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