Westminster Seminary California
 

The Peril of Pastors without the Biblical Languages

Dennis E. Johnson, Resident Faculty  |   September 1, 1986   |  Type: Articles
 
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The bottom line of Richard Watson's Journal article, "Secularists Did Not Steal the Colleges" (June 18), seems to be that to avoid imitating the 19thcentury spiritual demise of American colleges, seminaries today should seriously consider reducing requirements in Hebrew (but not Greek?) and expanding those in practical subjects such as human relations, personnel management, communication, and evangelism. Granted, Dr. Watson gives us a choice about Hebrew: make it useful or eliminate it entirely. (And I heartily concur.) But in the paragraphs following this statement of options, the language of "dropping" and "eliminating" courses is repeated; plainly this is an alternative which the author wants us to take seriously.

I would suggest that Hebrew and Greek are practical subjects for pastors; and that, of all times in the life of the church, this is one time when the church needs pastors who can study God's Word in the languages in which he gave it. I also believe that, with some creativity, we need not find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of making tradeoffs between exegesis in the original languages and the other practical disciplines.

Why Hebrew is Practical

Here are some of the reasons that I believe – on the basis of my years in the pastorate (in which, I confess, I used both Hebrew and Greek), my knowledge of other pastors, and my observations of the church – that Hebrew and Greek are both practical and necessary for the pastor:

1.      The abundance of English translations of the Bible available to our churches may appear to make knowledge of the original languages less necessary. Actually, they make it more essential. I have participated in home Bible studies in which we had around the circle the Living Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Versions, and others. At many points, naturally we had different wording; and at certain points our versions came up with significant variations in meaning! What do we do? Vote? Happily, we had somebody there who could look at the original, suggest why the versions diverged, and tell the rest why one translation was more accurate than the other. God's people need the confidence that their own shepherds can guide them through the labyrinth of modem translations.

2.      Perhaps even more important is the need for pastors to be able to respond to the bogus appeals to "the original" by false teachers. I am thinking here not only of the pitch of the Jehovah's Witness on your doorstep, but also of the illegitimate use of "wordstudies," etymologies, and other linguistic delicacies by some "media" preachers or by university religion professors under whom our young people may study. It's OK for a pastor to send his puzzled parishioner to the books of evangelical and Reformed scholars, but how much better when the pastor himself can show the Watchtower arguments run shipwreck on Greek grammar!

3.      Related to the last point is the reality that the issue of hermeneutics – questions of how to interpret the Bible – stand right at the center of the struggles in the church today over the authority of Scripture. Hermeneutical differences are not just scholarly squabbles; they bear on such practical issues as the ordination of women to church office. These issues of interpretation go far beyond parsing verbs and analyzing syntax, of course; but pastors will need a solid command of the basics if they are to pilot their congregations, as well as presbyteries and assemblies, through the confusion.

4.      An appealing suggestion is that pastors leave thorough study of the Scriptures to scholars who write and teach in colleges and theological seminaries. My own conviction is that such a "division of labor" will, in the long run, be unhealthy for the church. Far be it from me to suggest that we distrust seminaries which are committed to Scripture's authority and to Reformed theology! But if there were to be a generation or more of pastors who have not been equipped to study the Scriptures as God breathed them, various trends might develop. The churches could find themselves unable to respond in an informed way to theological trends in the seminaries that educate future pastors. The seminaries could succumb to the temptation to separate exegesis from application, rather than learning to integrate the two through a dynamic interaction with pastors who study in order to preach and counsel. The churches of the Reformation, convinced that "all the people of God ... have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures" (Westminster Confession, 1, viii), will do well to keep the best resources for Biblical study in close proximity to the people of God.

5.      A thorough grounding in the languages of Scriptures lays the foundation for continuing freshness in the pastor's lifelong ministry of preaching and teaching. One of our recent graduates, a PCA pastor, has told me that the congregation – even the children – can tell the difference between his “Tyndale Commentary" sermons (a.k.a. "Saturday night specials") and those on which he has done his homework. The difference shows not in his slipping tidbits of Greek or Hebrew trivia into the message; it's a matter of conviction! Having wrestled with the text for himself, he knows what God says in that text, not because Commentators X, Y, and Z have told him so, but because he's seen it there in the Word. He can benefit from the work of the scholars without becoming dependent on them. And there's a freshness about his preaching that derives from his direct contact with the Word.

6.      Hebrew and Greek, applied in the study and preaching of the Word, may well be more practical 20 years down the road than today's seminary course in personnel management. I am firmly convinced that seminaries need to train students in the skills of ministry: I am glad that the M.Div. curriculum in which I teach is more heavily weighted in that direction than the curriculum which I studied 16 years ago. But I am also very much aware that trends in church and culture – issues, methods and techniques, problems – over the lifetime of my students may well make some of the "nutsandbolts" aspects of our practical courses at least semi-obsolete. What will my students do then? Cling doggedly to the techniques we taught them? I hope not! But when they interact with new situations and adopt new methods, my hope is that they will do so with a Biblical discernment – and that's where their continuing interaction with the Word in the original languages should play a very practical part.

So What's the Problem?

If Hebrew is so wonderfully practical, how can it be that Dr. Watson's small survey turned up not a single pastor who is still using Hebrew in the study of Scripture? Although I can cite exceptions to that rule, it is no doubt true that fewer seminary grads use the languages than we Old Testament and New Testament teachers would hope. Why is this? I suspect that there are several reasons:

1. Have we made our case with our students? Perhaps they haven't “caught" from us – at least not often enough – the thrill of exploring the Word as God gave it, the joy of discovering the connection between an Old Testament and a New Testament passage, a connection which may be disguised by a dynamicequivalence translation but stands out clearly in the original languages; or of seeing one line of Hebrew poetry amplify the meaning of another in the Psalms; or of experiencing the crescendo of Paul's thought in an extended Greek sentence that holds beautifully together to display the wonder of God's grace – even though no English translation can do it justice.

2. Perhaps we haven't given Dr. Watson's other alternative its best shot: Let's teach the languages differently, usefully. Students need to see in the example of their seminary teachers – and their pastors – that movement from the original text of Scripture to the proclamation of that text to the church and the world. They need to be encouraged to consciously direct their study of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures toward the goal of application and ministry.

By integrating Biblical studies with the practical theology curriculum – encouraging students to preach in homiletics courses the texts they are exegeting in an Old Testament course, for example – one school that I know has found it possible to develop both of the practical skills at once (and to have M.Div. students preach nine sermons, with evaluation, in addition to those connected field education and internship requirements). It's challenging for students and teachers, but redoubling our efforts at creative integration will serve the church well.

3. Have we given help to our graduates? Could we do more to help them make the transition in to ministry so that disciplines of study in general are not sacrificed to the tyranny of the urgent? Have we equipped them with the very practical skill of time management so that they will not become frenzied slaves of other's agendas, but will rather be able to give themselves to the priorities to which God calls them – “prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4)?

Could we do more to help them continue to taste the joy of discovery in their own study of Scriptures? Could we help them maintain and even increase their facility in the use of the languages in ministry?

4. Have we caught the vision - and are we communicating the vision - of that integration of theology and life, of thoughtful reflection and committed action, which is essential to Biblical leadership? Limited in time and energy, easily thrown off-balance by our surroundings - either by accommodation or by reaction - we (teachers, students, and pastors, all Christians) may feel these two to be in constant tension.

But a beautiful blending of theology and life is not only a mark of effective leadership but also a goal of that world-and-life view which has come to us from the Reformation. In that perspective, now is not the time to drop a down-to-earth, practical subject like Hebrew.

First published in Presbyterian Journal, September 1986

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