Friday, April 30, 2010

Original Languages and the Priesthood of Believers

The original languages of scripture can be a blessing and they can be a curse. They can help or they can harm the priesthood of believers. I have seen both happen.

First, let me say that I encourage all followers of Christ, if they have the opportunity, to learn as much as possible of the Hebrew and Greek. The reason is simple and it has to do with bible translation. No languages ever have perfect one-to-one correspondence in word meaning. Because of this, when a sentence in Hebrew or Greek is translated into English, some of the slight nuances of meaning are lost. The basic meaning is retained, but some of the flavor cannot be translated.

A Greek professor of mine described reading the NT in Greek as compared to English like this: "Reading in Greek is like watching a TV in high definition, while reading scripture in English is like viewing TV in black-and-white." That may be a bit of an overstatement, but we can understand what he is getting at.

Knowledge of Greek and Hebrew can, therefore, lead to a greater understanding of scripture. I imagine everyone agrees with this.

The key, however, is how this knowledge is used in the life of the church. Is it used to help the priesthood of believers or harm it?

Hebrew and Greek can be helpful to the church when this knowledge is used in humility to teach and be taught, to admonish and be admonished, to exhort and be exhorted, to rebuke and be rebuked, to encourage and be encouraged, etc. If a church is together discussing scripture, and knowledge of the original languages helps to better stir up the body to greater love for God and greater works for God, then all the better.

The problem for the priesthood of believers comes when someone uses the Hebrew and Greek to set himself up as "the one with knowledge." This may happen inadvertently, but it harms the church nonetheless. For example, when a pastor (who does almost all the preaching in the modern Western church) repeatedly says, "Well, in the Greek this means..." he is telling the folks of that church that he has special knowledge that they don't have. While he may not mean it this way, this is the message that they receive. He is the expert and they are not.

What does this do to the priesthood? It can devastate it. It causes a passive church when it comes to reading and interpreting the bible. If the people think that the pastor is the one "who brings the word of God," they won't be motivated to study and think for themselves. Instead, they will wait for the expert to bring them "the message" on Sundays.

One of the influences that brought about the Protestant Reformation was the renewed study of the original languages. The printing of Erasmus' Textus Receptus led to an explosion in bible study that I doubt anyone anticipated. As the Reformation progressed, one of the great doctrines to be proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers. As opposed to the teachings of Rome, the Reformers said that all people could interpret scripture.

So we see that in the Reformation, the original languages and the priesthood of believers went together.

Today, sadly, we often see the one harm the other. The reason for this is, whether recognized or not, pride that circulates among pastors. Many pastors seem to want to "go back to Rome" in that they themselves act as a sort of Pope in their local churches because they know (at least something) of the Hebrew and Greek.

There is no reason for the pastor to say repeatedly, "In the Greek it means..." Now, I realize that on occasion this may be necessary, but this would be infrequent at most. Better is to just explain what the text means and leave the Greek and Hebrew out of it. Of course, any discussion is better and easier in a small group situation than when one person is lecturing.

I write all this for two reasons. First, pastors (or anyone else) must be careful to be humble about their knowledge of the original languages. This knowledge is a gift from God to be used for the building up of the body. Second, anyone who does not know the Greek and Hebrew must feel confident that he can still interpret scripture effectively. Greek and Hebrew help, but they are not a must for accurate understanding of the bible. So keep interpreting and don't wait for someone else with "special knowledge" to tell you what the bible means.

All followers of Christ are priests. Therefore, we can all understand the scriptures.

25 comments:

Arthur Sido said...

Amen. God has gifted men with the ability to read and translate the original languages to serve and edify the church, not to rule over others.

Eric said...

Arthur,

Wouldn't it be great if local churches began teaching these languages so that everyone could participate in these discussions?

Brian said...

this is why i don't say (or try not to as much as possible) "the Greek says" or "the hebrew says.." I just say what the languages say with saying it explicitly.

Arthur Sido said...

It would be, unfortunately I think a lot of Christians are too comfortable with the status quo. Why learn Greek and Hebrew, that is what we pay the pastor for?

Eric said...

Brian,

I think that is the best method. There is certainly a place for teaching in the church, but so many teachers like to puff themselves up. Too often that Greek and Hebrew separates the "clergy and laity."

Eric said...

