My family and I were glad to arrive at December 9, 2016. A journey I began in 2007 as an online student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville ended at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City when I graduated with the Master of Divinity degree. Along the way, I took a few modular and distance classes for transfer at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies (now Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary) and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to receive this theological training, provided in large part through my local church. But it did take a while.
While it was not the only factor in the length of the journey, the biblical languages were a major issue. In fact, I transferred to MBTS thinking I would take a shorter degree (MTS) since the MDiv was taking so long for me to wrap up. I could do the degree completely online at a faster pace and lower price. Since it was online, I would not have to leave my family to attend modular classes several hours away. Also, I had gone through a tough time in Hebrew I. Although I made an A- in the class, I never felt that I really internalized the language. I had to drop Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis as life was overwhelming with transitions at the time, especially with the recent diagnosis of autism in our precious four-year-old daughter.
When I neared the completion of the MTS, I noticed that I only had a few classes needed to complete the MDiv, but the languages were still the big obstacle in my mind. Through the lessons on the websites for Dr. Robert Plummer’s Daily Dose of Greek (my online hermeneutics prof in my first semester!) and Dr. Mark Futato’s Daily Dose of Hebrew (author of the textbook used in my final class, Hebrew II), I dabbled into the languages and regained a confidence that attaining a beginning proficiency and use of them was possible, so I proceeded to take the necessary classes I lacked in Greek and Hebrew. Looking back, this has been a major turning point in my personal life and ministry preparation. I am tremendously grateful that I had to study the languages, and here are some of the reasons.
The study of Hebrew and Greek have helped me:
- Better appreciate the complexity of language. The study of these ancient languages really drives home the point that accurate translation is not a simplistic exercise. It is impossible to translate each single word in one language into a single word in another language. Some words are condensed and must be unpacked into several to be understood. Many words have to be supplied (especially pronouns), particularly since the biblical languages can use verbs that have the subject implied and not expressly stated. Decoding grammar and syntax requires understanding how word order and endings work. One cannot simply look up each word in Hebrew or Greek in a dictionary for that language and then make accurate English sentences out of them.
- By instilling humility. There is so much to learn. Who can absolutely master these languages? I’m under no pretension that completing a one-year language course makes me a biblical language expert. The disagreement among experts on some of the finer points also humbles me. I still need the assistance and help of those more learned and experienced in the languages.
- Through promoting a regimen of discipline and carefulness. Studying the languages forced me to slow down and really pay attention to detail. All those parsing exercises are not a waste of time. I had to memorize and continually use vocabulary, rules, and patterns for noun declensions, verb conjugations, and articles. While this sometimes felt like grinding, it quickly paid off as my reading and translation fluency increased.
- Further appreciate the inspiration, preservation, and transmission of the Bible. God has preserved the words that He breathed out. The amount and quality of evidence we have and the specific way He inscripturated His message are causes for rejoicing. I especially appreciated the digital unveiling of the text in the En-Gedi Leviticus scroll since I was taking Hebrew at the time. I want to study these inspired words that God has kept and had transmitted for us.
- Strengthen my confidence in the accuracy of many English Bible translations. Not all translations are of equal quality, and not all translations are made from the same manuscript base, but most of our standard English translations model this science and art well. Additionally, because of the complexity of language, there can be more than one good way to render certain passages in Hebrew or Greek into English, just as there is more than one good way to say some things in English. On the other hand, there is an aspect of simplicity and transferability in languages. Otherwise, we would not be able to learn them and translate them! Certainly, my translation efforts were much more awkward and stilted than the many skillful renderings we have in English Bibles. Nonetheless, it is good to know that we can learn the languages and check their accuracy.
- Enjoy learning. It was actually fun to study these languages and begin translating and reading the Bible with the words breathed out by God. Seeing how my instructors simplified and streamlined the essentials for us, and then went on to the complex, made great sense pedagogically and made learning a pleasure.
- Through training me with skills for working with an array of study tools. It’s so nice to be able to do more than find a word by knowing its place in the Hebrew or Greek alphabet and look it up in a reference work. By knowing grammatical concepts, I can more intelligently evaluate the dictionary entries to see what really applies to the passage I’m studying.
- Filter teaching and resources that make unfounded claims based on the languages. Some books and sermons effectively pull the wool over the eyes of people, at least when they uncritically accept statements prefaced with words like, “In the Greek, this means…” Sometimes, the purported meaning is incorrect, or sometimes a word or passage is made to mean far more or less than it should. Ignorant or deceitful teachers can confuse people with unfounded statements about the way gender works in languages, by seeking to read their particular angle on an English preposition into the text when the Greek and the context do not support that interpretation, or by giving a “deep” insight via a word study that claims a meaning for a word that it does not have in that particular instance. It’s gratifying to be able to go back and double-check these sorts of statements, in the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11).
- Grow in gratefulness to God for those who have paved the way. Although God’s Word has been inspired, preserved, and transmitted, this would only get us so far if no one could read it. In the history of the church, this knowledge was not always widely available. For example, the knowledge of Hebrew was rare in many early centuries of the church. Its recovery and the advancement in understanding that has resulted have made possible the multitude of classes, books, and resources we have today. Those who have studied and grown in their Hebrew and Greek and have taught others are gifts to be celebrated and not neglected.
- Through motivating me to continue in the languages. I don’t want to lose what I have attained. I have experienced usefulness and enjoyment in them, but I am under no illusion that I am a master of them. I want to go deeper with Hebrew and Greek, and also want to learn Biblical Aramaic since part of God’s inspired Word was breathed out in that language. I want to make sure at least some work in the original language of the text is involved in my sermon preparation (ideally, a minimum of translating the preaching passage). I want to eventually teach one or more of these languages, at least for beginners. My plan to continue includes utilizing the Daily Dose videos, working through some other Hebrew grammars, the Biblical Aramaic video and workbook by Miles Van Pelt, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek (WTS – Amazon hardcover– Kindle), and attending the Minister and His Greek New Testament conference at SBTS (Jan. 13-14, 2017).
I believe that my seminary experience has helped me to better know God through His Son, Jesus, and has helped me to learn and hone the disciplines needed to study, obey, and communicate God’s Word in order to equip and minister to others. While my journey to the MDiv has ended, the journey to be mastered by God’s Word through studying the languages has just begun. And it’s a path I want to stay on for the rest of my days.