Lingua-Phobia Among American Preachers

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com

Some weeks back, on a preachers’ discussion site, I shared an extended quotation from the great Greek scholar A. T. Robertson (1863-1934) on the extreme importance, even necessity, for Bible preachers to study and learn the Greek language, for the sake of their ministry. In part, that quote said—

The physician has to study chemistry and physiology. Other men may or may not. The lawyer has to study his Blackstone. The preacher has to know his Bible or the people suffer the consequences of his ignorance, as in the case of the physician or the lawyer. The extreme in each instance is the quack who plays on the ignorance and prejudice of the public.

It is true that the minister can learn a deal about his Bible from the English versions, many of which are most excellent. There is no excuse for any one to be ignorant of his English Bible, which has laid the foundation of our modern civilization. But the preacher lays claim to a superior knowledge of the New Testament. He undertakes to expound the message of the gospel to people who have access to the English translations, and many of these are his equal in general culture and mental ability. If he is to maintain the interest of such hearers, he must give them what they do not easily get by their own reading. It is not too much to say that, however loyal laymen are to the pulpit, they yet consider it a piece of presumption for the preacher to take up the time of the audience with ill-digested thoughts. The beaten oil is none too good for any audience.

Now the preacher can never get away from the fact that the New Testament was written in the Greek language of the first century A.D. The only way for him to become an expert in this literature of which he is an exponent by profession is to know it in the original. The difficulty of the problem is not to be considered. One will not tolerate such an excuse in a lawyer or in a physician. The only alternative is to take what other scholars say without the power of forming an individual judgment. Some lawyers and physicians have to do this, but they are not the men that one wishes in a crisis.

The preacher lets himself off too easily and asserts that he is too busy to learn his Greek Testament. In a word, he is too busy about other things to do the main thing, to learn his message and to tell it. Fairbairn says: ‘No man can be a theologian who is not a philologian. He who is no grammarian is no divine.’ Melancthon held that grammar was the true theology, and Mathias Pasor argued that grammar was the key to all the sciences. Carlyle, when asked what he thought about the neglect of Hebrew and Greek by ministers, blurted out: ‘What!? Your priests not know their sacred books!?’

(These words are taken from Robertson’s superb little book, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, pp. 80-83; I quoted them at greater length in AISI 2:11).

At least one preacher on that discussion list took offense at the quote, thinking it merely a gratuitous slam at “English-only” preachers, and was intended only to denigrate them and their ministries. There was certainly no such intention on my part in posting the quote (rather, it was to stir others up to undertake this important study, or at least undertake some foreign language study), nor, certainly was that Robertson’s intention.

Robertson was writing chiefly with regard to seminary students—he taught Greek to more than 6,000 such students in his 46 years at Southern Baptist Seminary. And he was speaking about those who had the opportunity to learn Greek during their seminary training, but failed to do so, or having gone through the motions and secured the necessary credits to graduate, nevertheless wholly neglected this tool in their ministries. Obviously, a man’s attainments are to be evaluated on the basis of his opportunities, and Robertson knew by direct experience many a man with great educational opportunities who nevertheless squandered them. On the other hand, there are those with no formal Bible schooling and no chance to formally study Greek, who nevertheless make much of their opportunities to read widely and gain a mastery of Scripture. Noel Smith (1900-1974), founder and editor for a quarter century the Baptist Bible Tribune, was one such individual (and he often said that one of his life’s regrets was not mastering a foreign language. He had, to be sure, mastered English).

If a man has no opportunity to formally study Greek (or Hebrew) then maybe the local college or junior college (or even the local Christian school) offers Spanish, or German or French (I learned the rudiments of Spanish by sitting one hour per week in the beginning Spanish class in the Christian high school where I taught history). And there is “Rosetta Stone” and other computerized language learning programs which may be of some use all by themselves. (incidentally, Stonewall Jackson, a devout Presbyterian, read the Bible daily in Spanish—which he learned during the Mexican War,—and French, which he learned in France where he went for a respite after the death of his first wife).

Learning one or more of these (or other) languages—in fact, practically any language—will help immensely in sharpening one’s linguistic acumen—including, nay, especially, his understanding of English,—and reading the Bible in a foreign language or two will cast a flood of light on the Scriptures and often correct numerous misapprehensions derived from reading just the English. For example, both the Spanish and the Romanian versions correctly show (agreeing with the Hebrew) that what God promised to preserve in Psalm 12:7 was not the “words” of 12:6, but the “poor” of 12:5; the antecedent of the pronoun “them” is grammatically ambiguous in English.

