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).


Do Hebrew and Greek Really Matter? — 21 Comments

  1. My own experience as student, professor, and pastor leads me to think that all who aspire to the office should be forced through 2 years of Hebrew and Greek at least. If no one has to take the classes then none of those who actually have the potential will ever develop them in time for the intensive study they could be best used for both at seminary and then in the parish or classroom.

    Other experience leads me to think that those things which are not taught are actually being taught against by that very lack. Instead of contextual reading those who teach will rely on the exegetical skills and philosophies of others. That leaves the teacher short, able to claim only that so-and-so says this, the other guy says that…

  2. As far as I’m aware, Greek and Hebrew are not just “requirements” for pastors (meaning learned before graduating from Seminary and being certified for placement). They are “prerequisite” before you are even allowed into the MDiv program.

    At CSL I believe both Greek and Hebrew are in the curriculum as “pre-seminary”
    At CTSFW, Greek is “pre-seminary” and Hebrew is required in the MDiv curriculum.

    The significance of this is two-fold. First and practically, you don’t get seminary grant/aid for pre-seminary courses. Second and more conceptually, Greek (and at CSL- Hebrew too) must be passed before you are even allowed to enter the MDiv program, say nothing of the final goal of graduation, certification, and placement. Proficiency is not just for pastors, but for any who would even aspire to begin the training.

    1 Timothy 3:2- “Therefore an overseer must be… able to teach.”
    What does this mean?

  3. Based on the inability of some pastors in our Synod to properly interpret the BOC 1580, I think we could make a strong argument for adding Latin and German to your list.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  4. The opening quotation from Dr. Luther is factually incorrect, I believe. Portions of the Bible are originally written in Aramaic, no? If so, it is incorrect to say “…God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek” (because, inasmuch as Aramaic is a Biblical language, then the Bible wasn’t set down in those two languages alone).


  5. The sole memorial received by the 2013 ELS Convention concerned this very topic. Here are some excerpts: “The Biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, are foundational to the church’s proclamation of and right dividing of Law and Gospel, as Martin Luther explained:
    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. (LW 45, 359)
    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. (LW 45, 360)
    There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture, or, as St. Paul puts it [I Cor. 12:28–30; 14:26–32], a prophet. A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages. Now there must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations. (LW 45, 363)”….
    ….”WHEREAS, The current study of new Bible translations serves as a timely reminder of the need for our pastors to be competent in the Biblical languages, therefore,
    A. BE IT RESOLVED, That the synod encourage the administration and regents of Bethany Lutheran College to provide first and second year courses in both the Greek and Hebrew biblical languages on an annual basis, and,
    B. BE IT RESOLVED, That synod study the need for further commitment to the Biblical languages through offering more advanced courses in these languages, and other languages related to Biblical studies.”
    This resolution was passed by the ELS Convention.
    The memorial may be viewed in its entirety on page 55 in the following pdf:

  6. Another blatant bash at SMP and alternate route men, who yes, many were not required to learn these two sacred languages.

    Just be more upfront and say it like you mean it, “you guys do not preach, you babel ignorance since you obviously cannot interpret Holy Scripture correctly.”

    I would disagree, but yes, I must trust the interpretations of men who understand the languages (I have books, am trying on my own), as I build my sermon. And wait, I do use some also per-conceived ideas of how to read even interpretations, with our exegetical and hermeneutic concepts that make us Lutheran.

    Yet I do not see anywhere in Scripture that mandates this. I do deduce as many do that its knowledge is good. I wonder if Matthew and some of the disciples understood Greek or Hebrew?

    Why can you now accept as St. Paul does, that we all have different gifts to give, yet as overseers, we are in common with what we believe as pastors.

  7. I really don’t see the need for the SMP. I may be opening up a can of worms saying the following but- is there really a shortage of pastors in the LCMS? I am aware of a congregation that supported a seminarian a few years ago and he’s not listed on the LCMS roster. I do see his name every now and then because he has translated something into English from German. When that congregation gave money for his seminary training it was expected that he would become a Lutheran minister in a LCMS congregation, not someone in an ivory tower.

