Do Hebrew and Greek Really Matter?

IMG_2218When I was first learning the Biblical languages, I found a great deal of encouragement in Luther’s  words:

 “In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others.”[1]

Naturally, the devil puts a great deal of effort into attacking God’s Word.  If he can’t convince us to question the authority, inspiration, and accuracy of Scripture, he’ll do what he can to minimize the value of the languages.  Translations are important and the church would certainly be poorer without them, but shouldn’t a pastor have the ability to work directly with the primary text of Scripture?  Where a pastor is forced to rely only on translations and other secondary literature, it can only impair his ability to provide the proper care of souls.

In a report on the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program, the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, has said:

“We continue to advocate without reservation the need for formal training in biblical languages as the basis of exegesis which leads to faithful teaching and preaching of the Word. The M.Div. program has and will continue to have this requirement. While a lack of the biblical languages is not ideal, we do not believe that it is necessary to require a Greek course for all pastors, includ­ing graduates of the SMP program. Under supervision and with an awareness of the limitations of reading the Bible in translation, pastors certified through the SMP program are fully capable of preaching Lutheran sermons and teaching Lutheran doctrine. The program is designed to help students preach such sermons using resources based on the original languages. “[2]

If it is not ideal to ordain men without knowledge of the biblical languages, why is it necessary to offer routes leading to ordination that don’t include them?  If it is not necessary to require Greek for all pastors, why require it of any?  Why some and not others?  And what about Hebrew?  And, is it really enough for a pastor to be able to preach and teach Lutheran doctrine with the aid of resources?  How would you feel if your doctor relied on WebMD to come up with a diagnosis?  Resources certainly have their place, but if pastors are to use God’s Word in the care of souls, they must have the ability to think theologically and not merely rely on resources.

When I was at the seminary, I was taught that the best preaching and teaching begins with sound exegesis.  While maintaining purity of doctrine in preaching and teaching is essential, shouldn’t pastors also have the ability to accurately exegete (draw out the meaning of) a text?  Doctrinally sound preaching and teaching may be possible without the languages, but how can we be certain our exposition of the text is faithful without them?  It is possible to err in our interpretation of a text and still maintain doctrinal purity.  We should learn from the past, according to Luther: “Yes, you say, but many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without the languages. That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so often erred in the Scriptures?”[3]  Where an understanding of the languages is lacking, it becomes very easy to “twist the meaning of the text to suit [our] fancy.”[4]

Luther continues:

And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out [Matt. 14:20], they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments…  Although  faith and the Gospel may be preached by ordinary ministers without the languages, still such preaching is sluggish and weak, and the people finally become weary and fall away.” [5]

If the languages are necessary to preserve the Gospel, shouldn’t every pastor know them?  Can the church afford to IMG_2219risk losing the Gospel?  Must we tolerate “sluggish and weak” preaching, even if it is doctrinally sound?  Can we afford the continued elimination of Hebrew and Greek from some of our pastoral formation programs if it means risking that people will “finally become weary and fall away”?

The Missouri Synod has come a long way in her approach to pastoral formation.  Just over a century ago, the Saxon immigrants established a ten-year (post-elementary school) program to train pastors, which included spending seven years at the gymnasium and three at the theological seminary.  The gymnasium included courses in catechism, Bible history and Hebrew, Latin, Greek, German, English, history, geography, arithmetic, mathematics, natural history, physics, geology, singing, and calligraphy.[6] And this was all prerequisite for entering the seminary!

Is Luther right?  Are the languages necessary for preserving the Gospel?  The rigors of my own theological training in the languages at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the dedication and insistence of my professors, and my own experience as a pastor suggest they are.  How can the Church hope to preserve the Gospel if Her pastors can’t read Scripture in its original languages?  One of my professors once said that pastors who make no effort to work with the Hebrew and Greek ought to find a new career.  I have a hard time believing that he (and others like him) agree with this new standard of pastoral formation, where the biblical languages are regarded as non-essential.  If God’s Word is central to the task of pastoral care, equipping pastors to work with it directly in Hebrew and Greek (rather than through the medium of a translation) should be one of the highest priorities of pastoral formation.


[1] Luther, Martin.  Luther’s Works, Vol. 45.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962 (359).

[3] Luther, 361.

[4] Luther, 363.

[5]Luther, 360, 365.

[6] Korcok, Lutheran Education. St. Louis: CPH, 2011 (176).

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