In 1524, six years after posting his "Ninety-five Theses," Martin Luther (1483-1546), father of the Protestant Reformation, charged his contemporaries:
Let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored. . . . If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall . . . lose the gospel.2
Are such musings mere rhetorical overstatement? Must individuals in every generation know and appropriate the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, in order to maintain the purity of the gospel and the health of the Church worldwide?
This article supplies scriptural and historical justification for keeping the biblical languages central in training vocational ministers of God's Word. It makes no attempt to clarify how to maintain skill in Hebrew and Greek.3 Rather, the argument is designed to clarify why congregations and schools should stress original language exegesis when equipping shepherds. The study's main contribution comes in the way it discloses the perspectives of a number of influential figures from the past. This essay includes extensive quotations from ministers such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen. By allowing these greats to speak to this issue in their own words, my hope is that this study will have a more significant, lasting impact.4
Before progressing, it is important to emphasize upfront that not everyone needs to know the biblical languages, even though all should seek to know God. First, the Lord has graciously made his Word translatable so that those "from every tribe and language and people and nation" may hear of and believe in the Savior. Ezra and the Levites helped a non-Hebrew speaking audience "understand the Law" (Neh 8:7-8; cf. 13:24); the NT authors often preached from the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT; and people proclaimed the gospel at Pentecost in a way that "each one was hearing . . . in his own language" (Acts 2:6). As such, believers today can and should utilize the quality translations available to us in order to meet God and make him known.
Second, grasping the fundamentals of Hebrew and Greek neither ensures correct interpretation of Scripture nor removes all interpretive challenges. It does not automatically make one a good exegete of texts or an articulate, winsome proclaimer of God's truth to a needy world. Linguistic skill also does not necessarily result in deeper levels of holiness or in greater knowledge of God. Why then do we need some in the Church who can skillfully use the biblical languages?
This article gives four reasons:
- Using the biblical languages exalts Jesus by affirming God's wisdom in giving us his Word in a book (God's Word as foundation).
- Using the biblical languages gives us greater certainty that we have grasped the meaning of God's Book (studying God's Word).
- Using the biblical languages can assist in developing Christian maturity that validates our witness in the world (practicing God's Word).
- Using the biblical languages enables a fresh and bold expression and defense of the truth in preaching and teaching (teaching God's Word).
The first reason relates to the nature and foundational place of God's Word, and the last three grow out of the pattern of Ezra's resolve, which resulted in a ministry blessed by God: study the Word → practice the Word → teach the Word. "The good hand of his God was on him, for Ezra set his heart to study and to practice the Torah of Yahweh and to teach both statute and rule in Israel" (Ezra 7:9c-10, author's translation; cf. 8:22).5 (See Table 1.)
Table 1: The Pattern of Ezra 7:9c-10
Study the Word
Observe accurately and thoroughly, understand clearly, and evaluate fairly.
Practice the Word
Feel properly, and apply wisely, helpfully, and appropriately.
Teach the Word
Express compellingly in words what has been studied and practiced.
