When to Use Your Language Knowledge, Part 2: Only if it’s Absolutely Necessary (and it probably isn’t)
- When to use the original languages. Part 1: Only if you know them!
- When to Use Your Language Knowledge, Part 2: Only if it’s Absolutely Necessary (and it probably isn’t)
When is it appropriate to use the original languages of the Bible to prove or establish or accent a point you are trying to make? I have been arguing that three conditions must be true before you pummel your conversant with your knowledge of the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic text. First, you need to actually know the languages. The second condition, and here we turn to the subject of the present post: there must be no other possible way to make to point you intend to make.
Suppose you do know the original languages; maybe your knowledge of Hebrew is actually pretty good, thank you very much, and therefore you meet the first condition. Should you use your specialized knowledge to prove your point? I’m increasingly convinced that in most ordinary conversations–that is, in any discussion wherein any conversant doesn’t know Hebrew or Greek–neither Greek nor Hebrew should be appealed to as evidence.
To state my thesis positively: even if you can utilize your knowledge of Greek or Hebrew syntax and vocabulary, there’s probably a better way to prove your point, and you should take that route instead. Why? Because appealing to the grammar or the vocabulary of the original languages will likely not prove the point you hope to prove, nor should it persuade the audience you seek to persuade.
I still get surprised when people ask me what the Greek of this or that text “really says.” I’m not surprised that people want to better understand their Bibles–that’s a very good thing. I’m also not surprised that educated Christians think that the Greek and Hebrew is an important component of that process. It most certainly is, and if you want to be an expert in Biblical exegesis you should learn the languages. The surprise, rather, is that people still treat the original languages as if they are a silver bullet, the magical wand that will resolve the various debates and conflicts with which Christ’s church continues to wrestle.
Usually the opposite is the case. Knowledge of the languages exposes you to the problems involved in exegesis, not the answers.
Take as an example Galatians 2:16. Let’s use the ESV (because, well, I already argued that I should).
We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Consider the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ.” Despite the fact that the mainline evangelical translations are all in accord here, there’s nevertheless a huge scholarly debate on the subject. Why? Not because of the English; because of the Greek. The “original Greek” is πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, which can be translated in one of two ways, either (1) “faith in Christ” (an objective genitive, wherein the genitive “Jesus Christ” is the direct object of the deep-structure verb πιστεύω, “faith in, trust”), or (2) “the faithfulness of Christ” (a subjective genitive, wherein the genitive “Jesus Christ” is the subject of the deep-structure verb). Either is equally grammatically possible. Neither grammar nor vocabulary solves the issue. Paul is not more likely to use one over the other. It is perfectly grammatically ambiguous (and the KJV captures the ambiguity with its translation, “faith of Christ).” The Greek introduces you to a question, not an answer.
The same ambiguity attaches to a similar English phrase: “love of Christ.” Does one mean by that phrase “my love for Christ” or “Christ’s love for me?” You can’t answer the question based on the grammar of the phrase. You also probably wouldn’t look up the word “love” in the dictionary, or the word “Christ.” The two alternatives are equally plausible. How would you determine which one is right? What information do you need to figure it out? Easy: you need the rest of the sentence. You need the context within which the phrase “love of Christ” was used. “Why do I sacrifice my own personal happiness in service to the church? Why that is easy! I do it for Jesus. The ‘love of Christ’ compels me.” Or alternatively: “Why do I sacrifice my own personal happiness in service to the church? Why that is easy! I do it because Jesus loved me first. The ‘love of Christ’ compels me.” A minor change, but in each case the word “of” does very different grammatical work. In the first the word “of” means something like “for”: my love for Christ. In the second, the same word establishes a very different relationship: Christ’s love for me.
Why do you naturally read an ambiguous grammatical construction like “love of Christ” as “my love for Christ” or “Christ’s love for me?” The context. The surrounding situation and sentences “activate” certain possible meanings of an otherwise ambiguous phrase. Context determines meaning. Grammar is ambiguous. Vocabulary is ambiguous. Both are necessary and determinative, but few interpretive dilemmas are solved in terms of one or the other. If they were, marital disputes would be easily resolved by appealing to a Middle School Grammar textbook. They aren’t. Why? Because meaning isn’t reducible to grammar and vocabular. Meaning is always grammar and vocabulary within a particular relational, literary, and cultural context.
Context Determines Meaning
One linguistic scholar, James Barr (no friend to evangelicalism in general, but right on this point), makes the case well when he argues that “the linguistic bearer of the theological statement is usually the sentence and the still larger literary complex and not the word or the morphological and syntactical mechanisms.”
What does that mean? It means that the meaning of a sentence cannot be exhaustively explained in terms of its grammar or its syntax. Or, to put it in a particularly scary way: even if one knows both (1) all the rules of a particular language (that is, its grammar), and also (2) all the words of a particular language (that is, its lexicon), they are still not equipped to understand any given utterance within that language unless they’ve been adequately informed about the historical and conversation context of that utterance.
It means that most exegetical decisions are ultimately decided not on the basis of some external grammatical system. That’s not how we determine what things mean in English. The English sentence “where you at?” makes perfect sense, but breaks innumerable grammatical rules. Nor can exegetical decisions be based on the discrete definitions of individual words: “Netflix and chill” does not mean what you think it means. Meaning is not reducible to (grammatical) rules and (lexical) definitions. Meaning involves both of those things, but grammar and syntax must be understood within a particular context.
