Should All Believers Learn Biblical Languages?

How important are Hebrew and Greek skills for interpreting the Bible well and thriving as a Christian?

It’s an important question, since we believe Christians ought to grow in their ability to interact directly with Scripture and discern truth from error—and not only feed themselves well, but hopefully teach and admonish one another well also.

Any learning that has the potential to further those ends has to be seriously considered.

Views on the languages question range from “all you need is good intentions and the Holy Spirit” to “nobody lacking Greek and Hebrew skills can get the Bible right.” Debaters tend to characterize one another as holding one of these two views, but the reality is that most attitudes fall somewhere between.

My own view falls somewhere between as well, but I offer here some observations I have not often heard emphasized in discussion on the topic.

Minimum Safe Knowledge Threshold

In the context of using biblical languages to interpret Scripture, Christopher Cone has asserted that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. The old adage contains more than a kernel of truth, but as with all rules of thumb there are exceptions.

For example, nobody wants the brain surgeon who has “Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Badly” on a plaque on his wall. Similarly, it might be fun to see how well Delta Airlines would do under the slogan, “Fly with Delta. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

But learning to use biblical languages competently is probably better compared to learning to drive a car. Whether you learn it from experts or teach yourself, there is a minimum safe level of knowledge. If you know how to start the car, put it in drive and press the gas, you know just enough to be really dangerous.

Still, there is a way to make even that limited knowledge safe.

An elderly woman at my former church mentioned that she had never learned to drive and that she was not going to try to learn at this point in her life. She lacked the skills of vehicle operation as well as the knowledge of the rules of the road. What she did not lack was knowledge of her ignorance. Being well aware that she did not know how to drive, she made no attempt to do so.

Contrast that with the untrained teenager who manages to get ahold of the keys and thinks he’s skilled enough for a joy ride. The lad may have some of the skills of operation, but his knowledge of that has barely begun—and he probably knows even less of the rules of the road. Worst of all, he has no knowledge of his own ignorance. He has no idea how little he really knows.

Sadly, I’ve often seen the equivalent in the use of biblical languages.

I remember a conversation early in my seminary years. A member of the congregation had graduated from a somewhat well-respected Bible college and said he had taken a semester or two of New Testament Greek there. He was rhapsodizing about the beauty of koine Greek when he made a statement that left me dumbfounded. “Greek is the perfect language for the New Testament because, in Greek, a word always means only one thing. A word has a meaning, and it’s the same everywhere it appears.”

If you don’t find that disturbing, you really haven’t learned the first thing about how languages work. There has never been a language that behaves that way—much less koine Greek—and confusion of that sort among linguistic novices can lead to interpretive disasters.

I once received a free self-published book in the mail written by a gentlemen who had painstakingly re-interpreted the entire New Testament based on this same bit of confusion. The volume would have provided a good foundation for a new cult if it hadn’t been so bountifully self-contradictory!

So should all believers learn the biblical languages? The principle of minimum safe knowledge means that when we teach students to use biblical language study for interpretation, we have to be sure to teach them enough to be “safe drivers.” At a minimum, students must understand the fundamentals of how languages work, how context influences the meanings of words, and—above all—training must include gaining understanding of the limits of their linguistic abilities.

Any decent driver’s ed. program gives its graduates a healthy awareness that they are not ready for high speed stunt driving or NASCAR racing.

All of us who do biblical language work do it imperfectly. But it’s really not safe to do it badly.

Responsibility-Skill Ratio

Debates about the importance of biblical language skill often have an elitism angle. People are rightly sensitive about the idea that only a special few with biblical language skills can interpret the Bible competently. Several solutions have been suggested.

Cone’s solution is to argue that everybody should acquire the skill. Others avoid elitism by taking the position that language skills are just not important.

Cone’s view is close to my own. While I believe another skill set is far more important for sound interpretation and application of Scripture in the vast majority of cases (more on that below), I firmly believe that skill in the Scriptures—including the biblical languages—must match the level of responsibility God has providentially assigned to each believer.

People often confuse leadership with elitism. This isn’t the time to fully explore the differences, but maybe it’s enough to point out that by definition, few lead and many follow. As it relates to ministry of the Word, at least four levels of responsibility are evident.

