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Drawing Near: The Value of Greek and Hebrew in Christian Ministry (part 1)

I suppose there must come a time in the life of every German fan of Shakespeare when they want to try him in the original Elizabethan English. To savour the rhythms and wordplays and images that transport us to Verona or Denmark or a wild Scottish heath. It would be a natural ambition, “a consummation devoutly to be wished”, as the Bard might say.

But, of course, that is no easy task. They are distanced from Shakespeare both by language and by time. Elizabethan English is not German, and nor is it modern English, for languages and the meaning of words change over time. And that might mean that our hypothetical German friend always relies on translations and reliable guides.

It would be hard to imagine, though, that they would ever stop wanting to read the original. Why would they? And they would certainly want to find people who can read Shakespeare knowledgably and lean in as close as they can to that conversation.

Now, what has this got to do with Greek and Hebrew? Well, it’s tempting to spend this article making the case that in a similar way every Christian should (at least in principle) want to know Greek and Hebrew. To read the words in which God inspired the Scriptures. To travel across language and time to savour the rhythms and wordplays and images that transport us to God’s kingdom. But of course that too is no easy task, and so we rightly rejoice in the translations and reliable guides we have. They are great gifts and serve us well.

Instead, I want to focus on what the ambition of our pastor teachers ought to be. Again I emphasise ambition. I’m not saying that every pastor must know the languages. But they must surely make it their aim to be as reliable a guide as they can to the Scriptures, and how can they do that without making the most of every opportunity and resource to do that? What would our German friend make of someone who offered themselves as a guide to Shakespeare who was disinterested in English? Perhaps more pointedly, what would they make of a teacher who claimed to love Shakespeare but didn’t make every effort to read him as attentively as he could.

That question of love and devotion is an important one. Too often I think we are asking “what is the minimum we need to know in order to do a good job of teaching the Bible?” But it should surely be a matter of devoted, loving attention; a constant movement towards the cherished word of our God. That’s the kind of pastor I want.

But we should also talk about calling. There is great enthusiasm these days for “vocational” training, usually meaning a course that focusses more on practical skills for ministry than the study of theology or biblical languages. But central to the vocation (or calling) of a pastor is to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), to “encourage by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). For that defensive task we need to be skilled in seeing where the Scriptures are being distorted so that we might “contend for the truth that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). And for the positive task of teaching and exhorting we need to be those who read as attentively as possible and can teach boldly on the basis of what we have read. If that is our goal, then a knowledge of the languages must surely at least be desirable.

Again, let me be clear what I’m not saying:

- I am not saying this is impossible for someone who doesn’t know the biblical languages. The point is simply that a knowledge of the languages will support this kind of attentiveness and boldness.

- Nor am I saying that knowledge of the biblical languages is in any way sufficient for preserving the gospel. The truth of the gospel has been denied by people who know the biblical languages better than I do. And many of the heresies that have arisen have claimed to be “just reading the Bible.” So contending for the gospel requires theological clarity that presses beyond biblical words to clarify all that Scripture affirms and denies.

- And of course, as with all learning, there is a danger that learning biblical languages puffs someone up. But it would be bizarre to decide that we should therefore prefer ignorance to learning. I recently read someone lamenting that people leave Bible college with their “heads full of knowledge.” That struck me as odd. Surely we want heads full of knowledge, but about the right things and all framed within the love of God and neighbour?

- And nor am I saying that the work of a pastor is exclusively about word ministry. Whatever training we offer must be broader than that. But it is a quirk of English evangelicalism that it has placed such an emphasis on word ministry without much valuing the biblical languages.

See part 2 of this article here.

This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now in July 2020.


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