Is Expertise in Biblical Greek Essential for Pastors?

Michael DuduitExegesis, General, Michael Duduit, Preaching, Technology

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.