Arthur,

Ouch. The truth hurts.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

For the most part, for English speakers/readers, the story and intent of Scripture is very easy to understand in any English translation. For example, in any English translation, its easy to tell that we are commanded to love one another in several passages in many different books. All that Greek and Hebrew study is worthless if its not combined with living with people to help them actually DO what is clear in Scripture (in this example, loving one another). I think it is best to follow someone who can help you obey instead of following someone who can only tell you more about what it means.

-Alan

Jeffrey said...

It's a two pronged problem, in my opinion.

1).Each believer needs to step up and participate; let God use them to edify the rest of the church. They need to jettison the idea that the professional holy man will handle it...what ever "it" happens to be at the moment.

2).Those who may have tried to rise up over the rest of the sheep in the name of "leadership" need to humble themselves, and live out what they say: "we're all on equal footing".

I am encouraged as more and more people discover and embrace simple church gatherings. If the people involved allow Jesus to lead their groups, it's very possitive

Eric said...

Alan,

Right you are. Discipleship is much more than simply knowledge transfer. How wonderful when leaders in the church both disciple and are discipled.

Eric said...

Jeff,

I agree completely.

As we look at the traditional church, the people "in charge" need to do less and the passive folks need to do more. In particular, the pastors need to get out of the way so the people can see Jesus.

Nick Bair said...

I disagree. Citing the original language clarifies that "it means" is not an interpretive issue, but a lexical one, thus lending credibility to the argument. "It means" can mean many different things, say, when preaching Ezekiel 1 or Revelation 4-22.

Besides that, as Eric hinted at in the above comments, the church is responsible to teach its people the original languages. We have plenty of books, on-line tools, and other helps in this age to accomplish this. Our church offers four units of Greek, using Mounce and Wallace. Often in times of discussion (e.g. Sunday school), one of our pastors will ask if anybody has their Greek text handy, to check themselves.

Arthur, if the body is comfortable with the status quo as you put it, you are looking at a dead church who has lost its first love.

My point is, although the disconnect between shepherd and sheep often does exist, the goal should be to raise the sheep up, not to knock the shepherd down.

Eric said...

Nick,

Thanks for commenting on this blog.

Just for clarification, with which part of this post do you disagree?

I think it is great that you church teaches Greek. That is excellent!

My concern is that some pastors use the original languages to separate themselves from the other folks in the church. Additionally, most of the time, there is little reason to say, "In the Greek..."

Andrew Suttles said...

Nice post and very interesting discussion.

I lean toward less Greek in the pulpit as much of the Greek references used tend to give an artificial authority over the text (as many here have commented) and much is just plain wrong. The hidden secret that seminarians don't want you to know is that they don't actually 'know' Greek at all. They only learn just enough grammatical jargon to parrott what they read in commentaries (and Bible software). Ask your pastor if he were able to order a pizza in Greek or translate a section of the local newspaper into the Greek language -he will not be able to.

Besides, the language scholars have far wider disagreements about the meanings of seemingly simple Bible texts than English Bible readers do. It seems that presuppositions have a greater influence on interpretation than learning!

For those of you that don't know the original languages, I'll let you in on another insider secret - the Greek is VERY ambiguous. Where an English translation is ambiguous, the Greek may be more so. Many times you hear folks appeal to the original language as being more clear - this is a sure sign of someone who is an amateur in the language he is expounding.

A major error of original language sermon references is the 'word study' - not an inductive study of how a particular word is used by a particular writer or in a particular genre, mind you, but rather the packing of a tremendous amount of baggage into a word. How it is that we can pack a paragraph worth of information into a single word? Remember, a sentence completes a thought - not a word. Paul and Peter didn't resort to word studies and original language references in their references to the Old Testament, we don't need to either.

By the way, the Bible student would be MUCH better served by studying the historical context of a given Bible passage and making a thorough comparison of Scripture with Scripture, if he were to really gain a good grasp on scripture.

Eric said...

Andrew,

Thank you for commenting.

I agree with many of the points you have made here. As for Greek knowledge, there really are very few seminarians (myself included) who have a solid handle on the Greek. This is one of the reasons I try to be very careful in using it.

I also appreciate your emphasis on the sentence over the word when looking for meaning.

I think in general most pastors see themselves as "the experts" when it comes to the bible. Every time they say, "In the Greek..." it makes them feel this way.

Adam Bartlett said...

