Heart & Mind

Letters to Gretchen

What good are Biblical languages in real life ministry?

Volume 22 No 2 | Spring 2009

As professors of biblical studies, our responsibilities include teaching the biblical languages. It has become increasingly commonplace to hear students (and at times their pastors!) raising fundamental questions about the necessity of language learning for the practical life of ministry. Many are wondering if studying Hebrew and Greek is an unnecessary relic from an earlier, less technologically sophisticated time, when commentaries were not nearly as abundant and Bible software (including original language study packs) was nonexistent.

We believe quite strongly that the study of biblical languages is an important part of preparation for ministry. Recently, we had the opportunity to share our rationale for this belief – following are excerpts from a genuine email exchange we enjoyed with a student at Bethel Seminary. (Gretchen’s query is included here as she posed it to us via email. Permission has been granted to use her email in this way.)

 

Dear Drs. Brown and Vogt,

I never thought I would need to ask such a question, but here goes to the two of you as I have heard of your commitment to biblical languages.
Since I began language studies, many people have asked me why I am taking Greek. I have had questions like:

  • You really can’t use Greek, so why invest the time and money?
  • Lots of deeply committed scholars have invested years in study, and have written fantastic tools—why not just use those?
  • There are so many good translations—why would learning the original give you any more assistance?
  • Lots of people around the world will never be in the position to learn biblical languages. Will those people not be able to teach God’s Word effectively?
  • Yes, there may be some additional insights gleaned from the original, but certainly there could not be that many, could there?

I would appreciate your perspectives. Please tell me, Dr. Brown and Dr. Vogt, how do you frame biblical languages for yourself? What is your perspective on the purposes of learning biblical languages? Thanks.

Very appreciatively,
Gretchen

 
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Dear Gretchen (from Vogt),

Thanks so much for your note, and these important questions!

I feel very strongly that knowledge of the biblical languages is an essential tool to becoming the most competent and independent interpreter of the biblical text you can be. I also realize that people in recent years have begun to question this viewpoint. So it is important to be able to say why knowledge of the languages is important.

The first reason is simply that the Bible is not the product of a modern, Western culture, and it was not written in English. You know that, of course, but it is often easy to forget that when you open, say, an NIV Bible – published in Michigan and written in English – and read Scripture, you are dealing with texts that are the products of cultures vastly different from our own. They are written in different languages and reflect worldviews that are very different from ours. Studying the languages is a good step toward beginning to bridge that cultural gap. Think about taking a trip to a foreign country. You could, of course, rely only on interpreters as you interact with the people you will encounter, and only read important cultural texts in English. But would you really be experiencing the culture in the same way as someone who is able, however haltingly, to converse with the people and read their texts in their language? If we understand the importance of language acquisition with respect to modern languages and cross-cultural experiences, it seems to me to be important to think about it with respect to the Bible as well. The problem is that many people often don’t recognize that reading Scripture is actually a cross-cultural experience.

Second, as you note, there are some who say that with such good tools available, one can use them rather than learn a biblical language. Yet I would argue that to get the most out of the tools, you need knowledge of the languages. Take Bible software programs. It’s true that Logos or Bibleworks (or any number of other programs) will allow you to click on a word and receive a gloss of the word’s meaning (or even a full lexicon entry), as well as its parsing. But grammar is more complicated than mere vocabulary, and understanding particulars of Hebrew grammar requires exposure to and practice in that language.

Suppose, for example, that someone clicks on a word, is given its meaning, and is then told this Hebrew verb is a “Niphal perfect, third masculine singular.” What good does that do you if you don’t know what a Niphal is? It is possible to argue that the scholars who do the translations know what a Niphal is, so you don’t have to worry about it. But that means you are forced to rely on someone else’s knowledge, and can’t get as much of an intuitive feel for the text. Someone once said that “reading the Bible in translation is like kissing through cellophane.” I don’t know whether I’d go that far, but I do think those who don’t study the languages are depriving themselves of the tools that would help them be better interpreters of the text.

