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How many times have we been in church listening to the preacher do a good job expositing (explaining) the text? At some point, he says “Now, what the Greek actually says is…” At that pronouncement, the congregation grows a little quieter and a little more attentive. Why is that? Most of the time what people are looking for in the Greek is really some kind of hidden insight, effectively gnosis, secret knowledge that cannot be otherwise obtained. While there is great value in knowing the original languages, here is a statement that might surprise some of you. The primary tool that you need is a good, trusted English Translation, like the Updated American Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the Christian Standard Bible, or the Lexham English Bible, in that order. Yes, one might think that it is best to get the Bible of your choice as a study Bible, as we all need help in better understanding the word. However, a literal translation is paramount in get at God’s Word in English. The UASV is the most faithful translation in remaining faithful to its literal translation philosophy. The UASV says, “Our primary purpose is to give the Bible readers what God said by way of his human authors, not what a translator thinks God meant in its place. Our primary goal is to be accurate and faithful to the original text. The meaning of a word is the responsibility of the interpreter (i.e., reader), not the translator.” The UASV is online free right now as it is being completed and will be out at the end of 2021. Generally speaking, your Bible is the most important item you need for your daily spiritual walk with God. However, better to understand God’s Word, some Bible study tools are necessary if we are to move on from the foundational truths that we know to the deeper things of God. I should note here before moving on that we are not necessarily delving into Biblical Hebrew in this article. But many of the thoughts expressed herein would in general apply to Biblical Hebrew as well.
Hebrews 5:14-6:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
14 But solid food belongs to the mature, to those who through practice have their discernment trained to distinguish between good and evil. 1 Therefore, leaving behind the elementary doctrine about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and faith in God,
My focus in this CPH blog post, however, is not on the deeper things, but on developing a good, solid foundation to enable the Bible student to progress to that higher level. God in his providence has allowed our translations from the original in order to have ready access to his word. Not everyone has the time and ability to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, but everybody is born into a linguistic context and speaks a complicated language that is fully sufficient for communication. Early on, the ancient church realized this, and it wasn’t long before translations began to appear in Latin, Aramaic, and Coptic, as well as other languages as the church, fulfilled its missionary obligation to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. During the Reformation period, one of the great ideas was to ensure that everyone had the word of God in a language he could read. Luther produced a translation in German, Tyndale began it in English and yet others in other languages. Having God’s word available for worship and study made a tremendous impact on the spiritual life and health of the church, and enabled many to see the difference between sacred tradition and the actual teaching of the Bible.
What people really need to begin is not with the Greek word this or the aorist tense that, but what the text is actually saying. Believe it or not, our standard literal translations often do an excellent job of giving you exactly that: they take the original and put it into a language that you can deal with. It gives you access to what the Scripture is actually saying by capturing the meaning of the text.
Some may ask, ‘but isn’t something always lost in translation?’ Sometimes, perhaps, but the English translations we have are produced by highly qualified scholars who have spent lifetimes, in many cases, studying the issues related to the text and its meaning. We can look at the original Greek, but chances are very good that the translator has chosen a good rendering in that context in English to translate the Greek (and the same for the Hebrew and Aramaic). And we do need to be cautious about grammatical insights derived from the original languages. If the translator has done his job correctly, then many of the grammatical nuances will be sufficiently communicated through the English text to enable you to understand the meaning.
Now, I am about to make a claim that is based on 30+ years of working in the original languages. I do not want it to discourage you, but I do want it to make you a bit more alert. Many of the “preaching” insights that you hear that are supposedly based on the grammar and vocabulary of the original languages are often based on the preacher’s mistaken notions of what the Greek or Hebrew is really all about. This has to do with the way the languages are often taught in Bible schools and seminaries. Students are taught to use the languages more for apologetic purposes than learning them as languages in their own right. Occasionally also you have preachers or teachers who deliberately make false claims and dress them up in the original language to create a sort of false authority. I’ll have more to say about this later, but suffice it to say for now; I’ve learned to be suspicious whenever I hear a preacher say “The Greek really says…” I would estimate that up to 75% of the time that I hear this, the insight is either outright wrong or is really a misapplication of the principle. Many Sundays ago in church, in the midst of an otherwise excellent sermon, the preacher (actually a church history professor) made an observation from the Greek that was simply wrong. The theological point he made from this observation was correct, but he supported it using an erroneous grammatical concept. Let me point out too that this happens fairly often, the original language is really being used as a sermon illustration to make a theological point. The point may be good, but not always the support. Now, before moving on, l do not want to come off as a negative nancy on learning and using the original languages for apologetical purposes or pastors in sermons. What I am saying is this, if you are going to do so, dig a little deeper and make certain that you are giving your listener what the Bible author meant by the words that he used.