1. Using the Biblical Languages Exalts Jesus by Affirming God's Wisdom in Giving Us His Word in a Book
The God who always acts to preserve and display his glory6 chose to disclose himself and his will through a written Word, given to us in Hebrew (and Aramaic) and Greek. In the words of Martin Luther, "Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages, was spread abroad by that means, and must be preserved by the same means."7 Sadly, we live in a world where not only "the word of the cross" is considered foolish (1 Cor 1:18) but many deem unnecessary the sheath that guards and contains this sword, namely, the biblical languages. However, as Luther asserts, "If God did not despise [Hebrew and Greek] but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others."8 Similarly, John Owen (1616-1683), the leading Puritan of the seventeenth century, correctly noted in 1678 that "the words of the Scripture being given thus immediately from God, every apex, tittle or iota in the whole is considerable, as that which is an effect of divine wisdom, and therefore filled with sacred truth, according to their place and measure."9
In his wisdom and for the benefit of every generation of humankind, God chose to preserve and guard in a book his authoritative, clear, necessary, and sufficient Word.10 Initially, God uniquely entrusted his written revelation to the Jews in the Hebrew OT (Ps 147:19-20; Rom 3:2). He spoke his Word through the prophets (Deut 18:18; Heb 1:1; 2 Pet 1:21), who in turn wrote down those words in the language of the people, thus securing a lasting guide and witness (Deut 31:24-26; Isa 30:8; Dan 9:11). This written, canonical text was then to be copied (Deut 17:18; Josh 8:32), studied and meditated on (Josh 1:8; Ps 1:3; Neh 8:13), and taught by faithful followers from generation to generation, whether priests, prophets, princes, parents, or the like (Lev 10:11; Deut 6:7; 17:18-20; 18:18; 31:11; Ps 78:5). Then, in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), God spoke again, now through Jesus, his eternal Word (John 1:1; Heb 1:1), who called his disciples to obey his teachings (Matt 28:20). He also promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would recall for them all he taught (John 14:26; 16:12-13). Then these apostles, empowered by the Spirit of Christ in them, spread abroad the teaching of Jesus through what we now call the NT (Eph 2:20; 3:5; 2 Pet 3:2; Jude 3).
Jesus highlights the significance of God's written Word when he declares that he prophetically fulfills all OT hopes: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matt 5:17-18). The very details of the biblical text bear lasting significance and point to the person and work of Christ. As such, we align ourselves with God's wisdom and participate in his passion to exalt his Son when we take the biblical languages seriously in studying his Book.
2. Using the Biblical Languages Gives Us Greater Certainty That We Have Grasped the Meaning of God's Book
This second reason for the importance of Hebrew and Greek relates to the study of Scripture. Knowing the original languages helps one observe more accurately and thoroughly, understand more clearly, evaluate more fairly, and interpret more confidently the inspired details of the biblical text.
The Bible is clear that it was given to the simple, not just the scholar. It is designed to make "wise the simple" (Ps 19:7), to impart "understanding to the simple" (119:130), and to be easily taught to children (Deut 6:6-7; Ps 78:5-8).
These truths, however, do not mitigate either the sustained call to careful, God-reliant study or the fact that those without the languages still need the scholar to render the biblical text in an understandable way. Speaking into a context where people were abusing the gift of tongues and not appreciating the clear prophetic word, Paul asserts, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor 2:14). He then later charges the Corinthians, "Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature" (14:20). Similarly, Paul tells Timothy, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. . . . Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:7, 15). These texts together stress that God-dependent, rigorous thought, directed toward God's Book, is the call of every minister.
Peter's comment elsewhere regarding Paul's writings clarifies the deadly result of careless biblical interpretation: "There are some things in [Paul's letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Pet 3:16). Destruction comes to those who mishandle God's Word.
We can draw five summary points from these passages:
- Every Christian should seek to think maturely, which means yearning for the clear Word of God, rightly understanding what is good, and being innocent to what is evil (1 Cor 14:20).
- Ignorant and unstable people misappropriate God's Word, but those who are neither ignorant nor unstable can rightly understand it (2 Pet 3:16).
- The answer to ignorance and instability and the means to right understanding in everything is God-dependent thinking over his revealed Word, given through his prophets (2 Tim 2:7).
- Without God's Spirit guiding the human mind and altering the human heart, we will never fully grasp the message of Scripture (1 Cor 2:14).
- An interpreter is shameless before God and handles the Word rightly only when God approves of the interpretation (i.e., when we rightly grasp God's original intention through the biblical author; 2 Tim 2:15); this process takes self-discipline ("do your best") and is a central element in Word-based vocational ministry ("a worker").
