Exulting in the Biblical Languages
As a third-year seminarian and aspiring pastor, if I had to name just one “habit of mind” for which I am most grateful to have learned at Bethlehem Seminary, I would say it is the ability to read the Bible in its original languages. It is no secret that Bethlehem distinctly emphasizes Greek and Hebrew exegesis. For students and scholars and supporters alike, therefore, it is fruitful to ponder the question: Why do we spend so much time and energy laboring to learn the languages of the Scriptures? English-speakers in the 21st century have a glut of resources at their disposal—dozens of trustworthy Bible translations, scores of commentaries on every book, advanced Bible software capable of powerful search functions. With all this, why do we still spend our limited time and exercise the modest gifts the Lord has given us toiling over vocabulary and paradigms and seemingly endless exceptions to grammatical rules? As I have reflected on this question for myself, I have seen at least two benefits and one danger of pursuing proficiency in the biblical languages.
One of the primary responsibilities of those aspiring to pastoral ministry is to learn to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). That is, a preacher needs to accurately see what God has revealed about himself in the Bible, and then clearly explain that to others. This task is immensely helped by studying the Bible in its original languages. For example, reading in the original languages slows my reading and raises specific questions about the meaning of the words that would otherwise go unconsidered, like “what is this genitive modifying?” or “how is that participle functioning?” or “what is the referent of this pronoun?”. It is in the quest to unfold these kinds of unassuming grammatical questions that I have stumbled upon the greenest pastures and brightest vistas of God’s truth (cf. Psalm 119:130). Likewise, the apostles frequently grounded their theology in the smallest grammatical details of the Scriptures, like the difference between the singular and plural forms of a noun (Galatians 3:16, cf. Matthew 5:18). Such details are certainly possible to see in translation, but they often do not even occur to me as I blitz through my ESV morning after morning.
But the preacher must not only understand and explain what God’s word says. He also must be proportionately affected by what he has come to understand so that his explanation imparts both propositional truth and a right sense of the value of that truth. The biblical languages benefit this task also. For example, reading in the original languages mitigates the prejudice of familiarity. It is a well-known axiom that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Even (or perhaps especially) for those in ministry, familiarity with the Scripture can often produce dullness or boredom, which, when it comes to the things of God, is contempt! But working through the Hebrew grammar and syntax of a familiar passage often yields fresh glimpses of divine beauty, new pangs of longing, or needed stings of conviction.
There’s a wonderful analogy in music. The musician who takes the time to carefully study the notes that a composer wrote can more powerfully convey to his audience the feelings the composer intended them to experience. As the music moved him, the musician brings the audience along in thinking the composer’s thoughts and feeling his affections after him. Likewise, the preacher who diligently studies the divine “notes” can more powerfully lead the people in thinking the Composer’s thoughts and feeling his affections after him (cf. Ezra 7:9-10).
However, there can also be great danger in learning the biblical languages. America’s theological heavyweight champion of the previous century, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, admonished his students at Princeton in his lecture The Religious Life of Theological Students that the original Hebrew and Greek words “which tell you of God’s terrible majesty or of his glorious goodness may come to be mere words to you.” To put it another way, it is all too possible to learn the biblical languages like atheists.
How is that danger avoided? According to Warfield, by recognizing that “it is your great danger only because it is your great privilege”! God owes us nothing, yet he has breathed out sixty-six inerrant books full of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words by which we can be made “wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). So, let us exult as we relish the sweetness of God’s words in their original languages (cf. Psalm 119:103). That is, let us study the biblical languages like Christian Hedonists!
- For all the Bethlehem College and Seminary students who are learning the biblical languages, that the Lord might prosper those studies for the glory of his name.
- Especially for those who might go on to pastoral ministry, that they would retain and grow in their skills in biblical language exegesis for the eternal benefit of their congregations.
- For our professors, that the Lord would give them wisdom and diligence to set their hearts to study, do, and teach God’s words to the students (cf. Ezra 7:9-10).
- Pray for those considering attending Bethlehem that the Lord would guide their steps.
- Pray for the full funding of The Serious Joy Scholarship for this year’s students.