  8. @rev. david l. prentice jr. #7

    Okay, I have looke dinto seminary, for a possible calling. And I would likely qualify for the AR. RESIDENTIAL Alternate Route is rather intense, with tow of the three years of on campus class load. And oh yeah, befor eI can enroll into the MDiv, there is Greek. I either need to have it done before I show up, or take the Summer crash course. Now the NON-RESIDENTIAL alternate routes (Wichita deacon, DELTO, SMP), I definitely know SMP never requires any kind of language. That may change next month, but the course structure is so different, they are NOT the same.

    As for the disciples, they probably knew Hebrew. It was what was read in the synagogues. And they likely knew Greek. Being the commercial language that about everyone spoke, fisherman likely knew enough for business transactions. And to single out Matthew? The dude was a tax collector! If he didn’t knew a handful of languages, he wouldn’t be at all good at his job. I believe he knew Greek. Probably even a little Latin.

    And we all have gifts. But not everyone is calle dto be a pastor. Even if everyone is a minister (whatever that can mean), not everyone is a Minister.

  9. @rev. david l. prentice jr. #7
    Rev. Prentice,
    Matthew, the author of the first Gospel, wrote it in Greek. He also, being one who prolifically quotes from the Old Testament, also knew Hebrew. This is of the kind of thing is covered in pre-sem classes or in beginning M.Div. classes.

    I do think there is a place for some limited alternate routes. I don’t think it should be the normal route for the majority. It should not be a matter of preference or mere convenience. I have a friend in the ministry who went through an alternate route and is a very good pastor. I can understand, therefore, why you, having gone through that way as well, would seek to defend that course.

    Obviously in the history of the church there has been some variation in how the education is done. But “apt to teach” is the key standard in this area of the multifaceted qualifications. None of us have the same depth of knowledge in every area and sometimes we simply forget things. Hence continuing ed and study is important for pastors. But as I’m sure you’d appreciate, if we take the analogy of a doctor or pharmacist or surgeon, certain essentials need to be there. Also, one needs to have a certain objectivity.

    Another weakness of SMP, currently, is that it doesn’t imbue an objective theological perspective for parish ministry. They are “trained” (behaviorism) to DO certain things within the context they’ve always known and are less able to critique a situation pastorally. Hence also liturgical formation suffers as well.

    In the end, many places have engaged SMP route men outside of what the program was originally advertised to be – for poor, inner city, remote, or non-English speaking situations where we are sparse on men to serve in those areas, or where a worker-priest might be needed for budgetary reasons. Very often, however, SMP has been a route for quick pastors at churches of the “mega” or “emergent” variety, unnecessarily so.

  10. @Pr. John Frahm #11
    Wow, why are you not an author on Steadfast????? (or are you). Your comments are well written and bring sense to the debate. Your tone reading between the lines is, well, pastoral. Thank you.

    Do you see what I see, an attempt by some to just say, all men not classically trained (by current definition) should be drummed out.

    I would agree that SMP is not used properly in many places. I would be the first to support bad practice.

    But what I am afraid of is many simply putting together (seems like “lists” are the big topic of late) a list of congregations that are not properly run, whether being a COWO Church, an alternate route man led Church, etc.

    Hey, there is the Liturgical Church list. Perhaps I should have my Church taken off of it, even though I “think” I am liturgical, the service is liturgical, perhaps a DELTO guy cannot really do this by some peoples comments.

  11. @rev. david l. prentice jr. #12
    Pr. Prentice,
    I’m of course not speaking to your practice, etc. I don’t know what your practice is. But I am saying that if a man doesn’t go into it already somewhat liturgically aware and formed theologically, it is difficult for SMP to produce that. You may well be liturgical. I will put the best construction on that. No need to be defensive. We’re talking about something that affects the entire synod. You are called by the Lord and put under the orders of your vows. Hence I’m addressing you as pastor.

    Called and ordained men who are SMP or DELTO should be treated as such by parishioners and pastors alike. What I am saying that we need to give good attention to the prior theological education and formation, beyond the training for activities. Others that I’ve spoken with, including some alternate route men, agree that their needs to be revision to the program and better controls on the sorts of situations for which it is authorized. Big churches shouldn’t be one of them.

  12. @Matthew Mills #4
    I wish German and Latin had been required at the seminary. I took a summer German course during my grad studies, but I am not very proficient. I’ve been working on it, but it’s hard to find much time for this once you’re in the parish. In that same volume from Luther, he writes: “If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German,” (45:360).

