A Richer Experience
During a holiday in Paris in the summer of 2017, I visited the famed Louvre. Most of the museum was relatively quiet but the one exception was the room in which the Mona Lisa was on show. It was packed with people standing on their toes (and on those of others) to get a glimpse of Da Vinci’s painting. And with a little bit of luck, and creative use of elbows, a number of these visitors were able to make it to the front row, as close to the masterpiece as allowed by the authorities. The front row gives you the best exposure to the painting, even though being in the same room is already better than not to have been there at all.
There is a sense in which my experience of the Louvre forms an adequate analogy for why it is a good thing for Christians to learn the language in which the New Testament was written. Not only because learning Greek means ‘being in the same room’ as the original master piece, but also that it gives us a richer and more immediate exposure to Scripture. And not only this, but our little museum story helps us also to get away from the How is learning Greek useful for me? question. If you are interested only in “utilitarian” reasons, that is, How will I, or my church, or my ministry, or my career as Christian, become more successful?, I don’t have much for you. Just as I think that the main reason for pastors and church leaders to learn Greek ought not to be that it is immediately useful for their preaching. My main argument in the case for learning biblical Greek is that the language is not primarily a tool for use in ministry, but rather that it gives us the most privileged place from which to listen to the voice of our Lord.
So allow me to unpack this and give you a number of reasons why learning biblical Greek is one of the best moves you can make.
One of the beautiful truths recovered in the Reformation is the immediate, direct nature of God’s grace to people. His grace does not save us through the mediation of the church, the sacraments, or the priests, but rather his grace appears and reaches each believer individually and unmediated. For the Reformers this also worked out in their exposure to Scripture. Instead of relying on translations, Luther encouraged everyone to learn the languages. There is great wisdom in this attitude and it gives many unexpected blessings. I can still remember the joy when I first read John 1:1 in Greek. This was the closest I had been to listen to John’s voice as he was teaching!
We ought to read with confidence and listen and act on Scripture because it has authority.
Of course, there are practical limitations. Most of us will never reach the same level of attention to detail and nuance in Greek that we will have in English. But rather than looking in despair to the top of the mountain that seems out of reach, we would be better off by turning around and enjoy the fact we have climbed some of the distance already and are able to see further than when we started.
Don’t get me wrong—when I say “character building,” I don’t mean that the hardship of language learning is character building in the way that someone’s weekly trip to the gym is. But what learning Greek does is show us that there are limitations to our knowledge. We do not understand everything. Not just that we need help in understanding the parsing of nouns or verbs, but also in understanding the nuance of a grammatical construction. We learn about the limitations of a translation, which can succeed in bringing out one aspect of the Greek text but only to the detriment of others. We may have been able to pontificate on the basis of our understanding of the English, but once we come to the underlying text some of our inappropriate confidence will disappear. We ought to read with confidence and listen and act on Scripture because it has authority. But it is good to realize our limitations in our reading and understanding. Humility is a healthy virtue, and learning Greek helps us.
A Precious Spiritual Discipline
We will agree that spending time in the Bible is time well spent. Slowly working through a few verses in Greek is time spent in Scripture. And it is hard to improve on reading Greek as a spiritual discipline, as a routine we stick to just for our own benefit and enjoyment. It is not just that for many of us learning something new is fun, it is also true that we place ourselves in a prime position to be blessed by what we enjoy doing. Without having to work ourselves to the front of the crowd by elbowing our way through, we sit as little children at the feet of the apostles whilst they are teaching the good news of Jesus Christ. Seen this way, learning biblical Greek and getting stuck in the text is not just an interesting hobby: it becomes part of our personal devotion. Learning Greek and reading slowly (very slowly) through the New Testament is a precious spiritual discipline.
Finally, I could bolster the case for learning Greek with mentioning some of the benefits learning Greek has on our understanding of the text. We learn to appreciate how the text hangs together, what sort of subtle repetitions and allusions are suggested, and how the Greek shows the focus of the argument. There are all sorts of practical benefits and nuggets to appreciate. Yet all these benefits are easily outweighed by the immediate exposure to the very words of Scripture.
- 7 Tips for Starting to Learn Biblical Greek (Dirk Jongkind)
- Introducing the Greek-English ESV Interlinear New Testament
- Introducing The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge, Reader’s Edition