On Requiring Hebrew & Greek

I’m putting together a statement for our catalog explaining GRTS’s commitment to training in Hebrew and Greek exegesis. This isn’t a final draft, but I’m posting it in its current form in order to solicit thoughts and impressions. Am I missing anything? Are there considerations that need to be expanded, removed, added? What do you think?

The Master of Divinity degree is the historical standard in academic preparation for both vocational ministry and advanced theological study. The program develops essential biblical competencies in leaders who must be skilled in interpreting Scripture. Because of this, GRTS requires three semesters of exegesis in both Hebrew and Greek, in addition to two semesters of basic instruction in each language. There are several reasons for this.

First, detailed and close scrutiny of the biblical text in the original languages offers the opportunity for greater interpretive accuracy. The flourishing of God’s people depends on them faithfully attending to what God has said. Ministers, therefore, must be skilled and accurate interpreters who can communicate God’s word to God’s people.

Second, the logic of God’s work in the world and the precise and varied contours of the gospel are communicated by the linguistic thought-forms and verbal expressions of biblical Hebrew and Greek. Skilled interpreters will pick up nuances of meaning and shades of expression that translations cannot capture. Because of this, skilled interpreters who know the languages can penetrate into the truth more effectively and communicate with greater freshness the hope held out in Scripture.

Third, translations into any language inevitably shape the biblical text to some extent according to the values, thought-forms, and worldviews of the receptor language. Skilled interpreters who know the languages have the opportunity to allow Scripture to critique contemporary cultural values and corrupted mindsets.

Fourth, God calls his people to live by faith in him and to enjoy his blessing by walking in his often counter-cultural ways. In order for ministers to faithfully lead God’s people in the life of faith, they must have confidence that they have rightly understood what God has said and the promise to which he calls his people. Interpreting the biblical text by skillfully working in Hebrew and Greek offers the opportunity for ministers to faithfully lead God’s people.

We affirm the excellent and essential work of translators and publishers of translations so that the Word of God is in the hands of as many people as possible. And we affirm the fruitful and God-blessed ministries of many diligent and God-honoring people who have not learned Hebrew and Greek. We remain strongly committed, however, to training ministry practitioners who excel in interpretation and proclamation of the Bible in the original languages.

I’ve poked around at a few other statements and found some good food for thought here, here, and here.

12 thoughts on “On Requiring Hebrew & Greek

  1. John T. Jeffery

    Well done! IMHO the related issues of objective accuracy and subjective confidence are interwoven throughout the points you make.

    I have treasured the following quote from ATR:
    “The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract.”
    – A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pg. 17.

    See also Andy Naselli, “The Best Part about Knowing the Biblical Languages” (March 7, 2012) at http://andynaselli.com/languages [accessed 11 NOV 2013].

  2. Clifford Kvidahl

    The crazy thing to me is that you even need to write a statement for why Greek and Hebrew are vital for seminary education. That should be a given! Nonetheless, the statement itself is excellent Tim!

  3. Tim Cole

    Good post, Tim. And thank you. Looking back over 30 years of Pastoral ministry, there was a relevant statement made to me while pursuing the Th.M. degree in NT: the statement was made by a visiting lecturer to our school by the name of F.F. Bruce: he said to me at supper: ‘Read your Greek New Testament everyday”. I took his advice. Ranks as one of the top jewels in my treasure chest.

    I am also reminded of the words attributed to Martin Luther:

    “Let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored. . . . If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall . . . lose the gospel.”

    Question: Has GRTS ever considered adopting the 4-year Th.M. as its flagship degree in placed of the M.Div.? Seminary is the foundational exercise for the expositor. The Th.M. provides an additional year of Greek and Hebrew language exposure; what is more it provides the opportunity to sharpen one’s skill in the form of a Th.M. thesis under the tutelage of a skilled exegete. I wouldn’t trade my time (in 1983-84) under Darryl Bock’s direction for either a vintage or new Shelby Mustang.

    Tim: Keep up the good work. I am confident you are making a difference in the coming of God’s rule there.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Tim. I don’t think GRTS has considered a four year degree, but the normal “plan” for our M.Div. is 3 1/2 years, so it comes close. It’s as packed as it’s going to be, I think, and I must say that I’m proud to be at an institution that has the priorities it does, with many places paring back requirements along these lines because of “relevance,” etc.