2.1. Grasping the Meaning of Scripture
How then can we best think over and rightly grasp the meaning of Scripture, if not through original language exegesis? J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), during the first presidential convocation address of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, clearly stated,
If you are to tell what the Bible does say, you must be able to read the Bible for yourself. And you cannot read the Bible for yourself unless you know the languages in which it was written. . . . In his mysterious wisdom [God] gave [his Word] to us in Hebrew and in Greek. Hence if we want to know the Scriptures, to the study of Greek and Hebrew we must go.11
Many others before Machen held similar convictions. For example, in his inaugural address to his students at Wittenberg in 1518, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), German reformer and collaborator with Martin Luther, asserts, "Only if we have clearly understood the language will we clearly understand the content. . . . If we put our minds to the [Hebrew and Greek] sources, we will begin to understand Christ rightly."12 Accordingly, John Calvin (1509-1564), the great French theologian and influential leader of the Protestant Reformation from Geneva, emphasizes that attempting to fully grasp the meaning of Scripture without the original languages is "to make all revere a Scripture hidden in darkness like the mysteries of Ceres, and let none presume to aspire to the understanding of it."13 Finally, writing in 1678, John Owen states, "In the interpretation of the mind of any one, it is necessary that the words he speaks or writes be rightly understood; and this we cannot do immediately unless we understand the language wherein he speaks, as also the idiotisms of that language, with the common use and intention of its phraseology and expression."14
The call for original language exegesis does not mean translations ineffectively communicate God's Word. Indeed, translations are "God's Word" in so far as they accurately align with the Hebrew or Greek original.15 However, the presence of numerous quality translations only heightens the need for some people in every generation who can evaluate these versions in light of their source.16
2.2. Thinking More Deeply and Gaining More Confidence
There are certain levels of thinking, wrestling, and assurance that are possible only when one exegetes the original language. A. T. Robertson (1863-1934), Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, clarifies part of this point when he notes that "the minute study called for by the Greek opens up unexpected treasures that surprise and delight the soul."17 The biblical languages are the very means by which God gave us his Word, and using them forces interpreters to ask questions that would have gone un-raised, to observe details that would have been missed, to evaluate arguments in a way otherwise impossible, and to grasp more clearly and confidently the intended message of the biblical authors.
2.3. Interpretive Challenges for Those without the Languages
At least two serious interpretive challenges face the minister who is unable to use the biblical languages. The first is captured by Machen, who rightly observes that a student without Hebrew and Greek "cannot deal with all the problems [of interpretation] at first hand, but in a thousand important questions is at the mercy of the judgment of others."18 With respect to secondary resources for study, this means that students without skill in the languages must either use what Machen figuratively calls "works that are written . . . in words of one syllable," or they must borrow what others say without accurate comprehension or fair evaluation.19
With respect to the biblical text, interpretations done apart from Hebrew and Greek are always dependent on someone else's translation.20 By God's grace we have many good English versions. Yet how is one to evaluate whether a given translation is justified? And how is one to respond when faced with great diversity in the versions themselves, as in the various renderings of theShema in Deut 6:4,21 the "without a vision" text in Prov 29:18,22 or of the virgin daughter versus virgin fiancé issue in 1 Cor 7:36-38.23
Regarding "simple preachers," who approach the interpretive process without the languages, Luther states, "Even though what they said about a subject at times was perfectly true, they were never sure whether it really was present there in the passage where by their interpretation they thought to find it."24 More than a millennium before, in 397, St. Augustine (354-430), Latin Church Father and Bishop of Hippo, similarly affirmed, "The literal translation cannot be ascertained without reference to the text in the original tongue."25
The second challenge faced by those without Hebrew and Greek is that no two languages bear one-to-one correspondence, so even the best translations lose something in their renderings.26 In the words of Robertson, "The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract."27 Owen puts it this way:
There is in the originals of the Scripture a peculiar emphasis of words and expressions, and in them an especial energy, to intimate and insinuate the sense of the Holy Ghost unto the minds of men, which cannot be traduced into other languages by translations, so as to obtain the same power and efficacy. . . . It is [therefore] of singular advantage, in the interpretation of the Scripture, that a man be well acquainted with the original languages, and be able to examine the use and signification of words, phrases, and expressions as they are applied and declared in other authors.28
Furthermore, linguistic features like discourse markers, verb choice and placement, and connection are often difficult to fully convey cross-linguistically, so those working only with a translation are at a loss in capturing all that the original authors intended, especially the flow of thought.29 As Machen says, "Our student without Greek cannot acquaint himself with the form as well as the content of the New Testament books."30 Or as Robertson observes, even when many translations are examined, "there will remain a large and rich untranslatable element that the preacher ought to know."31 For this, Hebrew and Greek alone can help.
