Biblical Language requirements are declining rapidly in many American seminaries. Jonathan Edwards entered Yale College in 1716 at the age of 12 reading Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Today, however, you can graduate with advanced degrees in theology from several American seminaries without a single class in a biblical language. But why should it matter, after all? You can pastor a large church successfully for decades without reading a single sentence in Greek. Hebrew morphology or knowledge of Greek discourse markers won’t help you navigate a pastoral crisis, right? The commentators already did the work. Why spend years learning the languages?
Well, here are seven quick reasons:
(1) The Value of God’s Word. Labor in biblical languages reveals the value we place on the scriptures. Excellence here should be unquestionable because it is through these languages that God has chosen to speak. God’s Word itself is the primary reason pastors should be able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Who teaches literature in a foreign language without the ability to read the language of its composition? Every Christian tasked with teaching the Bible should consider the example created by their neglect of the biblical languages.
(2) Responsibility. Paul commanded Timothy: “Do your best” (2 Tim. 2:15). Is ignoring biblical languages and linguistics your best? God commands us to love him with all of our mind (Deut. 6:5). Academic excellence is a form of obedience. Hopefully, you’ll be reading the Bible for decades to come. Why not take five years to learn to read it in its original languages? How much time did you spend tweeting last year?
(3) Love. Do we treasure our Bibles? Imagine every word in holy scripture were written red with the blood of Christ. What then would you do with it? In his Homily on Holy Scripture, Thomas Cranmer writes, “These books, therefore, ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all — in our hearts.” The glorious delight of drinking deeply from the fountain of God’s beauty and majesty in scripture is the reason it was given. If we knew learning to read scripture in its original languages might inflame fresh wonder and devotion in our hearts, what could possibly compel us to neglect them?
(4) Exegesis. Here is the engine of Christian confession. Theology itself is a servant to exegesis. Work done in scripture’s original languages can also potentially impact every area of biblical studies because it is a text-based discipline (this is also an argument for incorporating linguistics into biblical studies, but that’s for another time). Exegesis is cruel and crippled without knowledge of the original languages.
(5) Preaching. The first four reasons above apply to everyone tasked with teaching the Bible, but especially to those entrusted with the ministry of “expository exultation” (Piper). Power, clarity, and simplicity are the lifeblood of expository preaching, and this is normally the result of sustained interaction with the text at the level of its original languages. The Puritan minister Thomas Brightman read his Greek New Testament every two weeks, and Lazarus Seaman did his daily devotions from an unpointed Hebrew Bible. If the scriptures are the flock’s field and food, then its languages are the shepherd’s sling.
(6) Missions. 1.5 billion people cannot read the Bible in their native language because such a Bible doesn’t exist yet. An additional 150 million people don’t have a single portion of scripture translated into their own language. A renewed and vigorous attention to linguistic excellence can expand translation efforts, assist national translators, and provide the resources and tools needed to deploy the scriptures to all language groups. Missions needs biblical linguists.
(7) Apologetics. Objections to historic Christian orthodoxy or misleading claims about the basis of its confession often have a debate about the meaning of some substantive issue in Hebrew or Greek behind them. Those who wish to lead the Christian church as pastors and teachers should be prepared to meet these objections with a personal, discerning knowledge of the issues at stake.
And if these aren’t persuasive, listen to Martin Luther:
Let us then, foster the learning of languages as zealously as we love the Gospel. For not for nothing did God have His Scripture written down in these two languages alone [sic]: the Old Testament in Hebrew [and Aramaic], the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, which God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word we, too, ought to honor above all others.
And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without languages. Languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. They are the vessel in which we hold this wine. They are the larder in which this food is stored. And, as the Gospel itself says, they are the baskets in which we bear these loaves and fishes and fragments.
(“To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany,” 1524)
And, finally, pray with Thomas Cranmer:
BLESSED Lord, who has caused holy scripture to be written for our learning; Grant that we may hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Many other good reasons exist of course to consider learning to read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But certainly these reasons alone place a compelling burden of proof on those who can study these languages but choose not to. They must explain themselves.