Think about it: How much time did you spend analyzing what I just wrote? Did you think about my tenses and vocabulary selection? Did you worry about hidden nuances? You didn’t really have to do so, now did you? The same with the original text when given, people do not worry about Paul’s use of the aorist tense, they simply read and attempted to understand the text, and that’s precisely what we should do. When the ancients who knew Greek as a living language discussed the meaning of the text, they didn’t do so talking about tenses and vocabulary; they knew the language and comprehended it as God gave them insight. That is precisely what our translations are supposed to do for us, we do not have to think about the language as language, and we simply read to understand.
Now again, that does not mean that we cannot properly use insights from the original languages to pursue deeper understanding and insight, or that study tools properly used are not of great benefit. But it is of vast importance for the Christian to have a solid foundation in order to use such tools effectively and even correctly. This begins with a thorough knowledge of your English Bible. Too often I have seen people without this foundation abuse the use of the original languages and come to erroneous conclusions even though they have the latest study tools.
What I’ve noticed is that discussion about issues in the original languages usually centers on defending or attacking various theological positions. There is a time and place for such a discussion, but normally what the English reader needs to do is prayerfully approach the text, studying it, meditating on it, spending a lot of time in it, from the perspective of “What do I need to do.” That’s right, do. Scripture was not written simply to increase our knowledge (though it certainly does so), but to make us wise, to change our lives. The knowledge we gain from Scripture is for a purpose. This is clear from 2 Tim 3:16: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
Read the text in order to understand it, and then seek to apply it. The Holy Spirit will move mountains to enable you to do so, if you approach it with that kind of humility. If you remember that you hold within your hands the words of the living God, and seek to obey what he has told you through his word, it will enable you better to understand that word than approaching it from any other perspective. I should qualify this also before moving on as well. I am not saying that the Holy Spirit is going to miraculously give you understanding. You are to pray for better understanding and then act on behalf of your prayer by reading the Bible meditatively and using some Bible study tools to get at what the author meant by the words that he used.
Moreover, did I mention prayer? If you want the truly hidden secret for understanding God’s word, there it is. We need a humble and teachable heart, but how do we get and grow a humble and teachable heart? Prayer. Nothing mystical about it. Prayer is simply conversation, but it’s a conversation with God and reminds us that the good things we obtain do not come from us, but from God. That’s as true with spiritual insight and understanding as it is with any other good thing we desire. Prayer means that we are relying on God, and not on our own understanding (Pro 3:5-6). Our relying on God is by our active faith as we buy out the time to study. There are too many examples of biblical scholars with great learning who have gone astray. Deep knowledge and extensive study are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Prayer makes all the difference, as we talk to the ultimate author of Scripture about what he has written to us and the church. Really, think of it as a 50/50 effort, in that you need 50% prayer and 50% study of God’s Word. And that is not talking about the amount of time. God is not interested in many words, it is the quality of the prayer, not the quantity.
If you take this approach and spend a lot of time prayerfully in Scripture, you then have a foundation and a context which not only provides for your spiritual life but enables you to pursue a more in-depth study of God’s word. Sure, it takes time, but so what? Can you think of a better use of your time? What’s better — three hours watching a baseball game, or three hours spent in God’s word? The amount of time you actually spend depends on your personal calling and circumstances, but this is a case where more really is better. The main reason that I have a smart phone is that I can carry multiple translations of God’s word with me (including audio), and yes, in the original languages too, complete with study tools. Taking a bus, waiting in line? How should you use that time? You will also get to a point where you can intuitively spot an error or unbiblical teaching, even when the person is appealing to the original languages and scholarship.
I still remember a story from one of my Classics professors at the Ohio State University. He and several other graduate students put on a performance of a Greek play in the original ancient Greek. Inevitability, they had to memorize the entire play in ancient Greek. Sometime later, a professor came to interview for a position at the school. He was an expert on that play and delivered a paper on it before the graduate students and faculty. The graduate students who had participated in that play began to point out all sorts of things wrong with his paper, quoting pertinent sections of the play in the original to make their arguments. The poor professor didn’t get the job…
I would like to see the scholars of our seminaries and churches knowing their Hebrew and Greek Bibles that well, but why can’t we know our English Bibles that well? Think of the difference it could make.
What specific value is there, then, in knowing the original languages, and in the various types of study tools now available to the Christian in studying God’s word? As Paul said in another context, “much in every way.” But you will have to read the next CPH blog post for the details: What Profit Is There In Learning Biblical Greek? Much in every Way!
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