What does all this have to do with using Greek and Hebrew to make your case? In most cases, even if you know the languages, the proof that your interpretation is correct is not found (exclusively) in the details of grammatical syntax or lexical semantics (vocabulary). Even if you are exegeting the Greek, the proof that your answer to the question is the correct answer is determined by the context, which is to say, by the rest of the sentence, the paragraph, the book, the historical situation in which that word or phrase was uttered.
So unless your translation has woefully botched the entire paragraph and book being translated (possible, but not likely, at least for most mainstream translations), you should have enough evidence to prove your point from the surrounding context to make your point. What is more, such evidence is better evidence because it can often function to prove your point not only in the English, but also in the Hebrew or Greek.
Grammar and vocabulary usually will not suffice as exegetical proof. Context will. Find a contextual way to prove that your exegesis is true, either from the immediate sentence or paragraph (best!), biblical book, authorial style, or from the rest of Scripture.
Not only are grammatical and lexical particulars of a language insufficient to prove a particular point, they are also rarely persuasive. Or, to be more accurate: they shouldn’t be. Here’s were things get a bit complicated.
The reason things get complicated here is because often grammatical and syntactical particulars are persuasive. When someone gets up and screams “but in the original Hebrew!” many will simply believe whatever follows. It’s at this point that we need to be careful. What is happening when an “expert” tells you this or that is true, and you have no access to the data?
We have a logical term for that kind of argument. It’s called an “argument from authority.” As far as arguments go, it is considered a logical fallacy. You shouldn’t believe something simply because someone claims to be an authority on the subject. And let’s be honest with one another for a moment. Most of the time when a congregant believes a preacher because they appealed “to the Greek” it’s essentially because the congregant believes the preacher is an authority on the subject, which may or may not be true.
The question for you the preacher is whether or not you want your congregant to believe what you say on the basis of your authority or on the basis of proper proof. Do you want your “sheep” or “student” or “counselee” to believe you because you are “more of an expert” on the languages, or because you have taken the time to exposit the Scriptures.
Yes, I know it’s not an either/or. But when you combine this thought with the previous point (proof requires context), there are manifold reasons why you shouldn’t pull the “trump card” of “But In The Original Languages.”
By using the broader context of the sentence, paragraph, book, and Bible (and ordinarily in that order, by the way, but that’s a separate post) to prove your point, you are not only providing better proof (since that’s how you should be doing it anyway, even if you’re a Greek/Hebrew expert), you are also teaching your people how to exegete the Scriptures with the tools available to them (and for that, start with my series on exegeting without the languages). You are not only telling them what the text means, you are showing them how to arrive at that conclusion themselves. You are making yourself redundant. Go ahead. That’s the way Jesus wanted it anyway.
All this to say, you can draw on evidence other than syntax and vocabulary to prove your point, at least when attempting to persuade an audience that does not have access to the original languages.
Without pretending that this is an exhaustive list, here’s a ranked hierarchy of evidence you should consider. What determines the ranking/order? The principle that “the more immediate/proximate context should usually be preferred over more general contexts.” The more “local” (or proximate) the evidence, the more weighty. Evidence derived from the paragraph is more weighty than evidence derived from “Paul’s style,” for example. That’s a rule of thumb, and not a rule, but on that basis, here is a suggestive list:
- The sentence. Are there any words in the sentence that might help you determine what a particular word means? If you have multiple options for translating a particular word, what makes “most sense” within the sentence? What is least disruptive to the overall sentence? Same thing for grammatical questions.
- The paragraph. What phrase best fits the overall logic of the paragraph you are exegeting? Don’t treat bible verses as independent units; they are part of an overarching argument or story or poetic image. How does the verse contribute to the whole? As an example, consider again Gal. 2:16. I would argue that “faith in Christ” is the proper way to translate the phrase because it parallels the phrase “works of the law.” The solution isn’t found in the grammar, but in the overall argument of the paragraph.
- The work. What is the main purpose of the book you are reading? That’s not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes the author will helpfully tell you “the main point is this” (Heb. 8:1), but sometimes they won’t. And author’s can have multiple goals. Nevertheless, the purpose will set a trajectory of interpretation.
- The author. Author’s try not to contradict themselves. And inspired author’s never do (though this might not be persuasive to everyone in your audience). Appealing to the logic, style, theology, and overall outlook of the human author of Scripture is usually worthwhile. One qualification: remember that we have more evidence in this regard for Paul, than, say James.
- Genre. Literary works come in types. Letters. Narratives. Histories. Parables. Poems. Apocalypses. Different literary types have different rules attached. Read each different type of book in terms of the rules associated with that book. An op-ed is not the same as real news; an apocalypse is not the same as historical narrative; an epistle is not a doctrinal treatise.
- Scripture as a whole. One unassailable tenant of Reformed exegesis is the “Scripture interprets Scripture” principle. It is often helpful to show how the word coheres. If you can’t prove your point from this passage, you can always vector in a similar passage for help.
There are, in short, a plethora of ways in which you can make your point. Leave the languages out of it, at least when it comes to sermons and Sunday schools and counseling sessions. The languages are invaluable for personal study and deeper insight into the word, but they are rarely necessary to prove your point to someone who doesn’t have access to that information.