  1. Every believer: personal Bible interpretation and application (Rom. 15:4, 1 Pet. 2:2) 
  2. Every believer: one-another encouragement and warning (e.g., Col. 3:16, Rom. 15:14)
  3. Some believers: formal teaching and/or counseling (James 3:1, 1 Tim. 2:12, Titus 2:3-4)
  4. Fewer believers: teachers of teachers (Titus 2:1-8, 2 Tim. 2:2)

Believers do not all belong at level 4, nor do we all need the skills that level 4 requires, but all pastors are supposed to be teachers of teachers to some extent (2 Tim. 2:2, Eph. 4:11-12).

While all believers with the capacity to grasp the concepts can benefit from a minimum safe knowledge of biblical languages, those at responsibility levels 1 and 2 can serve quite effectively without that skill set. Those at level 3 usually can as well, though I think these should put biblical language skills on their short list of skills to grow into.

Those at responsibility level 4 ought to be able to interact competently with language tools and evaluate other’s language-based interpretive claims.

A More Excellent Way

An increase in the number of believers with biblical language skills would be good for those believers, good for the church, and good for church leadership. But most of the time, other skills are far more decisive for interpreting and applying Scripture rightly, and the church has a long way to go before we can claim that the average congregation has mastered these.

Long before delving into Greek and Hebrew vocabulary, grammar and syntax, students of the Bible must learn the skills of synthesis and sound reasoning. Synthesis occurs when we examine the immediate context of the verse or phrase in question and note how these fit together. Equally important, synthesis occurs when we gather much (or all) of what Scripture offers us on the topic at issue and see how the passage we’re studying fits the whole. Other context information should be pulled together (synthesized)—such as everything the current book offers on the topic or everything Paul or Peter offers on the topic, etc.—but the skills involved are basically the same.

Reasoning soundly is a life-long challenge for everyone—especially when the question of interpretation or application is freighted with strong emotional history—but step one is recognizing the importance of these skills and how to develop and use them intentionally.

It’s beyond tragic that many (most?) seminaries don’t offer a course in informal or formal logic. It’s even more strange that most Bible colleges don’t require courses in these either. Granted, students should learn logic in junior high or sooner, but most junior and senior high schools don’t include that in the curriculum. Colleges and seminaries should be aggressively remedial in this area.

All the Greek and Hebrew knowledge in the world won’t result in sound interpretation if we reason badly with the information. On the other hand, reasoning well while comparing Scripture with Scripture in any decent English translation prevents a great many of the worst interpretative pitfalls.

Should every believer learn Greek and Hebrew? Every believer should at least consider it. The potential to enhance personal Bible study alone is worth exploring whether you have the aptitude to pick up these skills. But to the extent believers are involved in leadership, these skills are increasingly necessary. It’s true that there is no substitute for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in Bible study. But it’s also true that the Spirit will not do for us what God has already providentially enabled us to do for ourselves (2 Tim. 2:15, Heb. 5:14).

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There are 15 Comments

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There should be courses in critical thinking at every level. Children are never too young to start learning cause-and-effect, valid deductive arguments, etc... We used The Fallacy Detective (http://amzn.to/22uL3q1) when the kids were younger, and we often refer to our Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies poster https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/ when discussing current events or even the plot of a book or movie.

So - I agree that a foundation in logic is essential before investing in learning Hebrew or Greek. I also agree that the stakes are high enough for every believer to consider learning as much as they can for their ability and resources. It's confusing when Christians tout the importance of education then dismiss Greek and Hebrew as unnecessary.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

On critical thinking, it can be broken down in to components that are pretty teachable... and, arguably, logic is a component--also arguably, critical thinking is a component of logic.

Either way, two major pieces of critical thinking I kind of wanted to write about in this one (but it got too long):

  1. Analytical distance
  2. Constrained imagination

The two are closely related, maybe even just features of eachother. Analytical distance is stepping back and looking at the problem/central question from the point of view of someone who has no stake in it... someone who is mostly curious and doesn't really hunger for a particular answer to be the right one. It's a vital skill, because we usually don't wrestle with a question/problem unless we already have a strong enough interest to be biased. That is, if we care enough to think about the problem at all, we usually already have an answer we hope turns out to be the truth. 

So analytical distance involves admitting up front that we sort of prefer a particular answer, then intentionally stepping outside of that and playing a game of "what if I was someone who didn't prefer this answer... someone just interested in analyzing the possibilities? How would it look to me then?"

