My Greek Is Rubbish But I Preach OK

You must have a detailed working knowledge of New Testament Greek if you want to be a preacher.

That was the hard word from a fellow Aussie, Con Campbell, speaking at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in the USA this past week.

Con teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois. He also trained to be a professional jazz saxophonist, a happy sideline to this day, from what his website states.  I guess if hard times fall on the theological world he can always hold up a street corner alongside Bleeding Gums Murphy.

His latest book is entitled  Advances In the Study of Greek. Another quality biblical scholar from the Sydney stable for sure, and for that we are grateful.

Unfortunately my next book may indeed be entitled Retreats In the Study of Greek.

For that pretty much sums up my own rather ropey efforts at Koine Greek in college; efforts that petered out fairly quickly through frustration, a less than ideal class setting, and a lack of time.

I tried, oh I tried, but when I was eventually told that actually, “aspect” is the primary shaping force in Koine Greek, I threw up my hands in despair. And I nearly threw my Greek New Testament out the window.

And now?  Now I cling limpet-like to commentaries using the original text by scholars to figure out the stuff I don’t know, which seems to be a lot.

By the way I took that Con quote from the equally formidable John Dickson from Sydney’s Centre for Public Christianity.  John then recorded the follow up comment on Facebook:

Preachers must know and use the language of their primary source.

And just as I was doubling over from that twin blow, John follows up with the rabbit chop to the neck in an ensuing FB post, after meeting a great pastor/preacher in Grand Rapids, who he says:

has an astonishing twofold ability to exegete the original text in context AND show how it challenges and inspires our daily lives. And he uses NO NOTES!

With that I sat crying on the couch for the weekend in my jimmy-jams with a box of tissues, a packet of TimTams and watching  My Big Fat Greek Lexicon on DVD.

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be challenged, disheartened, angry, guilty, or all four at this.  I also don’t know whether or not that means I should have a detailed working knowledge of the Septuagint for the not unconsiderable number of sermons I preach from the Old Testament. Advances In the Study of Hebrew would probably put me over the edge.

I am not being facetious, I am really not.  But my observation is that the primary problem with many evangelical preachers committed to expository Bible teaching here in Australia and the UK is NOT that their Greek is bad, but rather  that their expositions are.

Anecdotally from both here in Western Australia, in the Sydney scene that emanates from Moore College, and in the UK conservative evangelical scene, too much preaching is boring, fails to connect with the congregation and cannot for the life of it, apply the text in any meaningful way outside of “do more evangelism” and “If you’re not a Christian become one, and if you are, are you really?” (Those aren’t my words by the way, they are the words of someone who knows Greek pretty darn well!).

Can a better grasp of the original text make you a better preacher?  Undoubtedly?  Can a better grasp of the original text make up for the fact that you may not be that gifted at preaching in the first place?  Not at all.  Too many evangelical sermons are like the moon; clear, bright and cold.  They’re as boring as bat guano, as one might say. Perhaps the primary problem is a crisis of imagination not a crisis of original language ability.

In an attempt to shy away from flaky unbiblical preaching there is a tendency to stick to the tram-lines. And that’s good and proper as a place to start.  But it’s just a place to start. All the original language ability in the world will not make up for the lack of imagination that many preacher seems to possess.

The goal of the original language is to understand the text in order to communicate it more richly.  Understanding a text; how it works; why it’s there; where it’s headed, does not need less than knowledge of the original language, but it certainly needs  more.    If you don’t have that “much more” then preaching is probably not what you should do.

You must know how words work, how arguments ensue, how narratives unfold. If you have no sense of the literary, no eye for word pictures, no feel for the rough and smooth of a story, no ear to hear the music of the story, then the tram lines approach won’t make up for it.

I will go out on a limb and say that my preaching has gotten by with a commitment to checking out what Greek scholars say about difficult texts, but primarily sticking to my English text.

Now perhaps you’re good at both; you’re an excellent biblical language scholar AND you have a deep grasp of how to build that excellence into a sermon that is memorable, points to Christ, and springboards into contemporary applications for where we are at as God’s people, individually, collectively and culturally.

For the rest of us?  Keep muddling along I say. And praise you Jesus for good Greek scholars like Con Campbell.

