Why pastors should learn Biblical Languages

Discussion in 'Baptist Colleges / Seminaries' started by TomVols, May 30, 2010.

  1. TomVols

    TomVols
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    Brothers, Bitzer Was a Banker!
    by John Piper, The Standard, June 1983, 18-19. Used by permission.
A slightly revised version of this article now also appears in Piper’s book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Broadman & Holman, 2002).
    “As dear as the gospel is to us all, let us as hard contend with its language”
    Last year Baker Book House reissued a 1969 book of daily Scripture readings in Hebrew and Greek called Light on the Path. The readings are quite short, and vocabulary helps are given with the Hebrew verses. The aim of the editor, who died in 1980, was to help pastors preserve and improve their ability to interpret the Bible from the original languages.
    His name was Heinrich Bitzer, and he was a banker.
    A banker! Brothers, must we be admonished by the sheep what our responsibility is as shepherds? Evidently so. For we are surely not admonishing and encouraging each other to press on in Greek and Hebrew. And most seminaries-evangelical as well as liberal-have communicated by their curriculum emphases that learning Greek and Hebrew well is merely optional for the pastoral ministry.
    I have a debt to pay to Heinrich Bitzer, and I would like to discharge it by exhorting all of us to ponder his thesis: “The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry! (p.10).
    A Plague of Uncertainty
    What happens to a denomination where a useful knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is not cherished and promoted as crucial for the pastoral office? (I don’t mean offered and admired. I mean cherished, promoted and sought.)
    Several things happen as the original languages fall into disuse among pastors. First, the confidence of pastors to determine the precise meaning of biblical texts diminishes. And with the confidence to interpret rigorously goes the confidence to preach powerfully. You can’t preach week in and week out over the whole range of God’s revelation with depth and power if you are plagued with uncertainty when you venture beyond basic gospel generalities.
    Second, the uncertainty of having to depend on differing human translations (which always involve much interpretation) will tend to discourage careful textual analysis in sermon preparation. For as soon as you start attending to crucial details (like tenses, conjunctions and vocabulary repetitions), you realize the translations are too diverse to provide a sure basis for such analysis.
    So the preacher often contents himself with the general focus or flavor of the text, and his exposition lacks the precision and clarity which excite a congregation with the Word of God.
    Expository preaching, therefore, falls into disuse and disfavor. I say disfavor because we often tend to protect ourselves from difficult tasks by belittling or ignoring their importance. So what we find in groups where Greek and Hebrew are not cherished and pursued and promoted is that expository preaching (which devotes a good bit of the sermon to explaining the original meaning of the texts) is not much esteemed by the clergy or taught in the seminaries.
    Sometimes this is evident in outright denunciation of schoolish exposition. More often there is simply a benign neglect; and the emphasis on valuable sermonic features (like order, diction, illustration and relevance) crowds out the need for careful textual exposition.
    Another result when pastors do not study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew is that they (and their churches with them) tend to become second-handers. The harder it is for us to get at the original meaning of the Bible, the more we will revert to the secondary literature. For one thing, it is easier to read. It also gives us a superficial glow that we are “keeping up” on things. And it provides us with ideas and insights which we can’t dig out of the original for ourselves.
    We may impress one another for a while by dropping the name of the latest book, but second-hand food will not sustain and deepen our people’s faith and holiness.
    The Mother of Liberalism
    Weakness in Greek and Hebrew also gives rise to exegetical imprecision and carelessness. And exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology.