By "constrained imagination" I mean using imagination in a different way. Not just to imagine how the problem looks to someone who is mostly neutral toward it, but another step: imagining how the problem looks to people who are strongly committed to other conclusions. How does the book of Revelation look to a committed preterist or amillennialist, etc? If you can imagine a good person who sees it quite differently and look at their case from their POV, this helps us better see where our own position has holes, where the other position has merits, where the real/substantial points of disagreement are.

I don't mean to say this is always worth doing. Some views/positions don't merit the effort. Many do. But these are important skills for Bible interpretation because we come to the passages involved with a whole lot of assumptions already in place, and these assumptions are very frequently unexamined.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron: As it relates to ministry of the Word, at least four levels of responsibility are evident.

  1. Every believer: personal Bible interpretation and application
  2. Every believer: one-another encouragement and warning (e.g., Col. 3:16)
  3. Some believers: formal teaching and/or counseling
  4. Fewer believers: teachers of teachers

I like these. I would align them with Biblical terms like this:

  1. Believers
  2. Members of my local church
  3. Deacons (men and women)
  4. Elders

Deacons must "They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience" (1Tim 3:9). Please note that my understanding of "deacon" in Scripture is different from the typical american Baptist usage:

  • Deacon is NOT a role with authority. They might administrate, but they are not a board that leads the church. 
  • Deacon does NOT have teaching authority.
  • Deacon IS a person who, gifted and qualified, has been called by their church to serve in some committed way.
  • Deacon IS a person who might pass on knowledge to others (non-authoritative teaching).

Elders must be "able to teach" (1Tim 3:2), which ought to be thought of as "able in doctrine," which means teaching others, but also includes the ability to read and study the Word and arrive at good healthy doctrine.

Aaron: Those at responsibility level 4 ought to be able to interact competently with language tools and evaluate other’s language-based interpretive claims.

I agree. But it is still a relative value. A person can be apt in doctrine without having a great knowledge of Biblical languages.

Long before delving into Greek and Hebrew vocabulary, grammar and syntax, students of the Bible must learn the skills of synthesis and sound reasoning.

One might add Scripture memory to the list. Let's see, what other tests of ability in doctrine ought to be added? Perhaps "litmus test issues"? i.e., "We think X doctrine is very important. So if you agree on X, you're probably trustworthy."

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think it's possible to line up biblical offices with levels of responsibility to an extent... But it's definitely not a perfect fit. For example, there is not really any reason that deacons would have to be teachers, as far as I can tell--or that teachers would have to be deacons.

But elders do have teacher-of-teachers responsibility in the NT.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

....that we face is the abyssmal level of language instruction in general in this country.  My daughter has one semester of community college Spanish under her belt, as well as a good portion of Latin, and found herself helping out a young lady with her second year high school Spanish while a girl who has taken three years of high school Spanish was unable to help.  In the same way, I've found that I learned more Spanish (perhaps more accurately "Spanglish" for those who know the difference) in two summers of Saturday mornings in Compton than my wife had learned in two years in high school.

I'm all in favor of learning languages--being proficient in German and a starter in Latin and Hebrew (as well as Spanglish I guess)--but the warning about a little knowledge making a person dangerous is well taken.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

jreeseSr's picture

My question is that when you study anything other than the original transcripts are you not trusting in the language skills of the original translators?. Do we not trust God to keep his Church with a competent translation in keeping with "my word shall not pass away"   I am aware that language skills may give a broader interpretation but I have found that:

if we care enough to think about the problem at all, we usually already have an answer we hope Ensure turns  out to be the truth. 

Most use language skills to validate a pre disposed doctrinal position.

I must admit it took language skills to reconcile "Christ died for all"  against "Christ died for many".....that little word "for"

Jim

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"when you study anything other than the original
transcripts are you not trusting in the language skills of the original
translators?. Do we not trust God to keep his Church with a competent
translation in keeping with "my word shall not pass away"
There are two distinct issues in these questions.
A bit on the first.
It's true that using English Bibles is relying on others' language skills to a degree. But there are mitigating factors.
1 Commitees of translators rather than an individual
2 Translation traditions that extend that expertise back in time to include the work of hundreds
3 Finite possibilities. Translators are at least tethered to the text & can only stray so far from it even if unscrupulous.
4 Even highly experienced language scholars rely heavily on the work of other language scholars.
5 The church is a highly interdependent organism... It's necessary to do some leaning on one another. We all have to do some trusting.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me, there being no native speakers of koine Greek or classical Hebrew anymore, that we've got to trust the translators at some point, no? We can trust them when reading a modern language translation, or when using our reference materials to translate for ourselves.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

jreeseSr's picture

Thank you 

Jim

Dan Miller's picture

jreeseSr wrote:
My question is that when you study anything other than the original transcripts are you not trusting in the language skills of the original translators?. Do we not trust God to keep his Church with a competent translation in keeping with "my word shall not pass away" ...

