Brothers, We Are Not Chefs - On the Necessity of Skill in the Biblical Languages

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.

Christopher Cone 2015 Bio


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.

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SamKnisely's picture

Commenced Friday 23 June 1758

"It is now about 8 months since the conversation of some friends, led my thoughts to the ___ [ministry].  The first mention made little impression on me, but in a small time it took firmer hold of my mind; and at length found a place in my prayers so far only, as to profess my readiness to enter on that service, if the Lord should at any time see fit to call, prepare and send me -- in a little time this submission to be employed, improved into a wish and desire that I might, which still continues and increases. I have many times in this interval given myself to the Lord for his service -- I hope without reserve or condition -- and I referred myself to the time when I should be able to read a chapter in the Hebrew Bible with tolerable ease for a farther and close enquiry into this matter, in which I determined to join my own serious deliberations, the advice of my best and most judicious friends, and a course of prayer, and waiting upon the Lord.

By the divine blessing upon my studies I can now read a chapter etc, nearly in the manner I proposed...."

John Newton, Ministry on my mind, © Marylynn Rouse. 2008, page 1

So I may see if Ms. Rouse knows if Hebrew was part of Newton's childhood education or if he was starting at nothing.

Bert Perry's picture

Paul Greenberg, a columnist with a newspaper in Little Rock, commented that his grandmother was illiterate in four languages--I believe English, German, Yiddish, and Polish, if I remember correctly.  So it's absolutely false that an illiterate person cannot learn languages.  The written form is an important tool, but it's not the sine qua non.

I can't say enough in support of learning languages--I'm proficient in German and a starter in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and I can't even count the number of times that knowing the Scriptures in another language has defused some weird exegesis--we work off what we think is an obvious implication of the English text we choose to use, and then we look at how the original reads, or Luther's translation, or Jerome's, and we say.....no, that isn't it at all.  It's huge.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Dr. Cone, thanks for this paper - and the one referenced.

There are lots of thoughts:

1. Rightful (de jure) authority of elders.

2. Believers ought to be self-feeding, but also ought to feed from their rightful elders. 

(This one relates to your 'Not chefs' premise. I think it's a partly wrong premise. We need chefs (teachers/shepherds), but we also need to feed ourselves.)

3. Dr. Cone: "I don’t argue for technical proficiency, but rather for technical awareness."

Here is where I want to start. This is an excellent point. In fact, I argue that technical awareness is superior to technical proficiency. Why?

Perhaps we could define technical awareness as

  1. the realization that the text we read in English is an attempt to represent in our culture the words of another culture and...
  2. the knowledge of where to look to study the LGH-meaning in the original language, both in terms of the meaning of words in the original language and the meaning of grammar in the original language, but ...
  3. not including the ability to "be able to read a chapter in the [original language] with tolerable ease."

Perhaps we could define technical proficiency as

  1. The ability to "be able to read a chapter in the [original language] with tolerable ease," including...
  2. a vocabulary of the words used commonly in the original language, and...
  3. a thorough understanding of the grammar of the original language.

It is my contention that the "ability to read a chapter in the [original language] with tolerable ease" is an illusion. We read English and understand what we read (including colloquialisms, similes, word pictures, etc.) because we are steeped in the culture of our language. For example, when we read the word "right," we know immediately what it means. This is true even though based on context it could mean, "authority," "correct," "one side [not left]," etc. 

We can go steep ourselves in the culture of another language. For instance, with time, we can truly learn Spanish. And we can learn the feeling of the language (probably there's a better way to express this). And we can perceive our comfort with a new language as we make less mistakes in speaking and cause less offense with our misstatements. 

But we can never be steeped in the culture of the original Greek or Hebrew languages. We can study those cultures. But our ability to read in them will always be based on our study of the language from afar. Therefore, our ability to sit and read is always built on our academic study of the language, which might be thorough or simply passable. Either way, we can develop a sense of comfort with the ability we do have to read. I contend that that comfort is an illusion. We think it means we really know the language, but it only means the we're really familiar and comfortable with the version of it that we have studied academically.

