The Bible comes to us in three languages — Hebrew, Aramaic and Hellenistic Greek. Yet, most people, including pastoral leaders, explore the scriptures through translation. Traditionally people in the congregation have considered the pastor as equipped to investigate thoroughly the biblical message and communicate it truthfully and persuasively. The pastor opens windows into the text to let people discern its meaning, sometimes with painful starkness and impact. But what competence does a pastor need in order to do that with excellence?
Historically Bible colleges and seminaries have included the study of Greek and sometimes Hebrew within programs that equip people for pastoral leadership. Within Northwest we have a strong tradition of teaching the biblical languages. I think this is rooted in our strong commitment to the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of Scripture. What eventually happens if pastoral leaders no longer have competence to interact directly with the Greek and Hebrew Bible?
The argument can be made that good preaching does not depend upon skill in reading the Greek or Hebrew Bibles, and this is true. However, the study of the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible is not so much concerned with acquiring language skills, as it is with the more significant question of discerning the Spirit’s voice in scripture. The preaching might be persuasive, but is the message true? When a person engages the Greek Bible, for example, he or she is not just encountering words, but must wrestle with an entirely different way of thinking and expression. The cultural distance between the 21st Century preacher and the biblical text must be admitted and addressed. The larger questions of meaning, the intent of the human author, and the means chosen to share his ideas become more immediate. But when a person is presenting the eternal words of scripture as God’s authoritative Word, can he or she be content to depend only on the pre-digested message expressed in a translation, as good as it may be. Commentaries help, but to grasp their arguments often requires some language and exegetical competence.
Trends in pastoral training come and go. I have seen a number in my 32 years of seminary experience. Whether it was counselling, church growth, or more latterly leadership development, each pushes its way into the pastoral curriculum, bartering for space with the existing subjects. Pressure is on to shorten the time required for developing pastoral leaders and this requires academic leaders to determine carefully what subjects deserve space in a limited curriculum. And then there is student pressure to ease the requirements or to focus the curriculum on more applied subjects, things that have immediate pay-off. Given the costs of pastoral education and the time restraints that emerging leaders frequently experience, perhaps the space in the curriculum devoted to acquiring capacity to work directly with the Greek and Hebrew Bible might be put to better use?
Can the study of Greek or Hebrew biblical interpretation survive in such a context? If it doesn’t, what does it mean for the proclamation of the Gospel and the discipling of God’s people in the next fifty years? If pastors of the future lack the competence to engage the Scriptures in their Greek and Hebrew forms, will the churches be stronger for it? I doubt it. Providing this kind of education and competence development for new pastoral leaders requires specific investments in people and programs. The immediate returns are not dramatic, but the long term implications for the health of the church will be critical. These same kinds of arguments compel us also to invest significantly in developing ministry leaders with deep, theological competence.
This article has also been published in the October issue of Northwest News.