    Where pastors by and large can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of biblical texts, they will tend to become close-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended relativists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error.
    Further, when we fail to stress the use of Greek and Hebrew as crucial in the pastoral office we create an eldership of professional academicians. We surrender to the seminaries and universities essential dimensions of our responsibility as elders and overseers of the churches.
    Acts 20:27 charges us with the proclamation of “the whole counsel of God.” But we look more and more to the professional academicians for books which fit the jagged pieces of revelation into a unified whole. Acts 20:28 charges us to take heed for the flock and guard it from wolves who rise up in the church and speak perverse things. But we look more and more to the linguistic and historical specialists to fight our battles for us in books and articles. We have, by and large, lost the biblical vision of a pastor as one who is mighty in the Scriptures, apt to teach, competent to confute opponents and able to penetrate to the unity of the whole counsel of God.
    Is it healthy or biblical for the church to cultivate an eldership of pastors (weak in the Word) and an eldership of professors (strong in the Word)?
    The Pastor Debased
    One of the greatest tragedies in the church today is the debasement of the pastoral office. From the seminaries to the denominational headquarters, the prevalent mood and theme is managerial, organizational and psychological. And we think thereby to heighten our professional self-esteem! Hundreds of teachers and leaders put the mastery of the Word first with their lips, but by their curriculums, conferences, seminars and personal example show that it is anything but foremost.
    One glaring example is the nature of the Doctor of Ministry programs across the country.
    The theory is good: continuing education makes for better ministers. But where can you do a D.Min. in Hebrew language and exegesis? Yet what is more important and more deeply practical for the pastoral office than advancing in Greek and Hebrew exegesis by which we mine God’s treasures?
    Why then do hundreds of young and middle-aged pastors devote years of effort to everything but the languages when pursuing continuing education? And why do seminaries not offer incentives and degrees to help pastors maintain the most important pastoral skill-exegesis of the original meanings of Scripture?
    No matter what we say about the inerrancy of the Bible, our actions reveal our true convictions about its centrality and power.
    We need to recover our vision of the pastoral office which embraces, if nothing else, the passion and power to understand the original revelation of God. We need to pray for the day when pastors can carry their Greek Testaments to conferences and seminars without being greeted with one-liners. The day when the esteem for God’s Word and its careful exposition is so high among pastors that the few who neglect to bring their Testaments will go home to study. The day when prayer and grammar will meet each other with great spiritual combustion.
    Never Too Late
    In 1829 the 24-year-old George Muller wrote, “I now studied much, about 12 hours a day, chiefly Hebrew … [and] committed portions of the Hebrew Old Testament to memory; and this I did with prayer, often falling on my knees…. I looked up to the Lord even whilst turning over the leaves of my Hebrew dictionary” (Autobiography, p. 31).
    In the Methodist Archives of Manchester you can see the two-volume Greek Testament of the evangelist George Whitefield liberally furnished with notes on the interleaved paper. He wrote of his time at Oxford, “Though weak, I often spent two hours in my evening retirements and prayed over my Greek Testament, and Bishop Hall’s most excellent Contemplations, every hour that my health would permit” (Dallimore, Whitefield, I, p. 77).
    Brothers, perhaps the vision can grow with your help. It is never too late to learn the languages. There are men who began after retirement! It is not a question of time but of values.
    Continuing education is being pursued everywhere. Let’s give heed to the word of Martin Luther: “As dear as the gospel is to us all, let us as hard contend with its language.” Bitzer did. And Bitzer was a banker!
    _____________