    @Benjamin Keil #5
    Yes, Aramaic is a biblical language as well. I’m guessing Luther was speaking in generalizations, since the vast majority of the OT is Hebrew, not to mention Aramaic is very closely related. If you know Hebrew, Aramaic is easy enough to pick up.

    @rev. david l. prentice jr. #7
    I agree entirely with Pastor Frahm, who also is a BJS author. Like him, I am not against alternate route programs in principle. However, I do think it is important for all pastors to develop (and maintain!) a working knowledge of the languages. It sounds like you have been doing what you can to work with them, and I commend you for that. While I would not suggest removing anyone from office because they don’t know the languages or have forgotten them (whether MDiv, SMP, etc.), I do think (as Pr. Frahm mentioned) that continuing ed has to be a high priority for pastors. Doctors, teachers, etc., are all expected to continue their education, and there’s usually some accountability there. For guys who didn’t get the languages at the seminary, surely it is not too late to begin learning them now. As I mentioned above, I’ve been working on improving my German (not to mention the biblical languages) over the past few years, so I know the challenges of trying to do language study in the parish firsthand. But it’s definitely worth it, as it can only improve our ability to preach & teach the Gospel.

  13. Knowledge of the languages is a sound practice and concept. But I have to wonder, if 10 pastors classically trained are examined against one another in interpretation of particiular passages, will all come to the exact same conclusion on their own without the use of additional tools? If yes, then why does the synod not publish complete and accurate interpretations of the texts for use by all, including laymen, so that language is not a stumbling block? If the answer is no, then what good is knowledge of the languages if they must rely on other contextual materials and interpretations vary from pastor to pastor?

    Looking at my pastor’s library there is certainly no shortage of materials available for use in doing language background on scripture. If a pastor is intent on correct interpretation he will use his own knowledge and/or the knowledge of others to accomplish this. Without this intention no amount of knowledge matters.

  14. @Rich #15
    The depths and riches of the wisdom of God (Rom 11:33) preclude us from ever fully exhausting the meaning of Scripture, so it’s not like we can have any single resource or collection of resources that fully exhausts the meaning of any text. Scripture is too multifaceted for that. That’s why 10 pastors may come up with 10 different correct (but compatible) interpretations of a text. Plus, the application will certainly vary from place to place. What a text meant then and what a text means for us today are both vital questions. Without a working knowledge of the languages, it is much easier to make mistakes. Even the guys who write the lexicons are making interpretive decisions. Knowledge of the languages doesn’t guarantee exegetical perfection, but without that knowledge, it is much easier to err. That’s why the languages are still important.

    Another reason we can’t say “this is what the text means” is that as we learn more about the language & social customs of the bible (especially through archaeology & linguistic studies), we are better able to shed light on previously unclear passages. For example, recent studies of Roman society suggest that for a woman to not wear a head covering (such as a hood or veil) indicated sexual availability. To use 1 Cor 11:5-6 to forbid wearing hats in church (which is common enough) is a misapplication of that text. A better application would be to stress the importance of not dressing in a sexually provocative manner. Fortunately, the doctrine of Scripture remains clear even when the details elude us.

  15. Here is another blog entry on the same topic by Michael J. Kruger.
    Why the Biblical Languages Matter—Even if You Forget Them
    June 21, 2013

    In another month or so, a new crop of seminary students will begin the grueling month-long experience of Summer Greek. And, like all seminary students before them, they will begin to ask the question of why studying these ancient languages even matters. After all, a few years after graduation all will be forgotten. In the midst of a busy pastoral life, who could possibly maintain proficiency in the languages?

    As a result of these questions, some students decide (very early on) that the biblical languages are just something to be endured. They are like a hazing ritual at a college fraternity. No one likes it, but you have to go through it to be in the club. And then it will be over.

    Behind this “take your medicine” approach to the biblical languages are a couple of assumptions that need to be challenged. First, the characterization of pastoral ministry as somehow incompatible with the languages (due to busyness, or other causes), is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what a pastorate is all about. No doubt, pastors should be busy shepherding their flock, meeting with ministry leaders, and running the church. But, the core of the calling is to be a “minister of the word.”

    And if the pastoral call is to be a minister of the Word, then there is a significant component of pastoral life that should be devoted to serious study of the biblical text—beyond just the preparation for that week’s sermon. Put differently, pastors should continue to be students. They need to be readers, thinkers, and theologians.

