Seminarians of the current and coming generations may well become the most “ignorant” generation of preachers in the later history of the Church. Now that they have succeeded in having the study of Greek and Hebrew made optional, seminarians must decide about exegesis and semasiology (semantics) before they understand the words, much less the ramifications of their decision.
Writing to his friends at Corinth, Paul expressed a concern about their being “uninformed” about the gifts of the Spirit and their use in the life and worship of the church (1 Cor. 12:1, RSV). The Greek word is agnoein. It has the sense of being unknowing, uninformed, unenlightened. The King James Version here translates agnoein as “ignorant,” and it is in this sense I use the word.
The Revised Standard Version is not a new translation but a revision of earlier English versions. The preface states that the preparation involved studying the biblical text in its original languages as well as in earlier translations, in order to make the Word of God clear so that God might speak “to men in these momentous times, and … help them understand and believe and obey His Word.”
Much current sentiment about the study of Greek and Hebrew does not lie in this direction. The 1969 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church gave preliminary approval to a proposal to omit study of the original languages of Scripture from required seminary courses. Other denominations have already approved similar actions.
Making this language study optional implies, of course, that it is of only secondary importance in the training of the minister. Given that implication, the seminarian is understandably reluctant to subject himself to such rigorous courses.
One line of reasoning given for making language study optional begins with the complexities of modern civilization and begrudges time devoted to study of Greek and Hebrew; this time might better be spent, it is said, in the study of sociological disciplines. Another line of reasoning is based on the ready availability of many translations and exegetical studies. Both these arguments rest, in my opinion, upon fallacies. The first fallacy is that extensive knowledge of man in his world is adequate for effective ministry. The second is that translations and exegetical studies are adequate for “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
The first fallacy is readily derived from today’s theological climate. Daniel Day Williams, in his presidential address before the American Theological Society on March 31, 1967, described that climate as one in which the locus of theology (and thus, by extension, of preaching and of the total work of the ministry) can no longer be considered to be study about God. For our modern world it must be the theo-sociological study of man. If we grant this premise, the meaning of man’s life is to be sought through examination of what Williams called “the justice which orders his social existence,” rather than man’s relationship to God in Jesus Christ.
Making man the locus of theology greatly diminishes the need for study of the Scriptures, which are above all a recital of God’s redemptive acts in history and are not primarily concerned with man, except in his relation to God. The Bible, then, is no longer “the only rule for faith and practice,” as the Westminster Divines described it, but simply another sourcebook for man’s quest of knowledge about himself. As a consequence, knowledge of the original languages, sufficient to enable one to interpret “lexically, syntactically, contextually, historically, and according to the analogy of Scripture” (as it is put in a hoary formula beloved of professors of exegesis and ingrained in the thinking of many generations of preachers), is no longer important.
When preaching is no longer required to be biblical—that is, based upon exposition of the authoritative Word of God—it soon degenerates into a potpourri of discourses on current events, the arts, new books, and countless other matters. Anything can then become a basis for preaching. The late Halford Luccock, as professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School and through his numerous writings, has probably influenced more preachers than any other man in recent history. A number of times he commented pungently on this addiction to preaching on extra-biblical themes. Once he remarked that he and his generation had the same qualifications for speaking a word of warning about this addiction as did the prodigal for speaking of pig pens—they had been there, had suffered that addiction, and found it wanting. His conclusion was that extra-biblical preaching led only to homiletical poverty.
A seminary student who makes man the center of his study is in the same position as a law student who neglects courses in law so he can study man in society. There must be a foundation upon which ministry is based, a plumb-line by which it is judged. This cannot be man, transient, changeable, and varying in his capacities for good, for then knowledge and understanding would be equally impermanent, disappearing with the dust of history.
It is interesting to note that much of what is now called “prophetic” preaching becomes passé as quickly as today’s newspaper, while preaching that is biblical is timeless. The expository sermons of Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and Spurgeon still glow with life and vitality, despite their age. The reason is that they are rooted in the imperishable. Those who desire to be “prophetic” in our time often forget that the basis of the prophetic message was a relationship to God. The beginning of any truly prophetic ministry, whether of Amos, Micah, or the preacher to Metropolis, is a knowledge of what God has said. This knowledge and experience must be first-hand, gained through prayer, study, and preparation, for us no less than for the prophets and apostles of old. We must first receive the Word into our own life before we can share it with others.
Is not the primary concern of congregations today the same as that of Zedekiah, “Is there any word from the LORD?” (Jer. 37:17). The need for our time is nothing less than Jeremiah’s answer, “There is!” But how can preachers give that assurance if they themselves are “ignorant” of the Word of God?
