The integrity, vitality and longevity of the church depends on how well its members preserve the faith that was handed down from those who came before us. In this article, you will see how knowledge of the original languages contributes to the effort to preserve the faith, and by learning Greek, you contribute to this preservation.
Not Everyone Needs to Learn Greek. But Some Do
Have you ever heard someone say, “Not everybody needs to learn Greek.” It is generally expressed as a reason for the one speaking to not learn the language, or to limit how far they will progress in the language. Nobody should argue that everybody should learn to read the Greek New Testament, but everybody should agree that some people must. If this is you, get started right now, for free!
The Threat to the Faith
Jude tells his readers to “contend earnestly for the once-for-all delivered to the saints faith” (Jude 3, my translation). He was aware that “certain people” had slipped in “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). He was not concerned that anything was happening to the grace of God – these men were not actually modifying God’s grace itself. Instead, what they were teaching about God’s grace was a perversion of the truth. They changed the teaching about God’s grace from what had been taught by the apostles, a message of grace for repentance, into a message that gave a free pass (or license) to sin. In other words, they took the teachings of the faith and the knowledge of God and modified them from what the authors intended to present into a message filled with half-truths and conclusions that differed from God’s intent.
Scripture teaches that the knowledge of God, Christ and His salvation, is critical for repentance (2 Cor. 4:6, 1 Tim. 2:4) and growth in the church (Eph. 1:17, Col. 1:9-10, 2:2). Therefore, without clarity of the teachings of Scripture, the knowledge of God and His salvation through Christ, the gospel, is easily perverted or worse, it is lost.
Modern Translations and a Lack of Training
Many of our modern translations do not clearly or completely convey the richness of God’s revelation. Indeed, it is impossible to do so. Lay people are drawn to new translations for their “new” wording without knowing how these vary from the original text or the significance of these changes. Without people around them who are familiar with the original languages, and clarity about the message of the text, the message risks being lost.
Unfortunately, more often than not, there is nobody available to explain these translations. There are English-speaking countries today, where the church was once strong, where the vast majority of church pastors now have no knowledge of the original languages, and little to no formal training. In these countries, church members barely understand the gospel (if at all); the church lacks conviction and has become little more than a “worship experience;” evangelism is largely constrained to the social gospel; and the exposure the nation has to Christianity is a confused antagonism to progressive politics.
The Reformation: A Case Study
What would happen to the church if the original languages were lost? Prior to the Reformation, the situation was in many ways worse. The mass was spoken in Latin rather than the language of the people, and most of the people who would attend were illiterate. This meant that the people did not understand what was being said. Perhaps more astonishingly, many of the priests did not even know the meaning of the mass that they recited by rote (occasionally getting words wrong). The faith was a faith without knowledge, as Michael Reeves explains, “people did not need to understand in order to receive God’s grace. An uninformed ‘implicit faith’ would do.”1
The underlying problem of the Reformation, was that the church stopped teaching the knowledge of God accurately. When this happened, the gospel was perverted and became meaningless in the lives of those who taught it as well as the lives of those who heard it. This is similar to what is happening in our secularizing society today. The church then needed reforming, and that reformation started with the recovery of the languages.
Recovering the Languages Led to the Reformation
Five years after he had nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, Martin Luther summarized the great change that has started to come about, attributing it to the clear teaching of the Word of God.
I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
What made it possible for the Word of God to do this work? After all, it is not like the text of Scripture was lost for a thousand years and then the church found it in a dusty box in the corner of the temple (2 Chron. 34:14-18). In the Reformation, what was reclaimed was the clarity of the teaching of Scripture, and this clarity came about thanks to the resurgence of interest in Greek language and culture.
The Renaissance and the Greek New Testament
In 1452, Constantinople was conquered by the Sejuk Turks, and as a result many scholars fled the city taking their Greek texts with them. Many fled to Florence, where a school of Greek language and culture was set up.2 From Florence the new renaissance humanism spread to France, England, Spain, and Germany. In Germany, Erasmus immersed himself in this new teaching, and devoted himself to learning Greek, particularly the New Testament and the early church fathers. Eventually, he produced the first critical Greek New Testament.
