Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Are Biblical Languages Still Necessary in Seminary?

Do we still need to teach Greek and Hebrew in the seminary? Is the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew a requirement for exegesis? Are biblical languages still necessary for Christian ministry?

These are some of the questions my colleague, the Rabbi, raised in his recent post which has generated some interesting discussion. This issue has been brewing in me for some time now. In fact this post that you are reading was first drafted sometime in August and I have been wondering whether to publish it or not. In response to the Rabbi's post, I thought that it would be good to just share my thoughts on this issue.

There have been some debates whether biblical languages are still required in the seminary curriculum. In Malaysia, seminaries like Bible College of Malaysia, Malaysia Bible Seminari and Seminari Theoloji Malaysia require students to do at least one biblical language, and this is usually Greek, and Hebrew is often considered as an elective.

Having taught at two seminaries in Malaysia for the past seven years, these are some of the frequent comments I received from former and current students:

  • I don't see the relevance of Greek or Hebrew in my ministry.

  • I don't foresee that I would use Greek after the Greek or exegesis class is over in the seminary.

  • Most pastors that I spoke to admit that they don't even refer to their Greek Bible after seminary, and they don't even use it in their ministry, whether in counselling, preaching, or teaching.

  • Some pastors don't even have time to read commentaries in preparing for their sermon, much less referring to the Greek text.

  • I don't see the benefit of learning Greek - after all, all that I did was to memorise the vocabulary and the various paradigms in order to pass the exams.

In addition, I have also received many complaints from students with regards to the difficulties in grasping Greek.

Therefore, the question is this: What is the use of learning something that I know I will never use it after seminary?

I don't have all the answers to the above questions. But for me, yes, I still read my Greek Bible (and occasionally Hebrew Bible), I still refer to the Greek text frequently, and I still play around BibleWorks for "fun" in my free time. Therefore, Greek is still very much alive in me. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I am a lecturer in the seminary. As such, I think I am not in the best person to speak on behalf of those who are not in my position.

Perhaps at this juncture, I would like to offer my reflection from a different perspective.

I recalled some years ago that something caught my attention when I visited the website of International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), a research and postgraduate institution of the International Islamic University Malaysia that offers Masters and PhD programmes in Islamic Studies. For the language requirements, in addition to the mastery of Arabic language, I was very surprised that Greek was also required so that those who study Islamic studies are also able to read the Christian scripture in its original language.

(I must qualify that recent visit to the website of ISTAC, there is no mention of the requirement or the offering of Greek language in its course offering. Therefore, I am uncertain whether any other languages other than Arabic are now being offered to or made compulsory for the students).

The mastery of Arabic language for the Islamic Scholars is never an option nor a requirement; in fact it is taken for granted that any Islamic scholar is able to speak, read and recite the Quran in Arabic fluently. Can this also be said to be the case with Christian scholars, ministers and pastors?

If it is true that Muslim Scholars and ministers are learning Greek so that they are able to read the NT in its original language, how much more do the Christian scholars and ministers owe it to themselves to learn at least one biblical language so that they would be able to read their own scripture in its original language as well.

If it is true that Muslims scholars and ministers are able to read the sacred text of other faiths in its original language other than their own, how much more do the Christian scholars and ministers need to master biblical language. Would the Christian dare to do less than this?

Can you imagine if seminaries in multi-religious Malaysia make it a requirement for students to master biblical languages, and in addition, to learn at least one other original language of the sacred texts of other religious faiths, I wonder what would happen? Would there be any takers?

Sometimes, I wonder whether why are we so prepared to take the easier path at the expense of future generation instead of willing to pay the price of learning biblical language and thereby gaining further insights into God's word? If our Muslim counterparts are able to do it, why not us? If we truly believe that our Bible is God's word, why are we willing to compromise? Do we actually love our scripture less?

Admittedly, I must also say that I have heard excellent sermons being preached without the speakers knowing the biblical languages. I often wonder if these preachers were to have some knowledge of biblical languages, would their sermon be better?

Having said that, I must also confess that sometimes the lack of interest in biblical languages could very well be due to our teaching methodology. Perhaps, we have failed to demonstrate to the students the treasure of learning Greek and Hebrew. Perhaps we have only taught the students the mechanical and technical aspects of the language where it is nothing beyond mere memorisation of the vocabulary and different paradigms just for the sake of passing the exams. Perhaps we have failed to show them the relevance of knowing Greek and Hebrew in their teaching and preaching.

I think we still have a long way to go before we could even be at par with our Muslim counterparts. Is anyone out there willing to journey with the Rabbi and the budding NT scholar?