This leads to another point. Studying the languages allows you to be a more independent interpreter of the text, even if you will never become completely “fluent” in your reading. Think about an instance where two English translations differ in what they say. How can you decide which reading is more accurate? It won’t do to pick the one you like best simply because it fits your theology or is from a version you prefer. As you may recall from your hermeneutics course, all translations are interpretations. So, we validate a translation in much the same way as we would any other interpretation, by determining how well it reflects the author’s intended meaning without distortion. But, again, how can someone do that without being able to understand the original languages? And even if you aren’t able to completely determine which reading is correct on your own, knowledge of the languages will at least help you understand the various arguments being made about the text (in commentaries, for example), so you are in a position to make a more informed judgment.

It may help to look at a specific example. Deuteronomy 6:4 is one of the best known verses in the Old Testament. Most versions translate the Hebrew as, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” But grammatically speaking, other options also are possible. One option is to translate it as, “The LORD our God is one LORD.” Another option is, “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” The final option is, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” The issue here has to do with verbless clauses and their uses in other contexts.

Is this an important issue? I think it is. Depending on what you decide is the correct translation, the meaning is altered. I believe the best rendition of the Hebrew is “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” This has different implications than if we decided that “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” is the correct translation. In my preferred translation, the issue is about showing total loyalty to Yahweh (which is a major part of the thrust of the book as a whole).

By studying the languages, you learn how language does – and does not – function. You learn to be disciplined in your analysis of the text, and rigorous in asking key questions of the text. You are training yourself to think hermeneutically and linguistically. That is, you recognize that you are seeking to interpret the intention of the author, and based on the language, some interpretations are just not possible. But you won’t know that without some knowledge of the languages. What I think is especially important to note is that the study of the language shapes your approach to the text, even if you later stop attempting to translate directly. You often hear the statistics about how something like 95 percent of the people who study the languages don’t use them within 10 years of seminary. I have no idea if that number is correct. But even if it is, I would argue that it’s a largely meaningless statistic, since it assumes that the only benefit of the study of the languages is in formal use.

It is my experience that even those who aren’t “using” the languages after seminary are still benefiting greatly from having studied them. They are able to use the best commentaries on the biblical books (which presuppose knowledge of the languages) and can follow the arguments therein.

In the end, it comes down to the issue of priorities. Can someone adequately interpret the text without the languages? Yes. But why would we settle for being adequate in such an important aspect of ministry? We as Christians claim that the Bible is our authority in all matters of faith and practice. If that is the case, why wouldn’t we want to have every good tool in our interpretive toolbox in order to be the best interpreters we can possibly be?

In Christ, Dr. Vogt
 
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Dear Gretchen (from Brown),

I heartily agree with Dr. Vogt’s response to your very important question. I offer a couple of additional points that expand on what he wrote.

First, studying biblical languages gives the student a healthy dose of linguistics. And linguistics provides a framework for dealing with language in a way that honors the contours of any particular language, such as biblical Hebrew or Greek. By studying these languages, we gain sensitivity to their nuances. It is often the case that we would never do to our native tongue what we do with the biblical languages. This is precisely because we have learned through much practice the parameters and nuances of our own language. Studying Hebrew or Greek helps us bring a measure of that same sensitivity to these languages. By doing so, we are less likely to violate linguistic parameters of these languages.

For example, English tenses are almost completely focused on time factors (e.g., past tense, future tense). Greek tenses, however, more often than not convey something about the aspect of action communicated, such as the view of ongoing action conveyed by the Greek “present” tense. Because English and Greek are fairly different on this count, we might be prone to misread Greek tenses by importing a sense of time where there simply is no temporality communicated. Or we might land too hard on the aspect of a verb, because we are still getting used to what this means (and doesn’t mean) for Greek tenses.

