In this article Logan Hagoort, Teaching Elder, from Covenant Presbyterian Church looks at the importance of the original languages.
One of the frequently debated questions is whether it is necessary for our ministers to learn Greek and Hebrew. There are a plethora of different positions, but they can all basically be summarised as some variation of the following three:
Original languages are not important, leave it to the experts
Original languages are important, but tools mean we don’t need to master them
Original languages are vital and we must strive for mastery
My own position and what I want to briefly promote is number three. I firmly believe that it is essential that all of our ministers do everything within their power to continually grow in mastery of the original languages of the Scriptures.. We may never obtain mastery and we may all be different levels, but we must be growing! The goal of this article is simply to provide four reasons why the study of the original languages is important supported by some inspiring quotes. In a future article I will provide some practical ways that as busy ministers we can continue to grow in our understanding of the languages.
Firstly, God chose to have his Scriptures written in Hebrew and Greek, therefore inspiration, infallibility, and final authority is in the original languages alone. “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; (Matt. 5:18) so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.” (WCF – 1.5.8)
“A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages.” Martin Luther
Secondly, original languages pushes us into the grammar of the Scriptures where exegesis begins, they give access to amazing secondary tools (dictionaries, lexicons, commentaries etc.), they force you to dig deeper - past the face value of the text, they help overcome hermeneutical arrogance, and they dictate how to interpret a passage placing limitations often missed in translation.
“Trying to study the Bible without the languages is like trying to play Beethoven on a mouth horn, its not going to be hugely successful, you might be able to get some of the tune but it won't actually be what the guy had in mind.” N. T. Wright
Thirdly, there is a beauty and colour that can be missed in translations.
“Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But 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.” Martin Luther
Fourthly, the gospel is contained within them which means if we lose the languages we lose the gospel. “We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit 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; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments.” (Martin Luther)
“No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined...in our days there are some who...do not think the languages of any use but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure.” Martin Luther
Before finishing it seems it would be wise to offer a few words to those who may never have had the opportunity to study the languages. The Scriptures in the vernacular are sufficient to make us wise unto salvation and provide us with what we need for holiness. As the Westminster divines so wisely wrote, “Because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.” I am not suggesting that the wonderful translations we are given are not sufficient for the needs of the day, but rather as one Rabbi said,
“Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil.” (Rabbi Haim Nacham Bialik)
Will we, as Minister’s of the gospel be satisfied with a veil or will we seek to kiss our bride in all her beauty?