    Enjoy!
     
  2. TomVols

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    Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, (as every Minister does,) not only to explain books which are written therein, but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of every one who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretence? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms; or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?
    -John Wesley, An Address to the Clergy

    Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit;
    they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought;
    they are the vessel that holds the wine;
    and as the gospel says, they are the baskets
    in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude. . . .
    As dear as the gospel is to us all,
    let us as hard contend with its language.
    -Martin Luther



    http://new.theophilux.com/2009/01/19/does-your-pastor-read-greek-and-hebrew-i-sure-hope-so/

    Does Your Pastor Read Greek and Hebrew? I sure hope so.

    by Benji Overcash
    January 19th, 2009

    I have become increasingly frustrated as of late with the unabashed ignorance of many clergy men and women when it comes to the knowledge which is absolutely necessary to interpret and teach Scripture properly. Within this category fall such things as the cultural, social, and literary backgrounds of the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds; however, the most important skill for proper interpretation is without a doubt the ability to read the Scriptures in their original languages, namely Greek and Hebrew. Indeed, it is the inability to read the Scriptures in their original languages that lead to [numerous] exegetical blunders.

    David Alan Black, a well known author and professor of New Testament Greek, has rightly said:
    Consider … the alternative-pastors who do not know Greek are forced to borrow their ideas from others. They are slaves to the commentators, but have no means to check their accuracy. The best tools of interpretation are beyond their reach. Not even the English translations they use are completely trustworthy. Worst of all, without thorough training in Greek they may discover that they are passing on in the name of God their own ignorance, based upon erroneous interpretations.

    -David Alan Black, Using New Testament Greek in Ministry: A Practical Guide for Students and Pastors(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993)

    Unfortunately, this appears to be a problem especially in evangelical Protestant churches. I had classmates both in college and in seminary who, because of a variety of factors including laziness, disinterest, and lack of diligence, barely made it through their required original language courses with a passing grade. I had other classmates who dropped their original language courses or transferred to a different degree program or school which didn’t require them simply because learning to read the Scriptures in their original languages was “too hard.” Most of these former classmates of mine are now pastors.

    It is true; learning Greek and Hebrew is hard. I will readily admit that I still struggle with properly understanding the Scriptures in their original languages (and I will doubtless continue to struggle with it until the day I die!), and I read Greek and Hebrew every single day. Indeed, it takes a great deal of time, commitment, and self-control, not to mention a great sense of calling, in order to endure the pain and frustration that often accompany learning Greek and Hebrew. But aren’t these character qualities that ordained clergy should possess anyway? Should those who lack the self-control even to acquire the skills necessary to properly interpret the living Word of God really be ordained clergy? To put it another way, Do pastors who can’t even read the Scriptures in their original languages-and therefore must rely on what others say about them-have any business teaching them to their congregations who regard their teaching as authoritative? Moreover, how can they authoritatively proclaim and exposit Scripture if they haven’t acquired the skills necessary to do so?
     
  3. Deacon

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    More Light on the Path : Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek.
    by D. W. Baker,Heath, & Baker (1998). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
     
  4. Jim1999

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    If one is not particularly skilled at Greek and Hebrew, what makes him more apt to teach and preach quoting a language he doesn't know? There is a plethora of competent books available to-day, written by men and women, who do know the language.

    If we do take the "original" languages in seminary, which was mandatory where I went, what makes our learning of these languages any different to what we can readily and understandably read in English?

    Frankly, I struggled with Greek and Hebrew, but had little difficulty with French and German, the language used by many early theolgians and philosophers. I am competent in English, and have little difficulty putting together my theological thought from competent texts on these subjects with referring to the original languages.

    What made me less competent a pastor and teacher for lack of demonstrating my incompetence in Greek and Hebrew?

    We are leading a people in God's truth, many may not even have a basic education. Perhaps we have become too complicated in our sermons, and too fancy in our degrees of learning, and we have missed the simplicity of the gospel.

    Anyone who knows me appreciates that I believe in advanced learning and education, but I never forgot what preaching's intention is; telling forth God's word and the truth of the gospel.

    I think there is a wrong emphasis in this topic.

    Cheers,

    Jim

    nil sine labore
     
  5. TomVols

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    Jim, you're making the point rather well. You did struggle with Greek and Hebrew. You did learn. That's what's being asked of ministers. And just because one knows the languages doesn't mean their sermons will be too complex for their hearers.

    I still have a hard time with this superimposed dichotomy between the act of preaching and the act of exegesis. Then again, in far too many pulpits this isn't a dichotomy, nor superimposed. Thus, the impotence of their preaching, the lethargy of the churches, and the bewilderment of the people.

    I digress.....I wasn't going to comment on this thread because...well, nuff said.

    Always good to chat with you friend!
     