Lee Chee Keat said...

hi, I think we should interview those Moore graduates who are the current pastors in Malaysia. As far as I know, they place high quality standard in their preparation of sermon where aT least, I know one in my town. But the one I know he shared he hardly use Hebrew and he was also guilty and admitting that he was lazy in using Hebrew for his sermon preparation as he was not so familiar with the language for he did only at elementary level. But He never fail of using Greek for his sermon preparation- the only pastor I know who do that in Ipoh. He is also encouraging me to learn original languages deeper to be a bible competent and pastor, although he also felt I should have considered Moore Theological college as colleges do influence the type of pastor we are going to be. Anyway, due to finance reasons and practicalities, I suppose God make me choose STM.;p I hope I could learn to benchmark with different colleges strength and make a different and push the STM's std. Watch out, friend, hee hee;)

Lee Chee Keat said...

some brainstorming thoughts: Perhaps we may need to think to set up a club in STM called Biblical ORiginals languages Club (BOLC) to promote the learning of hebrews and greek in STM and inspire more students to take up since bishop and current pastors Malaysia refused to recognise such needs. Also, we may get Moore, SMBC graduates or others pastors in M'sia to come and share what it means to be a pastor who used hebrews and greeks practically. Hope through this, in the chapel service, we will start to hear Hebrew and Greek languages being read weekly and all students are inspired and start to motivate each other to speak Heb and Greek daily. ha ha....soon, orginal languages would be promoted to the TEE students and called the Greek for the rest of us course or Hebrew for the rest of us course. Hope that would turn around that Heb and Greek are becoming compulsory subjects. O wow..realise so many things I would want to see and do ....marketplace theology la, expository preaching la, biblical theology la.....

splim said...

Well said Kar Yong! I'm think I'm less charitable. We are just plain lazy! We also do not regard our Scriptures as highly as the Muslims regard theirs.

Just bought 'Greek for the Rest of Us' by William D. Mounce. Working through it and tempted to give up after Chapter 3. I'm not even a pastor. Why in the world am I spending so much time trying to learn something so difficult?

This debate started in Rabbi's blog and now yours was timely. After reading your thoughts on this, I will persevere.

servant of JC said...

I believe Biblical languages are very necessary for us. Sometimes I think why not we start teaching Greek in sunday schools like Muslims teach their children Arabic from young? Sounds crazy? Hm..

Kar Yong said...

Dear Chee Keat,

Admittedly, one's theological education may influence and prepare a person for ministry, but whether that makes a person a good teacher/preacher would also depend on the individual as well. I guess as theological students, we all have a part to play too.

Well, I can tell you some of us had the privilege learning from some of the best professors in biblical languages (William Mounce, Gary Pratico), NT (Moises Silva, Greg Beale), OT (Walter Kaiser, Douglas Stuart), and preaching (Haddon Robbinson), but this by itself does not make us a good teacher/preacher. I could tell you some of my friends in Gordon-Conwell did badly in biblical languages too, and some are also not very good preachers/teachers. Some have completely foorgotten their Greek and Hebrew.

What I am saying is this - all of us have a part to play. STM can take you so far, but how far you want to go eventually will also largely depend on you.

About offering Greek in TEE - there has been request for this by the students and I am considering this - but the downside is that one cannot learn a language in a 4-day concentrated course, unless one is prepared to give a 10-week commitment.

But I am glad you have chosen STM, and we look forward to seeing you next year and engaging in meaningful converstation with you.

Kar Yong said...

Dear SP,

I am so glad, thrilled and encouraged to know that you have started learning Greek on your own - William Mounce's book is a good start. Check out some of his resurces in his website too:, and there are some freebies for download.

Do perservere on, and I believe that treasure awaits those who are willing to dig deeper into God's word.

If at anytime you encounter any problems with Greek, or just need someone to guide you in learning the language, pleasse do not hesitate to get in touch! I'd be more than happy to be of help.

Kar Yong said...

Dear Servant of JC,

Hey, why not? I have dreamed of that too!!

But, would parents encourage their children to take up biblical languages in sunday school? Or, would tuition classes and music lessons take priority?

splim said...

Dear Kar Yong,

Thanks for your offer to help. Unless we meet face to face it might be a bit difficult for you to help. I mean how do I type Greek alphabets in my computer and ask you via email. Also can't hear how you pronounce certain words.

Please seriously consider having Greek in TEE. I'll definitely sign up. 10 weeks may be a bit challenging but if there is a will there is a way.

Btw, William Mounce split his lessons into 6 weeks. That will be easier for us who are working. The goal of the book is not to turn one into Greek experts but;
1. You will often be able to understand why translations are different
2. You will understand the meaning of the Greek that lies beneath the English
3. You will also learn the basics of exegesis
4. You will learn how to read good commentaries.

Well, if a 6 week course (split over a period of time) can help me achieve all of the above, I'm on.

blogpastor said...