Americans generally have lingua-phobia: they are afraid of foreign languages and have a negative attitude toward the suggestion that they should—and can—learn one or more of them. We are a lot like my algebra students years ago who lamented: “I just can’t do story problems.” With that attitude, they in fact could not, and were defeated before they started (of course, by breaking down the story problems into their components, they discovered they in fact could do them; the same is true of languages). Virtually every preacher can at least learn the Greek alphabet (and Hebrew, too) in as little as an hour’s time (I’ve taught it to many in just such limited time), enabling him to at least consult Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, and correctly pronounce Greek and Hebrew words, as well as begin to make some sense out the remarks of Greek scholars like Robertson, Alford or Lightfoot. A little knowledge is a big improvement over nothing. And learning the alphabet may well lead to further study.

In evaluating whether foreign language study is important, consider the following-

  • Paul “spoke in tongues more than they all” (I Corinthians 14:18)—not the miraculous gift, but languages he had learned, including, at least, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and possibly Latin and one or more local dialects spoken in and around his native Tarsus.
  • Without his being “trilingual” (Latin, Greek, Hebrew), Jerome could never have produced the Latin Vulgate Bible version, which is superior to any of the other early Bible versions in Greek (the Septuagint), Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, etc., and is in fact the single most important translation of the Bible ever made (see our articles, “The Latin Vulgate Bible Translation in Historical Perspective,” parts I & II, AISI 5:4, 5:5).
  • The Reformation would have been essentially impossible without the extensive linguistic training of the Reformers, who all knew Latin and Greek and in many cases Hebrew as well—Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, the Geneva translators, Reina and Valera, and more (poor Coverdale was limited to Latin and German, besides his native English!)
  • John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787), an 18th century Scottish orphan boy who herded neighbor’s sheep, first learned Latin—while still in his early teens—with the help of his pastor, and then taught himself Greek from a borrowed Greek NT by comparing the Latin which he knew with the Greek which he didn’t—the story is recounted in Robert Mackenzie, John Brown of Haddington (reprinted by BOTT in 1964), chapter 3, “The Acquisition of Languages” (pp. 29-35).How he acquired his first Greek NT (a gift from a university professor) is a remarkable tale all by itself. Brown went on to learn several other languages and became a noted theologian.
  • The famous John Newton (1725-1807), “a slave of slaves”, who had no formal schooling after age 7, when converted and called to preach, devoted himself first to Latin and then to Greek. And somehow his gaining such knowledge did not dampen his zeal (as some foolishly suppose language study will do) or prevent him from writing “Amazing Grace”!
  • Unschooled William Carey (1761-1834) taught himself more than half a dozen languages while he tutored boys in his school, repaired leather goods, and prayed over his home-made world map; he learned many other languages after he arrived in India. He went on to be acclaimed during his lifetime as the world’s greatest linguist and had a part in the translation of all or part of the Bible into 40 languages.
  • Missionaries Adoniram Judson (especially) and J. Hudson Taylor, to note only two among many, also used their knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew in their missionary and translation work.

Until the 1800s, you could not get into college (such as Oxford or Harvard) without being able to read, write, and converse in Latin (the Wesleys and Whitefield, for example,commonly conversed in Latin). And as recently as 1900, to graduate from American high schools, you normally had to have studied four years of Latin and two of Greek.

Today we would not (or should not) tolerate a career missionary who fails to “get the language” of the people he is ministering to. Among the first questions I ask of anyone who says God has called them to a particular country is: “What are your plans to study and learn the local language?” And if they are at all hesitant or befuddled by my question, I assure them that this is really the most important thing—after conversion and a definite call—because without it, there is no communication of the gospel (such failure to learn the local language is a not-so-subtle insult to the nationals whose language is de facto denigrated as “not worth learning”).

I know myself that without good capacity in Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic) on the one hand, and several modern languages on the other, it would be utterly impossible for me to write with authority about the accuracy or inaccuracy, the adequacy or inadequacy of Bible versions in English, German, Spanish, Romanian and more. And I would be often “stuck”—unable to answer my own questions (and those of others) about the meaning of a particular word or phrase or verse in the Scriptures. But with this linguistic knowledge, I can address any such question and can discover the truth (as far as it is discoverable). And there is a freshness in reading the biblical text in the original that no translation or group of translations can fully convey.

So, while we are often disinclined toward it, and regardless of a deficiency of the education opportunities of some a generation or two in the past, learning a foreign language is today within the opportunities and grasp of almost everyone of average or better intelligence, and that opportunity can often include Greek and / or Hebrew studies. If such opportunity arises, we do well to grasp it and invest the time, energy and money necessary to make good progress in such studies. They are studies that, though requiring the most effort, also yield the most benefits.