2.4. Synthesis of the Call to Be Students of God's Book
§2 highlights the importance of the biblical languages for Bible study. I am not suggesting that those who know the languages will always get things right or that through the languages all interpretive challenges are set aside. Indeed, Luther is correct that, although without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek "it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling . . . there are plenty of problems to work out even when one is well versed in the languages."32 Nevertheless, as Owen states, through the biblical languages "a hindrance is removed" and "occasions of manifold mistakes are taken away, and the cabinet is as it were unlocked wherein the jewel of truth lies hid, which with a lawful diligent search may be found."33 It is in this context I assert that using the biblical languages enables one to observe more accurately and thoroughly, understand more clearly, evaluate more fairly, and interpret more confidently the inspired details of the biblical text.
3. Using the Biblical Languages Can Assist in Developing Christian Maturity That Validates Our Witness in the World
Scripture is clear that a true encounter with God's Word will alter the way we live, shaping servants instead of kings and nurturing Christ-exalting humility rather than pride.34 Bible study should overflow in deeper levels of radical surrender to the Lord and his ways. In both the OT and NT, the pattern for nurturing sustained life with God is this: teaching or reading the Word leads to hearing the Word, which gives rise to learning to fear God, which overflows in obeying the Word (Deut 31:11-13; cf. 6:1-2; 17:19-20; John 5:25; 6:45). One is self-deceived and will be cursed if he claims to be a man of the Word yet fails to live it out (Matt 23:2-3, 23, 25-27; Jas 1:22). However, those who hear and act will be blessed (Jas 1:23; cf. Rom 2:13), and others will "see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt 5:16).35
Having addressed how exegeting the biblical text in the original languages aids study, we now turn to the benefits of Hebrew and Greek for one's walk with God and witness in the world. Using the biblical languages helps clarify what feelings God wants us to have and what actions he wants us to take. The languages help foster a depth of character, commitment, conviction, and satisfaction in life and ministry that substantiates our Christian testimony in the world.
3.1. The Biblical Languages as a Means for Knowing God and His Ways
In 1918, speaking out against the secularization of Christian education, J. Gresham Machen asserted,
In many colleges, the study of Greek is almost abandoned. . . . The real trouble with the modern exaltation of "practical" studies at the expense of the humanities is that it is based upon a vicious conception of the whole purpose of education.The modern conception of the purpose of education is merely intended to enable a man to live, but not to give him those things that make life worth living.36
Study is supposed to lead us to what is most important in life.
Paul writes, "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8). The apostle treasures what the psalmist also knows to be true: "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps 16:11). Seeing God, knowing God, savoring God-he alone brings maximum pleasure for the longest amount of time. Is this not a pursuit worth making?
But how can it be done? Solomon provides sound guidance in Prov 2:1-5:
My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
Mining God's Word is the means to the most grounded, authentic, satisfied, and God-glorifying life. Through Scripture "you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God."
One cannot help but see, therefore, the intimate link between the biblical languages and our daily lives. If the Word is the means to knowing God and living for him and if the biblical languages are the very means by which God communicated his Word, then knowing Hebrew and Greek can directly serve one's desire for God and display of God in daily life. Exegeting Scripture through the original languages assists in shaping proper feelings toward God's truth and in applying this truth in wise and helpful ways.
