Striking the Right Balance with the Biblical Languages

by Todd Chipman September 15, 2016

When I began to learn Biblical Greek, I was also beginning my role as a teaching pastor. This can be a dangerous combination. Since my Greek class was providing insight about noun cases, verbal tense-forms and lexical specificity, I thought my congregation would benefit from sermons peppered with phrases like, “in the original it says that,” or “the Greek word is ‘x’ and could be translated as ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c’…” and so on. I would even, on occasion, parse words from the pulpit (blush).

Over the next few years, the Lord used the glazed look of my congregation and several more Greek and Hebrew classes to wise me up a bit. I recognized that in the pulpit, over-doing it with the Biblical languages actually distanced some in the congregation from both their Bible and from me. When they asked a legitimate question about a text in Scripture, they would preface their comment with, “I am guessing the original Greek says something different here, but…” Others thought I had some special kind of mystical insight and considered me aloof.

But the Lord was gracious. By my fifth anniversary as teaching pastor of my church, I had completed the M-Div and MA-BL—and was a far better preacher despite rarely using phrases like “original Greek” or “your English text completely misses the point.” Through exegesis and textual criticism courses, I came to appreciate the daunting task translation committees face, and how well they have done to produce readable, focused English translations of the scriptures so that congregations like mine might have God’s word in words they can understand.

So here is a plea for students and pastors to strike the right balance with the Biblical languages in three interrelated spheres—all in the hopes that Greek, Hebrew and even Aramaic might be engaged and employed effectively for a lifetime of frutiful church ministry:

At the seminary.

We are now three generations removed from the days of Baptist statesman and scholar A. T. Robertson. According to the Preface of his The Minister and His Greek New Testament, at one point during his days at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, nearly three-fourths of the student body was enrolled in some kind of Greek course. Generally speaking, even today, we should expect similar proportions.

Seminary is the place and season of life where students can undertake studies not generally available elsewhere or later in life. Many seminary course offerings are replicated, albeit in abreviated form, at pastors’ conferences or leadership seminars, but I have yet to see a major conference offer a breakout session covering Greek verbal aspect theory or exegesis of participles, or the theological implications of God as the subject of Nifal and Hifil stem Hebrew verbals. Seminary courses engage these issues every semester!

In seminary, students can explore the specificity and nuance of the scriptures under the guidance of those eager to fuel their quest to know God and His word better. The seminary course schedule might best be arranged by prioritizing Greek and Hebrew grammar classes in the first year of study so that by graduation, students have been able to engage exegesis and even textual criticism courses.

In the pulpit or teaching context.

Based upon my comments at the outset of this post, some may think I would wish to fix a chasm between preaching or teaching and study of the languages. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wish for students and pastors to know the scriptures in the original languages and actual manuscript forms so well that through their weekly study routines they might be able to identify how to communicate the nuanced ideas of the original language text through the English version they commonly preach. And this can be accomplished with very limited use of the phrase, “the original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic says…”

This kind of preaching or teaching preparation would involve parsing nouns and verbals, analyzing prepositions and thinking through lexical options so that pastors and teachers might faithfully communicate the inspiried writer’s point without distancing the congregation from the English translation they engage both when the church is gathered and when they read privately during the week. On those rare occassions of the flesh when we cannot help but speak about some nugget of the original that we have gleaned in study, we do well to couch our ideas in the broader literary context of the passage in view.

With software and digital tools.

I can only offer conjecture as to what A. T. Robertson—or Lightfoot, Wescott and Hort a generation before—could have accomplished with Bibleworks, Logos or Accordance. Surveying Robertson’s grammar or Wescott’s commentaries on Hebrews or John reveals that they knew the original languages with the highest level of authenticity. Contemporary students and pastors in Biblical studies need to strike the balance between using Bible software and digital resources well so that: (a) they do not become so dependent upon them that they lack sufficient personal knowledge of the languages or (b) use electronic tools to isolate grammatical phenomena and words at the expense of how these are framed by their literary context.

If students or pastors constantly rely upon the speedy parsing and lexical helps of digital resources, they may not actually be able to read texts in the original languages without their aid. I will sometimes tell my children to take a day off of all digital resources—social media, videos, etc. Many students and pastors would do well to give themselves an extended break from software in order to evaluate their true knowledge of the languages and identify deficiences shaded by dependence on the digital tools. They might then be able to exploit their software’s true capacity: to perform complex searches of specific grammatical phenomena or words, providing data that can be used to help them interpret original language texts with a view to clearly communicating God’s word.