ScottS's picture

In answering the objection "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," the statement made is:

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.

The case is overstated. I agree "proficiency" may not be needed (how one defines proficiency, though, will determine the necessity). The issues I have with the statement as it stands are:

  1. Someone with "very basic skills in the languages" is almost guaranteed to at various times "handle the language irresponsibly." A number of things can trip up the causal user of the original languages, such that at least an intermediate level of skill is needed to prevent irresponsibility.
  2. "'If it is worth doing,'" then it is worth putting forth the effort to do it better than just "'poorly.'" We are to strive for excellence in all things worthy of God; to reflect God and His ways to the best of our ability, not the poorest.
  3. Almost any "attempt" at something new will be, of course, at "a basic level." One has to start somewhere, and it is "better to attempt" than "not attempt at all." But one does not go into a new job involving skill or knowledge, or a sport competition, or other endeavor one seeks to excel in without first having done many attempts behind the scenes, where it does not really count other than in repetition for preparing for when it does count. Biblical interpreters need to practice with the languages behind the scenes before bringing the ideas out to the public realm where damage can be caused if irresponsibly handled. That is, again, more than just "very basic skills" needs to be achieved; at least intermediate level skills, where one can begin doing justice to the text.

The biggest issue in the modern era is so many exegetes learn Biblical languages late in life—undergraduate studies (maybe) or graduate studies (more likely, though even the language requirements there have slackened); disclaimer, this latter is when my training occurred, and it is valuable, but... Much better would be to learn the languages at the latest during the high school years (and even better earlier, along the lines of the classical model of education), so that the foundation for good exegesis is established by the time of undergraduate studies, where one can then actually focus upon going through the Biblical texts in preparation for the ministry work afterwards.

To summarize my main issue here, "very basic skills" and doing exegesis "poorly" is not good enough, and it will more than likely cause more damage than simply following a good native language translation, done by those people expert in the languages, for one's Bible teaching. Only advancing beyond beginner will one find a less dangerous and more fruitful value in original language studies.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate Dr Cone's take on this. I think I'm getting closer to thinking the issue through, and these observations definitely helped. Part of what has driven my interest on this for a good while is lay people who are pretty well taught coming to me with questions because "So and so said this passage means this because of the Greek, but how can I decide if he's right if I don't know Greek?"

I always take exception to "know Greek" as though the issue was binary. There are not "people who know Greek" and "people who don't" any more than there are "people who know history" or "people who know cooking" or "people who know the Bible" and people who don't... There is a spectrum of knowledge and understanding in all these things. So some guy who seems to present himself as "knowing Greek" may have little more than a bit of vocab, a couple of half-understood points of grammar and some commentaries to borrow phrases from.

In these situations, I do not encourage laymen to think they must "know Greek" in order to determine if the interpretation is correct. 99% of the time, there is a more accessible way to determine that.

On the other hand, it should be possible to agree leadership brings a different set of responsibilities and with responsibility comes the need for greater skill.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

As someone educated in math and computer science, but not theology beyond what a student at a Christian liberal arts college receives, I can say that even with the possible pitfalls, having access to the Greek and Hebrew is better than not having it.  My Greek and Hebrew is pretty much limited to Strong's and other Hebrew or Greek lexicons, internet resources, commentaries that deal with the languages, and discussions with my pastor or theology students.  Since I am passably fluent in German, I understand many of the complexities in trying to go between languages, not only the grammar and syntax, but also the culture, speech patterns, and idioms used.  I realize that what I get from trying to directly translate a word, phrase, or sentence may not yield what I think because of the complicating factors, but it still gives me some idea of the range of possibilities that the original language is trying to get across.

