Languages in the Theological Curriculum
One distinguishing feature of the course of ministerial training provided in the Free Church College is the place given to the study of the biblical languages. As with so many features of our church life, this would not have been so distinctive a characteristic in past generations, but over the years financial constraints and the need to keep up student numbers have led most institutions providing theological education in the English-speaking world to ditch Hebrew as a requirement — and the study of Greek is also often in terminal decline. Is it merely tradition that continues to give them a place in the Free Church? Would it be progress to remove what are often viewed as needless obstacles from the path of those who are candidates for the ministry?
At the Reformation, the Scriptures were placed at the heart of the life of the church. The corollary of the Reformed dictum of sola Scriptura was the requirement that those being trained to set forth the message of the gospel had to do so on the basis of an intelligent grasp of the truths they were conveying. No longer was the focus of religious worship on the rite of the mass conducted by a priestly class reciting a little-understood Latin liturgy. The communal life of the church was centred round the proclamation of the truth of Scripture by those who had themselves studied the word of God, and through whom therefore the Holy Spirit might powerfully apply that word in the experience of the congregation. To achieve this end those preparing for the ministry had to be not only men of committed piety, possessing requisite intellectual and communication skills, but also men with competence to consult and study the message of God as it was originally given.
It is legitimate to inquire if circumstances have altered over the following centuries so as to obviate the need for learning the original languages. We are now privileged to possess in English a variety of translations of Scripture, employing different translation techniques, and a great many commentaries on the books of the Bible embodying the diligent research of generations of scholars. Does this not render it unnecessary that candidates for the ministry should spend disproportionate time and energy in mastering the biblical languages?
However, the very number of translations and commentaries requires linguistic skill to perceive their strengths and weaknesses. The apostolic injunction still applies: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). It is the word that the preacher has to handle. The sermon is not to consist of a catalogue of other men’s translations or of a catena of thoughts from various commentaries, no matter how scholarly or spiritually edifying they may be. Translators and commentators represent the heritage of the study and meditation of the Christian community over the centuries. They are companions with whom one should seek to explore the objective and abiding message of Scripture, not a bypass to conduct one away from the frequently onerous task of prayerful study of the word. The prophetic role of the preacher requires that he be guided by the Holy Spirit to hear God himself speaking through his word, and so be in a position to convey that word and apply it in his own life and in the lives of those whom he addresses.
Since in the wisdom of God his message to us has been communicated in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, it is incumbent on the preacher in every generation until the day comes when the curse of Babel is reversed to be familiar with the languages in which the message is inscripturated. This is not to say that there is any inherent sanctity in these languages. It is simply to recognise that in divine providence they were used to communicate God’s revelation. Therefore, whoever is being trained to propagate that message must give direct and immediate attention to it in the way in which it stands written. The privilege of drawing close to the original word communicates an authority and insight to what is subsequently said, and is an antidote to many errors and misconceptions that may arise in a longer line of communication. While, unlike Moses, the preacher’s face may not shine from such close exposure to divine revelation, his sermon should shine with greater clarity and authority. He no longer speaks as one who has second-hand experience of the word, but as one on whom that word has had direct and vivid impact. The church impoverishes and weakens itself if it leaves the task of exegeting Scripture in the hands of an academic elite who alone have the linguistic skills to consult the original text. No such priestly class (with, possibly, their own agenda) should come between the preacher and the God whose message he relays to those for whom he has a pastoral concern.
It may, of course, be objected that such an emphasis on linguistic competence demeans the efforts and ministries of men who have not mastered, or who at any rate have not excelled in, the biblical languages. There are those who urge that there have been many ministries blessed by God where the preachers knew no Greek and even less Hebrew. Should it not be that personal piety, Spirit-led insight into the truth, and compelling and powerful presentation have overwhelming priority in what is to be desired in a minister? None of these factors should be dismissed. To the contrary, these are the very characteristics which will be nurtured by close and prayerful attention to the detailed nuances of Scripture. The Spirit who inspired the truth of the word is pleased to honour the careful study of that word in the life of the preacher and by blessing the message he brings from it to his congregation. To say that is not to try to set limits on how God may be pleased to act. He does not scorn the honest endeavour of those who present his word as best they can given their personal circumstances and aptitudes. But the church in planning what course of study should be followed by theological students is remiss if due provision is not made for them to acquire competence in those skills which are central to the task for which they have been called. The exceptional should not dictate the norm that the church is duty-bound to require of those who are entrusted with the task of setting forth the truth of the oracles of God.
Language study has never been easy. Its difficulty has increased in recent years for many students by the absence from their previous education of any exposure to the classical languages. Indeed one regrettable feature of modern education is that linguistic achievement is largely lacking in all languages, including English itself. This lack of a linguistic reference structure does present a greater initial barrier to those who in later life seek to learn Greek or Hebrew, while at the same time enhancing its value to them in that it corrects a deficiency in their skills. As preachers, language is to be their tool, and appreciation of it as an instrument of communication enhances their ability to use language, quite apart from the content of the message to which they are exposed.
Fortunately there is also an opposite trend in that the acquisition and use of the biblical languages have been facilitated by the personal computer and the resources it makes available. The computer does not completely eliminate the chore of vocabulary acquisition, but it does reduce it to a more manageable level. The initial stages of language study, which often can seem the least rewarding because they are conducted at a distance from Scripture itself, can be curtailed somewhat, and more effort can be given to appreciation of the syntactic and literary structure of the original text where the payback in terms of understanding and presenting the message is more immediately perceived.
Learning the biblical languages as an element in a theological curriculum is a powerful statement of the place of Scripture in the life and mission of the church. It equips the pastor to act as the teacher of his congregation, setting before them the truth which he has personally perceived in the text. He is in an informed position to lead his congregation through God’s word as it was set out in its original context and on that basis to bring out its contemporary relevance. The message he brings is not imposed by some whim on the text, but comes with divine authority because it is drawn from the word. The preacher who has granted the word centrality in his study and who has made every effort to understand it as comprehensively and closely as he can is the one who is in a position to urge his hearers to give Scripture the same centrality in their hearts and to apply it exhaustively in their lives. In neither sphere will half measures suffice.