Using the Original Languages in Preaching

Why do I need to? After all, there was no time in the history of preaching when there were more good translations than now.

The argument sounds good; but the objector misses the obvious fact that the more translation possibilities that he has to choose from, the more one needs to know (at least something about) the original languages; otherwise, when they differ (and they do), how does he know which is correct? From which should he preach? Which more faithfully represents the original text of the writers? This is a special problem today, when so many translators have determined to become interpretive in their renderings. The very wealth of modern options itself should (all the more) point up the need for an acquaintance with the original languages.

“Where can I get this knowledge?” Self-help books, printed languages courses in both Greek and Hebrew, and internet courses exist. But (easiest) many Bible colleges. All conservative seminaries and a number of other schools provide courses in the original languages. Any pastor who has never had Greek or Hebrew (even if he doesn’t ever complete a seminary education) ought to take these courses. “Why?” Well, not only to decide between translations, but:

  1. To be able to “get the feel” of a passage. English translations tend to trowel off the original tone of the writers. Only by becoming acquainted with the original can one restore this. This “feel” is essential to good preaching.
  2. To be able to use the best commentaries and read the better Bible helps (most of which refer to the original text). Without some knowledge of the languages, one cannot follow the reasoning behind the renderings suggested.
  3. To be able to evaluate other books that (again, not using the original) may be far afield in their interpretations and/or uses of many passages.
  4. Preaching that flows from the study of a passage in the original moves forward with a more sure-footed stride; other preaching often limps. A certain confidence derives from having examined the text for one’s self.

“But I’ll never be a Greek or Hebrew scholar.” Right! That is true of most pastors. And right there lies the problem. Many good men who could have profited from a sensible use of the original languages were turned off by seminary teachers who taught them the study of languages as if their life occupation would be to teach Classics or Semitics in a university. They never recommended short cuts (e.g., like forgetting all about the rules for Greek accents—learning these is an almost totally unnecessary chore. One can get along well with learning only those distinguishing accents that count). They tried to build up a conscience against using analytical lexicons and interlinear translations (two very valuable helps that no one should feel guilty about using freely). They talk negatively about such books as Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon and don’t tell students about Spiros Zodhiates’ crib for Machen’s grammar. All such “purism” is sheer nonsense. Who cares if a pastor leans on some Bagster help? Who cares how a person learns to get the right answers to his exegetical questions concerning the original languages so long as he gets them? Of course one should use the Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance if he finds it helpful. Why not?

With all that a busy pastor must do, it is only right for him to employ every available aid that he can afford, to keep his hand into the continued use of Hebrew and Greek. He would be a poor steward of time and energy if he did not. Many men have lost any language ability they once had because they believed (what they were told, or strongly led to think) that it was wrong to use anything but the naked text and the standard grammars and lexicons. Sheer, unadulterated nonsense! Pastor, if using an interlinear will help you get back to the Greek and Hebrew, use it—let me emancipate you from the chains of guilt forged in the shops of language teachers who never had to face the everyday problems of the pastorate. Use it! Use whatever is available. Indeed, every teacher of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary ought to take the time to compare and contrast these helps, giving his opinion about which is best (and why) and instructing pastors in the most effective and intelligent use of each.

Preach; preach from a study of the original text, and you will preach with confidence and joy.

2 thoughts on “Using the Original Languages in Preaching

    • It is an answer key for the translation exercises in Machen’s basic Greek grammar. It is probably out of print. At one time, Machen was the most commonly used beginning Greek grammar used to teach Greek in seminaries. It has been superseded by newer textbooks.