Language Acquisition as a Theological Endeavour

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been reflecting a little bit on the purpose of learning the biblical languages for those who are interested in studying the Bible confessionally; specifically, individuals who intend to enter into some kind of pastoral ministry within the church. Although at the moment I do not envision myself pursuing the latter vocation, I have come to suspect that, in addition to the obvious utilitarian value for interpretation, knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek is theologically necessary for any Christian minister. To that end, I thought it might be interesting to share two specific areas in which the acquisition of these languages might actually have a theological justification.

First, and with implications particularly for those Christians whose doctrine of inerrancy gives primacy of place to the Bible’s original manuscripts (e.g. the Christian and Missionary Alliance),  it seems profoundly hypocritical for a pastor to not even attempt to engage with the languages in which the biblical texts would have been written. In this regard, as Martin Luther pointed out in his 1524 letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany” (cf. Augustine Doct. Chr. II:X 16), it must be acknowledged that the historic body catholic chose to preserve its corporate memory in a defined corpus of written documents in order that its narrative identity might be preserved in a particular form for posterity. It thereby follows that contemporary Christians (and leaders operating in the apostolic succession especially), insofar as they identify themselves with this particular faith tradition, have an obligation to engage the Bible in the manner adopted by the church catholic – that is, in its own words, paradigms, and, ultimately, language.

In response to this argument, of course, it might reasonably be objected that many within the early church, including the church fathers, did not in fact study the Bible in its original languages (particularly Hebrew and Aramaic), and that the preceding point would actually lend itself more readily to an apologia for the study of Latin or Syriac. While I would readily endorse learning the latter languages, as well as others that have been influential within Christian history, it must be kept in mind that when we speak of the body catholic we refer to the people of God as a whole, thereby including the early Jewish community as well. With this view in mind, it therefore seems just as scandalous that some members of the emerging church abandoned the study of Hebrew and Aramaic as it is that many contemporary believers rely exclusively upon translations of the Bible into English (a point Luther also makes in the aforementioned document).

Secondly, if one is in a position of hermeneutical authority, as those in church leadership are by virtue of occupying the office of pastor, it is exegetically inadequate to rely upon the interpretations of the biblical texts provided by English translations thereof. Such readings, as I pointed out in an earlier blog post on Exod 3:2, have a tendency to obscure hermeneutically relevant elements and thereby lead uninformed readers to draw hasty conclusions about the range of meanings conveyed by particular texts. Disconcertingly, if pastors are uninformed about the biblical languages there is the potential for such misunderstandings to be unwittingly presented to the laity with the implicit endorsement of the church (e.g. in a sermon), a prospect that should further impel those in ministry to ensure they are able to reflect carefully upon the Bible in the languages in which it was composed.

There are certainly other reasons why the biblical languages deserve a more prominent place in the worshipping life of the church than they enjoy today, but I think it’s important for those in positions of ecclesiastical authority to appreciate that their study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek has a theological basis.

Although it remains to be said how one might go about integrating these languages into pastoral practice, I will have to leave that for a later blog post. Likewise, I hope in other writings to provide a more thorough treatment of the theses presented here, and to supplement them with a broader discussion of the exegetical and linguistic importance of studying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. For now, I hope these thoughts, however cursory, prove to be intellectually and spiritually stimulating for my readers.

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