Martin Luther was also well versed in humanist thinking and was himself very capable in the original languages. During his debate at the Leipzig Disputation (pictured above), Peter Mosellanus, the chair of the debate, described Luther’s ability with the languages saying,
He understands Greek and Hebrew well enough to give his own judgment on what words and phrases mean.
As a witness to the debate, Mosellanus recognized the significance of Luther’s knowledge of the languages in the context of the debate. But Luther’s knowledge of the languages was not just significant for the debate itself (which took place in 1519), but for the entire reclamation of the gospel in the Reformation. Luther’s conviction about the gospel was rooted in a conviction that the original language conveyed God’s message clearly.
The Languages Preserve the Faith
As the nation began reforming, Luther warned the leaders of the cities in Germany of the importance of teaching the original languages in their schools.
We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit 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 . . . they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall . . . lose the gospel.3
Luther believed that the preservation of the gospel depended on a preservation of the languages. This does not merely mean making Greek a domain of study for scholars, but spreading knowledge of the languages around liberally so that as many people as possible understood them, and therefore understood the Bible and its message.
Mediating the Word to the Mediators
Since knowing the word of God is so important, translations represent a veil between us and the words “the Book” was written in. In other words, a translation cloaks the text, creating ambiguity and removing us one level from what God said. This is why B. B. Warfield was so committed to teaching the languages at Princeton.
For such a ministry … nothing will suffice for it but to know; to know the Book; to know it first hand; and to know it through and through. And what is required first of all for training men for such a ministry is that the Book should be given them in its very words as it has come from God’s hand and in the fulness of meaning, as that meaning has been ascertained by the labors of generations of men of God who have brought to bear upon it all the resources of sanctified scholarship and consecrated thought.4
If our primary task is to teach the Word of God, we must know the Word of God. Philip Melanchthon connected knowledge of the languages with a right knowledge of Christ.
Since the Bible is written in part in Hebrew and in part in Greek, . . . we drink from the stream of both—we must learn these languages, unless we want to be ‘silent persons’ as theologians. . . Only if we have clearly understood the language will we clearly understand the content. . . . If we put our minds to the sources, we will begin to understand Christ rightly.5
The risk is not so much that if we do not understand the languages we will not understand the gospel. The risk is that if we do not understand the languages, our ability to defend the gospel is dependent on our knowledge of secondary sources. John Piper put it this way,
When pastors do not study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew… they, and their churches with them, tend to become second-handers.6
If our people do not know the languages, and their leaders do not know the languages, the church is at great risk of being tossed by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14).
Preserve the Faith
The reformers recognized and argued that through the knowledge of the languages, the church fulfills its responsibility to preserve the faith. Today we have a great need for doctrinal clarity in the church, and this clarity will not come from translations, but from knowledge of the original languages.
Those who preserve the faith are those who understand the faith, and the better we understand the language that God, in His wisdom, chose to communicate in, the better we will understand the message that was communicated.
Your Call: Master Greek
This article is not a call for everyone to learn the language. That would be irresponsible. Rather this article is a call for those who are capable to learn the language and to help preserve the faith. Along the way, you will grow in your knowledge of God and His salvation, and you will reduce your dependency on secondary sources.
If you can learn the languages, take up the challenge. Click here to get started right now, for free, and help preserve the faith delivered to the saints.
1. Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: B & H Publishing), 17 Kindle.
2. N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Part 3: Renaissance and Reformation (Sparkford, UK: J. F. Print Ltd, 2004, 2010), 21.
3. Cited in Merkle, Benjamin L. and Robert L. Plummer. Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing), 242, Kindle.
4. Cited in Jason S. DeRouchie, “The Profit of Employing the Biblical Languages: Scriptural and Historical Reflections,” Themelios, 37, no. 1 (2012): 46.
5. Cited in Greek for Life, 191 Kindle.
6. John Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 83.