  6. gb93433

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    I cannot think of anyone who is not able to learn a language except the mentally deficient. So that means anyone who expects to teach others is capable of learning another language.
     
  7. PilgrimPastor

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    If the intent of learning the languages is to dig deeply in the text (I'm not disagreeing with the importance of that by a long shot) then I am curious if this discussion happens in say Nigeria. In that part of the world one is wise to learn English since it is in OUR language, not Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or otherwise that the widest array of biblical tools exist (commentaries, backgrounds, contextual studies, inter-testamental surveys, etc.) two thoughts:

    (1) I guess what I am asking is this: is our ability to even have this discussion evidence of the wealth of educational resources at our easy disposal? I'm echoing a previous post about learning German to have access to a wide amount of theological works of great importance.

    (2) How many languages am I supposed to learn? How many hours of study are alloted to me in a week? How deep into the text must I delve as a local pastor until I reach a place sufficient to help the alcoholic find Christ, the lonely mother find healing, or to work with the appropriate agencies to build a homeless shelter in my community?

    I am a Pastor / Teacher. To what extent must I be a Pastor / Scholar? How wide is the gulf, for example, between a scholar in the pulpit (John Piper for example) and a preacher in the seminary (D.A. Carson for example)
     
  8. Bro K

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    If we are to sit under a Pastor or Teacher and take what they say as 100% accurate and not have the right/opportunity to question their teachings; we are in a world of hurt.....
    Think I'll go and check my PHD: its out in the tool shed (Post Hole Digger). Apparently there are some who think the simply minded and uneducated people are unable to know anything unless there is someone to educate them.

    II Timothy 2: 15 Study to show thyself approved........rightly dividing the word of truth.
     
  9. TomVols

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    Bro K, see Rom 10:14. " And how will they hear without a preacher? "

    I think you need to be a workman unashamed. You need to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. I think you need to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This requires thorough knowledge of the Word (and the requisite knowledge for this) and it's teachings. Every pastor needs to be a "theologian," or "Bible scholar" if by that we mean thoroughly versed in the Word (like Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures) and the doctrines therein.

    I could give a more nuanced answer, but before I do, I'll ask: does this answer your question?

    Insightful question. I still think the Nigerian pastor would be better off knowing Greek/Hebrew than English since this could get him to the Word better and we'll get him the English works in his native tongue. Then again, I see your point. But I see it as both/and rather than an either/or. We deal with this as we support Mexican pastors and pastors in Malawi and do pastor schools for them.
    Yes. God has blessed us. And what do we do with that? We bellyache about it, gripe about knowing Greek and Hebrew, all the while we can quote the roster of our favorite sports team or reality TV show.
    Enough to do just that. The lonely mom Sunday needs you to be diligent in your study this week. The hurting parents who are infertile need it. The 20 year old who buried his dad way too early needs it. The visitor who has been taught that the Bible is full of myths need it. The stay at home mom who daily watches Oprah and Dr. Phil and thinks homosexuality is ok and all religions are good need it. Use the "scholarly" tools as you would ingredients for a meal. Use 'em all when you cook, but when you put the food on the table, make sure it's edible :thumbs:
     
  10. Bro K

    Bro K
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    Rom 10:14 has nothing to do with teaching fellow Christains!!!!!!! Verses 13-14 clearly shows us this is dealing with those who are unsaved. Furthermore; we are ALL commandment to be a witness by proclaiming the gospel of Christ. Since the word preach mean to proclaim or herald forth; we are ALL commanded to be preachers.
     
  11. TomVols

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    Yes. But people like to throw up the good ole farmer man who doesn't need some preacher on Sunday talking doctrine to him. I'm saying if we didn't have someone doing that, we'd never have gotten to faith in Christ to start with, let alone growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.

