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How do you use Greek in the pulpit? (Monday with Mounce 22)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonIn response to last week’s post, several people have asked this question. I find it interesting that I never thought of it; it is easy to criticize others, but harder to build up. A general principle of life. So how do you use Greek (and Hebrew) properly?

It starts with your homework. The most important place to use biblical languages is behind the scenes in doing your research, whether it be sermon preparation or getting ready for a Bible study. The languages give you access to tools that are far beyond the reach of English. The ICC commentaries are inaccessible without Greek and Hebrew. It is hard for me to imagine preparing a talk on Romans without checking Cranfield carefully.

But even a series like Eerdmans' New International Commentary on the New Testament really requires a working knowledge of Greek.

Even though the Greek is relegated to the footnotes, I can’t imagine being able to follow the commentator’s line of reasoning without having a working knowledge of Greek. When a writer argues that argument "A" is stronger than argument "B," behind those decisions almost always lies not just a working knowledge of Greek but a feel for the language and how it works.

Or how about a discussion of the flow of a biblical author’s thought?

All translations (to varying degrees) simplify sentence structure. Passages like Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 demand it. But when the commentator starts talking about dependent and independent constructions, and what words a phrase or clause modifies, English-only readers will struggle to even keep up with the discussion.

How many commands are in the Great Commission? Even if a subordinate construction ("go") picks up the force of the governing finite verb ("make disciples"), there is only one primary command. And then how do we accomplish the commission? The answer is conveyed partly by two dependent constructions ("baptizing," i.e., evangelism, and "teaching," i.e., spiritual formation). If you aren’t doing your homework in Greek, or if you don’t have some facility in Greek, this type of discussion is almost meaningless.

And then there are word studies. The tools out there like Accordance and BibleWorks, or one my interlinear volumes, give you the Strong’s or GK number behind the English so that you can at least do your word studies in Greek and Hebrew, never in English.

At one level it does not take an extended knowledge of the languages to use my Mounce’s Expository Dictionary or Verbrugge’s Dictionary of NT Theology, and yet when the dictionary gives a word’s range of meaning, how do you make a determination as to which nuance is present in a particular context? This is an ability, perhaps even an art, that you develop over time in using the languages.

Finally, you use a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to explain why the translations are different. Before the ESV was available, I used another translation that was a little freer in its translation philosophy. There were two Sundays in a row where I had to correct its interpretation to make what I thought was the true point of the passage. After the service a new Christian came to me and asked, "Can I not trust my Bible?" Ouch! So here is one of the big no-noes from the pulpit. Do not correct the English Bible. Ever! Never say, "the translators got this wrong." The damage you can do to a person’s trust in Scripture is unimaginable.

So what do you do it you think a particular translation did get it wrong, while at the same time not holding yourself up as "God’s Anointed" that no mere mortal (i.e., pew sitter) may touch! I think there are ways to do it, and a lot of it has to do with how you say it. Be courteous. Be gentle. Be fair. There is a good chance that the translators with whom you are disagreeing know a lot more than you.

How would you disagree with them if they were in the front row that morning? I think you can say things like, "This is a difficult verse to translate, and perhaps you noticed that the XXX version does it differently than the XXX version." And since you are the pastor and have a responsibility to lead your flock, tell them what you think and why. Nothing wrong with fair, gentle, disagreement. What is wrong is to move into an ad hominem argument where you cast doubt on the translators’ ability to do their work.

This is where footnotes really come in handy. If the interpretation you prefer is in the footnote, you are home free. You can say something like, "If you look at the footnote on this verse you can see that there is some question on how to understand this verse. My personal preference is to go with the footnote." This does not make anyone mistrust their Bible, and it encourages them to watch the footnotes for themselves.

But I imagine that you have noticed I have not yet used the word "Greek" or "Hebrew" publicly. This is my general rule. When I want to talk about the meaning of the Greek word, I say something like, "The word translated such-and-such has a range of meanings that includes.…"

I just don’t think there are many times you need to parade your knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. As I said in the previous blog, people want to put you up on a pedestal. They want to think that you are different from them. But as I have told people many times from the pulpit, we are all gifted people in the same body, and only Christ is the head. My gift puts me up front and puts me in a position of leadership, but I am still just one gift in the midst of other gifted people.

I use Gordon Fee’s illustration of a circle. Inside the circle are lots of little circles representing all the various gifts God has given to the church to meet the diverse needs of the body. Preaching or teaching is one of those gifts. But just as important are the gifts of mercy, and giving, and administration. I don’t believe in congregational rule (another blog post) and I do believe that Paul gives us a hierarchical structure for the church — a teaching elder supported by deacons in each house church (another blog post) — but my gifts do not put me outside the circle of the church. Only Christ is outside the circle.

Here is what is driving me. The church has become so layered with different hierarchies of authority and responsibility that it gives the false impression to most "lay" people that all they have to do is sit and soak (and then sour if they don’t exercise). This is wrong. We are all gifted and all called to serve one another. This is one of my driving principles, and it is what lies behind my strong preference that you not say, "Now in the Greek …." Holding yourself up as an authority that must be obeyed works against this most basic assumption of mine.

So learn your languages, do your homework, read the best commentaries, struggle with the Greek and Hebrew text, check various translations, and then express yourself with simplicity and humility, and let the power of the sermon be the power of the Spirit working through your words. But please do not hold yourself up as an authority who must be believed because you know what the Greek says. Who knows? Perhaps God will send someone to hear you who knows more about Greek than you do, and will blog about your mistake before the world (as I did in last week’s blog).

Okay, having said all this, do you ever say Greek and Hebrew words?

Sure. I am currently preaching a series on the 52 major stories of the Bible (here's the link). I have taught them the word Yahweh and often say it when "Lord" is in small caps. And I taught them the word "hesed." (I had fun getting them to pronounce the het.) Using the Hebrew made the story of David and Goliath come alive, as David insisted that there is a God in Israel, and it is not Dagon but Yahweh. I used "hesed" because they needed to see that God’s love for his covenantal people is special; it is a love that he has not for all people but only for us who are part of his community.

However, I cannot think of any situation in which I would talk about "object or subjective genitives." Or "inceptive aorists."

My prayer is that I never use Hebrew and Greek in such a way as to elevate myself, to make something of myself. And perhaps this is the answer. If you are wondering about whether to use technical language, ask yourself why. Is it to make much of yourself, or to make much of God? Can you find a humbler way of saying it, and if so why wouldn’t you do it that way? Motives are a hard thing to assess, especially in yourself, but the work is worth it.

God’s call for humility and gentleness does not stop at the classroom door. They are not qualities only for the "uninitiated" pew-sitters.

Humility, gentleness, kindness, must first and foremost be demonstrated from the pulpit. If your church is struggling with arrogance, perhaps all of us who stand before people should watch a video of how we preach and what we say. Maybe that is where the problem starts.

Mounce William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at

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