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Preacher’s Toolkit: Should I Learn Hebrew and Greek or Is Bible Software Enough?

Editors’ note: “Preacher’s Toolkit” is a new monthly series that seeks to answer questions related to preaching. If you have a preaching-related question or issue you’d like for us to answer, please write us at [email protected]. We recently launched an Expository Preaching Project, for which TGC Council pastors will prepare free instructional resources on expository preaching in both video and print formats in six strategic languages. We’re prayerfully seeking to raise $150,000 to fund the project. To make a donation, please click here and select “Expository Preaching” from the designation list.

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Now that we have computer programs like BibleWorks, Logos, and Accordance, why do pastors and Bible teachers need to study the biblical languages? As a professor who has taught one of these languages for six years, I’ve had many pastors ask me this question. I can understand why.

Hebrew and Greek are probably the hardest subjects in seminary. Language classes are often viewed as the hurdle students must jump to graduate with a Master of Divinity. Many pastors look back on their language classes with bad memories of memorizing vocabulary and forms or being put on the hot seat to parse nouns and verbs.

Also, many (if not most) pastors don’t use the biblical languages much in their sermon preparation. Their busy schedules don’t leave them much time to translate a passage, so any insight they have into Hebrew or Greek usually comes from commentaries. And if they return to the original languages, it’s usually to look up the meaning of an individual word, which can be done by hovering the mouse over the Hebrew or Greek in Bible software.

Should We Still Require Hebrew and Greek?

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Many seminaries and divinity schools have dropped language requirements from their MDiv programs. Others have decided to offer a more “tools-based” approach in which students learn how to use one of the Bible programs rather than learning the languages themselves. But others continue to require what has historically been considered essential for pastoral training—the study of Hebrew and Greek.

Why should we continue this requirement?

Here’s my basic answer: Bible software hasn’t really changed anything. These programs are helpful because they give quick and easy access to a lot of information about the text: word meanings, parsing, word-frequency data, different translations, grammars, commentaries, and even images of ancient manuscripts. I have all three of the major programs on my computer, and I use at least one daily. But most of this information was always readily accessible in books. Software has simply changed the delivery system and sped up certain tasks.

When people suggest software has eliminated the need to study the biblical languages, I assume they mean these programs can quickly provide the meaning of individual words or quickly parse them. But we have always had tools that give access to that information without learning Hebrew and Greek. Words can be found in lexicons, and parsing can be located in analytical lexicons.

Using Them vs. Knowing Them

The goal of studying the biblical languages has never been to understand the meaning of individual words or to be able to parse them. Memorizing vocabulary and learning how to parse words are simply necessary means toward an end. The goal of studying the biblical languages is to learn to read and understand the biblical languages in order to more accurately interpret the text.

We have become so accustomed in the church to speaking about “using” Hebrew and Greek, I think we have forgotten that these are actual languages, and you can’t really use a language you don’t know. I took three years of Spanish in high school, but it is completely useless to me since I didn’t actually learn the language. I don’t know the language (outside of asking “where is the bathroom?”).

When pastors or Bible teachers use Hebrew and Greek without actually knowing them, they usually focus on word studies and explain the “real meaning” of individual Greek words (rarely Hebrew). These word studies are more often than not lexical fallacies. Ironically, the use of the original languages by those who don’t know them often leads to errors in interpretation rather than more accurate interpretation.

Here’s another illustration to reinforce the point. My dad is an electrician, and when I first moved out of the house he gave me a bunch of tools. One of the tools was a gauge that measures electrical current in batteries and wall outlets. This summer I installed new outlets throughout our fixer-upper house. Since I didn’t really know anything about electricity, I was unable to use that tool. I think the gauge is actually pretty complex and could have told me a good deal of information about the wiring of our house. But it was all Greek to me.

You can’t use a tool for a task you don’t really understand. Language tools are no different. If you don’t know the biblical languages, then the tools available in Bible software will be largely useless to you—or worse, they will lead you into interpretive errors.

Hard-Won Insights

Learning Hebrew and Greek and then keeping them up is hard work. I am always struggling to maintain them—especially the language I don’t teach. I try to read a few verses a day. I organize a summer reading group for accountability, and the pressure of preaching or teaching a passage forces me back into translation. True and accurate interpretation of a text through the original languages is always hard-won. It can’t be done by looking up individual words without understanding their context. It must be done through the slow and painful tasks of translation and interpretation.

If ministry is fundamentally centered on the Word and focused on the gospel, then those who have opportunity to learn the biblical languages should give themselves to that task. Can we understand the Bible and its message without knowing Hebrew and Greek? Yes, thank God, and in fact I’ve heard many excellent preachers who’ve never studied the biblical languages at all.

Might they be better preachers if they knew the original languages? I think so. They would be able to make accurate decisions about which translation is correct. They would be able to weigh the judgments of commentators instead of simply relying on them. And they would have insight into the text of Scripture as it was actually written down. 

Bible programs are helpful tools. But they are not a substitute for the work of careful interpretation. You can’t use a language you don’t know. I’m not saying we should expect pastors and Bible teachers to become experts in the biblical languages. But ideally, they should learn enough to be able to work through a translation of the text to interpret it with more accuracy. This skill comes only by study and hard work. 

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