Use of Original Languages in Preaching and Teaching

IMG_0670It is a huge blessing to be able to study the Bible in its original languages. There are connections you can make that aren’t always as obvious in English translations. There is a temptation to take the results of studying the original languages dump it all into a class or sermon. There are a lot of reasons that is tempting. Some are harmless reasons but others are harmful. It is easy to assume that everyone finds interesting the same things we do. They may not. It is also easy to assume that digging deeper requires increased complexity. It doesn’t. An effective preacher will have discretion on which things support and clarify the point and which things are distractions that muddy the water. I appreciate the preacher who uses the result of studying the original languages sparingly but effectively. It takes a lot of wisdom to know when it is beneficial for the congregation and when it actually detracts.

In Brian Chapell’s book Christ-Centered Preaching (one of the best books on preaching I have ever read) he writes,

“Preaching should never be an excuse to display our erudition at the expense of convincing listeners that they can never really understand what Scripture says because they read only English. We are obligated to explain exegetical insights in such a way that they make the meaning of a text more obvious, not more remote.” – Christ-Centered Preaching, 124

There are two things I really like about Chapell’s statement. The first is that he uses “erudition” and “exegetical” in a statement about making things easy to understand. The second and more important point he makes is that everything that is communicated in preaching should be aimed at increasing the listeners’ understanding of Scripture. It is not about sounding clever. It is not about being funny for humor’s sake. It is making Scripture accessible, understandable, relevant and applicable.

Questions
For those of you who preach and teach, do you make use of the original languages in your study and your preaching/teaching? If so, how often do you do it and how do you determine what to include and what to leave out?

10 Responses to Use of Original Languages in Preaching and Teaching

  1. One of my professors, Dr. John Willis, once told us to avoid using original languages in preaching. He said it was far better to find a translation that reflected our understanding and refer to it, like “The NASB does a good job here by translating ‘flesh’ instead of ‘sinful nature.'” I try to follow that advice.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Really solid advice there Tim. The other extreme there is to pull a “Purpose Driven Life” on everyone by using 30 translations in a single sermon to make super fined tuned points from scripture ;)

  2. Paul Smith says:

    Tim and I share Dr. Willis’ erudition – and down to home advice. One thing I try to impress on my students is that the use of original languages should keep us from making stupid mistakes, it does not make us brilliant scholars with “I’m the only one to see this” type of insights. Also, one year of a foreign language does not a scholar make. My caveat – if you only have one year of a biblical language, and you are the only one to see some earth-shaking exegetical insight – you are almost certainly wrong. If you think you see something – confirm it with more than one reputable source, otherwise, keep it under your hat until you can confirm it.

  3. Jim Campbell says:

    Sometimes you need to make the point of going back to the original languages to avoid accepted errors that have become ‘frozen into’ referenced Scriptures by a poor early choice of translation, e.g. the KJB version of Daniel 9:24 etc, which doesn’t even have the guidance of footnotes or references pointing to Leviticus 25:8 (if you want to understand the Hebrew). Why did it take so long – (c. 300 years from the first edition of the KJB, and c.1600 years from the penning of the Vulgate) – before this key translation to Jesus being the Messiah was corrected by annotations to the relevant explanatory scriptures? Christ himself referenced these scriptures. It worries me when I see very zealous preachers pounding away at the KJB and stating that this is the revealed Word of God and cannot be faulted. If they’d looked at 2 Peter 1:21, they’d have seen that faultless Divine guidance was to the men who prophetically spoke moved by the Holy Spirit, not necessarily to their later narrators and translators, though one might pray that these also were guided. So, given the possibly unfinished work of accurate translation, it’s sometimes necessary for preachers to go back to the source languages, to the extent that they can, to convey the feel of what was intended.

  4. Eric B says:

    I recall an older (well educated) preacher saying that if you refer to the original languages too often it causes people to lose confidence in their English translation, causing them to feel as if they can’t understand scripture well for themselves. A female friend of mine told me that listening to Beth Moore causes her to question if she can really understand scripture as Moore often pulling out something from the original language to make a “fresh” point that you would not have gotten from any English translation. So I like John Willis’ recommendation as it allows you to point to a good translation while allowing people to feel that they can still receive the word of God in English.

  5. edwardfudge says:

    References in sermons and church Bible classes to the original Hebrew and Greek in which Old and New Testament were written can be either ostentatious or helpful. One can use the original languages constructively to offer fresh translations of words grown stale through over-familiarity, and to point out the precise significance of specific verb forms. Sometimes it is helpful to note alliterations, puns, and other verbal relationships and connections in the original text, or to provide insights into literary forms visible in Greek but not in English. Another constructive use of the Greek language is to better understand the meaning of a New Testament Greek word by exploring its background and earlier usage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

    • Steven Smith says:

      I agree too many words have “grown stale through over-familiarity.” Some english words have become so christianized that we hear one definition (and import it into the text) when scripture is really trying to say something else. As Edwardfudge points out the original language can sometimes help us freshen our definitions.

      But it can be overdone, and seem cocky and arrogant if it is overused.

  6. LBB says:

    I use them sparingly to emphasize the original meaning behind a word or term. This past Sunday evening in our study on the The Fruit of the Spirit, I referenced the Greek word for “self-control” to give a clearer meaning of the original definition in Scripture. I think it gave everyone a clearer picture of what the word means as we began our study. When you overuse original languages, you create a barrier between yourself and those you are teaching and come across as “too smart for the room”. Doesn’t Scripture warn about “knowledge puffing up”? We must discernment and wisdom as we share God’s word.

  7. K. Rex Butts says:

    I very rarely make reference to the original language saying something like “The Hebrew word here is…” The worship gathering of the church is not an academic class.

    The rare exception is when I talk about Ephesians 2:10 which says that “We are God’s workmanship…” That word in Greek is poiemos and it is where we get the English word “poetry” from. I mention that to make the point that we are like poetry or art that God is creating into his masterpiece so that the world can see the artwork of the Creator and praise the Creator for his beautiful artwork (The New Jerusalem Bible actually translates that passage saying “We are God’s artwork…”).

    • Profile photo of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      Judges 14:3 NIV has Samson saying “she is the right one for me” when it says she was right in his eyes. I like the literal better there but like others have said there is probably a translation that goes that route that can be quoted rather than get into the Hebrew.

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