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Why Study Biblical Hebrew? Neglect the Languages, Lose the Gospel, Says Luther!

Categories Old Testament

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In a week Hebrew and Greek professors will be confronted with that perennial one word question:

Why?

Why study the original biblical languages?

The Reformation reminds us why. “Ad fontes!”—To the fountains, or sources!—was their battle cry for a reason. For it was when Reformation Europe rediscovered the ancient languages that the Bible's impact as a shaping force accelerated.

In fact, after his conversion, Martin Luther was convinced that “we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.” He goes on:

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, as the gospel itself points out, 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… (emphasis added, 120)

Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt highlight Luther’s convictions in Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. In addition to teaching the language itself, they provide inspiring insights in the importance of studying the biblical language.

I often need to be reminded how crucial this is for my vocation. Today brother Luther provides five insights into why the languages are vital, not only for our profession, but for the gospel itself.

1) History Reminds Us

Experience too has proved this and still gives evidence of it. For as soon as the languages declined to the vanishing point, after the apostolic age, the gospel and faith and Christianity itself declined more and more…On the other hand, now that the languages have been revived, they are bringing with them so bright a light and accomplishing such great things that the whole world stands amazed and has to acknowledge that we have the gospel just as pure and undefiled as the apostles had it, that it has been wholly restored to its original purity, far beyond what it was in the days of St. Jerome and St. Augustine… (120)

In the centuries leading up to the Reformation knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded—even among venerable scholars like Thomas Aquinas! Luther argues that alongside this linguistic decline the gospel itself suffered, too.

Could we be in danger of suffering the same fate? Learning the languages are in decline, even within the cornerstone Master of Divinity. I wonder if we are setting ourselves up for the same errors as the ancient church endured now that we are relying less and less on learning the original languages.

2) The Fathers Remind Us

Yes, you say, but many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without the languages. That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so often erred in the Scriptures?…Even St. Augustine himself is obliged to confess…that a Christian teacher who is to expound the Scriptures must know Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin. Otherwise, it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling; indeed, there are plenty of problems to work out even when one is well versed in the languages. (120)

History bears witness to the importance of biblical languages, so do the church fathers. Luther argues their errors in biblical interpretation and application prove his point. As does the testimony of the fathers themselves, like Augustine, who exhorted people to be well versed in Greek and Hebrew to avoid stumbling and perserving the gospel.

Yes, plenty of men and women are saved and teach without the languages. Yet the travails of the father remind us of their importance. So, too, does excellence in our vocation.

3) Vocational Excellence Reminds Us

There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture, or, as St. Paul puts it, a prophet. A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages. Now there must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations. A saintly life and right doctrine are not enough. Hence languages are absolutely and altogether necessary in the Christian church, as are the prophets or interpreters; although it is not necessary that every Christian or every preacher be such a prophet, as St. Paul points out in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4… (120-121)

I chose the heading “vocational excellence” because that seems to be what Luther is getting at here. Excelling at our vocation as expositors of the Bible and champions of the gospel  correlates with having a strong handle on the original languages.

Luther is onto something: to competently “dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations“ we must maintain the gifts God has given us through the original texts.

4) Common Grace Reminds Us

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor—yes, almost without any labor at all—can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude! (121)

Have you ever considered our access to the original Greek and Hebrew as an extension of God’s common grace? Are we grateful for the Masoretic Text; for Codex Vadicanus, Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Sinaiticus; for the Dead Sea Scrolls?

By God’s grace we have access to the original languages of His Word! As Luther commends, let us not be lethargic and ungrateful for these gifts, as they ensure the gospel isn't lost.

5) Preaching Reminds Us

Here belongs also what St. Paul calls for in I Corinthians 14, namely, that in the Christian church all teachings must be judged. For this a knowledge of the language is needful above all else. The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done in any other way. Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations. Hence, Psalm 129 likens such scriptural studies to a hunt, saying to the deer God opens the dense forests; and Psalm 1 likens them to a tree with a plentiful supply of water, whose leaves are always green. (121)

Luther reminds us teachers we will be judged for our teaching. (See James 3:1) This should give us pause when we might consider skipping that Hebrew lecture or go straight to that NIV Bible during sermon preparation.

Luther insists our preaching reminds us of the need to know Greek and Hebrew. Not only does such knowledge of the original languages ensures sound teaching, it also ensures fresh teaching, so that our people are convicted and compelled by the good news of God's grace.

In recounting Luther’s encounter with God’s grace, Pratico and Van Pelt provide us a final reminder:

By the study of the Scriptures in their original languages, [Luther] found the grace of God and the freedom from sin that only comes by that grace. On this ground, he became convinced that reading Greek and Hebrew was one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of the Reformation preacher. (119)

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