The leaders of the Protestant Reformation always viewed the principle of sola Scriptura to require not only serious biblical scholarship but also "the practice of godliness": "Piety was the first prerequisite, followed by biblical and theological scholarship."37 Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who initiated the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, helpfully assesses the importance of biblical languages in the growth of Christians:
Once a young man is instructed in the solid virtue which is formed by faith, it follows that he will regulate himself and richly adorn himself from within: for only he whose whole life is ordered finds it easy to give help and counsel to others.
But a man cannot rightly order his own soul unless he exercises himself day and night in the Word of God. He can do that most readily if he is well versed in such languages as Hebrew and Greek, for a right understanding of the Old Testament is difficult without the one, and a right understanding of the New is equally difficult without the other. . . .
But in respect of [Hebrew and] Greek as well as Latin we should take care to garrison our souls with innocence and faith, for in these tongues there are many things which we learn only to our hurt: wantonness, ambition, violence, cunning, vain philosophy and the like. But the soul . . . can steer safely past all these if it is only forewarned, that is, if at the first sound of the voices it pays heed to the warning: Hear this in order to shun and not to receive. . . .
If a man would penetrate to the heavenly wisdom, with which no earthly wisdom ought rightly to be considered, let alone compared, it is with such arms [namely, the languages] that he must be equipped. And even then he must still approach with a humble and thirsting spirit.38
3.2. The Biblical Languages as a Means to Dying to Self and Living for God
For biblical interpreters today, all of whom are non-native speakers of ancient Hebrew and Greek, the benefits of the languages for holy living are not limited to the ways they help us encounter God through his Word. Indeed, the arduous task itself of learning, keeping, and using the languages provides many opportunities for growth in character, discipline, boldness, and joy. Machen rightly observes that the languages are "the most laborious part" of biblical studies.39 But he would have also agreed with Robertson, who says, "There is no sphere of knowledge where one is repaid more quickly for all the toil expended."40
Our God, who is passionate for his own glory and our joy, calls people whose primary language is not Hebrew or Greek to handle his Word with care. The countless hours of memorizing, parsing, diagramming, and tracing the logical flow of thought are designed not only to help us grasp the biblical message but also to conform ourselves to it. "Grammar is a means of grace" in more than one way,41 and at times God makes it difficult for us to interpret his Word correctly in order to fight our laziness and to develop character. When tempted to give up on the languages due to their taxing nature, may students of God's Book remember that the Lord is graciously calling them to greater God-dependence and less self-reliance, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Pet 5:5).42
3.3. Synthesis of the Call to Be Doers of the Word
When it comes to the order of Ezra's resolve (study the Word → practice the Word → teach the Word), the area of personal application is too quickly neglected. Abounding hypocrisy hinders Kingdom-expansion, but biblically grounded study accompanied by a virtuous life substantiates the gospel.43 Because our knowing God and living for God develops only in the context of the Word and because Bible study is best done through the original languages, Hebrew and Greek serve as instruments of God to develop holiness, which enhances the mission of the Church.
