficiency in my nation’s dedication to cleanliness, nor did I see our public devotion to consumerism until I saw Germany.
Likewise, when I learned Latin in junior high, I suddenly began to notice things in English not just that I didn’t see before, but that I couldn’t. Learning another language puts your own in a new light. Words are a preacher’s calling; anything that helps him grasp those words more fully and explain them more clearly to others is good.
9. Because it helps you know when to be satisfied with the level of interpretive precision you’ve reached.
When I entered seminary I had a very specific goal: I wanted confidence that I had all the relevant tools to interpret Scripture. I wanted what the church’s gifted Bible teachers had: the ability to understand commentaries, grammars, dictionaries, articles, etc. I wanted to know how and where to find answers. I didn’t graduate with a perfect understanding of Greek or Hebrew, but I can tell when someone is making a point that is finer than the grammar permits. I’m content to stop with the level of precision the grammar actually gives. And knowing Greek is what makes me feel content. It gives me all the interpretive options.
10. Because it’s a Protestant tradition.
Something changed for the better when the Reformers put vernacular Bibles into the hands of the masses. And they fought to translate those vernacular Bibles from the originals, not from the Latin Vulgate. The churches coming out of the Reformation have their problems, but the Christians who are most ardently celebrating the Reformation this year still do the best job at teaching people to actually read the Bible.
I have spoken to many professing believers in Christ who didn’t know a single word of the Bible beyond “Judge not” and “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But evangelicals, for all their flaws, also know John 3:16 and Genesis 1:1.
Why do evangelicals know the Bible so well? Because our tradition has a built-in self-repair mechanism: Bible reading. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for letting their traditions “make void the word of God.” When allowed to work properly, our Bible-reading tradition militates against voiding God’s word.
I can’t find an empirical study to prove it, but I think an educated pastorate including many preachers who know and use the original languages has been a massive and necessary support to this tradition. Translations of the Bible are God’s Word, too; but not in precisely the same respects in which the original Greek and Hebrew are. Evangelicalism must maintain a connection to those originals; we can’t all be put at one or two (or ten) removes away from them. The danger of unhealthy traditions creeping in is too great.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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