Is Expertise in Biblical Greek Essential for Pastors?

Michael DuduitExegesis, General, Michael Duduit, Preaching, Technology3 Comments

My colleague, Dr. Channing Crisler, provided an interesting post recently about the absolute necessity of knowing biblical Greek. As someone who took his seminary Greek classes as required – and watched with some awe as my teachers read directly from their copies of the Greek New Testament – I  hesitate to question an outstanding New Testament scholar in such matters, and as an educator I strongly believe that the more we learn about God’s Word, the more effective we can be – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – in proclaiming revealed truth.

But as someone who has been a pastor and has worked with pastors for more than 25 years, I do think a different perspective might shed some additional light on the subject. Is an extensive knowledge of Greek really an essential for effective biblical preaching today?

The world has changed – and so has exegesis

When I was in seminary more than 30 years ago, I could have made the same case: if you want to do serious expository preaching, you had to have some solid training in the biblical languages. That’s because the limited resources available for serious study were all dependent on more than a passing knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

Yet in the past two decades, a revolution has taken place in technology, and that includes software for doing serious biblical study and exegesis. Today there are outstanding software programs that do exegetical tasks in seconds that would have previously taken hours. Is that better than having an exceptional skill with the language? Of course not, but for the average American pastor who is occupied 50-60 hours a week with pastoral responsibilities – administration, pastoral care and counseling, strategic planning, evangelism, and preparation for preaching multiple times each week – the technology offers a reasonable tradeoff that allows the preacher to do serious exegetical work without spending many hours in digging out one’s own translation and grammatical study of the text.

We will always need scholars who spend the hours with the languages that allow them to help us mine the depths of the text. And there will always be pastors who are adept with the biblical languages and can do in minutes what others will spend hours trying to do. But with the technology available today, any pastor has access to serious study of the text even without years of language study.

What preachers really want: a way to use the tools

The average seminary still requires 6 to 12 hours of courses in the biblical languages. They spend hours teaching future pastors to take the Hebrew or Greek text and do their own translations. But the dirty little secret is that for the vast majority of pastors, the last time they do an original translation is their final exam in a seminary classroom. Once they are engaged in the rough and tumble of real-life ministry, they discover that there is little time to sit at the desk creating a new translation of any text.

The truth is, there are so many quality translations available – on top of the software that lets them critically examine the text in its original language – that there is little reason for the average preaching pastor to invest the hours required in doing original translation. Do we need scholars who can do such translation? Absolutely. But does every pastor need to be capable of doing such translation? Absolutely not.

What preachers do need is the preparation and knowledge to use the many tools available for biblical study. They need a solid knowledge of hermeneutics – the art of interpreting a biblical passage. They need to have access to accurate and helpful grammatical insights about the text – the kind of information that excellent software programs provide in moments. And they need quality commentaries and other resources for study of the meaning and implication of the text they will be preaching. A good sermon will take hours of preparation, but it doesn’t require additional hours spent in doing translations that are otherwise readily available.

Where you are in ministry matters

There is also a difference in where you are in ministry. As a demonstration of our own support for the study of biblical languages, in the College of Christian Studies at Anderson University we offer six hours each in Greek and Hebrew at the undergraduate level. We want our students to have an introduction to the biblical languages, even though we know most will not become experts; knowing something is better than knowing nothing. Because these students are younger and are in the early stages of their preparation, it’s appropriate for them to gain some basic proficiency in working with Greek and Hebrew for personal study and preaching.

At the same time, in our Master of Ministry program we don’t offer biblical language study specifically; instead, we teach hermeneutics and exegesis using Logos Bible Software, one of the better software programs available, and within that class students are introduced to some basics of the biblical languages.

Why the difference in programs? Because in the Master of Ministry program, most of our students are older and already engaged in ministry; the focus for them needs to be learning to use the tools that they will actually be using in their own ministry setting. And the reality is that 95 percent or more of pastors simply don’t do any serious work of translating the languages in their preaching preparation; by teaching them to use Logos, we are giving students a tool that will put them in the “above average” category in drawing on insights from the biblical languages.

The Greek New Testament is the Real New Testament – and so is the English New Testament.

Dr. Crisler is entirely correct that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Since that was the common language of culture and commerce in the first century, it is entirely logical that God would guide his human instruments to write in that language. But Jesus’ teachings were originally spoken in Aramaic – does that mean the translated words found in the biblical text are one generation less accurate because they have been translated?