13 Comments

  1. I agree with you insights

    I don’t know koine greek, nor other original languages, but in my humble experience about preaching I noticed that many spend lots of time trying to the demonstrate the audience that what they’re saying is true (so you are forced to listen to long reading or to listen to a confusing jump activity from a text to another) instead of communicating what the Lord spoke to them.

    I think this is the main problem about preaching: the point is to share “a message received from the Lord through His Word”, not just declare what the Bible say; because if you didn’t receive a clear message by Him, it’s hard to “live” the preaching with passion, a broken heart and a real love for the people in front of you.

    I do believe creativity in preaching is love; to speak a hour without understanding how difficult could be for people to listen long reading, complicated and technical words or simply to listen to you for a hour or more is not.

    So we can surely appreciate the efforts and skill spent in learning original languages; but if God don’t speak to you and you don’t spend the same or more efforts to craft a sermon well balanced in terms of time, exposition, Word and examples all could be boring and useless…

    Just to clarify, let’s think about this: how many examples of christian life listend in a sermon catched our attention for years to come and how many of those “deep” analysis of the text was lost before our sunday lunch? 🙂

  2. How very Roman Catholic is this view that only the elite, well-trained dare attempt to read, or worse, think themselves capable of understanding, the word of Gawddd. That is what pulpiteers teach when they pretend you cannot understand the bible without first becoming Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scholars. I’ll settle for relying on the Holy Spirit while on my knees trembling at His Word. NT era saints had no commentaries, no text, no thousands of books on their shelves at home, and at best heard an epistle or two. But they took whatever little of His Word they had seriously.

  3. Phew! Thank you. You’ve saved my week, brother – I was reading that thread on JD’s wall and had to thoroughly disagree – not out of some kind of ‘principle’ (because, let’s face it, who’s going to argue with a Greek scholar about the value of a preacher having a ‘detailed knowledge of NT Greek’?) – but out of a deep sense of incompetency that risked crippling a calling to vocational preaching!

    One day, I’d like to do a public lecture and assert: “unless you’ve worked in ‘the real world’ with ‘the average Aussie’ for a minimum of 10 years, please don’t be a pastor in that context.” That’d at least give Con and John something to thoroughly disagree with too… even though both of those assertions are equally valid 😉

    I’ll keep at it then, relying on those commentaries laboured over by those who have a detailed knowledge of NT Greek.
    (BTW: that preacher-guy, Jeff, who JD went on to rave about – he is brilliant – worth listening to and learning from.)

  4. There is a lot of wisdom in what Con and John are saying, and in what you are saying Stephen. Would you say that the painful experience of studying New Testament Greek at college was worthwhile? Has it enabled you to evaluate those commentaries that discuss the Greek?

  5. One thing to keep in mind is that in a country like India, where while the Christian population is small, and the % of preachers smaller still… it is quite common to meet pastors who can speak 4-5 Indian languages at a time (Hindi, Marathi, English, etc.) but cannot distinguish an aleph from a yod.

    In fact the only Greek you might hear from many of them would reference the letter beta. They would say to you something like… “I have 3 betas…” meaning I have 3 kids – in Hindi of course.

    And … well some of these folks are remarkable preachers. God supplies. They may not have the commentaries, the journals, the www and the koine but God meets their needs. Probably God’s expectation is simply that you do the best that you can given your context and background.

  6. ” But my observation is that the primary problem with many evangelical preachers committed to expository Bible teaching here in Australia and the UK is NOT that their Greek is bad, but rather that their expositions are.”
    I see this to be something in some conservative circles in the US also…we must preach to apply to people today, not just sound like wannabe Greek scholars!

  7. Thanks for penning this excellent response, Steve – it had to be said. We can’t let elitism creep back into the church, after working so hard to reform it from precisely that same elitism.

  8. Hi Steve, Encouraging and funny. Loved what you wrote. I am prayerfully seeking to raise up a large number of everyday pastors from everyday backgrounds. Many are from the 74% of the population who have not been to Uni. I think the FB thread may have discouraged many. A definition of “working knowledge” would help navigate the confusion. By some comments in the thread, your practice may indeed be a “working knowledge”. God Bless. Keep preaching. “All Scripture is God breathed” – even the English stuff. Benny

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