First, a confession. I like languages. I always have. There’s something fun about unraveling a new language, pulling the pieces apart, learning how it works, and then trying to put it back together again. It’s like a puzzle just waiting to be solved. It’s not easy, and like most puzzles it can be pretty frustrating. But I still enjoy it.
Not everyone agrees.
For many, learning a new language is an exhausting, frustrating, and spirit-killing endeavor, one that has been scientifically proven to cause premature hair loss, marital discord, excess book throwing, and, in small rodents, cancer. So it should come as no surprise that many wonder if it’s really worth it. Should I really invest that much time and that many brain cells in learning these languages? Isn’t that why we have translations in the first place?
That’s a fair question. But it’s not a new one. People have wrestled with whether we really need to learn the languages for a very long time. So, rather than offering my own answer, let’s take a look at what Martin Luther had to say on the subject.
Martin Luther wrote a wonderful little tract titled “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” In it he gives three reasons why we should study the languages. And stick with his argument all the way through. His first two answers might not surprise you much, but the third is where the real payoff is.
1. A Pragmatic Reason for Learning the Languages
Luther’s first reason is fairly pragmatic. There are some good translations out there that you can use to understand the Bible. And those will suffice for some purposes. But if you really want to dig in – especially if you are faced with someone you think is using the Bible badly – then you need more:
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.
And Luther goes on to argue that we also need to study the languages if we want to preach powerfully:
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.
I love his language of preaching as needing some depth behind it if it’s going to stay fresh and meaningful over time.
For Luther, then, we need to know the original languages because they add power to our messages, confidence to our ministries, depth to our arguments. And, those are no small matters. We should be able to handle the Word with confidence and proclaim with power. The time we have spent on the languages is a gift to our ministries and students.
But it seems like we need something more. If understanding the languages is a purely pragmatic issue, then my best bet would be to find Greek and Hebrew scholars that I really trust and simply rely on their conclusions. It’s unlikely that I will ever spend more time on Greek and Hebrew than Bill Mounce or Miles van Pelt (since they actually wrote books on learning Greek and Hebrew). And, if I can’t really do better than they can, wouldn’t it be more efficient to use my time doing something else? Why not trust a good commentary and spend my time working on powerful illustrations and applications? This is precisely what a pragmatic approach to the languages would suggest.
2. A Gospel-Centered Reason for Learning the Languages
So, I find it interesting that Luther’s main argument is not a pragmatic one. His starting point is the Gospel.
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, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments.
Luther’s fundamental concern is that if we do not pay particular and close attention to the text, we will lose the Gospel itself. Left to ourselves, we will inevitably fashion the Gospel in our own image, after our own preferences, according to our own desires. Although Luther regularly ascribes value to studying translations of the Bible, he argues that this is not ultimately sufficient. Unless we dig deeply into the text, we will eventually lose our moorings and drift into the stream of contemporary (ir)relevance.
Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.
3. A Formational Reason for Learning the Languages
So, we have now two reasons for studying the original languages: effective ministry and protection of the Gospel. To these, I think we must add a third: spiritual formation. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are not studying the original languages; we are studying the Word of God. The languages are simply a means to that end. As Luther said, they are the “sheath.”
So I think we would do better to think of learning the languages as a spiritual discipline. It is an intentional practice designed to draw one toward a more intimate knowledge of God so that we can be continually re-shaped in his image. Only by constantly reminding ourselves that this is what we are doing, can we resist the alluring pull of pragmatism and the inevitable conclusion that we should just let someone else do it for us.