Why study Hebrew and Greek?

(Full explanation)

How will learning Hebrew and Greek help me be a better pastor?

Let's take a moment to explain why we spend so much time learning Hebrew and Greek in our apprenticeship program. While many seminaries are moving away from requiring the original languages of the Bible, why would a program that is so practical require them?

Ultimately, this question comes back to the sufficiency of Scripture. We really believe Paul when he says in 2nd Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is breathed out by God. The Bible is God's Word and it is what will equip men of God for every good work. And so if we are going to treat seriously the exhortations of Scripture to know, apply, teach, and rightly divide God's Word, we must know what was originally said.

This is not to denigrate our English (and other language) translations. We should be deeply grateful for those who have gone before us so that we can read the Bible in our mother tongue. But as pastors, we have been given a huge responsibility that we do not want to take lightly. If we are merely telling people our ideas of how they should think, feel, and live, woe to us. So we want to be as careful as possible to teach and preach what God intended to communicate in His Word.

But there is a common misconception about why to study the languages. Frequently people think that we study the languages in order to be more accurate in our theology and translation. While that is a good reason, you shouldn't expect after learning two or three years of Hebrew or Greek to make a better translation than your ESV or NASB! These were done by teams of experienced translators. We have good translations of the Bible.

Why should we learn the languages then? We learn Hebrew and Greek because we want to see the emphasis of the original author. By studying the languages we are better able to see where the author is going in his argument. We are better able to understand the point of his sentence, paragraph, and book. It's not that the point is not there in the English translation, but sometimes it's much harder to see the intention of the author without the original languages.

We can explain this concept with an analogy. Reading the Bible in English is like looking at a black and white copy of a color painting. It is not that the black and white copy is incorrect. If it is a good copy, you can see the details of the original. But it doesn't contain all the information and beauty of the original. You might not be able to see that some items are contrasted with one another. You may not be able to see that the artist is highlighting one particular item by coloring it red. The colors might even have some symbolic meaning (such as red, white, and blue), or give the painting an overall feeling. Yes, there may be some inaccuracies introduced by the fact that it is a copy. But really, looking at the copy you can see the main contours and idea of the painting. But if you really wanted to analyze and understand that work of art, you would be sure to study the original.

Whenever you translate one language into another, nuances are lost. Sometimes you can't see a great wordplay that the original author is making. Sometimes you are missing the richness of a particular word that he chose to use. Other times you miss out on seeing that the author is repeating a key word throughout a section that really ties the whole argument together. At other times you are better able to see the connections between various sentences and clauses. And so, since all ministry is first and foremost a ministry of the Word, as pastors, we want to be well trained to understand what the original author was intending to communicate and emphasize.

Furthermore, since the Apprenticeship is focused on training cross-cultural church planters, it is vital that we teach pastors how to how to answer whatever questions their particular context in ministry throws at them. We cannot create cookie-cutter pastors. Ministry will look radically different in an animist tribe in Papua New Guinea, a Muslim city in North Africa, or in the hood of a major US city. But the gospel is the answer to the problems and brokenness of the people in each of these areas! And the Bible has the answers and worldview that will radically transform the thinking, feeling, and living of people from all over the globe. So we need church planters to be equipped to apply the Word of God in whatever context they find themselves in, and know what God originally said is part of how they will be equipped to do this.

Finally, learning Hebrew and Greek from a linguistic standpoint has another major benefit as well. Learning linguistic theory will greatly aid those who go through the program to learn another language. Whether it be Bible Translators, or church planters who want to take the gospel to other countries, language is how we communicate. Even for those who minister in English, learning how language works helps us learn how to communicate more effectively. In short, nearly all of our ministry as pastors is about communicating the Word, and so learning linguistics will make us more aware of how we communicate.

So what will studying the languages be like in the apprenticeship program?

A benefit of the way we teach the languages as part of our the Apprenticeship is that we offer beginning Hebrew and Greek as go-at-your-own-pace classes. One of the biggest hindrances Josh has seen over the years of teaching the languages, is that students are not all at the same place. Some pick up language more naturally than others, while some are able to devote much more time than others. Yet in a traditional class, we have to go at one pace. We shoot for the middle and hope the slow students can catch up and the fast students don't get too bored. But combining a go-at-your-own-pace class with direct access to the professor who designed the class gives you the best of both worlds.

Next let's look at the pedagogy (our philosophy of how to teach) for the language classes. Now while we cannot claim that our pedagogy is completely unique and there are other languages classes that teach Hebrew and Greek based upon modern linguistic theory, this is a benefit of learning the languages here. Without getting into the details, we teach the languages based upon understanding how the language works rather than rote memorizing all the possible forms of words. Now of course this doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to memorize when learning a language! But by using well established linguistic theory we are able to cut down on unnecessary rote memorization and to teach the languages in a way that will stick with the student. We emphasize getting into the text quickly and learning the language through practice.

This gets into the part of the classes that Josh is personally very excited about. Having a background in Computer/Electrical Engineering, Josh wrote a computer program that allows students to interactively look at the forms of Greek and Hebrew words. They can click on the various parts of the word, and the program will tell them what those various parts mean. There are also charts in the program that get marked up for each different part of the word. When you incorrectly identify a part of the word, the program is able to identify what part of the word you didn't notice and will highlight that for you. We are excited that we will be giving the program away for free to all of our students who sign up for the languages! This allows students to practice identifying Greek and Hebrew words at home, which is what is needed. You can take a quick look at ScrollTag Trainer.

When we put this all together with the many hours of full length instructional videos, walking with the professor, and walking through the entire Bible together where we can bring out the nuances of Hebrew and Greek, and we believe our program will be a great aid for equipping pastors to be men of the Word.