4. Using the Biblical Languages Enables a Fresh and Bold Expression and Defense of the Truth in Preaching and Teaching
In 1909, ministering amid the rising waves of Protestant liberalism, Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921), Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary and J. Gresham Machen's senior faculty member and mentor, claimed, "A low view of the functions of the ministry will naturally carry with it a low conception of the training necessary for it."44 If ministers are to be merely overseers of religious programs, agents designed to advance modern culture, or inspirational speakers, then certainly Hebrew and Greek are unnecessary. But if ministers are called to be specialists in the Word and winsome advocates for the truth, everything changes. As Warfield says,
If the minister is the mouth-piece of the Most High, charged with a message to deliver, to expound and enforce; standing in the name of God before men, to make known to them who and what this God is, and what his purposes of grace are, and what his will for his people [is]--then, the whole aspect of things is changed. Then, it is the prime duty of the minister to know his message; to know the instructions which have been committed to him for the people, and to know them thoroughly; to be prepared to declare them with confidence and with exactness, to commend them with wisdom, and to urge them with force and defend them with skill, and to build men up by means of them into a true knowledge of God and of his will, which will be unassailable in the face of the fiercest assault. No second-hand knowledge of the revelation of God for the salvation of a ruined world can suffice the needs of a ministry whose function it is to convey this revelation to men, commend it to their acceptance and apply it in detail to their needs. . . . For such a ministry . . . nothing will suffice for it but to know; to know the Book; to know it first hand; and to know it through and through. And what is required first of all for training men for such a ministry is that the Book should be given them in its very words as it has come from God's hand and in the fulness of meaning, as that meaning has been ascertained by the labors of generations of men of God who have brought to bear upon it all the resources of sanctified scholarship and consecrated thought.45
Nine years later, in 1918, Machen himself stressed that a preacher is true to his calling only if he succeeds "in reproducing and applying the message of the Word of God."46 That is, the Bible "is not merely one of the sources of the preacher's inspiration, but the very sum and substance of what he has to say. But if so, then whatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret it and defend it."47 And how can this best be done, if not through original language exegesis?
Having considered the uniqueness and importance of God's Book, the priority of studying God's Book, and the necessity of applying God's Book, this section addresses the responsibility of teaching God's Book. My intent is to show some ways that knowing the biblical languages (1) provides a sustained freshness, a warranted boldness, and an articulated, sure, and helpful witness to the truth and (2) equips one to defend the gospel and hold others accountable in ways otherwise impossible.
4.1. A Door for Personal Discovery and Passionate Proclamation
Saturated study of Scripture through the languages provides sustained opportunity for new discovery, freshness, and insight, all of which enhance one's teaching. The goal in instruction is not to be original in one's message but to be individual in one's grasp of truth and in the presentation of the message. In A. T. Robertson's words, through wrestling with the Hebrew and Greek Bible, "the originality that one will thus have is the joy of reality, the sense of direct contact, of personal insight, of surprise and wonder as one stumbles unexpectedly upon the richest pearls of truth kept for him through all ages."48 Centuries earlier, Martin Luther similarly wrote, "Where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations."49
4.2. The Minister as an Able Guide
It is a devastating reality that local churches today often treat ministers more as general managers of congregational affairs than as specialists called to know and teach God's Book. Thus critical questions about the Bible are left to theological professors and the like, while congregational leaders stand ill-equipped to confront the biggest problems facing the world with the only answer that can satisfy. However, as Machen rightly observes,
Especially while doubt remains in the world as to the great central question [of the truthfulness and beauty of the gospel], who more properly than the ministers should engage in the work of resolving such doubt--by intellectual instruction even more than by argument? The work cannot be turned over to a few professors whose work is of interest only to themselves, but must be undertaken energetically by spiritually minded men through the church. But obviously, this work can be undertaken to best advantage only by those who have an important prerequisite for the study in a knowledge of the original languages upon which a large part of the discussion is based.50
In a world filled with competing truth claims, ministers are called to guide their flocks in biblical truth. Certainly the biblical languages can assist toward this end.
4.3. An Aid for Declaring and Defending Biblical Truth
The call of every Bible expositor is to communicate "as one who speaks oracles of God" (1 Pet 4:11). Teachers of God's Book "will be judged with greater strictness" (Jas 3:1; cf. 2 Pet 2:1, 3), and condemnation will fall on all who add to or take away from God's words (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Josh 1:7; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18-19).
Because life and death are at stake when the Word is proclaimed, Paul tells Titus that the elder in God's Church "must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it" (Titus 1:9). Such an effort is best done with the biblical languages. As Luther observes,
When it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, [one unskilled in Hebrew and Greek] is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages. Nowthere must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations.A saintly life and right doctrine are not enough. Hence, languages are absolutely and altogether necessary in the Christian church.51
One contemporary example of the benefits of knowing the languages in order to preserve the gospel is seen in the way Christian apologists skilled in the languages are better equipped to defend the doctrine of Christ's deity when confronting Jehovah's Witnesses. A careful walk through the Greek NT discloses the numerous heretical errors of the New World Translation.
