Why It Is Beneficial to Learn Greek and Hebrew Even if You Lose It

July 9, 2015 — 33 Comments

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The pressures of the higher education bubble continue to expand as administrative costs swell, and a new generation is wondering how practical overly expensive tuition is. Because of these reasons, and many more, seminaries are rethinking their curriculum and taking a critical look at certain subjects.

The critical eye aimed towards curriculum is a good thing. Not everything that was taught 10 or 100 years ago should continue to be taught. And the changing culture makes it necessary to address new topics.

So as the gazing eye roams over the curriculum it is natural for it to rest on Greek and Hebrew and begin to ask questions. Questions such as:

Do ministers really need to know how to translate Greek and Hebrew to be a faithful practitioner?

How many students are keeping their Greek and Hebrew?

Should we teach the languages through the use of Bible programs?

What is the benefit of knowing some Greek and Hebrew but not knowing enough to substantially interact with scholars?

This post is not intended to address all these questions. But I would like to tackle one of them head on. The argument is that we should stop teaching Greek and Hebrew the way we do because the vast majority of students “lose” their Greek and Hebrew. If students and pastors are not using this part of their education then why include it?

This is a fair question yet I think it is quite short-sighted and shoehorns education into one mold. So I want to answer this question by arguing for the benefit of Greek and Hebrew language education even if students lose it.

Now of course I don’t want them to lose it. As a Greek teacher, I give a portion of my last class to encourage students to work at keeping their languages. Yet the reality is that students do lose their languages.

So my argument spins the scenario and contends it is worth it for students to learn the languages even if they lose them for at least three reasons.

We Don’t Remember Everything That Forms Us

First, it is valuable to learn the languages even if one loses them because we don’t remember everything that forms us. This is where one’s view of education has massive importance for how one constructs curriculum. Education can be thought of in terms of what a student is able to “produce.” But this is stunted view of education. Much of what forms us we are not able to remember. Doug Wilson makes this point brilliantly in a little paragraph on reading (which happens to be my favorite quote from him of all time).

Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading, you will not be able to remember. The most formative years of my life were the first five, and if those years were to be evaluated on the basis of my ability to pass a test on them, the conclusion would be that nothing important happened then, which would be false. The fact that you can’t remember things doesn’t mean that you haven’t been shaped by them.

What Doug Wilson says applies not only to reading but education in general. Education is not just about what one can remember, but how people are formed by the things they can’t even recall. Regurgitating information is one way of testing comprehension, but it is not the only way. When it becomes the sole way we are cutting education off at the hips.

So although some students lose their Greek and Hebrew, it does not follow that it did not form them. Even if pastors are not using their Greek and Hebrew in sermon prep they are influenced by what they studied at seminary, even if they are unconscious of it. So even if a pastor says to me, “My Greek and Hebrew has little effect on my ministry,” I just don’t believe them. What they mean is that Greek and Hebrew has little “visible” effect of their ministry. But we don’t know how they would preach or study the text without the rigorous study they put in.

There are Different Levels of Losing the Languages

Second, it is valuable to learn the languages even if one loses them because there are different levels of “losing” the languages. What most people mean when they say that they have “lost” the language is that they can no longer sight translate. But they have not lost them in the sense that they can interact with commentaries that reference the languages.

They still have some sense of what a genitive is, maybe even what a source genitive is. They have not completely lost this knowledge; it is stored somewhere in their brain; it just needs a little dusting off.

Therefore, to say that one has lost the languages does not mean that they have completely lost all knowledge of what happened in those few semesters. What they mean is that their knowledge is not where it was when they finished that sequence.

Language Training Teaches People to Think Textually

Third, language training teaches people to think textually. Although some claim that their languages are lost like a remote control in a living room, the training they received has still taught them to think carefully and look closely at the text. The language sequence not only teaches people to memorize certain grammatical concepts but to see that interpretation is a complex decision making process. Michael Kruger put this point well in a blog post on the same subject.

Even if a student forgets every single vocabulary word and every verb paradigm, the intensive study of the languages during seminary still plays an enormously significant role. Put simply, it helps students think textually.

Prior to learning the languages, most of us simply do not know how to think on a textual level when it comes to studying the Scripture. But after learning Greek or Hebrew (even if we forget it), we now understand grammar, syntax, logical flow, and sentence structure. Moreover, we understand the way words work, how their meaning is determined (or not determined), the importance of context, and the avoidance of certain exegetical fallacies.

To end this process in my mind would be detrimental and fatal for ministers whose job is to apply the Scripture to the needs of their congregational body.

Conclusion

This should not be seen as a license to lose the languages, but I think it does address the issue that many students are dropping them once they leave school. If schools do not require the language sequence they are ensuring that future ministers will no longer have people who are adept in them.

For every five students who lose the languages, there may be one or two who keep the languages. Maybe one of these people will be the one to respond to the next big controversy? Maybe one of these will the one to write the next ground-breaking Romans commentary? Maybe one of these will cultivate a deep love of Scripture in the next generation? Do we really want to take the chance to change the future like this?

I for one do not.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

33 responses to Why It Is Beneficial to Learn Greek and Hebrew Even if You Lose It

  1. Garrett wishall July 9, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Patrick,

    Thanks for the article, I appreciated it and agree. I think the dusting off point is true and could apply to several theological issues as well. Are we going to stop studying theology? I don’t think so. Neither we should stop the languages.

  2. I learned Greek from Dr Duane Dunham (who I believe also was Tom Schreiner’s Greek teacher at WCBS). With Dr Dunham there was a seriousness to learning Greek as a lifelong discipline. I graduated 22 years ago and I still read my GNT everyday. I am so thankful for a godly Greek teacher who was tough on us!

  3. I agree with all of this, though pragmatically speaking, I wonder whether it would be better to increase the Greek language instruction (not just exegesis, but more straight reading), even if it meant cutting out or significantly reducing Hebrew. I’ve studied both and remain comfortable in both, but I know relatively few pastors who have kept either language in good shape, and I know only a very very few pastors who have kept much Hebrew. I agree that there are benefits to a language even if you lose any facility in the language, but perhaps it’d be better to work to get students to a point in Greek where it’s less laborious to use it. Then perhaps offer Hebrew as an elective. To be clear – I’m all for people studying Hebrew, but I do think it’s a problem that most pastors seem to lose both languages (even though I agree with your article about the benefits even in that situation).

  4. I had the privilege of studying Greek & Hebrew intensively for a year at Westminster in Philadelphia. Although I have “lost” much of it (and it’s only been 2 years!), I remain so grateful for that instruction for the very reasons you’ve outlined. In fact, I finally have time to try and “re-gain” my Hebrew – the one I enjoy more 🙂 – and started self-studying through Putnam’s “New Grammar of Biblical Hebrew” a few days ago. Hard and slow, but do-able, because of the foundation I received. I am hoping one day to hone these skills enough so that, Lord willing, I can be an exegetical consultant for Bible translations into new languages (at least 6000 languages in the world don’t have a completed, publishable OT…). I don’t think this train of thought would exist apart from the seminary courses which exposed me to the original languages. By the way, if you have some scholarly training in either NT or OT, I currently work with Wycliffe Bible Translators and we have tons of openings for volunteers or full-time workers to help us check the Scriptures that are being produced before they are published… carmen_yan@wycliffe.org

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