Hi Kar yong, You really got us all stirred up. And I am like king Agrippa, almost persuaded to learn Greek. However I remember that when Lee Kuan Yew made it compulsory for Singaporean Chinese to learn Mandarin, thousands did learn or as in my case tried to learn it in order to pass their exams. But once their exams were over they stopped using it for they had such a strong loathing for the language and its associations to pain,humiliation and failure.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Blogpastor,

Thanks for sharing about your experienee in learning Mandarin. Than happened to me too - my mum "forced" me to learn Chinese in school and I fared miserably. My chinese teacher did not help either - I was humiliated and punished in class many times for failing to understand the language and for not being able to contrust proper sentences in Chinese. For many times, I failed in the tests. So when I finished my Form 5, I threw away my Chinese, and until today, I hardly use Chinese. At one time, I even refuesed to speak any Mandarin at all!

At the same time, my mum also "forced" me to learn English with an Englishman. But this Eaglish teacher was an excellent teacher who instilled the love of the language and the habit of reading in me. As such, I grew up appreaciating English more than Mandarin. I was known as a "banana" even though I was Chinese educated all the way up to my secondary school. Many today are surprised to learn that I am actually Chinese educated.

So I guess learning a language depends much on the teacher (of course the student as well). If we as instructors of biblical languages could make Greek and Hebrew come alive; let the students see the relevance of the languages in classroom and ministry; excite them in learning the languages so that they can read God's word in the original language; train them in exegeting the original text so that they can become better and more effective preacher and teacher, then I think this would be a step in the right direction.

But the reality is that sometimes, I feel that we end up like my Chinese teacher who instills frustration and hatred in learning the languages instead of the English teacher who instills the love of the languages - and as such, our students abandon the language right after the exams.

Perhaps whether the next generation of pastors/leaders/teachers would know biblical languages would largely depend on whether we instill the love of the languages in our students. How successful we will be, only time will tell.

This is a high calling for us as seminary lecturers. And a sober and fearful one too! Do pray for wisdom for us.

Kar Yong said...

Dear SP,

Thanks again for your encouraging note. I will seriously consider doing Greek for TEE - more for 4 purposes you highlighted. Let me work on my end and see whether this is feasible.

If there is a group of 8-10 students interested, then I believe a class would be possible over a period of 6 weeks.

Any other takers out there?

Lee Chee Keat said...

Kar Yong,

Thanks for your more insight about being a responsible students that need to play a part and lecturer too. It takes 2 hands to clap! The prob, among all the Asians Moore graduates- eg ARPC pastors in Singapore and some anglican pastors in M'sia, I haven't met any of them that is in low quality in their preaching. Most of the preachings I can see they worked hard on communicating clearly to the audience, preached faithfully through the context of the bible that has helped me to understand deeper and most of all, I feel like having a good meal after their preaching. The only complaints i have are that some of them too conservative as in not being expressive in their emotion and naive about pentecostal movement, very narrow in their understanding of christian church movements and lack of emotional intelligent skills. The content is superb in trying to reach our level and really challenge us to read bible well and surely got application at least at the end. One of them told me that the college would push the students to learn to excel to think biblically !! So, juz dun understand how it works.

Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong,

seems like I missed a lot of good discussion.

I believe there are actually two side of this discussion. One is 'are biblical languages still necessary in seminary' and the other 'are biblical languages necessary in pastoral work' outside the seminary.

to the first, I would say yes, to the second I would say no.

pearlie said...

I guess I missed out on a good discussion too - it has been a really loooong and hard week :) but all is good!

Anyway, the subject is very close to my heart and so I had to post about it too: here ;) tho' just my 2-cents.

Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Pearlie, for your contribution.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Alex,

Yes, that's what most people felt. But the question remains - if languages are not required for pastoral work, then why bother studying it in seminary.

But perhaps we could say that languages are required for those teaching and preaching the scriptures?

Lee Chee Keat said...


I don't think I should agree with you on pastoral work does not need to know original biblical language. eg. Recently, I heard a pastor who use Greek to prepare his sermon expound on the final chapter book of John where Jesus asked Peter "do you love me?" 3x. If on the surface, I don't think we would ever know which aspects of love that Jesus was talking about. With the English language given, if we check with the Eng dictionary, we may find it means kindness, goodness, passionate towards the other person. BUt if one look in to the Greek word, it was "phileo" being used and hence Jesus was asking do Peter treated him as brotherly friend. If treated as a brotherly friend, he should nurture his sheep 3x. See what a different in meanings it made if we look into Greeks. So, no joke, pastor ministry needs to know original languages if they love (phileo) God and called to feed the congregation.

eugene said...

this is my first time commenting on your blog.

about the use of biblical greek outside of seminary, i believe it is tremendously helpful in the field of christian apologetics.

why else would, as you have pointed out, the study of biblical greek be required by ISTAC?

i would certainly love to attend a class on biblical greek if it is offered as a TEE course.

as a fun measure, i'm waiting for the day classical arabic is offered as a TEE course...

Kar Yong said...

Hi Eugene,

Thanks for dropping by. Hopefully, something concrete can be finalised pretty soon on whether we could offer a TEE cource on biblical greek, and if there is sufficient number, we will go ahead. Make sure STM has your contact info.