Bert Perry wrote:
It strikes me, there being no native speakers of koine Greek or classical Hebrew anymore, that we've got to trust the translators at some point, no? We can trust them when reading a modern language translation, or when using our reference materials to translate for ourselves.

I told a former-KJVOnly friend a while back that the underpinnings for devotion to the KJV are similar to devotion to the Catholic Church. 

Both are related to a promise. 1) That the Word of God will not pass away (which I don't take that way) 2) that the church will not fail.

For the first, the idea is that God must have preserved His Word and thus whatever is the best [as one judges best] must necessarily be a preserved copy of God's Word.

For the second, the idea is that God must have preserved His Church and thus it is unthinkable that the historical church could have gone wrong.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I think it's possible to line up biblical offices with levels of responsibility to an extent... But it's definitely not a perfect fit. For example, there is not really any reason that deacons would have to be teachers, as far as I can tell--or that teachers would have to be deacons.

But elders do have teacher-of-teachers responsibility in the NT.

No, I'm not saying that Deacons have to be teachers. Or those who teach ought to be deacons.

My main point is that there is one role in the church today for authoritative teaching: Elders.

Many others can and should teach, whether they have been trusted as Deacons or not. 

And sub-point is that there are a few things that we should be able to list as proficiencies/abilities/qualifications that incline us (the local church) to call a man an Elder. One of those is an understanding of Biblical languages. It's just one of many, though, and probably not the most important one. In many of our churches, we have the luxury of calling well trained elders. So we can have a relatively high bar for the call. As such, Biblical languages becomes a [sort-of] requirement for most of us.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"if we care enough to think about the problem at all, we usually already have an answer we hopeEnsure turns  out to be the truth."

This certainly does also happen. Lovers of the Word don't want to do that, though... and again there are factors that, in God's grace, limit the damage believers do this way.  For one, the indwelling Spirit.

Though He hasn't promised to do our thinking for us, He certainly helps us see the personal significance of the truth of Scripture--and it's often this personal significance we are trying to short-cut to when read into the text what we want to see there. Secondly, even working with English alone, we have context and the limits of the text itself.

It's true that a really bad interpretive process can produce some extreme results, but the further an interpretation strays from the few views that are at all fair to the text, the less traction it has with believers in general over time. The really durable errors are all ones that have at least some plausible basis in the text... otherwise they die--except among those who don't really care what the Bible actually says.

With discipline, humility, and a love for truth above love for our personal comfort, we really can get it pretty close to right most of the time, even just working with English... but there is some work involved. (Prov. 2:3-5)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Dan...
Understanding an elder to be the same thing as a pastor, I'd agree that a level of language skill is very important.
I wouldn't want to call it an absolute requirement though. There are situations where it is not a decisive factor... though still worth pursuing.
One example would be when you have assisting elders under the leadership of a head elder who has strong language skills.
But if I were the head in that situation, I'd have it on the short list to start equipping the assistant with these skills.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dan Miller's picture

Yeah. I think it is useful to think of things like Biblical Languages as a list of requirements for the Elder Board. Someone needs to have it. Every Elder? no. Whoever is regularly preparing and preaching? yes, though still a highly valued ability, not a true requirement.

Bert Perry's picture

Dan Miller wrote:

Yeah. I think it is useful to think of things like Biblical Languages as a list of requirements for the Elder Board. Someone needs to have it. Every Elder? no. Whoever is regularly preparing and preaching? yes, though still a highly valued ability, not a true requirement.

It strikes me that few of the elders appointed by Paul would have been proficient in Hebrew, given their Gentile roots.  Obviously they'd have a touch of strength in Greek, though.  Definitely not a requirement, but just as definitely a "nice to have", I think.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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