    The Bereans are a good example. They eagerly sat under teaching and checked the Word to see if it was right. They did both. Like the first Christians in Acts 2. They were instructed by the apostles. So why people want to get rid of it now a days is telling. It's all part of the modern, liberal mindset - we'll go it alone, don't need the church or some preacher boldly proclaiming the Word. We've got Oprah and that's enough :laugh:
     
  12. Bro K

    Bro K
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    Don't quite understand the 'good ole farmer' input.:laugh:"if we didn't have someone"> I,ve never said or implied that we don't need someone teaching us. However, we should have the right to question what is being taught when we don't understand or disagree.
     
  13. TomVols

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    I didn't say we didn't. :confused:
     
  14. preachinjesus

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    One question I've asked around here and never gotten a good answer for: would you rather sit under a pastor who had or didn't have training in the languages?
     
  15. PilgrimPastor

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    All good insights. I agree on all counts. I have actually been increasingly convicted about my need to get more in depth with the languages. Can you believe that!? I spend so much time researching & digging and then I hear this nagging pull within saying "You need to go deeper in the languages..."

    Perhaps the Lord is saying to me that I need it personally for something He has in mind in my future, like in the University perhaps one day. But I don't think so. I think it is a general conviction about the importance of the work we do.

    Occasionally someone to say some flattering words to me like "You have a real gift in the pulpit" or the like. Knowing my own shortcomings I always am left to think that comments such as that speak more to the lack of quality preaching in our time in Free Churches than the high quality of my own preaching. I think, if I am such a blessing in the local church why?

    Should not all preaching be done from the depth of passion for the word of God and should not every preacher strive to grow in competency continually?

    Is it necessary to be a true language scholar to be effective in the pulpit and faithful to one's flock and the Lord? I'm not sure. BUT wherever a called by God preacher and teacher of the Word of God is in his passion, love, and competency with regard to the Scriptures today ought to be deeper than last year and even greater next year.
     
  16. PilgrimPastor

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    What about how to increase your knowledge of Greek & Hebrew? What if your are a pastor with no background? What if you are like me with some exposure but say a level 1 knowledge on a scale of 1-5 of the biblical languages? NOBTS now offers a certificate program through distance learning.

    Where else can one turn for some practical help in learning or increasing knowledge and proficiency in the languages?

    A quick search produced this: http://www.easyhebrew.com/

    Is this a recommended resource? Are there others for Greek as well?
     
  17. Whowillgo

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    I can agree that the man of God must pursue every avenue to improve his understanding of scripture but I would add that in 50 years of attending Baptist Churches, the most knowledgeable man I have ever heard from the pulpit had dropped out of school in the 9th grade. We must not forget preparation and perspiration is our responsibility but inspiration is of God through His Spirit. No matter where you study you will be dependant on a professor or linguist for your understanding of the original languages.
    I do not have a Doctorate but I followed a DR into the church I Pastor now, a broken church with much knowledge of words but very little knowledge of truth.
     
  18. Jerome

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    Indeed.

    Wisdom from John Wesley:

     
  19. gb93433

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    There are those who keep learning but never come to a knowledge of the truth because they are unwilling to submit themselves to the master.

    There is a reason why the older are to teach the younger. There is a reason why the top athletes submit themselves to top coaches and are willing to pay the price to learn.

    The person who has studied under the best and worked hard knows the difference that those who have not do not understand. A seminary can only deal with what they have. If the person comes with an attitude of getting a ticket for a job then he will leave with just a ticket. If a man comes with wanting to learn and be well prepared then God will teach him and help him be well prepared.

    When I was in seminary I was impressed by a man who was an executive in a large company who wanted to be a better Sunday School teacher. He came to learn more from God, not just about God.
     
  20. Greektim

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    All's I know is that there is a big difference in the preacher's message if he has trained and put to practice the exegesis of the original language. Some of the best sermons I have heard come from men who have spent pain-staking hours in their HOT or GNT wrestling with the text. I don't want to hear what God's Word says when the preacher is only relying on a translation. And a good preacher can communicate the meaning of the original language all the while being pracitical and relevant (yet exegetically accurate). THat is my goal when I preach.
     

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