The assumption that the multiplicity of available translations gives one all the tools he needs for “rightly dividing the word of truth” is fallacious also. Translators suffer from the same vagaries of thought, the same occasional spiritual sloth, the same variations of belief and conviction that are the lot of us all. They take the Word, subject it to their own abilities and belief, and translate it into words and phrases adequate for them—but perhaps woefully insufficient for others. The long debates and discussions among translators involved in preparing new versions is proof enough.
Dr. William Barclay, in the preface to his New Testament Wordbook, says:
Translation from one language into another is in one sense impossible. It is always possible to translate words with accuracy when they refer to things. A chair is a chair in any language. But it is a different matter when it is a question of ideas. In that case some words need, not another to translate them, but a phrase, or a sentence, or even a paragraph. Further, words have associations. They have associations with people, with history, with ideas, with other words, and these associations give words a certain flavor which cannot be rendered in translation, but which affects their meaning and significance in the most important way [SCM Press, 1955].
How can a preacher really know what the Scriptures say to the world today if he must always depend upon a translator? For example, how can he be sure what Paul meant by “reconciliation” in that classic passage, Second Corinthians 5:18–20 (classic, at least, for Presbyterians who have struggled through debates over the “Confession of 1967”!), unless he can study the Greek New Testament and lexical aids, seeing for himself the rich tapestry woven by the use of katalassein in the New Testament and in classical literature? I believe that much of the misunderstanding over this word would have been avoided had those responsible been honest students of the Greek.
So also the study of Hebrew. Is the English language capable of paralleling the richness of the Hebrew concept of justice contained in mishpat and tsedeq? Recent additions to Old Testament studies by archaeological findings require that one be competent in Hebrew to judge their worth.
A classic text for preaching upon which the intellectually honest student soon founders is Job 13:15: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.” This beloved King James translation is majestic in its portrayal of Job’s selfless devotion to God. The Revised Standard Version offers a very different translation: “Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope; yet I will defend my ways to his face.” Comparison with other translations only increases the variety of choices. The final decision must be the individual reader’s. With no knowledge of the Massoretic text and marginal notes, he cannot understand the possibilities for mistranslation inherent in the Hebrew text itself, so his choice is already crippled. Implicitly trusting the King James over the Revised Standard translators may be satisfying, but it is a subjective choice based upon a personal bias rather than upon biblical evidence, and is intellectually dishonest.
If we believe that God, who inspired the writing of his Word, will also illumine it to our hearts and souls and life, then obviously the first requirement for rightly dividing the word of truth is simply to know that Word, in all its original glory. If our knowledge of that Word is always a second-hand experience, through another’s translation, interpretation is much more difficult.
Of course, there have been many pulpit giants unlearned in Greek and Hebrew. But is it unfair to suggest that their Bible exposition might have been much more effective if they had mastered the original languages? The Church, the world, and the Kingdom will always be poorer for lack of able exegetes. Intellectual integrity should not allow men to preach, daring to be spokesmen for God, while willingly lacking first-hand knowledge of his Word.
A judgment made by two scholars about the problems of interpreting the New Testament is equally applicable to the Old:
All the New Testament books were written … in Greek, for Greek-speaking readers, by men who for the most part themselves lived in a Greek-speaking society. There can, then, be no accurate reconstruction of primitive Christian thought which does not rest upon an accurate knowledge of the meaning which the Greek words used by the Christian writers had for their readers. Philology and lexicography form the essential groundwork of the interpretation of the New Testament [Sir Edward Hoskyns and Noel Davey, The Riddle of the New Testament, Faber and Faber, 1931].
Rereading the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching that are still in print is always rewarding, particularly when one looks for a specific concept common to the lecturers. Almost without exception they were strongly convinced that real preaching is always biblical. This note, sounded constantly during the almost one hundred years of the lectureship, is usually accompanied by the caution that biblical preaching demands competence in studying the Word.
J. B. Phillips’s experience during translation is shared by all who have ever sat down with the Greek or Hebrew Testament to work out a translation and exposition. His “Translator’s Testimony” given in Ring of Truth speaks movingly of the greater effect his work had upon himself than upon those who might read his work. Most evangelical Christians come to the seminary with a love of the Word, nurtured by years of reading, meditation, and prayer. But what joy is theirs when they work with the actual language of Paul, John, David, or Jeremiah, and the Word begins to glow with vitality and truth unchanged through thousands of years! How shallow and superficial their previous understanding and knowledge then appears!
Coming face to face with eternal truth, in such first-hand experience, changes us. And when it has changed us and spoken to our hearts, we are ready to say, “Thus saith the Lord!” We can then lead a congregation to feed on his Word. Then the immense value of those long hours of agonizing work with conjugations, declensions, and vocabulary drills becomes clear.
A potential preacher will not deliberately choose ignorance if he wants to become, as the Today’s English Version of Second Timothy 2:15 has it, a “worker who is not ashamed of his work, one who correctly teaches the message of God’s truth.”
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