The place of the Biblical languages in Christian education

Discussion in 'Languages' started by Filter, Jan 30, 2019.

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  1. Filter

    Filter Puritan Board Freshman

    I am a staff member at a Bible college, and our classes began for the Spring semester this week. As our Biblical languages instructor is new, I sat in on his first class to evaluate his pedagogical aptitude. He began the class period by discussing the place of Biblical languages in Christian education for about 45 minutes. Students were asked to defend two positions, regardless of what they actually believed: 1) The position that learning Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek is important and necessary in the education of pastors/ministers, and 2) that learning the languages is not necessary for pastors/ministers, as they can be supplemented with less rigorous teachings of learning how to use study tools for the languages (while not being taught the languages classically).

    I'm certainly familiar with this discussion which has been around for awhile, and I thought it would be an interesting question to ask here. Essentially, it seems that some argue that there is a large enough payoff from learning the languages compared to just learning how to use the study tools to justify the rigors of learning Greek and Hebrew, while others don't agree. What are your thoughts?
  2. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    There is a large payoff, but you have to use them every day and go deeper and deeper into syntax and the like. Most people just don't do that.

    But many of the secondary resources don't work unless you have *some* facility with the languages.

    I get not only more knowledge, but more of a "spiritual buzz/high" from doing research in the languages than from a dozen pious commentaries.
  3. iainduguid

    iainduguid Puritan Board Sophomore

    J Gresham Machen at the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary:

    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

    Martyn Lloyd Jones at the founding of London Theological Seminary:
    'To say that a man cannot preach and cannot even read his Bible if he does not know Greek and Hebrew, I am afraid must be categorised as sheer nonsense'

    Obviously, since I teach at Westminster, where we prize teaching and using the Biblical languages as much or more than any other seminary in the world, I'm sympathetic to Machen. I'm very much looking forward to teaching a Hebrew class beginning next week. But I'm also sympathetic to Lloyd-Jones' push back. The Bible in English is the Word of God and many fine preachers have been used by God in spite of their lack of the Biblical languages.

    What a strong grasp of the Biblical languages gives you is an ability to read the Word of God more directly in the form in which God chose to deliver it, and therefore to observe in it small details that are hard to render in any translation. There is no question that my own preaching is better as a result of it and I'm sure that few people who have the opportunity to study at a place like Westminster doubt the benefit they have gained. Yet at the same time there are many factors that make someone an effective preacher: a good knowledge of Systematic Theology, Church History, Apologetics and Biblical Studies more generally are also immensely valuable. Reformed people have always valued an educated ministry, for handling the Word of God is a high calling. Yet at the same time, like Lloyd Jones, I know faithful servants of God whose grasp of the languages may be limited but whose love for God's Word and their people more than transcends the gap.

    (By the way, reading Machen and Lloyd Jones side by side on the design of a new seminary is a salutary demonstration of the fact that great men shape institutions in their own image: the curriculum at Westminster was built around Biblical languages and apologetics, Machen's chief concerns, while Lloyd Jones' plan focused on Biblical Theology and Church History, especially the history of revivals. Machen also staffed his seminary with men who were academic teachers and writers, while Lloyd-Jones chose to have his classes taught by full time pastors. There are arguments on both sides)
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  4. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    What Prof Dugid said.

    At the very least, learn the alphabets. Good commentaries are going to be working in the language (bad commentaries will not) and you need to know the form of the words to make sense of some of the sentences. And you get to learn more, which opens up more doors. Which is fun.

    I don't speak this arrogantly. I goofed around in seminary and didn't take Hebrew seriously (I minored in Greek and German in college, so that's a different story). I've spent the past few years correcting that mistake.
  5. Timotheos

    Timotheos Puritan Board Freshman

    Interesting way to begin the course. But it certainly lays down the rationale.
  6. Johnathan Lee Allen

    Johnathan Lee Allen Puritan Board Freshman

    As a Biblical Languages major, I sure hope they matter!

    I think there is a severe lack of education among the average person in the pew, but that's a discussion for another time. I worry about and wouldn't want folks to have just enough language education to be sophomoric and potentially "dangerous" with the knowledge they have. Not everyone needs to be a language scholar, I don't want to be specifically, but the education should be thorough. If you look at the beginning stages influencing and paralleling the Reformation, language became deeply important. The Renaissance humanists made fruitful efforts of accessing the languages of antiquity. This, of course, funneled into studying Greek and Hebrew as to get at the roots of God's Word. It would be a shame to move away from these efforts and the foundations they've laid.

    That's just my two cents in indulgence coffers...
  7. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    Would you see any difference between say a pastor/teacher needing to know the original Languages, and say someone in a Professor type position, or as a theologian then?
  8. iainduguid

    iainduguid Puritan Board Sophomore

    The Reformed have always valued an educated ministry, which is why Greek and Hebrew, along with an MDiv, are still standard prerequisites for ordination in all of the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. Can you be ordained without them? In theory yes, as we've always had a category of "irregular" to cover the complexities of life. But if pastors are "men of the Word", how can they do that adequately without being able to read the original languages, understand church history and systematic theology, and so on. Of course, that is why in the westward expansion of America, Baptist and Methodist churches came to predominate. On the frontier, Baptists ordained whichever local farmer knew most about the Bible, while Methodists had circuit riders overseeing a bunch of churches, while Presbyterians sent anyone with interest in ministry to Princeton, after which he no longer wanted to return to the sticks. That's a caricature, but there is some truth to it.

