Biblical Languages=Church Growth

I was a part of a conversation recently where a fellow preacher was disparaging the use or need for the Biblical languages in expository preparation. I will be the first to admit that it is a challenge and a difficult discipline to maintain but I will also argue that a high view of Scripture should push us to want to excel in this needed area. I am thankful for the awakening of expository preaching that has taken place over the last twenty or so years. However, I have also watched a parallel movement where theological systems have enjoyed a popular audience without the evident exegetical work in the languages undergirding the very “certain” conclusions of its authors. I think there are many reasons for this. Pop theology (even the good kind) has to be packaged and sold to make money for publishers, also seminaries give out degrees in “exposition” with no language requirement, and some pastors are just lazy and would rather play than be diligent in the study. However, these are not the main reasons why I think the languages have been decried in favor of a more glossy approach to theology and ministry.

My thoughts here may shock some but I offer them only after reflecting on my own preaching ministry. Stating it positively: I think preachers would pursue the languages with more diligence if 1) they had a higher view of the Scriptures and 2) they loved the people as under-shepherds with more than warmed-over traditions. The first point should be obvious but the second may need some explanation. It is one thing to put a delicious meal on the table for my family but it is quite another if I’m stealing the meal from my neighbor. The same could be said for pastors who forget that the Scriptures call us not to be editors of other men’s work but students of the Word (1 Tim. 4:15-16; also 2 Tim. 2:15). A shepherd’s love for God’s people, which is a biblical requirement for pastors (1 Pet. 5), should cause us to deliver a meal for our flocks that has been prepared with the utmost diligence.

A word of encouragement is on order to preachers reading this. Not everyone has the same mental capacity or ability to grasp Hebrew and Greek syntax on the highest level. I write as one who has greatly struggled with the languages at times in my ministry. I live in the real world of the average ministry where I am not flanked by personal assistants and vast resources. I also understand the demands and pressures of ministry and family. However, I have learned not to let those things become excuses for a lack of commitment but reasons why I should redouble my efforts. I have also seen that true church growth can never be measured by numbers, polls and surveys but by lasting change that exudes from the lives of believers who have been deeply shaped by the message of God’s text. I found the following thoughts helpful in this regard:

The purpose of reading the Bible for ourselves is not, however, to out-commentary the commentaries (though you will be surprised what you can discover on your own). Nor is it to out-translate the translators (though you will be surprised to see what decisions they have sometimes made, and I saying this having just worked on two such translations). Rather, our own work in the text provides a window through which we can see for ourselves just what decisions have been made by others and why. Instead of being a second-hander, who can only take someone else’s word for it, a knowledge of the text allows us to evaluate, rather than simply regurgitate. This will not mean that we will be able to out-expert the experts. We all have different gifts and callings. It does not mean, however, that we will be able to explain to ourselves and to others why people disagree, what the real issues are, and what are the strengths of our own considered conclusions. It will allow us to have reasons for what we believe and preach, without having to resort to the papacy of scholarship or the papacy of personal experience. It will even provide for us the humility that comes from knowing when we really do not know something, which in itself is a great boon to the ministry. After all, progressive sanctification applies to intellectual understanding just as much as it does to moral development” (Scott Hafemann, “The SBTJ Forum: Profiles in Expository Preaching” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 1999).

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Paul,

    While you are on this subject, what relationship should the common man in the pew have to the original languages? Should that be left to the “professionals” or should we also seek to learn the languages given the limits of our gifts and resources? What about other interpretive issues such as textual criticsm, culture and literary context, etc? Got a good reading list for a educated (though not necessarily in language or culture) man who wants to learn more?

    Bob

  2. Bob,

    Great question and one that I have heard a few times.

    One could get the impression from my post that preachers are to possess “secret” knowledge that is off-limits to the rest of the congregation but this is not the case at all. In fact, pastors should be pro-education to the fullest extent since when humbly applied it only adds to the depth and diversity of the church. I think “Joe Congregant” should get all he can while he can.

