10 THINGS I LEARNED IN SEMINARY - #1: BIBLICAL LANGUAGES


[This post is the first in a series that highlights ten things that have stayed with Carlo following his graduation from Asia Pacific Theological Seminary. Read on, friend!]

How important is it to know Hebrew and Greek for Christian ministry? Is it essential, helpful, or completely unnecessary? Over the past few years I have heard both laypeople and seminary students insinuate that learning either language is pointless. After all, aren’t decent Bible study tools, common sense, and a “literal” Bible translation enough? Is busting my brain to grasp Greek participles or Hebrew verb stems really worth it in the end?

Now I’m no William Tyndale (Bible translator who mastered over 6 languages including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish), and I’m no John Wesley (preacher who could quote Scripture in Greek better than in English). Having said that, I have completed over a year of modern Hebrew, over a year of biblical Hebrew (there are differences), and a year and a half of biblical Greek. I’ve been in the trenches with oodles of vocab cards and translations of long biblical passages, and beyond that, since graduating with my Master of Divinity degree I’ve sought to utilize my newfound skills during ministry preparation to see if they’re actually useful. What have I discovered? Here are three things I’ve found that a knowledge of Hebrew/Greek can’t do, and three things it has done for me.

Once upon a time I practiced writing the Greek alphabet by telling my (then) girlfriend that I loved her. We also did cool things like slog through The Iliad together (but in English, not in Greek).

SOME CAVEATS. 
Knowledge of biblical Hebrew or Greek...

- Won’t make you a better preacher on its own. I’m sorry, rattling off Hebrew words and their meanings alone won’t make your congregation burst into Spirit-prompted weeping as they come running to the altar. You may still want to take Homiletics. And you’ll probably want to keep on praying too. ;) (On a related note, go easy on the Hebrew/Greek from the pulpit for your church’s sake, folks. Namedropping “Paulos” instead of “Paul” won’t impress anyone if it doesn’t help your sermon.)

- Won’t give you “secret” meanings to biblical texts, and it won’t unlock the meaning of every difficult passage. No, learning a year of Greek or Hebrew won’t give you the keys to the hermeneutical kingdom. In fact, knowing either language may actually show you that the precise meaning of some passages is less clear than you previously thought, given the presence of certain grammatical ambiguities. For instance, in Romans 1:17 is it “righteousness from God” (a condition he bestows), or “righteousness of God/God’s righteousness” (a characteristic he possesses) that is in view? (You crazy genitives! Greek students will know what I mean.)

-  Isn’t essential for many kinds of ministries. There, I said it. Children’s church is probably not the best place to show off your mastery of the aorist tense. And if you’re an usher, the English language should be good enough. (Or whatever primary language your church speaks, though I can bet it probably isn’t Koine Greek or old school Hebrew.)

Having said that… what if you’re an expository Bible teacher, a preacher, or any other minister whose success depends at least in part on accurately communicating the word of God?  While I wouldn’t champion knowledge of the biblical languages as a prerequisite for success in any of those ministries, I would say that under those circumstances, the value of knowing them does rise significantly. But if there’s anything I can share with certainty on this matter, it’s my own experience with Hebrew and Greek.

My Greek III class with professor Marlene Yap in 2014. We were the few students that made it all the way to this point from Greek I. :-)

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.
Knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek…

+ Has helped me read and preach the Bible with more clarity, confidence, and understanding. In preparation for nearly every sermon I have preached within the past three years, I have translated my passage from Hebrew or Greek into English. And every time I have thus proceeded to study the text in its original language, I have either found a) a sermon point reinforced by the original text, b) a nuance of meaning that has found its way into my preaching, or c) some other nugget of wisdom that has blessed me personally even if I didn’t feel it relevant to share from the pulpit.

Studying a text in its original language is like fully excavating a strong, ancient foundation before building something sturdy on top of it. Studying a text in translation (like English) will also reveal the boundaries of this foundation, but often not completely. Sometimes preachers will make a big show of a sermon point that can’t be supported by the biblical text—that’s like erecting a shimmering tower on quicksand! Understanding Hebrew and Greek can show us with more clarity where foundations of truth lie within the Scriptures, which in turn means we can build sermons with greater discernment and confidence.

+ Has enabled me to engage with more Bible study resources. William Mounce states that “almost all the best commentaries and biblical studies require a knowledge of Greek” (Basics of Biblical Greek, 3). While I don’t agree fully (even if you throw in Hebrew for Old Testament studies), I would still agree to a large degree. Since gaining some understanding of the biblical languages, I’ve been able to make sense of commentary series such as the WBC (Word Biblical Commentary), conduct word studies with more competence, and engage with other resources that directly relate with the Greek and Hebrew biblical texts. While it is true that one can have great knowledge of God without exposure to the biblical languages, we would do well to sit at the feet of those who have had that exposure and have taken it as far as they can go.

These books were my friends throughout my biblical Hebrew adventure. All the same, I wish I could have shown you my modern Hebrew textbook which taught me essential words like "elephant" (peel) and "apricot" (mishmish).

+ It has helped me value the work of Bible translation in all its shapes and forms. I have a lot to say on this point, but for now suffice it to say that after studying Hebrew/Greek I have a greater respect for more formal translations like the NASB and the NKJV (though among these, the ESV is currently my favorite). However, my studies have also tipped me off to the complexity of Bible translation in general, as well as the need for versions that prize both accuracy and readability. After all, the most formal English translation you could create would be useless if it was mostly incomprehensible. Because of this, I find it amazing that my respect has also grown for translations that make the Bible readable for wider audiences, like the NLT and NET—though as far as balance between fidelity and readability is concerned, the NIV is still my favorite. (The NIV has gotten a bad rap in some circles over the past few years, although many of those critics taking potshots at it are often misinformed as to the nature of accuracy in Bible translation or what the 2011 incarnation has actually changed about the version.)

Well, to sum up: No, I don’t think we should be preaching the KJV at youth nights. Yes, it may not be a good idea to lead a verse-by-verse Bible study from The Message. Studying Hebrew and Greek has helped clarify such matters for me, thank you very much. ;)

I may have graduated from seminary, but knowledge of the biblical languages (however imperfect) has come with me!

To come full circle: How important is it to know Hebrew and Greek for Christian ministry? The short answer is, it depends on the person and it depends on their ministry.

Are you learning Hebrew or Greek currently? Allow me this exhortation from experience: If you want knowledge of the biblical languages to work for you in your ministry, then you’ve got to work for it. This is one case where you’ll only get what you give, so study hard!

Are you a pastor, teacher, or preacher who doesn’t have command of the biblical languages? Of course you don’t need Hebrew and Greek to succeed in your ministry. However, as a fellow expositor of God’s Word let me remind us all that while a seminary education isn’t commanded by God for ministers, this charge certainly is: “Do your best to present yourself as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Let us do all we can to ensure we are giving our congregations and Bible studies the pure “word of truth,” unembellished by human opinion and untarnished by inaccurate teaching. If that means staying the course and doing the best we can without Hebrew/Greek, then great. But if that means setting aside some ministry time for further education, then so be it!

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