    I would distinguish it in terms of the esse and bene esse, much like the Reformed doctrine of assurance. In Reformed theology, all saints ought to have the assurance of salvation: it is the logical corollary of the five points. That's why some of the Reformed documents speak as if assurance was of the essence of faith. But in a fallen world, good pastors know that many people may struggle to attain the assurance they should have, which is why some other reformed documents describe it not as of the essence of faith but of the essence of healthy faith.

    In the same way, an educated ministry (including languages) is not of the essence of the church: Lloyd Jones was right that the church has at times done without it and God has still blessed those preachers. But an educated ministry is of the essence of a healthy church, and any church that leaves education merely to professors rather than pastors is on dangerous ground. We can't teach the people what we do not ourselves possess.

    To translate the imagery, how good do you want the training of your family practice doctor? Should good medical training be restricted to consultants and surgeons, while a much lower standard operates for the local doctor? Personally, I think the generalist in the front lines needs the very best training they can get, since they have to encounter such a wide variety of disease and morbidity.
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  9. Puritan Sailor

    Puritan Sailor Puritan Board Doctor

    There are other practical benefits too. The original languages can give you some great sermon illustrations or word pictures as you explain the text. Also, even if you forget the languages over time, the fact that you have learned them teaches you to pay more careful attention to the text and to stay within the proper bounds of interpretation.
  10. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    In Miles's textbook there is a section on God's patience as "the long nose of God."
  11. Taylor Sexton

    Taylor Sexton Puritan Board Junior

    This is kind of off-topic, but I have often wondered: Did Lloyd-Jones himself know the languages? He seemed to be such a studious man who read voluminously. Could he have taught himself like, say, John Brown of Haddington did?

    Again, sorry for the off-topic question, but I am curious if you know.
  12. JimmyH

    JimmyH Puritan Board Junior

    If I recall correctly, reading volume one of the MLJ bio by Iain Murray, he began studying the languages when he was still practicing medicine, in anticipation of going into seminary, and the ministry. Deciding not to go to seminary the bio doesn't mention whether he continued the study of the languages.

    I note that in reading/listening to his sermons he not infrequently mentions Thayer's, or perhaps Vines Koine dictionaries. My assumption is that he continued to study the languages, but not to the extent of mastering them. I could be wrong, and hope to be corrected if so.
  13. iainduguid

    iainduguid Puritan Board Sophomore

    According to Philip Eveson, Lloyd Jones taught himself Greek, but there is no mention of Hebrew:

    I suspect that this led to his concept of "just enough Greek and Hebrew to use the resources" as the goal for LTS. Thayer and Vine are pretty basic resources, for those without much Greek and Hebrew.

    Speaking personally, after 30+ years, I think I maybe have just enough Hebrew now and not nearly enough Greek. The truth is that the better your grasp of languages the more you will use them and the more effectively they will help you. It's like loving my wife: there is no "Just enough". The goal is to progress more and more, so that I can show myself approved as one who rightly handles God's Word. Languages are not the only (or even most important) part of that, as Lloyd Jones understood, but they are not trivial either.
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  14. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    That's how I felt the first time I started reading textbooks on Hebrew syntax.
  15. Dachaser

    Dachaser Puritan Board Doctor

    Interesting, as there is a Bible Seminary within the North American Baptist group that allows for M.Div. without any of the biblical languages, just mastering in the English scriptures...
    I think that you make excellent points on the real need for a pastor to be well versed in the Biblical languages.
    How do you train and equip the pastors though to be able to practice and apply the scripture principles they would learn from the Hebrew and the Greek? How to be strong in prayer and faith also?
  16. iainduguid

    iainduguid Puritan Board Sophomore

    The increasing trend in US seminaries is to downgrade the place of the languages in the curriculum, either in pursuit of a shorter program or more "practical" theology. I expect seminaries that place a premium on the importance of the languages like Westminster (and Dallas in the dispensational world) to be come more distinctive from the pack in the future.

    I've helped train pastors in Sri Lanka who were barely literate; I didn't begrudge them their calling because they couldn't read Greek or Hebrew; they were usually in search of the best education they could receive, often at great personal cost. But those who have the resources to study in the US at the seminary of their choice should, in my opinion, be asking searching questions about the language instruction. It's so foundational for everything else.

    I don't see any conflict between excelling in Greek and Hebrew and applying Scripture, or being strong in prayer and faith. Calvin seemed to manage all of these pretty well, and there are plenty of pastors with no language knowledge who are weak in application, or prayer and faith. Indeed, which of us is not weak in prayer and faith?
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