Second, the fantastic tools mentioned in your letter have the potential to be very helpful in interpretative work. As you probably know, however, tools are only as good as the person wielding them. My use of a hammer is not half as helpful as my dad’s use of a hammer. The argument for solely relying on biblical language tools neglects to factor in all that an interpreter must bring to the tools. This limitation of biblical language tools is not an indictment of any specific tool; rather it is the natural limitation of such tools.

If we bring an assumption to the Bible that any particular word can mean a number of things in a single usage (in context), our assumption will necessarily influence what we get from a lexical tool. I would argue that this assumption is faulty (authors almost always mean one thing by a word in a particular context, since they are interested in communication, not in obscurity), and consulting the best study tools cannot save us from faulty presuppositions.

In addition, as Dr. Vogt has pointed out, good study tools still don’t get you back to the original languages in any pure sense. For example, I once had someone ask me about the differences between the Greek words “logos” and “rema.” Both words can be translated well by the English “word” in some contexts. This person’s question, however, arose from a church context where these Greek words were understood to mean distinctly different things. My first impulse (and I think it was a good one) was to consult a Greek lexicon. Now, according to a Greek lexicon, these two Greek words have some overlap in usage or meaning. This means that I would want to be wary of a position that suggests two distinctly different meanings for these terms. I also will want to realize at this juncture, however, that a lexicon is a secondary resource. While it points me to primary resources, such as the New Testament and the occurrences of both words in it, it also provides definitions and discussion of both terms, and categorizes specific New Testament occurrences of these words. This means that we are trusting in the conclusions of the writers of these tools. In other words, most biblical study tools do a significant amount of work and thinking for us. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet we will want to take full account of this, so that our use of study tools doesn’t lead us to think we are doing the groundwork of original languages ourselves simply by consulting original language tools.

My final comment comes from a recent experience teaching a course in 1 Peter in which we walked through this epistle in English translation. In this upper-level course, I had some students who had studied Greek already. Here’s what I noticed as we came to particular exegetical issues in 1 Peter: the Greek students had developed solid inclinations that gave them direction for navigating exegetical issues of a linguistic nature. They knew where to look and what kinds of questions to ask. Now there were some students without Greek training who also had good impulses for how to go about arbitrating exegetical possibilities. Yet the process of getting to what they needed to know and even knowing what they needed to know was less direct, more meandering. In addition, some students who hadn’t learned Greek were still struggling to get a sense of how to move forward with a particular exegetical question toward its answer. What I saw firsthand was that language study had made a difference in students’ level of confidence with the exegetical process, even when we were not in the Greek text specifically.

To conclude, language learning does much more than provide Christian leaders with the skills for translating the Bible 10 years down the road. In fact, even if those who take Hebrew and Greek are not translating regularly in their future ministries (though many may be doing so), their language learning has not been in vain. These leaders will be addressing interpretive questions and issues with a greater level of confidence and with a keener sense of how to go about fruitful study of these issues. If this is the case, language study in seminary would have been well worth the cost and effort.

Warmly, Dr. Brown

 

Dear Drs. Vogt and Brown,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and passionate responses to my questions. Since my original email, several months have passed and I am nearly finished with my four-course Greek sequence. Throughout each course, I successively used a little of what I learned. But it was just last Sunday that I preached a message after a diligent Greek study of 1 Peter 2:4-10. I know that God could have still used His Word without His messenger knowing Greek! And I was surely aware of my limitations to adequately unpack such a powerful passage. But I would not have known how emphatic Peter was about us being among the living stones of Christ’s spiritual household, nor of his strong language about never being ashamed of our hope in Christ, nor of Peter’s pointed remark about God’s purpose in making us His royal priesthood, unless I had seen several grammatical features at work in that text.

So your answers have “come true” for me personally. I count it both a privilege and responsibility to know a biblical language, and to leverage that knowledge for the sake of the Gospel. Thanks again!

Your sister,
Gretchen