Because of all the stipulations, I also know better than to try and get some new thought or doctrine out of my very rudimentary language work.  However, knowledge of at least some of this can also help me to realize when speakers or writers try to go beyond what is in the text, either because they haven't dealt with the languages themselves, and are just going on the way the English reads (common example: "appearance of evil"), or because they don't understand the original languages much better than I do and are trying to get some unique meaning out of the text.  That in itself is very useful to being "Berean" in thinking, even if I'm not about to go write a theology paper or text.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

...that a lot of what many of the past half dozen comments regarding the usefulness of learning Greek and Hebrew are getting at is simply that if someone is careless with their native language translation, they're going to be careless with the original languages, too.  So I would concur that if someone is consistently arriving at "out there" conclusions from the English, their first task is to learn sound exegetical and logical principles, not a language foreign to them.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

On the "Yes, Learn Greek" side, there are a lot of resources today that make exploration of the Greek NT much easier than it previously was.

For instance, http://bible.cc/ Use the drop-downs to choose a verse, and then click "Greek." It lists the words in the verse and gives you morphology for every word. 

-=-=-=-

On the "Watch out" side, Greek can be confusing. For instance, aorist tense. This is often rendered in our English Bibles as past tense. But it isn't time-related like English past tense. So it's tough to translate. 

Aaron: "So and so said this passage means this because of the Greek, but how can I decide if he's right if I don't know Greek?"

This relates to my comments regarding elders.

There is nothing wrong with being a sheep. God did not intend for every Christian to be a shepherd. The act of trusting our English Bibles is de facto trust in some translators. When we listen to a teacher or elder say, "This means...because of the Greek," we are trusting that he knows Greek well enough to get this right. In the same way, when we listen to a teacher or elder explain the sense of a passage, we are trusting that he "holds to sound doctrine" and "rightfully divides the Word of Truth." Whether he has been called by his church as an elder, he is, de facto, teaching. 

Teaching should be evaluated and judged by elders in a church regularly to confirm that it is sound doctrine. And as the church members agree, they should consider calling the teacher to the role of elder. He is then a teacher de jure. Now he has the right to teach. 

It is fine to trust our English Bibles - they are the Word of God. Care should be taken in discussing "what this really means in Greek" to not undermine the value of reading our English Bibles. 

It is fine to trust our fellow Christians, but we owe our first trust to those called by our church as elders.

-=-=-=-

Also, I agree with ScottS. One can know just enough to be dangerous. 

There is a dangerous thought process that goes like this: If we are expected to do something, then we must be able to do it. (This was the premise behind Pelagius's heresy). So if we communicate that "one must have technical awareness of Greek in order to best interpret the NT" then we might imply that this means that we all can do it. But it takes intelligence, training, and hard work. Doing it poorly is worse than just trusting your English NT. 

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Dave, yes, other things being equal, better to  have that skill than not have it.  @Dan, also agree w/your gist. There are tools widely available  now that make some interaction w/original languages way easier than it used to be.

And back to the article...  I couldn't agree more w/the idea that more people, both in leadership and out of it, should learn biblical language basics. If nothing else, leaders who have some/much of that skill need that accountability. But there are many other benefits.

One large barrier is that so few understand grammar and syntax concepts in any language. So there is a lack of foundation to build on there. There is much work to do teaching God's people English before we can teach them Greek. But maybe both at once is possible, even ideal.

Dan Miller's picture

One large barrier is that so few understand grammar and syntax concepts in any language. 

Anecdote: In high school, a friend of mine was studying German. She traveled to Germany and visited her grandparents. In talking to them, she ended up discussing masculine-feminine-neuter nouns with her grandfather. He had no idea that nouns were classified that way in German. So even though he didn't know the rules, he followed them flawlessly.

jreeseSr's picture

One large barrier is that so few understand grammar and syntax concepts in any language.       So true , Getting ley leaders like me to grasp this before we do great damage is the priority ! At my age I will only hope to have access to the scholars such as those on this site in the matters that need language arts.

Jim

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