When to use the original languages. Part 3: The Point you are Making Must Be Sufficiently Important
- 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 to use the original languages. Part 3: The Point you are Making Must Be Sufficiently Important
Three things must be true before you drop your knowledge of the original Hebrew or Greek in a sermon or paper or Bible Study. First, the knowledge must, in fact, be “your knowledge,” ie., you actually know the languages. Second, there should be no other way in which you can make the point you are trying to make, and there probably is and it’s probably a better way.
Which brings us to the third qualification: is it worth it?
There’s a Cost
There are two principles hiding behind that question. The first principle is this: there is cost to appealing to the languages. There’s a risk involved. That risk might be a minor one. For example, in appealing to the Hebrew or Greek you might alienate that segment of your audience that finds such appeals “too confusing” or “over my head” or “elitist.” Those individuals might not be correct in their assessment, but is it worth it? If you can make your point another way, or if the issue is trivial, do you really need to appeal to the technicalities of Hebrew syntax? Is it worth alienating your audience?
In many of our ecclesiological circles, however, there are a good number of people who love it when the pastor talks about the Hebrew and Greek. You’re not alienating them at all; on the contrary, you’re giving them candy! But beware, there’s a cost here as well. If they don’t know Greek/Hebrew, then it’s likely that the candy you are giving them isn’t good for them. They are likely under the assumption that the “original languages” are possessed with a kind of magic, a deep meaning that they cannot get from their plebian translations. In appealing to the original languages you may be reinforcing that conclusion, sowing the seeds of distrust of translation, or worse, cultivating mistaken conclusions about biblical interpretation. Is it worth it? Well, maybe the result is something positive, like humility in our approach to Scripture or the importance of diligent study or the value of a multitude of voices in our interpretive endeavors? Probably not. Most likely they are hearing something more like “you have to be an expert to really understand (and I am that expert).”
The second principle behind the “is it worth it” question is this: not all information is worth sharing. Though that might sound controversial and counterintuitive–isn’t “the truth” always worth knowing?–in reality we make daily use of this invaluable principle. When someone asks you for directions (because, I guess, they left their cell phone at home maybe?) you don’t describe in meticulous detail the various and sundry structures they will pass along their route, or the historical significance behind the location they are trying to visit. You just tell them what they need to know: straight, then two lefts, then a right on Church Road. You only get more detailed than that if there is some confusion or objection or misunderstanding (“do you mean the Church Road or Church Street?”). When someone asks “how’s it going,” you don’t go into details about your RLS or IBS or PTSD or ADD or OHPI (“Other Highly Personal Issue”). When someone asks me “what’s your dissertation about?” I say “Hebrews 8:2b” because, well, they probably don’t really want to know, and if they do they’ll ask a follow-up question. Keep it simple.
The general principle we operate with in ordinary human communication is not “the whole truth” but rather “that portion of the truth warranted by the present circumstances.” There is such a thing as Too Much Information, and the fact that we have an acronym for such a thing indicates that we all intuitively know what it is and when it applies (even if we also recognize that we are frequently guilty of providing such extraneous details). Keep it simple unless there’s an indication that you should complexify the situation.
Why would you not want to share information about Greek/Hebrew lexicography and syntax? Well, at this point we can revisit our first point: there’s always a cost to sharing information. But there’s another concern to consider. What’s the point? Or, to put it more pointedly, if the information doesn’t further your argument or exhortation, then it’s not worth sharing.
The Point Determines the Content
Which brings us to the crucial question: “what information is warranted by the point I’m trying to make right now.” Ordinarily we answer that question intuitively. Ordinarily I know that when someone asks me “how’s it going” they are really just saying “hey!” and don’t want a play-by-play of my day. But in the right context, with the right inflection of voice, and from the right person, I know that what they really are asking me about my struggles or health or Spiritual condition. Ordinarily I’m able to spot that too. I’m able to slip into one or the other type of conversations fairly easily most of the time, and in both cases I judge the content I share by the assumed objective of the conversation. The first is merely a greeting–an open-ended opening–while the second is sharing one-another’s burdens.
Most sermons and public-facing teaching should be (imo) oriented around “the problem that the text solves.” The point of your sermon, the counseling couch, the bible study or coffee-shop discussion, isn’t “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” It’s sharing our struggles, or calling one another to perseverance, and solving problems, and lamenting our sorrows, and following Jesus–more Love O Christ to Thee. I’m extraordinarily passionate about Greek syntax, but I must admit it’s very rare that such knowledge is indispensable for furthering those particular goals.