    However I wouldn’t want anyone to think that a knowledge of the Greek or Hebrew is necessary to understanding the message of Scripture or any doctrine. One can get all that from reading any standard translation in their language. But one who teaches is responsible for teaching the nuances and crevices which is only given full color when understood in its original language. Pastors should not be minimalist when it comes to what they teach but more on this another time.

    As for resources there is no end but here are a few suggestions:

    1. “Greek for the Rest of Us” by William D. Mounce. This book provides a basic intro that will help almost anyone gain a better insight into NT language and basic syntax structure.
    2.”Encountering God in the Psalms” by Michael Travers is a good basic intro to understanding the tapestry of the Psalter (very practical)
    3. “Archaeological Study Bible” ed. by Walter Kaiser is a generally conservative study Bible with excellent notes and articles on backgrounds and cultural distinctives in the text of Scripture.
    4.”Basic Bible Interpretation” by Roy Zuck is a good intro level work on interpreting Scripture which also introduces the reader to some of the basic text critical issues.

    I’m sure some of our readers might offer some other suggestions.

  3. Another great book for someone who may not have a vast knowledge of Greek is “It’s Still Greek To Me” by David Alan Black. I found it very helpful when teaching beginning greek at our church.

  4. Paul

    Comment on Biblical Languages November 1 2006

    As a life long fundamentalist, having a background of fundamentalism, which includes
    fundamental preparation for preparing sermons. You are thus left with preparing sermons in the
    fundamentalist style. Which is: Open the old KJV and read the chapter before you, and ask the
    Holy Spirit to deliver you the message God would have you preach the coming Sunday. You do
    this on Saturday Night. And on Sunday Morning you enter the pulpit without any notes and
    deliver a powerful Holy Spirit sent sermon to the flock that the Lord has brought to you that
    morning. That is what is called, first hand delivery, and a sermon that was not a meal from
    another neighbor’s table. Right!!!!!!!!!!

    Charles

  5. Charles,

    I’m feeling a bit under the weather so my brain is not up to par but I think I’m to take what you said as tongue-in-cheek…right?

    Sadly, I have heard a few pastors describe such an experience but thankfully such ideas seem to be in the minority and have not factored-in to the resurgence of biblical/expository preaching over the last twenty-five years.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  6. Paul, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and Kenneth Wuests’ word studies and Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies are great tools for laymen. I love the Greek and the Hebrew texts and was blessed to be able to study Greek in college and in seminary. When we explain a Greek or Hebrew word to our congregation in order to show them the richness of God’s word a little clearer, they can see that richness and hopefully hunger to know more about the word themselves using tools designed for those who have never studied the languages. Digging into the languages to better grasp a passage of Scripture is a labor of love and invaluable to the man of God whether he is familiar with the languages or not. I cannot imagine preparing a sermon without using them.

  7. Paul

    No its a true story. As a result of my seminary training I didn’t get the Hebrew and Greek training.I was trained to just read the KJV and pray, and preach without notes on Sunday.
    Believe me, in the WBF/BBF/Hyles circles they still preach this way. I have thankful moved on.

    Expository teaching requires a knowledge of the Biblical languages, I am thankful for the resources available today to be able to study the Word to learn the meaning of the text.

    I totally agree that we should deliver a meal for our flock that has been prepared with the utmost diligence.

    Charles

  8. Paul,

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. It is exciting to see and hear God’s word proclaimed once again in power and truth. And because there is nearly 2000 years of distance between us and the text, it is monumentally necessary for us as pastors to know and use the original languages. Even the smallest understanding of such things as transitioning from one thought to another in the text can better help determine a text’s meaning.

    I have found for myself that the extra time with the languages give me the ability to speak with greater authority and power. I know when I preach that I am preaching God’s Word and not my own. This is why we can preach with conviction. Not because we preach ourselves, but because, we preach as messagers sent by the master (John 7:18, a great verse for pastors).

    Blessings,

    Taylor

  9. Another great resource for learning Greek is biblicaltraining.org. There are some great resources at this site where you can listen to lectures on a myriad of different subjects, the Greek language being on of those.

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