  4. Andrew

    You’ve done a great job making the case Greek and Hebrew needs to be taught at Seminary, and I agree that it does. Echoing what others have said there is a tension between reading and understanding; objectivity and subjectivity, and only by studying the original language can this tension be resolved.

    Though I ultimately agree, would like to raise the question of whether or not seminaries actually achieve this lofty goal …

    How is it, we can be assured that when seminaries teach original languages, they do so honestly, accurately, and without corrupting the languages they are teaching with theological presuppositions?

    If seminaries, especially creedal seminaries, are committed to a particular exegesis, the continued pursuit of objectivity out of the text is tainted by the creedalism itself, and so is the pedagogy of the biblical language, therefore.

    This is most clearly seen by finding a NT quote of an OT passage and then by comparing the two translations into English. In theory the translations shouldn’t differ, but where they do it is more evidence problems with translation into English than into Greek since both Greek and Hebrew text existed concurrently in Jesus’ day.

    For example:
    Isa 9:1 (Masoretic Text) “כִּי לֹא מוּעָף לַאֲשֶׁר מוּצָק לָהּ כָּעֵת הָרִאשֹׁון הֵקַל אַרְצָה זְבֻלוּן וְאַרְצָה נַפְתָּלִי וְהָאַחֲרֹון הִכְבִּיד דֶּרֶךְ הַיָּם עֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן גְּלִיל הַגֹּויִֽם׃

    Translated as “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations;“.

    From [Isa 8:17] (and [Isa 9:8] the ‘nations’ mentioned here are specifically the ‘House of Jacob’ meaning the House of Israel (rather than the House of Judah). Look at how this same verse appears in Septuagint Greek:

    Isa 9:1 (LXX) καὶ οὐκ ἀπορηθήσεται ὁ ἐν στενοχωρίᾳ ὢν ἕως καιροῦ τοῦτο πρῶτον ποίει ταχὺ ποίει χώρα Ζαβουλων ἡ γῆ Νεφθαλιμ ὁδὸν θαλάσσης καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ τὴν παραλίαν κατοικοῦντες καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν ….

    ‘Galilee of the nations’.

    Yet [Matt 4:15] which quotes [Isa 9:1] is translated as “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —”

    Holy moly! Where did those poor nations (of the House of Jacob) go, and where does those Gentiles come from? Could that be evidence the early Church fathers really did embed their anti-Israelite prejudice into the the study of the text by embedding theological presuppositions into the use of the language? Incidentally, a search of millions of Greek words such as those in the Oxyrhynchus and Tebtunis papyri shows that ἐθνῶν is only ever translated as ‘nations’. Only in biblical translations is this Greek word given such a meaning.

    Also compare:
    [Matt 12:18]’s apparent misuse of [Isa 42:1-4]
    [Romans 2:24]’s apparent misuse of [Eze 36:21]
    [Acts 4:25]’s apparent misuse of [Psa 2:1-2] and
    [Hebrews 2:12]’s apparent misuse of [Psa 22:22].
    (… and many many more …)

    These examples are either evidence of inter-scriptural misuse or Greek has been tainted by theology.

    Although the question should be self evident that seminaries should teach Greek and Hebrew, I believe the questions should be “How should seminaries teach Greek and Hebrew so that there is actual fidelity to the original language and not some Franken-language construct of later exegete’s embedded with preferences and prejudices?

    1. timgombis

      You’re right, Andrew, that merely knowing the languages doesn’t prevent one from reading and interpreting the text uncritically. It does, however, open up the possibility of closer and more faithful inspection.

  5. Jason A. Staples

    Tim, this looks great. One other thing that might be worth noting is that without a grasp of the primary languages for oneself, one is always far more dependent on the decisions and interpretations of others. Without primary language mastery, one must always go to/through someone else to learn what something says/means. Not having to do that so often is part of the purpose of seminary training.

    1. timgombis

      Great point, Jason. I had actually written a paragraph along those lines, but felt that the statement was getting way too long for what the dean had asked me to do. But you’re exactly right.

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