They are often the dreaded classes for the Bible college and seminary student. They make up some of the confusing parts in theology books. They are considered wastes of time by some in the Church. They are Biblical Greek and Hebrew. When one desires to study for the work of ministry in various contexts, these subjects are usually going to be part of that process. For many, the very idea of having to go through these classes is off-putting at best. They often become a box to tick in the journey of finishing a degree. I would like to suggest that they should be looked at not as a freshman health class that must be completed, but as helpful and necessary tools for faithful gospel ministry and biblical exegesis.
The first thing to be said about the study of these languages is that it must be done humbly. Studying these languages is a step back into a world in which we are not currently residing. These are forms of particular languages that are no longer used. Some of the world’s greatest scholars debate various aspects of the way these languages were used. Therefore, they are not to be approached with great pride and gusto. Many have said that knowing a little bit of anything is dangerous and that holds true with these languages. Our ability to parse one Greek word and weave it into a sermon or lesson is not cause to puff out our chests and call our listeners to bow before us in great amazement. The great danger of pride with these languages is that the majority of our audiences will never be able to question our use of these languages in a sermon or lesson. The danger then is to turn the knowledge of these languages into some sort of intellectual trump card, assuming that people think, “Well, he mentioned that Greek word, so he must be right.” The study of these languages bring us that much closer to Paul writing his letters to Timothy for example and feeling the wonder of the personal nature of God’s word. That is cause for great praise and humility, because we are still handling God’s word, though it is not in a language that many around us speak.
The study of these languages should be given a level of commitment beyond the grade in a class. We all know that there is a way to finish a class to get a grade and a way to finish a class to learn. Unless you are in a unique setting, no one will ever call into question your progress in the Biblical languages once you leave your Greek or Hebrew professors. Therefore, there is a commitment that should exist beyond the classroom to continue in the exercise of knowing and learning these languages. Cramming for vocabulary quizzes or trying to memorize declensions of nouns at the last minute are not examples of commitment. There are numerous ways to continue to stay committed to the study of these languages for the sake of your ministry, some of which I will mention at the end of this post.
I remember one of the first times I was able to weave my newly found knowledge of Biblical Greek into a sermon. It was minimal, but I was excited to be able to use it and not have it just be information that I learned. A rather obvious principle for any kind of knowledge is to apply it properly. I wouldn’t be trying to use the Pythagorean Theorem to balance my checkbook, because the two have nothing to do with each other. Neither should we wrongly use our growing knowledge of the Biblical languages in awkward or inappropriate ways. Two great books that speak to this very topic are Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson and Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics by Moises Silva. A classic example of improper application is saying because the Greek word for power, dunamai, sounds/looks like our word for dynamite, that the power that is talked about when this word is used in the Greek text must mean explosive. This and other common examples of errors we can make can be found here. It is necessary for us to have a firm foundation in the languages as to not make these kind of application errors.
I just finished a two-year journey through Greek and Hebrew, which I took through Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The reason that I took these classes is that my M.Div. did not have as much Greek and Hebrew as I needed to continue towards doctoral studies. One thing I discovered pretty quickly as I began these classes is how much I didn’t know/remember English grammar. When I had to diagram a sentence for my Greek exercises, I couldn’t remember how to do it in English, let alone in Greek. I also couldn’t really remember what a passive participle was; studying any other language forces you to get stronger in your native tongue. This alone helped me in my reading and study of the Bible. When I can now look at a passage and see the significance that a particular preposition makes, I see the text in a whole new light.
Another thing I have realized is the need to properly pass on the ability to dip our toes into the original Biblical languages to a congregation. Through teaching and preaching, with a good basis of the Biblical languages, one can pass on good exegetical practices that can include mini lessons in Greek or Hebrew. No, a congregation does not need to and will not realistically all walk out knowing Greek and Hebrew, but Lord willing, they will know how to better study the Bible and apply it to their lives.
Learning the Biblical languages helps us in our reading as well. Many of the Christian books that we read from Christian living to Theology, all mention Greek or Hebrew to varying degrees. Rather than stumbling over those sentences, paragraphs, or sections, those with a foundation in the languages have those stumbling blocks removed from their learning and edification.
I know that many seminaries are offering M.Div. programs without any languages, which I think is a mistake. Granted, some get a good basis of the languages in the undergrad Bible College work, yet I think more can always be helpful. Having now finished these classes as well as previous classes during my M.Div., I can heartily urge you to take the time to learn the Biblical languages humbly, with commitment, and with an aim to properly apply them in your ministry.
Resources for Studying the Biblical Languages
http://dailydoseofgreek.com/ – Dr. Plummer from SBTS walks through Greek basics and the Greek text in a host of helpful videos
http://www.hebrew4christians.net/ – an exhaustive look at Hebrew grammar and other helpful tools
https://quisition.com/ – an interactive flashcard site that allows you to build decks of flashcards to study of Greek and Hebrew terms (and many other topics as well)
http://www.blueletterbible.org/ – a Bible site with a host of tools, but of note to languages is the interlinear option for Old and New Testaments