How many times have we been in church listening to the preacher do a good job expositing the text. At some point, he says “Now, what the Greek actually says is…” At that pronouncement, the congregation grows a little quieter and a little more attentive. Why is that? Most of the time what people are looking for in the Greek is really some kind of hidden insight, effectively gnosis, secret knowledge that cannot be otherwise obtained. While there is great value in knowing the original languages, here is a statement that might surprise some of you: one hundred percent of what you need for your ordinary Christian life, doctrinally and spiritually, can be gotten from your English Bibles. That’s right: your trusty-rusty KJV or NIV or ESV is what you need. You don’t need study notes (though they can be very helpful), you don’t need concordances (though word studies done right can teach you much), you simply need your Bible in good old English translation.
Someone objects: “But what about all those study tools? People are always quoting the Greek and Hebrew. And aren’t you Mr. Greek himself? How can you say such a thing?” One reason I can say such a thing is that God in his providence has allowed us translations from the original in order to have ready access to his word. Not everyone has the time and ability to learn Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, but everybody is born into a linguistic context and speaks a complicated language which is fully sufficient for communication. Early on, the ancient church realized this, and it wasn’t long before translations began to appear in Latin, Aramaic, Coptic and yet other languages as the church fulfilled its missionary obligation to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. During the Reformation period, one of the great ideas was to ensure that everyone had the word of God in a language he could read. Luther produced a translation in German, Tyndale began it in English, and yet others in other contexts. Having God’s word available for worship and study made a tremendous impact on the spiritual life and health of the church, and enabled many to see the difference between sacred tradition and the actual teaching of the Bible.
What people really need to know is not the Greek word this or the aorist tense that, but what the text is actually saying. Believe it or not, our standard translations often do an excellent job of giving you exactly that: they take the original and put it into a language that you can deal with. It gives you access to what the Scripture is actually saying by capturing the meaning of the text.
But isn’t something always lost in translation? Sometimes, perhaps, but the English translations we have are produced by highly qualified scholars who have spent lifetimes, in many cases, studying the issues related to the text and its meaning. We can look at the original Greek, but chances are extremely high that the translator has chosen a good rendering in that context in English to translate the Greek (and the same for the Hebrew and Aramaic). And all the hype about grammatical insights is just that – largely hype. If the translator has done his job correctly, the grammatical nuances will be sufficiently communicated through the English text to enable you to understand the meaning. Also, remember that many of the “preaching” insights that you hear that are supposedly based on the grammar are often based on the preacher’s mistaken notions of what the Greek or Hebrew is really all about. This has to do with the way the languages are often taught in Bible schools and seminaries. Students are taught to use the languages more for apologetical purposes than learning them as languages in their own right. I’ll have more to say about this later, but suffice it to say here that I’ve learned to be suspicious whenever I hear a preacher say “The Greek really says…” I would estimate that up to 75% of the time that I hear this, the insight is either outright wrong or is really a misapplication of the principle. Just this last Sunday in church, in the midst of an otherwise excellent sermon, the preacher (actually a church history professor) made an observation from the Greek that was simply wrong. The theological point he made from this observation was correct, but he supported it using an erroneous grammatical concept. Let me point out too that this happens fairly often – the original language is really being used as a sermon illustration to make a theological point. The point may be good, but not always the support.
Think about it. How much time did you spend analyzing what I just wrote? Did you think about my tenses and vocabulary selection? Did you worry about hidden nuances? You didn’t really have to do so, now did you? The same with the original text when given — people didn’t worry about Paul’s use of the aorist tense, they simply read and attempted to understand the text, and that’s precisely what we should do. When the ancients who knew Greek as a living language discussed the meaning of the text, they didn’t do so talking about tenses and vocabulary – they knew the language and comprehended it as God gave them insight. That is precisely what our translations are supposed to do for us – we don’t have to think about the language as language, we simply read to understand.
What I’ve noticed is that discussion about issues in the original languages usually centers on defending or attacking various theological positions. There is a time and place for such discussion, but normally what the English reader needs to do is prayerfully approach the text, studying it, meditating on it, spending a lot of time in it, from the perspective of “What do I need to do.” That’s right — do. Scripture was not written simply to increase our knowledge, but to make us wise, to change our lives. This is clear from 2 Tim 3:16:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
Read the text in order to understand it, and then seek to apply it. The Holy Spirit will move mountains to enable you to do so, if you approach it with that kind of humility.
And did I mention prayer? If you want the truly hidden secret for understanding God’s word, there it is. We need a humble and teachable heart, but how do we get and grow a humble and teachable heart? Prayer. Nothing mystical about it. Prayer is simply conversation, but it’s conversation with God and reminds us that the good things we obtain do not come from us, but from God. That’s as true with spiritual insight and understanding as it is with any other good thing we desire. Prayer means that we are relying on God, and not on our own understanding (Prov 3:5-6). There are too many examples of biblical scholars with great learning who have gone astray. Deep knowledge and extensive study in itself is not sufficient. Prayer makes all the difference, as we talk to the ultimate author of Scripture about what he has written to us and the church.
If you take this approach, and spend a lot of time prayerfully in Scripture, all those high priced study tools suddenly become a whole lot less necessary. You can save yourself some money. Nothing beats thorough familiarity with the text, in any language. You can become your own concordance. Sure, it takes time, but so what? Can you think of a better use of your time? What’s better — three hours watching a baseball game, or three hours spent in God’s word? The amount of time you actually spend depends on your personal calling and circumstances, but this is a case where more really is better. The main reason that I have a smart phone is that I can carry multiple translations of God’s word with me (including audio), and yes, in the original languages too, complete with study tools. Taking a bus, waiting in line? How should you use that time? You will also get to a point where you can spot error or unbiblical teaching, even when the person is appealing to the original languages and scholarship.
I still remember a story from one of my Classics professors at the Ohio State University. He and several other graduate students put on a performance of a Greek play in the original ancient Greek. Perforce they had to memorize the entire play in ancient Greek. Sometime later, a professor came to interview for a position at the school. He was an expert on that play, and delivered a paper on it before the graduate students and faculty. The graduate students who had participated in that play began to point out all sorts of things wrong with his paper, quoting pertinent sections of the play in the original to make their arguments. The poor professor didn’t get the job…
I would like to see the scholars of our seminaries and churches knowing their Hebrew and Greek Bibles that well, but why can’t we know our English Bibles that well? Think of the differences it could make.
With all that, is there any value in knowledge of the original languages? And all hyperbole aside, is there any advantage in owning some of those study tools? In reading commentaries or books about Scripture? To quote Paul (in another context), “much in every way,” especially when the foundation discussed above has been laid.