Some people, who have slaved for years learning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, may find themselves saying, “You can’t really understand the Bible unless you’ve studied it in the original languages.” The nose starts to point down, and the person uttering these words begins staring out over his or her reading glasses with an all-knowing look that says, “Don’t challenge me on this. I went to seminary!”
This creeping arrogance was most likely not a part of the seminarian’s view of things at the beginning of his or her studies. No, there was anticipation, delight, and more than a little dread at the prospect of learning years of dead languages. And when the going gets tough, many students ask, “Why bother?” But in the end, they usually realize how extremely valuable the Bible in the original languages is. And it is a documented fact that schools that go soft on the biblical languages sooner or later go soft on orthodoxy. Part of the reason is that the professors can no longer be held in check. Students can’t call them on the carpet for their exegesis, since the students have never learned how to exegete (an activity that, technically speaking, can only be done in the original language of the document).
I am committed to the highest standards of theological education. I believe that seminarians need to pour themselves into their studies for the glory of Jesus Christ. They need to know the text—the Greek, the Hebrew, and the Aramaic text—because this is the Bible in its original languages. This is where meanings, contexts, author’s flow of argument are perceived most clearly. This is where, as Erasmus once remarked, one could see the face of Jesus more clearly than if Jesus had been standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee right in front of you.
It should be obvious to all Bible-believing Christians that those who are training for ministry ought to know the languages. This is a sine qua non. They must know them because they are teachers of the church, leaders of the flock. They are not called ‘shepherds’ for no reason. In no way do I want seminaries to cut back on their biblical language requirements. The more they do, the more they give away the farm. Indeed, one criterion I have when evaluating how serious a seminary is, is to determine how many Greek and Hebrew courses they offer in the required curriculum. Anything less than two years in both sends up a warning flag.
But what about the attitude that these seminary graduates come out with? Few faculty tell them the dangers of what their hard-earned knowledge can bring: pride. And that is the quickest way to take the bloom off a church and make all the saints in the pew who haven’t had the privilege or inclination to study biblical Greek and Hebrew feel like second-class Christians.
The fact is that evangelical seminaries focus on the biblical languages because the Reformers focused on biblical languages. Their battle cry was “ad fontes!”—back to the sources! But that was their battle cry because the priests of the day had forgotten their Latin; they were just going through the motions of what a worship service was supposed to be. The Reformers felt that these dead languages had direct value for the person in the pew. The Reformation was the primary impetus in getting the Bible translated into the language of the people. From Wycliffe to Tyndale and Luther, these early Reformers knew that the scriptures did not need to be a mystery to laypeople. And to that end, they worked hard—and even sacrificed their lives—to get the Bible into their hands. Later Reformers who worked on the Geneva Bible (published in 1560) had to leave England for Switzerland to do their work because they feared for their lives since Bloody Mary was on the throne. Yet they produced an elegant translation, meant for the people. In fact the Geneva Bible was still the most popular Bible in England fifty years after the King James Bible appeared.
So, we have this tension: on the one hand, Reformers thought that pastors and teachers must know the biblical languages in order to teach as effectively as possible. But they disagreed with the Catholic Church in that the reason to get back to the sources was to make it understandable to the person in the pew.
There are some who have had the gall to say, on this very blogsite, that all English Bibles are merely ‘historical relics.’ That is arrogance at a galloping pace! And it also flies in the face of yet another Reformation principle: the perspicuity of scripture. This simply means that the basic message of the Bible—the message of salvation and how we are to please God—is sufficiently clear that everyone can grasp it. Once a person parades his knowledge as though it is a secret knowledge that is untouchable by the masses, he is unwittingly playing the tune of the ancient Gnostics. Knowledge is salvation, and the kind of knowledge that saves is secret. That has no resemblance to biblical Christianity.
So, where does this put us? Were the Reformers hopelessly confused about what they believed? Not at all. They recognized that all believers were priests, that we all had equal access to God. But this also meant that the layperson is responsible to find solid-character teachers who have devoted themselves to knowing the scriptures well. And those teachers have a sacred duty to explain the text in a way that the layperson can grasp. Further, they have a sacred duty to show laypeople how to study the Bible for themselves. After all, if the Bible truly is perspicacious, then laypeople should be able to figure out its meaning from a translation.
Thus, on the one hand, laypeople ought not to say that devoting several years to studying the biblical languages is a waste of time. Such sentiment is usually borne of a lack of confidence, of feeling unworthy. On the other hand, teachers ought not to say that one cannot even begin to understand the Bible without first studying the biblical languages. That is the sin of arrogance. Both attitudes fly directly in the face of what the Reformers taught. Maybe these old sixteenth-century dead guys were on to something after all.