The idea that the only “real” New Testament is the Greek one carries the implication that for many centuries – since Greek ceased to be the everyday language of the church and of the common people – that the church has made do with less than a “real” scripture. I do not think that God intended for His Word to be limited to those with expertise in the original language.

Dr. Crisler is correct that God chose to inspire the New Testament through writers who knew 21st century Koine Greek rather than 21st century English. And he chose to inspire the Old Testament through writers who knew Hebrew rather than Greek. So does that mean a Greek scholar without equivalent Hebrew skills lacks the “real” Old Testament?

The Greek New Testament is the real New Testament – and so is a well-translated English version, or a Spanish version, or one in any other language. Anything less would imply that only the gifted biblical scholar has access to the “real” scripture, and that is simply not the case.

I am in complete agreement that preachers of God’s Word should use the best techniques and tools available. But let’s don’t insist that every preacher must be a skilled translator in order to effectively preach God’s Word. Let’s encourage them to learn all they can, use the best tools they can obtain, and then seek God’s direction in communicating the Word that can alone change lives.

3 Comments on “Is Expertise in Biblical Greek Essential for Pastors?”

  1. I am a preacher and I have a M.A. in New Testament and I am working on a separate M.A. while preparing for a Ph.D. So I come with a degree of experience, academic and professional, when expressing this opinion.

    I absolutely believe that pastors should have education in the Greek language (and Hebrew too) and I do not believe this to be excessive. Pious forms of Judaism teach thirteen-year-old boys Hebrew for preparation into manhood. Similarly, religious leaders of Islam are required to study Arabic for Quran studies. Hebrew and Arabic are as much a challenge–although offering different challenges–as Koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament). Furthermore, many countries have populations that are bilingual. My point is that language studies are not too much to ask of Christian professionals; it is the same sort of study conducted without complaint by many others.

    Also, yes, many tools exist that attempt to make the Greek language more accessible. However, without a fundamental understanding of the language these tools are often misused and often misunderstood. As a means of making ends meet I have graded papers for a school Bible department. A certain class exists in which students, mostly without Greek knowledge, learn to use such tools. Some students indeed are able to navigate these tools with few terrible errors. Yet most students make grave mistakes in their studies not because they are not smart—students tend to be quite smart–but because they simply do not have enough fundamental knowledge of the language to be able to synthesize the information they are reading in these tools.

    As a preacher and student I can empathize with having a lack of time. However, a preacher/pastor primarily is an intellectual and moral/ethical guide who is supposed to receive his knowledge from the Bible. Therefore, the primary concern of any preacher/pastor should be understanding the Bible better than anyone. We live in a world where college professors are taking mantle as authorities on the Bible; from a religious standpoint, doesn’t this sound awful? I respect academia–to a degree I am a part of academia–but is it not church leaders who should claim this mantle? After all, it is pastors who are meant to be the modern day Pauls, Peters, and Johns. In my experience, scholars do not even want such a position (although they exercise such authority often).

    Lastly, in college education there is a reason why primary research (research of the item in question) is encouraged most of all. On any given topic scholarship is a multiplicity of conflicting ideas that is ever changing. A student needs the knowledge and skills to be able to navigate this amorphous thing called scholarship in order to create well-rounded opinions that are in conversation with scholarship but not dependent upon its existence. When a pastor does not know Greek/Hebrew, he/she has immediately become dependent upon scholarship without his/her own ability to navigate the primary object of research. Even great translations of the Bible represent dependence upon other scholars who not only translated but also interpreted the Bible in order to translate it. And for a Christian, what is worse is that often it is difficult to tell whether a Bible scholar is in fact a Christian; if one attends the Annual Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature, what one will find is a conference full of mostly non-believers or fence-sitters (there are Christians there too, of course). I do not fault these people for their faith or lack-thereof, but should the leaders of our religion be dependent upon non-believers for understanding our own faith?

  2. I have greatly appreciated the posted article. I would like to express my interest in participating in the forth coming NCP in May 2012. Is there a provision for sponsoring a pastor who wish to attend the conference towards travel? I am a pastor with a Baptist church.

  3. What percent of preachers in America in the 1500’s to 1700’s knew Greek? Hebrew?

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