Protestant Reformers on the Biblical Languages

In recent weeks, I have felt convicted of the need to buckle down and learn Greek. So, I am. This is no noble thing - it's my third attempt. But I'm putting more into it than ever before and am beginning to see some progress. But it seems that every few days I have to get re-motivated. And that introduces this post - for I have taken heart from Martin Luther and Urich Zwingly, two Reformers who placed a high premium on the biblical languages.

Zwingly said, "I have firmly decided to study Greek, nobody except God can prevent it. It is not a matter of personal ambition but one of understanding the most Sacred Writings."

And several quotes from Luther have helped me (all of these lifted from John Piper's excellent biographical study of Luther.)

"It is certain that unless the languages remain, the Gospel must finally perish . . . Without languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit; they are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought; they are the vessel that holds the wine; and as the gospel says, they are the baskets in which the loaves and fishes are kept to feed the multitude. If we neglect the literature we shall eventually lose the gospel ... No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages than Christendom declined, even until it fell under the undisputed dominion of the pope. But no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl fled with a shriek into congenial gloom ... In former times the fathers were frequently mistaken, because they were ignorant of the languages and in our days there are some who, like the Waldenses, do not think the languages of any use; but although their doctrine is good, they have often erred in the real meaning of the sacred text; they are without arms against error, and I fear much that their faith will not remain pure."

"It is a sin and shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God; it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor— yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame."

"Some pastors and preachers are lazy and no good. They do not pray; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture ... The call is: watch, study attend to reading. In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well ... The devil ... the world ... and our flesh are raging and raving against us. Therefore, dear sirs and brothers, pastors and preachers, pray, read, study, be diligent ... This evil. shameful time is not the season for being lazy, for sleeping and snoring."


mwh said...

The study of Greek is a noble thing! Don't put yourself down.

I remember one of my Greek professors in college referencing Luther on this issue. I don't think it was any of these quotes, but it could be summarized like this: "A person can barely be saved without a knowledge of the sacred languages, let alone be able to pastor." I think this reflects the polemical day in which Luther lived, so I give him room, but I would take serious issue with anyone who really propounded this--and seek to liberate anyone who felt pressed by such an injunction. I mean look at what Luther said: "It's a greater sin not to study the languages than not to know the Word of God." Really!

At the same time, I would agree with Luther (and Piper's use thereof), that we should encourage all diligent study of the Word of God, even when that meets up with Greek and Hebrew. Press on!

The use of Greek and Hebrew in biblical studies in the life of the minister individually, in the minister to his flock, and in the congregation generally is a complex set of issues. It's one that I've thought about a lot over the last two years since picking up a more regular teaching ministry with the youth. I'm not sure the answers to all the questions and challenges for myself, but I will be praying for you as you move forward in your studies. I'm glad you're seeing progress. What resources are you using? Do you have a GNT, paper or electronic?

As a side note, I do wonder about Luther's comments. I wonder if he would say the same if he were alive today and had grown up differently. Luther lived in a day when virtually everyone was illiterate--in fact Luther's Die Bibel was wonderfully beneficial both to German literacy and the German language. Moreover, he lived in a day when the Holy Scriptures were shrouded in Latin and barely available even to the clergy. Today, we live in a day when the Word of God is freely available, to people at all reading levels, with translations that are exactingly literal and impeccably faithful. Would, as Luther says, the Gospel actually perish if we only had the English Bible? It leaves me wondering that given in Luther's day, faithful study of the Word of God was inextricably linked to a knowledge of the ancient languages, since today that is not the case--excellent exegesis can be done with a good English translation--maybe Luther would espouse just biblical literacy, not Greek fluency. In fact, I would suggest that the biggest need in biblical study and exegesis of a text is not a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, but rather how language in general works: construction, poetic devices, metaphors, word pictures, literary analysis, etc...but I say that tentatively.



Brian G. Hedges said...

Well, Luther is known for his exaggeration and hyperbole, so I don't take every thing he says seriously. But I appreciate his zeal and I think that the comment about the gospel perishing without the languages is actually verified by your comment that we do have such good and accurate translations today. But they are just that - translations! And some Greek scholars who knew the languages had to give them to us.

As far as what I'm using, I do have a Greek Testament, UBS4. I've also got an excellent interactive program for first-year Greek (Parsons) that dove-tails with 1st year grammars. I also have Mounce and have gone through about 1/3 of it in the past. So far, what I've been doing lately is using the software I have to recover everything I've forgotten and to start working on verb paradigms - and I've got a long ways to go there! As for vocabulary, I've got Metzger's Lexical Aids and two sets of vocabulary cards - 1 for Mounce's book that has all words used in the NT 10x or more in order of their usage (after the 350 words or so in Mounce) and another set that is the same words, but in alphabetical order. I'm using both b/c while on one hand I want to learn words used with higher frequency first, it helps me to learn word groups together.

As far as the cash value of learning Greek for pastoring, I don't know what that will be. I honestly doubt it will change my preaching style much - but hopefully it will help me with accurate exegesis and help me grow in confidence in my own understanding of Scripture. That's my primary goal.

Thanks for the encouragement. I'd enjoy doing lunch sometime to pick your brain about your own learning of Greek - find out what was helpful and not, etc.

mwh said...

Lunch is always a pleasure and an option!

Mike Exum said...

I could not understand why I was taking Greek, when I began it in college. I intended to go to law school after college where I was a Bible student and figured it was just a hoop I was jumping through to please the program requirements.

But then after working so hard that first year, I decided there was no point in stopping with just the very nuts and bolts of the language, so I signed up for a second.

Once I finished the second year, I figured I should take a third so that I might remember some of it over the years to come. So I plowed into the third year and completed it. I aced all three years and worked so incredibly hard at it. But then I put it down and walked away....

Now it has been 4 years since I finished it, and I did not go to law school after all. In fact, I really would like to return to seminary. And my Greek is rusty like a seized engine. It is so shameful.

I bought a book and a CDROM recently. It was coming back very fast. But then my CD drive went out and I have not afforded a replacement. It was such a strong component to my daily routine. I was regaining about a semester's worth of Greek every month.

I need to get back to it, and go back to school again. I do not know much about Luther's opinions, but I encourage you to take it seriously. It is important. Hang in there.

zechristof said...

"The Greek New Testament is the real New Testament; all else is just translation." -- A.T. Robinson.

Persevere -- it's worth it.