    Unfortunately many modern pastors do not view themselves this way. This is evidenced by the language used to describe the place a pastor works at the church. In prior generations, it used to be called the pastor’s “study” (because that is what he did in there!). Now, it is called the pastor’s “office” (because pastors view themselves more as a CEO).

    One of my biggest disappointments is when I go into a pastor’s office and see that there are no (or very few) books. It is like going into a carpenter’s shop and seeing no tools. I remind such pastors of the words of Cicero: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

    If pastors recover their calling as ministers of the Word, then keeping up with the biblical languages should be a more natural part of their weekly activity. If they work in a “study” instead of an “office” than studying might just come more easily.

    But, there is a second assumption behind the “take your medicine” approach to the biblical languages. Many students assume that the study of the languages is useless if the specifics are forgotten at a later point. Indeed, this may be the biggest assumption in the mind of today’s seminary students.

    This assumption, however, is profoundly mistaken. 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.

    These factors alone are incredibly important for proper interpretation of the text and preparation of a sermon. And they are drilled into our heads when we take the biblical languages—even if we forget them later.

    So, students and pastors should be encouraged. There are good reasons to think you can retain your knowledge of the languages, if your role as “minister of the Word” is properly understood. But, even if you don’t, many of the benefits still remain.
    2012 Michael J. Kruger. All Rights Reserved.

  16. @Shawn Stafford #18
    Great stuff, Shawn! Reminiscing on his time at Erlangen with Paul Althaus, Wolf Dietrick Knappe says, “I recall one piece of advice that [Althaus] gave us concerning the biblical languages. He said: “Do not lose them. Keep practicing them. In the New Testament, read at least one chapter in Greek every day. In the Old Testament, even if you read only two or three verses a day, you will not forget your Hebrew.” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added: “Of course, this is a rule which you always can return to!”” “A Look Back- Erlangen 1945,” Logia XXII, 2 (Eastertide 2013): 69.

  17. Rev. David Prentice is representative of what I was going to advocate, and that is, that SMP candidates should have the desire or initiative on their own to study the biblical languages going into the program. This means that a candidate should understand the importance of the biblical languages and be put on a course to obtain proficiency with them with appropriate oversight during the course of their ordained ministry. While the study of languages may not necessarily be required for the initial education of SMP candidates, neither should it be a 2 and out process to qualify for ordination and service within a specific context.

    If the synod continues to use the SMP process for pastoral formation, it must be with the eye to an eventual, complete pastoral education that includes demonstrated proficiency and competency in the understanding, use, and application of the biblical languages. The educational and formational process does not end after 2 years of training. It takes 3 years of education to get a law degree. If a student cannot enter the 3 year program, there are extended routes that generally take a couple of years longer so that the education is 5 years instead of 3. This is because there is a recognition that not everyone can afford a 3 year residential program and their are students who have to work to support themselves and/or families while pursuing a law degree. These programs take into consideration the individual situation of the student, while not compromising on the education. SMP candidates have similar considerations, with the added pressure at times of a pressing need in the local situation to fill the office of the pastor. That adds a bit of a twist to the need for an SMP program, but consider this: Lawyers deal with issues that have very significant impacts on the lives of individuals, but these are temporal issues; Pastors deal also with issues that have very significant impacts on the lives of individuals, but these are eternal issues. I am not sure why, when dealing with the care of souls, we want to shorten the formational process, rather than extend it. I think it does a disservice to candidates like Pr. Prentice who have the desire to continue that education, but the program itself stops short. Certainly the SMP candidate can go to seminary to finish the M.Div requirements, but it then undermines the purpose and (potential) scope of the SMP program.

    The unspoken assumption, I think, in most people’s objections to the SMP program is that it does not go far enough in preparing candidates adequately for the pastoral office.

  18. @rev. david l. prentice jr. #7
    As a pre-minsterial student in the 60’s LCMS, I had a nervous breakdown in trying to learn German and Greek at the same time; I had no difficulty with the other courses. The Professor of Greek stated that “If God wanted you to be a pastor in this Church, he would have given you the ability to get an “A” in my class. Needless to say, I did not get an “A” in greek; in addition, I saw wonderfully talented men that gave up the calling. They had skills in teaching, in music, in counseling, in administration and finance and above all compassion; all necessary to successfully pastor a church. I am not downplaying the advantage of the languages, but to have made it a necessary criteria at that time without consideration of the other gifts of the men and without encouragement to continue was difficult.

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