Writing in response to the Council of Trent (April 8, 1546), where the Roman Catholics asserted that the Latin Vulgate translation alone was the only authentic text of Scripture, John Calvin avows, "By one article they have obtained the means of proving what they please out of Scripture, and escaping from every passage that might be urged against them."52 By turning from the biblical languages, we "shut our eyes to the light that we spontaneously may go astray."53
In this regard, Luther stresses,
All teachings must be judged. For this a knowledge of the language is needful above all else. The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done any other way.54
Luther expresses constant frustration at "simple preachers," unskilled in the biblical languages, who continually mishandle God's Word:
When men attempt to defend the faith with such uncertain arguments and mistaken proof texts, are not Christians put to shame and made a laughingstock in the eyes of adversaries who know the language? The adversaries only become more stiff-necked in their error and have an excellent pretext for regarding our faith as a mere human delusion. When our faith is thus held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in the ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages. . . . [Those without Hebrew and Greek] often employ uncertain, indefensible, and inappropriate expressions. They grope their way like a blind man along the wall, frequently missing the sense of the text and twisting it to suit their fancy.55
4.4. Synthesis of the Call to Preach the Word
Machen asserts that what was needed in his day were not "theological pacifists who avoid controversy, but . . . earnest contenders for the faith."56 The same is true at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The biblical languages sharpen preaching to make it as pointed, accurate, and penetrating as possible. Preaching without original language exegesis is like wielding a blunt sword. May our God build an army of men and women in the next generation who can boldly articulate and defend the truth of the gospel because of their humble grounding in Hebrew and Greek.57
Writing to his contemporaries who were questioning the need for Christian education, Martin Luther avows,
Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor--yes, almost without any labor at all--can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!58
If Luther could say these words in 1524, how much more true are they today!
Hebrew and Greek are gifts of God that we can use for gain or ill. Many ministers without the languages treasure Christ and ably pass on this treasure (2 Cor 4:7), and others who know Hebrew and Greek are massively blinded from the glory of Christ (4:3-4). Nevertheless, the biblical languages aid in the "open statement of the truth" (4:2) by which gospel light goes forth (4:5-6), and knowing the languages provides an unmatched connection for individuals with the unchanging Word, which remains unscathed in this ever-changing world.
For the Christian minister who is charged to proclaim God's truth with accuracy and to preserve the gospel's purity with integrity, the biblical languages help in one's study, practice, and teaching of the Word. Properly using the languages opens doors of biblical discovery that would otherwise remain locked and provides interpreters with accountability that they would not otherwise have. The minister who knows Hebrew and Greek will not only feed himself but will also be able to gain a level of biblical discernment that will allow him to respond in an informed way to new translations, new theological perspectives, and other changing trends in Church and culture. With the languages, the interpreter's observations can be more accurate and thorough, understanding more clear, evaluation more fair, feelings more aligned with truth, application more wise and helpful, and expression more compelling.59
In light of the above, I offer the following action steps to readers of all vocational callings:
- Seminary professors and administrators. Fight to make exegeting the Word in the original languages the core of every curriculum that is designed to train vocational ministers of God's Book.
- Church shepherds and shepherds-in-training. Seek to become God-dependent, rigorous thinkers who study, practice, and teach the Word--in that order!
- Other congregational leaders. Give your ministers who are called to preach and teach time to study, and help your congregations see this as a priority.
- Young adult leaders and college professors. Encourage those sensing a call to vocational ministry of the Word to become thoroughly equipped for the task.
- Everyone. Pray to our glorious God for the preservation of the gospel, for our leaders, and for the churches and schools training them.
May God through his Word satisfy and sustain his Church for generations to come, and may he continue to raise up individuals in every generation who rightly and unashamedly handle the Word of truth for the purity of the gospel and the glory of Jesus Chris (2 Tim 2:15).