The Decline of Biblical Languages

by David Roach June 7, 2015

In 1816, Harvard University published a circular letter in response to inquiries about admissions standards for ministry students. Candidates for admission, it said, “must be thoroughly acquainted with the grammar of the Latin and Greek languages” and “be able properly to construe and parse any portion” of the Greek New Testament. Fast forward to the year 2000, when it was only “recommended” that candidates for admission to Harvard Divinity School have an “elementary” knowledge of one ancient or modern language. To graduate with a master of divinity, the main graduate degree typically sought by pastors, a student needed only to demonstrate “intermediate” proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, or Spanish. Apparently being able to ask “¿Como está usted?” had become as valuable in English-speaking ministry as being able to read Paul's letter to the Romans in its original Greek.

Harvard isn’t an anomaly. Across America, there has been a marked decrease of biblical language training for Christian ministers over the past 200 years. Consider Princeton Theological Seminary, where as recently as 1950 candidates for the bachelor of divinity (the precursor to the master of divinity) were required to take exams in Greek competency before beginning their course of study, and take remedial classes if they didn’t pass. By 2013 though, language study was no longer even a required portion of the master of divinity curriculum at Princeton. Indeed, one of the main accrediting bodies for theological schools in the US and Canada, the Association of Theological Schools, does not require a seminary to offer Greek or Hebrew in order to have an accredited master of divinity program.

Of course, language study is not required of all faithful ministers. For example, a bivocational pastor who works 40 hours in a factory on top of shepherding a church and leading a family may not have time to study Greek. And doing so might keep him from more important responsibilities. Or there may be ministers with learning disabilities that prevent them from grasping language study.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce rightly observed that learning “interpretation of the text in the English version” is “all that is actually necessary to . . . preach the gospel.” Still, Boyce would have agreed with Charles Spurgeon that every minister who is able should aim at “tolerable proficiency” in Hebrew and Greek.

But aiming at “tolerable proficiency” is a far cry from what’s happening today. Some ministers who have opportunity to study biblical languages opt instead to study managerial techniques and advertising methods—both of which have their place, but neither of which feeds the church spiritually like biblically faithful preaching generated from study of Greek and Hebrew texts. Two surveys of preaching from the 1990s found that only 24.5% of sermons had content and organization determined by the biblical passage under consideration. Surely, the percentage would rise if more pastors took their cues from the original languages.

Those who spend years studying for ministry yet avoid the languages need to rethink their educational priorities. Refusing to study a topic that helps them teach Scripture more effectively contributes to the ministry’s becoming what one author has called a “new order of sacred fools.”*

The most powerful preachers and theologians of ages past likely would regard this as ministerial malpractice. For, instance, Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian and North African bishop, said men who “speak the common tongue” need “two other languages for the study of Scripture: Hebrew and Greek.”

Consider these words from the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that “we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”

*David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 251.