I once had a proff offer some great advice:

Greek's like underwear. You should always have it, it's great for support, but at the end of the day no one wants to hear you talk about it from the pulpit.

Words to live by...

Eric said...

Adam,

I like that a lot. I'll remember it. Thanks.

Pastor Pants said...

I think what Nick was trying to say (and if so, I concur) was that unless we say "In the Greek..." people will not know the value that the original languages have and will have no desire to study them.

justinian the lesser said...

Gettin back to the discussion about the priesthood of all believers, I think that that is the primary concern here. It seems that everyone agrees (as does Eric) that the original languages are necessary for understanding the meaning of Scripture but the connection with the original languages and the priesthood of all believers is what is most interesting. I think this brings up perhaps a greater error of the 21st century Western church: do we really see ourselves as a kingdom of priests, co-laborers in the gospel and as essential individual members of the body of Christ?

Eric said...

Justinian,

You ask an excellent question at the end of your comment. I think the answer to this is that although we give lip service to the priesthood of all believers, we do not in practice act like we believe it. The typical pastor-dominated worship service is an example of this. In order to really emphasize the priesthood of all believers, we would need to make some very significant changes in these services.

Andrew Suttles said...

Justinian/Eric -

Nice comments on this post!

Do you both feel that original language study puts church elders on a platform above the 'laity' in a way that is contrary to the priesthood of believers?

Although it is not the primary focus of the text, by reading I Cor 14 (especially the last portion), we have a sort of a foggy window on an early gathering of the church - a little different than what we experience today. Note that I do not say this to advocate a sort of Emergent Church model, but only to point out that one can see a more pronounced Priesthood of the Believer demonstrated in what we can glean from this passage.

Good stuff to think on...

Eric said...

Andrew,

This is such a difficult issue. I'm glad to have the discussion.

I think the challenge is how to convey knowledge of the original languages both in a humble manner and in a way that does not discourage those who don't know them from studying the bible. In fact, every bible teacher I have ever known wants all Christians to study their bibles.

I Cor. 14 is an interesting passage. I've actually been thinking about it a lot lately. I think we do need to try to have everyone more involved in church gatherings. In order to do this, we need to have everyone realizing they are priests even if they have no knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

We somehow need to convey to the church as a whole the idea that the Greek and Hebrew are certainly helpful, but at the same time are not necessary for active participation in church life.

justinian the lesser said...

I personally believe that there is alot of wiggle room for how worship is conducted in the church, especially when you think about church history and all the different ways that congregations meet today around the world. 1 Corinthians helps us to understand how the gifts should be used and not be used. And of course this is all done in light of the more excellent way;love (chapter 13). I don't necessarily believe that we have to try to duplicate everything about the first century church, especially when you consider the many problems the church at Corinth had for example. And there is much we as the 21st century western church doeas right--I'm thinking of the resurgence of biblical preaching and a recapturing of much of the Reformation doctrines. However, I do think we always need to reexamine our traditions in light of the clear commands of Scripture. And I do think that the clergy-laity model is one of those. I don't think there is an across-the-board model that works for every situation, but I do think that every local assembly of believers needs to evaluate if there is some kind of seperation of the clergy class and the lowly lay class of believers. I find it encouraging that some of the best theologians the church has ever had, had no formal training in the original languages. Augustine of Hippo for one and Charles Spurgeon never had any formal theological education. But certainly these men knew the Scriptures!

Eric said...

Justinian,

I suppose the key in all of this is to keep looking to scripture to see what it says about all areas of life. This is something we should certainly do as it relates to the functioning of the church. It does concern me how far we have gotten away from what is modeled for us of church life in Acts and I Corinthians in particular. In those situations, we at least know what the apostles thought of what they were doing (right or wrong). In many of modern church practices, we simply don't know if the apostles would have approved because we cannot find those practices in scripture.

reconciler said...

The solution we are trying in our church is to teach the 'laity' Greek at a reasonable rate. We have 11 people learning elementary Greek right now, using Black's grammar (and a lot of fun interaction!). The students are doing well and are demonstrating that they are as smart as any seminary student (after all, these are educated in accounting, engineering, nursing, etc.) Even those who aren't learning Greek are seeing dissolution in the priest-laity divide, which is positive in my view.

Eric said...

Reconciler,

That sounds great! How I wish more churches were doing this. Fantastic.