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There are 8 Comments

CPHurst's picture

That's an interesting take on what Paul meant in 1 Cor. 14:18 when he says he spoke in tongues more then they all did.

Charlie's picture

Great article. With each passing year my appreciation for my educational opportunities grows. I cannot stress how central languages are to my scholarly work. On any given day I might use any combination of 6 languages, and I'm still left wishing I knew a few more. All of the ones I know I wish I knew more proficiently. 

Since the middle ages, the first step toward being a scholar has been mastery of the languages. It is a shame that our institutions of higher education treat them more as a side project to be checked off than a necessary foundation for education. 

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

AndrewBAird's picture

Pastor Kutilek

I found your article to be hopeful, in that you address a serious issue with the goal of helping others understand and appreciate the need for competence with the original languages of the Bible.  But the fact that you address the issue highlights the depressing truth that many believe they can skimp in this area and still be perfectly able to teach the whole counsel of God.  This is not true. 

As a layman in the church, I say to all who believe in just enough learning to 'get by'-- You do me wrong, sir, if you bring your lack of scholarship, your lack of understanding, your lack of diligence and study, to the pulpit.  And then, in ignorance of what you do not know and unaware of the shortcomings of your understanding, you attempt to fully represent God and His Word?  The fact that you thought it possible is--disturbing.  What is your opinion of our value to God that you would leave so much meat off the table?  Shall I be satisfied with your crumbs?

Do not be surprised when the ends of that course justify the inevitable condemnation of the means (or lack thereof) that you chose.

 

Andrew -

 

Charlie's picture

Just yesterday, I had the deep privilege of meeting with a man at Starbucks. We had never met previously, but I had learned through the internet (I know people at his church) that he was trying to learn Greek and looking for some advice. When we met, I found that he was in his 40s, worked a blue-collar job, and about 4 years ago had been moved suddenly from nominal Christianity to a passionate pursuit of Jesus.

The first year of that he spent reading through his Bible. A bit later, he decided to learn Greek. All on his own he had been working through Mounce's grammar, reviewing vocab flashcards at lunch, and trying to follow along in church with an interlinear. He has been at this for 2 years with little to show for it. For me, blessed with all my educational opportunities and resources, it was nothing less than my Christian duty and privilege to help him toward his goals. 

And I did feel welling up in me a flash of indignation toward the lazy students I knew in college, who switched to "Youth Ministries" so that they could avoid taking Greek and bragged about that as if they had found a clever way to save on their taxes.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

M. Osborne's picture

I knew a pastor who taught his kids Greek. They were elementary age. I sing the Greek alphabet to my kids when brushing their teeth (helps to keep them brushing long enough Smile ). One of my daughters could sing it when she was 2, with one hitch, "Mu, Nu, Xi, African...? Omicron? Pi..." My son prefers the Hebrew because he thinks, "Hey Vav" sounds cool.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Matthew J's picture

I decided to spend the past 28 weeks teaching a modified version of Mounce's Greek in a Sunday night class at our very "middle/working" class church that God has blessed me to serve in. I was amazed as the Greek class was the most populated class that semester. Only once a week, the classes were unable to give a tremendous working or translating knowledge of the NT language, but by the end, it was amazing how much the people further gleaned from sermons and Bible studies. The best part to me was that the class was attended with men and women ages 20-75 all with a hunger to know God's Word. At the end, several of the people in church asked if we could continue another night during the week to learn more. I too became frustrated thinking of my fellow students from years ago who found every possible way to get out of Greek or just skidded by and were fine with that. Thank God for his wisdom in giving us language--what a beautiful science and art it is.

ChrisC's picture

i don't know... as a layperson i think i could be better served by using a few good english bible translations prepared by top scholars and focusing on ideas supported by multiple translations than resting on whatever introductory level of language i could accomplish after spending an inordinate amount of time learning.

should preachers review the original languages as part of their sermon prep? sure. does it benefit the layperson to hear their preacher's ideas about what the greek means and how it's different than the particular translation being used? maybe. but most preachers haven't spent nearly the time studying the language, history and related contexts and current research as have the scholars, so if the preacher's ideas aren't supported by any of the english translations, it's probably not right either. the congregation might be better served by the preacher using an alternate english translation for the section in question.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

I'm very encouraged by this article and most of the comments that have followed. Having grown up in a conservative Lutheran denomination with an educated clergy, I'm one of those extremists who's never quite gotten accustomed to the idea that IFB pastors can be good to go without knowledge of the Biblical languages.
As others have noted, I was always skeptical of the "youth ministries" approach – and am even more wary of those who willfully and cheerfully eschew the benefits of a seminary education.

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