Why Study the Biblical Languages?
August 25, 2023
To undertake the study of the original languages of Scripture is a matter of utmost importance. Indeed, developing a facility in the original languages skillfully positions one to be an adept exegete. At Westminster Theological Seminary, we understand this to be central to the study of theology as well as to our mission to train specialists in the Bible. The languages of Greek and Hebrew are central to virtually everything that we do in our principal master's programs. In this article we’ll consider the importance of Greek and Hebrew for exegesis. We will also offer insight into the Greek and Hebrew courses offered at Westminster, as well as the study of those languages as prerequisite and thus important for further coursework. Finally, we’ll cover the role of Biblical languages in ministry.
Importance of Biblical Languages for Exegesis
It is certainly true that, due to the diligent work of faithful Bible translators, there is no shortage of accurate English Bible translations. However, during the translation process, several decisions about the grammar, syntax, and thus meaning of the text are made with each translated passage. These decisions are based upon the translator’s interpretation of that particular text. So, in that sense, every translation is also an interpretation.
This means that all exegesis that is done without reference to the original languages carries with it the unstated interpretations of its translators. Because of this, Westminster is resolute in its conviction that exegesis must be conducted with recourse to the original languages, for this will ensure that any deductions from Scripture are ultimately derived from the text of the Word of God itself.
The original authors of the text of Scripture conveyed their Divinely-inspired ideas by using the grammar and vocabulary of Greek and Hebrew. This indicates that the linguistic structures of these ancient languages and the common terms used by their speakers ought to factor into the exegete’s consideration of the text. Indeed, these factors influence the way in which the Divinely-inspired authors made their precise theological points. The flow of their logic is not always easily discernable when translated into another language that doesn’t communicate ideas in the same way. Likewise, the original authors also used popular phrases and figures of speech that pervaded their culture or were appropriated from other texts of Scripture.
Take for instance if I were to use the phrase “I’m all ears.” Taken out of context and translated into another language, the connotation of this phrase would lose its meaning. In the context of English, however, this colloquialism means, “you have my attention” or “I am listening.” In the same way, in order to fully understand the meaning of such phrases, we need to read the text in context and in the language it was written. The only way to do this is to devote the time and energy to learn Greek and Hebrew.
Biblical Languages Courses at WTS
Students in the MDiv and MAR are required to pass 3 courses of Greek and 3 courses of Hebrew. Greek and Hebrew 1 typically focus on vocabulary and grammar, which is the structure of the language itself and how it operates. In Greek and Hebrew 2 you will delve deeper into grammar and begin to cover syntax, which is the way that words combine to make sentences and convey ideas. You will also begin translating short passages of Scripture while building your vocabulary. Greek and Hebrew 3 focus on exegetical method and discourse analysis. This is where you will learn to interpret the text, discern its logical flow, and discover and identify main points and supporting points. In these courses you will begin to develop the language and exegetical skills that you will rely on in all subsequent coursework at Westminster.
Biblical Languages as Prerequisites
At many seminaries, the original languages are offered as a mere requirement that you need to fulfill by the end of your education, if they are even required at all. At Westminster, Greek and Hebrew classes are required at the outset of the MDiv and MAR coursework because these languages are logical prerequisites for completing advanced theological, biblical, apologetic, and hermeneutical coursework. We don’t have any courses called “Greek Exegesis” or “Hebrew Exegesis” because every one of our New and Old Testament courses are Greek and Hebrew Exegesis courses. More than that, Greek and Hebrew are prerequisites for our systematic theology and apologetics classes as well because our method of theology is rooted in Scripture.
Biblical Languages in Ministry
The exegetical method that is taught at WTS is not meant to stay locked in an ivory tower of academia. When you graduate from Westminster, we hope that you will take the language skills that you’ve learned and employ them in your ministry, particularly as you prepare your sermons and minister to your flock. Using discourse analysis, you will be able to discern the main point of the text on which you are preaching. Once you’ve found the original author’s main point and their supporting points, it should become clear what the main and supporting points of your sermon should be. In this way, the original languages are indispensable for ministry.
Our Founder, J. Gresham Machen, highlighted the importance of the biblical languages for ministry this way…
“We may sometimes be tempted to wish that the Holy Spirit had given us the Word of God in a language better suited to our particular race, in a language that we could easily understand; but in his mysterious wisdom he gave it to us in Hebrew and in Greek. Hence, if we want to know the Scriptures, to the study of Greek and Hebrew we must go… If, then, the students of our seminary can read the Bible not merely in translations, but as it was given by the Holy Spirit to the church, then they are prepared to deal intelligently with the question what the Bible means.”
The task of learning Greek and Hebrew is an arduous one. Indeed, it is not easy, but it is worth it. At Westminster the language skills you acquire will serve as a tool that you can deploy to more deeply access the truth of Scripture in a way that is otherwise impossible. We require the original languages because exegeting Scripture from a translation is like kissing your bride through the veil. If you want access to the Bible in its original languages and learn a sound exegetical method to interpret the original Greek and Hebrew text, we encourage you to apply to a master’s program now.
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