Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Biblical Languages Are Definitely Important

Terry Wilder at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recently chimed in on the importance of the biblical languages. You can read his post here. In addition to mentioning what Luther said about knowing the biblical languages, he lists out some reasons we should value being able to read our Bible without the veil. The ones he mentions are as follows, with a little bit of annotation from yours truly:
1. "You will be able to determine and critique whether an English translation is an accurate one."
Generally speaking I'm not trying to determine whether an English translation is an accurate one. I know Terry is not saying that. I just want to clarify something. The goal is to figure out what the author meant and explain its significance to others. I get what Terry is saying, though. Translations are interpretations. When an interpretation is amiss, we have to be able to identify that and avoid communicating that to others. One thing I think people think they will get from a knowledge of Greek, for example, is a clearer picture of how their favorite translation (e.g., NASB or ESV) is "better" than another translation (e.g., NIV). Personally, I encourage my students to use any and every translation in every single language of which they have a working knowledge. Translations, in my experience, tend to be more or less intentionally ambiguous, not more or less literal. We need to work harder at identifying the ambiguity and clearing out the fog, not use our Greek knowledge as a megaphone for preferred translations. FYI, if you're teaching in a local church, I'd be very, very careful talking about where you think an English translation is not "accurate." Chances are most of the places people think they are dealing with an accuracy-inaccuracy issue is really more like an issue with ambiguity. Nevertheless, there are places where I think the English fails to capture the main point of a passage as well as it could. The Great Commission is one such place. "Go" in Matt. 28:19 could have easily been put as an imperative. But it's not the main thing. Important, but not the main thing. In fact, the other two participles in the Great Commission could have been put as imperatives as well. The main thing though is training the nations. The three participles in the Great Commission all modify that one verb. I'm not going to tell a church that all the English translations got it wrong here. They didn't, and there are definitely arguments worth considering grammatically for understanding why translators did translate the first participle as an imperative (I'm just not convinced!).
2. "You will see things in Hebrew and Greek that you just cannot see in an English Bible. Scripture truly comes to life when studied in the original."
Now my example about the Great Commission above under number 1 is an example of what I think Terry is talking about in this point. That said, we need to be very careful that we don't create some sort of gnosis concept regarding the biblical languages, i.e., people with Greek and Hebrew knowledge have special knowledge. I can enjoy a Monet painting and an Ansel Adams photograph. And if Monet had painted a picture of something that Adams later photographed I am pretty certain no one would say, "Now we don't need the Monet. Toss it. We got a photograph." That said, if I am going to describe to someone what the scenery captured by both, I definitely want to study the photograph, not the Monet. We need to be very honest about what it is we are doing with Hebrew and Greek. They are not special in and of themselves. And those who can use them are not specially chosen individuals. Anyone can have Hebrew and Greek. It's out there. If you want it, you can have it. And it's definitely worth the investment of time and energies.
3. "You will become a better preacher or teacher of God's Word because you are able to interpret it accurately; consequently, with Spirit-filled living, your sermons will be full of conviction and authority."
We hope you will become a better preacher or teacher of God's Word. We hope you will interpret the Word of God accurately. Knowing Hebrew and Greek is not a guarantee that someone will interpret the Bible with accuracy. Just like not knowing Hebrew or Greek is no guarantee that someone will necessarily misinterpret a passage. Not only that, so many people who use the biblical languages in their Bible study lack conviction and some are overly authoritative, as if the languages permit them to lord their interpretations over people. You've heard it said before I'm sure: "Well, in the Greek it says . . . ." If the person's response isn't as informed with the biblical languages, it's like it becomes discredited and buried before even coming to life.
4. "A whole new world of resources will open up to you because now you will be able to read and understand a variety of books that you have not been able to use beforehand."
Yep! There is a whole new world of resources if you can work with the biblical languages. There's no question about that. With that said though, remember, not all of those resources are all they are cracked up to be. Just because a resource uses Greek or Hebrew doesn't mean it's right or worth a whole lot of time. Getting better with using the languages in your Bible study includes getting better at identifying the best resources as you study. I'm looking for a new generation of expositors, one that knows more than the Blue Letter Bible website and a Matthew Henry commentary or a book on "word pictures."
5. "You will now be a first-hander and no longer have to mimic others–like commentators X, Y or Z–when you preach. You will not have to rely slavishly on them as you did before. Sometimes I hear of preachers who leave their churches and move after two and a half years or so because they run out of sermon material. That will never be the case when you learn the biblical languages."
I want my students to get unshackled from the so-and-so-says world. Whether they know the languages or not, I want all of us to get away from that world. "The Bible says . . ." is the world I want us to know. And I want what Paul wanted for Timothy, that we can show ourselves approved through faithfulness and diligence in our Bible study so that when we say "the Bible says . . ." we're not watching out for a lighting bolt from heaven.

1 comment:

  1. Having completed both Greek and Hebrew, I cannot agree more as to how Scripture is better understood when you know the original languages. Now, keep in mind that one will not master the full extent of these languages. However, if you are able to look beyond the difficulty of the grammar, because you do need to work hard to attain at least the basic, if you look beyond that and ask yourself, how will I use this knowledge in fulfilling the Great Commission. And the "Gentile Commission" as well, for we, as Gentiles are also obliged to present the Gospel of Christ to non-believing Jews as well. As both my language professors told our class, we have been given a talent. We now have a choice. Are we to be like the faithful servants who took that talent and multiplied it, or are we going to be like the useless servant, who buried it in the ground and did nothing. We are blessed to have this knowledge. A knowledge that many want but are unable to attain. And if this is not enough to encourage you to continue to study the ancient languages, remember this. We will be accountable for this before God. When He asks us, what did you do with biblical languages you learned in seminary?