By Paul D. Wheatley
“And there in the dark pools amid the Gladden Fields,” [Gandalf] said, “the Ring passed out of knowledge and legend; and even so much of its history is known now only to a few, and the Council of the Wise could discover no more.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
As an earnest missionary years ago, I had worked full-time for almost 10 years in lay ministry before I ever seriously considered seminary. I had taught Bible lessons on three continents, with groups ranging from a few freshmen in a dorm room to a hall full of refugees and migrant families hearing my message translated into Arabic, Farsi, and French. I knew there was more to learn, but an early mentor had advised me to do what I could with the knowledge I had before I went off filling my head with books I had no idea how to use. So off I went to do what I could.
Theological education seemed like an indulgence, a move off the front lines at a time when people “out there” needed to hear the good news. Now, in a Western church facing decline and the shrinking number of residential seminaries in the North American and British Anglican world, dedicated theological education may seem like a luxury the Western church needs less than in its heyday. However, if we are to serve God, minister to the world with clarity, and proclaim the word of the gospel anew in generations to come, we cannot dispense with formal ministerial training, especially, I would argue, training in Biblical languages.
A fellow missionary changed my perspective in two sentences. She was reaching out to sex workers, providing little more than a cup of hot tea on a cold night and a listening ear. Her ministry took place mostly in the streets through those small acts of kindness. She led a support group and Bible study for those who had left sex work, and on the side, she mentored a few other missionaries. Her ministry was very personally demanding, but I could not perceive what about it required specialized theological training. I asked her if she ever “used” her three-year seminary degree. “It’s not about use, Paul. If I had it to do over again, even if I only had five years of life to serve God, I would spend the first three in theological education, so I could spend the last two with focus.” Despite the many people who fruitfully serve in similar ministries with no formal education, her perspective goaded me forward. I enrolled in seminary the next term.
As a new school year begins at seminaries, theological colleges, and other houses of formation, I want to interrogate a part of ministerial preparation that many find to be the most tedious and least necessary of the core theological disciplines: learning the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. Much of seminary involves the acquisition of practical skills: pastoral counseling, sermon preparation, liturgics. Most of the rest is filled with instruction in disciplines that undergird formation for a lifetime of ministry: historical and systematic theology, church history, ethics and pastoral theology, exegesis, etc.
Biblical languages fit somewhere between these. Learning the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, drilling vocabulary words and verb conjugations, these are disciplines that form the mind of a learner in unique ways. However, the discipline of learning Greek does not form the mind of a minister in the same way that historical theology or ethics would. Knowing the meaning of all the Greek words that occur more than 50 times in the New Testament is not the same kind of discipline as learning to reason with the great tradition of christological thought. Analyzing a Hebrew verb also does not fall under the category of purely practical knowledge, like knowing how to write and deliver a homily.
Learning a biblical language is a practical skill that opens up the possibility of a different type of formation for a minister or lifetime student of the biblical text: acquiring patterns of thought not easily perceived in translated texts. If you’ve ever learned to speak in a foreign language, you likely know the joy of discovering different expressions and ways of speaking that are unique to your adopted tongue. Phrases sparkle with the brilliance of the thought world of native speakers, offering you a glimpse of the wit, humor, and charm of their culture. This is a great value of learning biblical languages. Good English translations can convey the meaning and the beauty of the biblical world and the life-changing messages contained therein. But reading these same words in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic of their authors gives access to perspectives that cannot be gained otherwise.
A former student described this as a uniquely humbling experience. Yes, taking quizzes, writing flash cards, and memorizing verb forms can be challenging, but this isn’t what she meant.
I have been humbled by seeing how different the logic of the biblical authors can be from my own. I have come to see that nothing in the Bible is just as I would have thought it to be. Reading in Greek and Hebrew forces me to slow down, not only to translate the words, but also to try to perceive the authors’ thoughts. My own way of thinking is just one way to approach questions. Reading the Bible in its original languages, I am learning to think with a different logic.[/End]
Seminary education in many places is in decline. In the wake of the challenges and shakeups of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the ongoing fracturing of our societies, seminary education may seem too costly for many, in finances as well as time. Many seminaries in turn respond by making their curriculum more practical and flexible, pioneering courses aimed at equipping students for whatever may be next in our tumultuous and changing world. Much of this can be for the good, if not at the expense of giving students the opportunity to be transformed by an encounter with the languages and thought patterns of those who wove the warp and woof of those stories, laws, letters, and songs that make up the narrative of God’s saving work in the world.
Learning biblical languages also opens up the range of meanings possible in a given text. It introduces readers to tools that can aid in clarifying these meanings. In my academic work as a New Testament exegete, I am surprised how often heated discussions in scholarly interpretations of the Bible come from analyzing words that have more than one meaning. Does faith in Christ justify, or is one made righteous through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (see Gal. 2:16)? While it may take years of dedicated study to marshal the relevant comparative texts to make such an interpretive choice wisely, a novice student can discover the breadth of possibilities for this verse simply by looking up two terms in a good Greek lexicon.
Often, students come to me in their first year, confident of the relative clarity and simplicity of the Bible and their familiarity with it, eager to move past my introductory New Testament courses and Greek instruction to get to the “meat” of theology and liturgy. Some who are interested in biblical interpretation would just as soon skip the learning of Greek exegesis in favor of a theological or typological reading of the Bible that they deem superior to the slow, plodding work of conjugating verbs and diagramming sentence structures. Yet, this separation of historical, grammatical, exegetical interpretation from theological and typological readings presupposes that one can achieve one without the other. Thomas Aquinas sees it otherwise:
The multiplicity of [Scripture’s] senses [into literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical readings] does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. … All the senses [of scripture] are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn. … Nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense. (Summa Theologiæ, 1a, q1, a10, emphasis mine)
Rich theology, impactful preaching, and incisive moral reasoning are not goals to be attained without first encountering the Scriptures as they are given to us in the nouns, verbs, prepositions, and sentence structures of the text. Learning Greek and Hebrew brings us into contact with those very nouns and verbs and their ways of conveying information within the boundaries of human language that we must deal with before we jump to whatever ethical or theological import these texts convey.
The church would indeed be impoverished by preachers so fixated on the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew grammar that they neglected meditation on the character of the God to which these texts point. However, in more historic traditions such as Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy, as well as other mainline Protestant denominations, the opposite is more common: the church can also be impoverished by ethical and theological preaching that makes cursory “use” of the Bible as it is. Like the story of the Ring in the quote from Fellowship of the Ring at the beginning of this essay, our knowledge of the Scriptures and the world from which they come can be neglected in our homes, parish halls, and even sermons, to the extent that it could be obscured or even lost. Preaching, teaching, and ministry in word and sacrament — or even in the small kindnesses of a smile and a cup of hot tea to a lonely person on a cold night — are enriched by a close, meditative encounter with the Bible in all its strangeness and difficulties, made possible by learning to read it as it was first written. Learning biblical languages deepens this encounter.