I recently presented a paper (Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Preaching and Teaching for Spiritual Independence) in which I asserted that if the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic is warranted, then we must apply it not only in the exegetical process (the process of interpreting and understanding the Bible), but also in the process of applying and teaching the Bible.
One important implication of this assertion is that if the biblical languages are necessary for exegesis, then they are also necessary for application and teaching.
The paper and the following discussion raised some excellent questions and observations worthy of response. In this context I take opportunity to address some of these so that we can consider the role of biblical languages in application and teaching, and so that we can also consider some the inherent challenges of such a role.
Does the assertion of the necessity of biblical languages imply that the only folks truly qualified to interpret the Bible are those skilled in Greek and Hebrew exegesis?
Yes and no. On the one hand, we can’t really do exegesis of the Bible without being aware of the actual text in the original language. On the other hand, I don’t argue for technical proficiency, but rather for technical awareness. One doesn’t need to be an expert to have the basic skills needed for interpreting the Bible. One does need to be aware that behind the English text are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts that are often more precise than their English translations. Being aware of that, and considering that throughout the exegetical process is very important. With the many tools available today (electronic and otherwise) the languages are not inaccessible.
Isn’t this arguing for elitism—that only those with elite skill can handle the Word well?
No. In fact, I am arguing against elitism. Those with awareness of the languages and of how to find the information needed can indeed handle the word well. I am arguing that Bible teachers should make a concerted effort, as an intrinsic and necessary part of their teaching, to provide those tools to learners.
The problem with this is that not every teacher or pastor has the time, funds, or aptitude for Greek and Hebrew, at the level to be truly proficient.
Proficiency can sometimes be the enemy of awareness, just as great can sometimes be the enemy of good. As biblical educators, we make a key mistake when we tell people that if they can’t fully commit to the languages, they shouldn’t engage them at all. A wise man once told me, “if it is worth doing, it is worth doing … poorly.” Better to attempt at a basic level than not to attempt at all. Even someone with very basic skills in the languages has a huge advantage in understanding the Bible over someone who doesn’t (as long as they don’t handle the language irresponsibly). And after all, to establish proficiency in any particular area requires a lifetime of study.
Can one be a good teacher or pastor and not be proficient in Greek or Hebrew?
Not be proficient? Yes. Not be aware? No. As long as the interpreter is aware of the languages and has the ability to find the information (whether by one’s own use of basic tools or consulting the research of others), that interpreter has an opportunity to handle the Bible well.
Can one be proficient in Greek or Hebrew and not be a good teacher or pastor?
Absolutely. Skill in languages is no guarantee of good biblical interpretation. One can abuse the languages and can also have an inconsistent hermeneutic method. Just as a very good reader will not always be a very good student or teacher, there are many factors that play into quality learning and teaching.
Only 25% of people will have any aptitude for languages. So how can we place such a burden on the other 75%?
I think the premise here is destructive—that most people can’t learn languages. That premise is simply and completely untrue. Everyone has a capacity for languages—almost everyone knows at least the basics of at least one language. If we are willing to be diligent and patient, and help people understand components of biblical language in the same ways they learned their native tongues, then there is very good opportunity for them to grasp the basics they need for interpreting the Bible. Again, proficiency is not necessarily the aim, but rather simply awareness and the ability for a person to find the needed data themselves. For example, when our children ask us questions, do we always give them a direct answer, or do we sometimes send them to a web search, dictionary, concordance, or other tool? Why do we do that? Because we want them to guide them into developing the skills on their own. Spiritual parenting is no different.
Doesn’t this put at a disadvantage people in other cultures where illiteracy is higher, since the biblical languages are not accessible to them?
Not at all, because, again, the premise isn’t accurate. Even among the most illiterate in any culture, there is still the ability to grasp the basics of language. Just about everybody has enough capacity for language to speak and understand at least their native tongue. As for me, I didn’t really learn the nuts and bolts of English until I began to study Greek. At that point I began to value the structure and components of language, because I realized that God had chosen to communicate through language. If I wanted to understand what He had said, I needed to appreciate and grasp some basic elements of language. This is the same in any culture. As Bible teachers our goal is to equip believers for maturity—for spiritual independence, so that they can understand, obey, and teach the Scriptures for themselves. Sometimes that means that along the way we will have to teach people to read, to listen, to question, to analyze, etc.
Isn’t this assertion of the necessity of the biblical languages idealistic and impossible to implement?
First of all, it doesn’t matter. We are not responsible for results, but rather for obedience and effort. Just because something is difficult doesn’t diminish our responsibility. Pragmatism is often the enemy of obedience. Second, no, the necessity of biblical languages is neither purely idealistic nor impossible to implement. If we approach things as a parent teaching a child, we understand there is a progression from immaturity to maturity, and dependence to independence. As parents we don’t look at how far our infant has to go to become a mature adult, shrug our shoulders and neglect the process because the road seems too long and arduous. No, instead, we take it one day at a time. One moment at a time, diligently laboring, and we thank the Lord along the way for such a precious opportunity.
A chef doesn’t bring people into his dirty kitchens and make them eat amongst the greasy pots and pans; he prepares an excellent meal that is both wholesome and aesthetically pleasing.
Once again, the premise is problematic. So problematic, in fact, that this is the core issue: we are not chefs! Ours is not to spoon-feed people beyond infancy (yes, there is a time for spoon-feeding); ours is to help them develop the skills to be mature adults in Christ—to be able to feed themselves and others. Our job is to bring people into the kitchen and show them how to use those pots and pans to prepare their own meals. Notice the progression in believers growth, from infancy to the expectation of maturity:
Infancy: “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it” (1 Cor 3:2). “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet 2:2).
Expectation of maturity: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant” (Heb 5:12-13). “Therefore leaving the elementary teachings about the Christ, let us press on to maturity” (Heb 6:1).
Believers are not to remain in infancy, but are expected to grow to maturity. As Bible teachers we cannot teach in such a way that our students are not developing spiritually. And they cannot develop spiritually without an increasing ability to feed themselves. Just as an infant begins its life with total dependence on its parents, and is gradually weaned and taught to care for itself, so it is with spiritual children as well.
Brothers, we are not chefs. We are parents.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.